The Color Purple


book by Alice Walker

annotation by Marianne Woods Cirone

The Color Purple is heartbreaking, funny, enlightening, tragic, ultimately uplifting—and I really wish I had read it before I read The Temple of My Familiar.  Alice Walker published The Color Purple in 1982; she received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award for it in 1983.  The Temple of My Familiar was published in 1989, seven years after The Color Purple, and includes several characters that were continued from the first book, including Miss Celie and Miss Shug, two of my favorites.

In an ironic twist, the characters of Miss Celie and Miss Shug are brought together initially through an affair between Miss Shug and “Mister” (Albert), who is Miss Celie’s domineering, merciless husband who brings the sexy songstress Miss Shug into their home to have the submissive Miss Celie nurse her to health—only to see the two of them end up falling into a sexual relationship and moving out together.  Miss Celie eventually finds her own independence and self-respect, is reunited with her long lost sister and the children that she “gave up” at birth, and finds peace with a god who resides in nature and not churches.  In TCP, Walker shows the same beautiful skill in developing characters and scenarios which show and extreme fluidity of relationships and lifestyles, constantly redefining the meaning of the words “family” and “spirituality” in a more modern contest.

After reading two on Walker’s book, I can see her exceptional talent in expressing herself poetically and in telling, in particular, the important stories of many voiceless women who have been oppressed over centuries.  Walker shows the transformation of characters such as Miss Celie, who initially started as a little dormouse and developed into her own strong person, as well as those like Sophia, who started out with a will of steel and were nearly broken by the never ending sequence of events involving men determined to break her spirit—and who nearly succeeded.  Walker shows the weaknesses and strengths of people of many different races, and expresses, perhaps on behalf of the untold many, the deserved anger and touches our hearts through the stories behind this legacy of mistreatment and exploitation that started this cycle of fear and loathing.

I found The Color Purple to be much more emotionally engaging that those in The Temple of My Familiar—I was literally in the skin of the characters in TCP, while I found I was held at arm’s length by the stylistic techniques and the complexly intertwining stories in TTOMF.  Every time I picked up TTOMF it felt like starting anew, while TCP (which I listened to on audio book in the wonderful voice of Alice Walker reading her own work) sucked me into their world from the start.

In doing some research on Alice Walker, I found that she attended Spelman College and later transferred to Sarah Lawrence, worked as a civil rights activist and married a white, Jewish civil rights lawyer at a time when interracial marriages were still illegal in some states; they had a daughter together, Rebecca, who was born in 1969, and later divorced.  Rebecca claims to have felt disenfranchised from the black, the white and the Jewish communities; she later wrote a book called Black White and Jewish and said that she felt as though she was “more of a political symbol than a cherished daughter.”   Later in life, Rebecca took “Walker” as her surname although Alice and Rebecca later became estranged, with Rebecca’s citing her mother’s “extremely feminist views that children enslave women” and the absence of Alice as a mother figure in her life as a major distress and void in her life.

Rebecca wrote in a 2008 U.K publication:

Ironically, my mother regards herself as a hugely maternal woman. Believing that women are suppressed, she has campaigned for their rights around the world and set up organisations to aid women abandoned in Africa  –  offering herself up as a mother figure.

But, while she has taken care of daughters all over the world and is hugely revered for her public work and service, my childhood tells a very different story. I came very low down in her priorities – after work, political integrity, self-fulfillment, friendships, spiritual life, fame and travel…My mother … never came to a single school event, she didn’t buy me any clothes, she didn’t even help me buy my first bra – a friend was paid to go shopping with me. If I needed help with homework I asked my boyfriend’s mother.

…When I wrote my memoir, Black, White and Jewish, my mother insisted on publishing her version. She finds it impossible to step out of the limelight, which is extremely ironic in light of her view that all women are sisters and should support one another.

Astrologically, the conflict between Alice and Rebecca seems explicable —Alice’s Aquarius which is the ultimate freedom-demanding, humanitarian, visionary sign with a potential dark side of aloofness, almost versus Rebecca’s Scorpio:  passionate, emotional and deep, with the potential dark side of extreme possessiveness and grudge-holding.

