2018 TBR Pile Challenge, American Lit, Classics, Contemporary, Creative Non-Fiction, Essay, Joan Didion, Non-Fiction

“Joansing” for Didion

While Halloween has always held a coveted spot in my heart and imagination, the truth is, I used to get almost as excited for the 4thof July. It was like the summertime version of my favorite autumn day, where the rules were bent and the pure joy of living was the day’s entire purpose. I distinctly remember people from my childhood commenting about my love for this holiday, and about how patriotic I must have been. But that was never the reality.

What I loved were the barbecues and the being outside with friends all day, playing kickball and having water balloon fights, and getting so bloated on hot dogs and ice cream that I thought I’d burst before the big city fireworks show. I loved the morning parade, being in it as a Boy Scout and, when Boy Scout days were over, arising early to save the family seats along the sidewalk, close enough to grab candy and other goodies from the parade participants.

And I can still hear the sound of the ice cream truck, softly in the distance. I can see my friends’ faces as they heard it too; we’d look at each other at just the right moment, realizing it was time to pause the game, rush home to beg for a dollar, and then get back out into the street in time to stop the truck as he came tinkling down the road. But more than anything, it was the fireworks.

Reading Joan Didion is like reading the 4th of July. It is fireworks in my brain and sitting down with an old friend to chat about and think about everything and nothing, and leaving exhausted by the pure and exhilarating experience of being together again. There’s no special magic to fireworks, once you learn they’re little more than powder, a match, and some cleverly timed fuses. In the same way, one can “figure out” the technical and creative style of Didion in order to explain just how she does what she does, and why it is so compelling. But even now, that knowledge, about fireworks and Didion, remains subliminal, and I continue to be, above all, caught up in the spectacle, in the color and rhythm and choreography of it all.

The White Album is a collection of essays written in the “aftermaths of the 1960s.” Her subject matter ranges from personalities like Doris Lessing to events like the Manson murders. What holds it all together is the skeptical and, in hindsight, sobering but accurate perspective of an often-mistaken view about the United States’ “greatest decade.” Didion takes an unflinching look at the optimism of the 1960s, the supposed freedoms, and the many breakdowns and reckonings of that idealism, the unmasking, as it were, of one decade by its disillusioned successor, the 1970s.

In the first essay, from which the collection takes its title, Didion writes, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live . . . we look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” In other words, the writer’s work at this time was to try to make sense of the senseless, and the 1970s more than any other time revealed that, sometimes, the narrative is simply wrong.

In later essays, she writes about architecture, like governors’ mansions and museums, as signifiers of our culture’s shaken and superficial, even misleading, view of our own past. In “The Getty,” for example, she writes, “the Getty tells us that the past was perhaps different from the way we like to perceive it.” If the collection has one unifying theme, it is this critique on what we Americans think we know about our own past, and how quickly truth and reality seem to slip through our fingers. To read this collection now, in 2018, is a particularly painful and humbling experience.

One of the most under-rated essays in the collection is its last, “Quiet Days in Malibu.” In a way, this piece, written between 1976-1978, is the logical concluding piece not just because it comes near the end chronologically, but because Didion writes about the personal experience of living in Malibu in order to reveal that it, too—the reality of her hometown—is different from how it is perceived by those who live outside of it. Malibu, California has an aura about it that relates to nothing real, according to Didion, just as the 1970s exposed the truth of the 1960s, puncturing its aura forever. Aptly, and somewhat ironically, at the center of her experience in this essay is an immigrant who runs a local flower shop for decades. His are some of the most expensive, sought-after plants in the world and, like everything else, their position is precarious. Danger and uncertainty, instability and tragedy, are always lurking. And yet, so is hope—inexplicable, untraceable, blind hope.

I adore Didion’s writing, so beware my bias. That said, this is perhaps her most tightly themed collection. Despite an essay or two with which I had some intellectual or emotional disagreement (there is one titled “The Women’s Movement” that left me feeling more than conflicted), I felt a fierce and powerful sense of grounded awe while reading these essays and after finishing the collection. This is what I’ve come to expect, personally, from my time with Joan Didion.

The rocket’s red glare. The bombs bursting in air.


This was the fifth book read for my TBR Pile Challenge.