As the mother of two (almost) adult daughters, and a person who has personally struggled with my relationships with them, my roles as a woman, wife, and writer; and how to balance the needs of each, I wonder where the truth in this story lies… and how Alice Walker’s writing and fictional creations fit in with the actual translation into today’s society.  Is Walker’s dream for the world just a dream— do we still live in a world where we must choose work or family?   Is Alice and Rebecca’s relationship, if in fact is as described, a societal failing or a personal one?

I wonder what we can each learn from Walker’s writing or her personal challenges that can help to transform our world into a place of greater love—“tolerance” seems a milquetoast expectation indeed, in the larger picture of what the world needs for everyone to feel connected to each other in a loving, positive way, to transform our real world into the ideal created in the fictional world.


Life of Pi

book by Yann Martel

Annotation by Lee Stoops



“The reason death sticks so closely to life isn’t biological necessity – it’s envy.”

~ Yann Martel, Life of Pi (6)

Yann Martel’s Life of Pi is, as writing for life goes, brilliant. Early on, the story evokes a sense of wonder that encompasses all parts of life: physical, emotional, spiritual, rational, survival. Martel’s control of language is gripping both in its power and lyricism. At times, the story progresses in a fairy-tale manner of wonder, while at others it’s a philosophic and/or religious text, and still at others it’s a journal of tragedy and adventure. The story as a whole is an expressive, brutal, and tender account that inspires the imagination and answers unanswerable questions – all through the eyes of a teenage Indian boy adrift on a small lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with an adolescent Bengal tiger.

Within the first 10 pages, I knew I was in for a ride. The book’s first section, “Toronto and Pondicherry,” richly details the early life and development of the book’s main character and narrator, Piscine Patel. “Pi” is a self-inflicted nickname; a response to teasing and mispronunciation. Martel’s first person narrative of Pi is very smart, very direct, and often poetic. Pi is an emotionally evolved (“He had no idea how deeply those words wounded me. They were like nails being driven into my flesh” (7).), spiritually charged (“To me, religion is about our dignity, not our depravity” (71).), life-aware (“First wonder goes deepest; wonder after that fit in the impression made by the first” (50).) young boy. He struggles with people, but understands humanity on the scale of animal survival and evolution. He comes to questions of wonder on his own, in response to his unique world view. “All things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive” (41).

Reading the story through my worldview lens, I found myself rapt, as a reader/writer/human, throughout each page. In one scene while growing up in India, Pi approaches his father and makes some religious requests. His father, a busy zoo-owner/keeper and loving but at times absent figure, argues and eventually presses Pi to talk to Mother. The following is the end of their dialogue:

““But Piscene!” she said… “Father and I find your religious zeal a bit of a mystery.”

“It is a Mystery.”

“Hmmm. I don’t’ mean it that way. Listen, my darling, if you’re going to be religious, you must be either a Hindu, a Christian or a Muslim. You heard what they said on the esplanade.”

“I don’t see why I can’t be all three. Mamaji has two passports. He’s Indian and French. Why can’t I be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim?”

“That’s different. France and India are nations on earth.”

She thought for a second. “One. That’s the point. One nation, one passport.”

“One nation in the sky?”

“Yes. Or none. There’s that option too, you know. These are terribly old-fashioned things you’ve taken to.”

“If there’s only one nation in the sky, shouldn’t all passports be valid for it?”

A cloud of uncertainty came over her face” (73-74).

This exchange is indicative of Martel’s character/topic control. He uses both dialog and inner monolog to offer the reader arguments and answers. In terms of writing, it’s powerful because it’s borderline rhetoric. Something written that can at once entertain, enlighten and raise questions (or, even answer them) is something I want to be able to do with my writing. There’s more here than just the story: there’s life.

His family, because of politics and for other reasons, is forced to consider a major life change and relocation/emigration. The sell what animals they can, lose the lease on the zoo, and pack everything (lives and what animals are left) onto a Japanese cargo ship bound for Canada. It sinks (it’s never really clear how/why, but that doesn’t matter) and Pi is left alone on a small life boat with a wounded zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and an adolescent Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Of course, by the end of the first week, Pi and the tiger are the only two alive. This is where the fiction really kicks in and the story, while it crawled beautifully along in section one, starts to walk and then run. Everything Pi knows is challenged. And, fortified. Living in the head of someone living on a raft with a tiger for seven months for 189 pages that feel like a single page is remarkable story-telling. Martel’s gift throughout “The Pacific Ocean” part of the book exists within a perfectly balanced mix of humor, sorrow, adventure, wonder, invention, and contemplation. “And so, in a moment of insanity brought on by hunger – because I was more set on eating than I was on staying alive – without any means of defense, naked in every sense of the term, I looked Richard Parker dead in the eyes. Suddenly his brute strength meant only moral weakness. It was nothing compared to the strength in my mind” (222). It’s no wonder to me that this story commanded the coveted Man Booker Prize.

Martel’s story as a writer is wrought with short-comings, floundering, and attention lost. His success came from perseverance through what most would label failure. Part of what makes this story so powerful is that it comes from the imagination of someone that really believes in the power of fiction to grow and change lives. A hopeless optimistic telling the story of a hopeless optimistic – as a reader I was inspired, but as a writer I am affirmed. The story wins in the end: not because it actually wins, but because it’s told as truth. Beautiful.

Corpus Christi

book by Bret Anthony Johnston

annotation by Kate Maruyama

Corpus Christi is a collection of ten short stories set it or around Corpus Christi, Texas. There are actual and emotional storms in stories that are united not only in their setting, but the strain of melancholy that runs through them. The stories are well-crafted, more at the micro than the macro level. My only complaint is that the tone is almost unrelentingly depressive. There are sparks of humor, but they quickly die. Characters reappear, a woman gets the news of cancer in one story and dies from it in the last in the collection.

For whatever reason, I tend to forget the difference between reading a novel and reading a short story, that is, until I’m in the middle of a short story collection. It’s easier to get lost in the experience of a novel, but, for me at least, short stories are demanding and require a unique concentration. They are not a relaxing art form. Johnston is not as lyrical as some, but I enjoyed the way he placed his modifiers and did not go for the obvious simile or metaphor. He didn’t describe the water as a sapphire, but that it reflected light like a sapphire. “A breeze riffles the dried-up crape myrtle on the fence, and with the clouds dispersing, the sun casts a harsh ivory low on the bricks around the pool; the water catches the light like a sapphire.” It is a much better and fresher way of writing. Instead of direct comparison, I will explore secondary effects like the way the original object of the simile, etc. interacts with the world, find a secondary image and build around that. That revelation alone to use as another writing tool was worth the price of admission.

There is a lot of death throughout as one might expect from a work titled not only for the place, but which also translates as the ‘body of Christ.’ In “Anything That Floats,” a crucifix is noted: “Tyler tips his head to his shoulder, apologetically. A small crucifix – a gift from Vince’s father – hangs on the thing chain around his neck.” In the next story, “Birds of Paradise,” the cross is empty: “Fancy eventually shook off the officer’s hand and came to sit on the bench beside me. She had brushed her hair and put on makeup, and a thin gold chain with a little cross pendant hung around her neck.” This mirrors the references to the city of Corpus Christi, that begin with the full name and is shortened to Corpus. ‘Christi,’ like Christ on the cross, disappears. Little details like these kept me engaged.

Overall, the pacing was uneven as was the arc of the collection as a whole. There was also a problem of sorts with Minnie’s death. The three stories involving Minnie and her son, Lee, were fine and her death was very explicit. I felt like I was in the room and Johnston nailed the details of the death process without being too showy or morbid about it. However, because of that very detail, the three stories overshadow the rest of the collection – more specifically, the mother/widow’s death overshadows the (arguably) more tragic death of a child in “Waterwalkers.” That tragedy fades and it seems like it should have haunted this assortment of stories to a greater degree. The overriding impression is that the author was simply more familiar with the death of a parent than the death of a child. True, parents often go their separate ways after the death of their child, but there was some emotional component beyond the loss of the marriage that Johnston did not fully capture. Similarly, the first story begins with hurricane preparations, but the hurricane is soon forgotten and the weather is barely noted in other stories. It would have been a nice thread along with the setting to unify beyond theme and setting. In the end, it is a well-written and flawed collection from a writer with a lot of promise.