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American Lit, Book Review, Fiction, Harper Lee, Race, Southern Lit

Thoughts: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

For a long time, Scout (Jean Louise) Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird reminded me of Huckleberry Finn. Just a kid from the American south, smart but crass, and willing to live by her own convictions. Interestingly, Go Set a Watchman has solidified this similarity for me. While reading, I repeatedly wondered: could Harper Lee be the love child of Mark Twain and Jane Austen? I know that sounds hilarious, especially considering how much Twain despised Austen’s work, but still. We have here a merging of regional American literature with a novel of assumed propriety and morality (Jean Louise, like many of Austen’s characters, often pokes fun at presumptions of ‘decorum’ or ‘class’). And Scout, like Huckleberry Finn, is often at a loss for what to do – questioning what is right and wrong, and wondering what is wrong with her when she feels that everyone else around her is mistaken about things like race. And, like Huck Finn, she’s willing to write-off her whole town for lost, striking out for New York City just as Huck lit out West.

I’ve heard and seen some say, “this book should never have been published.” Certainly, Go Set a Watchman is not without flaws, and those who loved To Kill a Mockingbird (and who adored Atticus Finch) are sure to be bothered by much of what happens here. But, ultimately, that doesn’t matter. This book shouldn’t be measured by how we felt about another book or about the same characters told from a different perspective (that of a child) at a different time (20 years earlier). While I can understand why the book is upsetting and how it basically pales in comparison to the original, I can’t agree that it shouldn’t have been published, and I don’t know what the point of that argument is, anyway. It has been published: Let’s deal with it.

So, where to start with this one? I would like to begin by saying that Go Set a Watchman is neither a prequel nor a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, despite what some blurbs and reviews would have us believe. It is the exact some book told from a different perspective and a different time. Even a number of the passages overlap, word for word. This is important. What is most important to note, I think, when deciding whether or not to read this, or what to think about it, is this: To Kill a Mockingbird was told though the eyes of a young Scout Finch, a tomboy who adored her father Atticus, and who could see only the best in him. On the other hand, Go Set a Watchman is the story of an adult awakening to her own individuality, claiming her own identity.

As the old adage goes, “we can’t go home again.” This is the lesson Jean Louise learns, with help from her eccentric Uncle Jack, who tells her that “it is always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along” (269). We readers, too, need to recognize that the Finch family, and Maycomb County, have changed in the twenty years of narrative time (or fifty of actual time) since we last saw them. The Civil Rights movement in America changed people, changed entire ways of life. Most of us would probably argue that this was good and necessary, but that still doesn’t mean the change was or has been easy, especially for those whose worlds were altered the most.

The first sections of the book tell of Jean’s visit home. There is some romance between herself and a man she’ll never marry. We meet Jean’s Aunt, again, and are treated to a host of delightful flashbacks from Scout’s childhood. This part of the book is like going home again, and it’s wonderful! But from the mid-point onward, we have a different story. Jean Louise is repeatedly struck by how different everyone seems, even her beloved Calpurnia. Her best friend is gone. Her brother is dead. There’s no one there to help her navigate the changing terrain.

Uncle Jack and Jean Louise spend the last section of the book discussing how Atticus had been Scout’s idol, her own self, really, for most of her life. Until now, the idea that she and her father would disagree on anything was completely foreign to her, unthinkable. But now Scout must “shake off a twenty-year-old habit and shake it off fast” (271). She has to be her own person, which means recognizing her own failures (that she is colorblind – not in the sense we might mean it now, but in the sense that she genuinely doesn’t see how people act, and are treated, differently, like it or not) as well as the failures of those most important to her, little Maycomb, Henry Clinton, and especially her father. There’s a painful break from childhood, and it’s going to be hard for those of us who were there with her, but that doesn’t mean the book is bad. It’s just hard. It’s a challenge.

I definitely think reading Go Set a Watchman is an exercise in suspending our egos. Which is ironic because Jean Louise has a similar task. For many of us, To Kill a Mockingbird was a special experience, and it holds a special place in the canon of American Literature. Atticus Finch is everything a good American should be: a stand-up guy who defends the less fortunate, who teaches his children to be who they are while also respecting others, who puts his own life and career on the line in his effort to ensure justice and a common good. What’s not to love about that? But, realistically, that was the young narrator’s perspective. That was the story told through memories of an adult looking back on her childhood from a nostalgic distance.

Go Set a Watchman is a worthwhile read for many reasons, one of which is for its intimate look at the many types of racism. It seems that every character in this book exposes their prejudices at some point, but each is also prejudiced, bigoted, in a particular way. Some of the characters simply hate black people. Others believe there’s some kind of natural, biological difference which elevates whites over blacks (and popular “science” of the time that explores this theme is referred to in the book). And still others seem reactionary: times are changing, and they respond with fear and resistance – there’s little real malice in this, just a personal anxiety of sorts.

The book is also interesting in how it addresses the Supreme Court’s integration decision, especially illustrations of how different people react to it; most of the southern characters disagreed with the decision, but some, like Scout, still found it necessary. There’s an intriguing look at the ideological differences between “States’ Rights” conservatives and “Federalist” liberals. Considering recent events, such as the newly-raised debates surrounding the Confederate Flag and “Southern Pride,” the release of this book is bizarrely serendipitous as it tackles the very same arguments going on right now. In reflection, it’s also incredibly scary (and disappointing) that these same conversations are still happening, half a century later.

One difficulty I have with this book, aside from my personal reactions to being disillusioned with the reality of Atticus (who, by the way, may be racist, but who is also still committed to justice and nonviolence) is the narrative construction. While Harper Lee’s prose style is still incredibly attractive, much of the book reads as compilations of scenes with fascinating and revelatory flashbacks, but which struggle to work together cohesively. It becomes very clear where, why, and how this book became To Kill a Mockingbird, but it also left me wondering what might have happened had that original classic developed into something twice the size, an epic spanning the length of time that is ultimately covered by the two works, and corrected accordingly. An interesting thought.

I can say that I think this is a fascinating, intellectually and emotionally challenging companion to To Kill a Mockingbird. Instead of looking to Atticus as the hero of this novel, we’re going to turn to Jean Louise and, despite her own racism, try to applaud her courage in standing up to her family, empathize with her growing pains, and hope the best for her. Will she stay in Maycomb, where she might be able to do the most good (as Uncle Jack so presciently notes: “the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong . . . they don’t need you when they’re right”). Or will she go back to New York, where she can see people of other races as simply people?

Ultimately, I don’t think Go Set a Watchman works well without To Kill a Mockingbird, which is problematic; still, for those who know the originally or who will eventually read it, this one adds so much depth and reality to the story of Maycomb and the Finches. Lee wades into difficult, muddy, maddening terrain; she does it well, and with her own characteristic flavor.

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1001 Books, American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Coming-of-Age, Courtroom Drama, Events, Fiction, Harper Lee, Historical Fiction, MockingbirdReads, Read-Alongs, Social Drama, Southern Lit

Thoughts: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

2657To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 46

Harper Lee’s noted –and only- work, To Kill a Mockingbird, has become a classic piece of literature and a staple of American culture and southern history.  The narrator and protagonist, Scout Finch, along with her brother, Jem, and their friend, Dill, begin the story as lighthearted, inquisitive and playful children who are fascinated by a mysterious neighbor named Arthur “Boo” Radley.  As the story progresses, they have a series of encounters with Boo, but they do not know it (until all comes to a head in the tragic and life-altering conclusion).  Jem and Scout’s father, Atticus, is the town (and county’s) best lawyer, and also a representative to the state legislature.  He is tasked with defending a black man against the charge of rape, and the task will change his children forever.

Although the book directly wrestles with issues of racism, violence, bigotry, caste, and education, its primary concern is coming of age and loss of innocence.  Scout’s innocence, in particular, but also Jem and Dill’s, is threatened by successive incidents that reveal to these generally kind, somewhat simple kids the presence and nature of human evils.  This is especially made clear with the conviction of Tom Robinson, a black man who, from the start, was bound to be found guilty, despite Atticus Finch’s brilliant defense and the clear evidence support Robinson’s innocence.  This conviction shatters Jem’s world and forces him into manhood, meanwhile causing Dill, a gentle and artistic soul, to face the harsh realities of a world he tries so hard to avoid.

The trial is only the first of two major incidents which will change the kids’ worlds.  The second happens at the end of the book, when the man whom accused Robinson of rape (and whom Atticus clearly implicates instead), attempts to make good on his promise to ruin Atticus Finch.  Although neither he nor anyone in his family was punished for their perjury and false accusations, and although Robinson was ultimately convicted and suffered the harshest fate, Bob Ewell still feels it necessary to seek his own justice for the “damage of character” done to him at the trial.  This particularly subplot is particularly telling of how class, within white society, is just as important and just as divided as the world of blacks and whites.

Ultimately, To Kill a Mockingbird is an exploration of human nature and each individual’s capacity for both good and evil.  It is a commentary on the importance of moral education – much more so than academic education, and a discussion on social class and the true meaning of justice (and who is entitled to it).  Harper Lee utilizes interesting Gothic techniques, reminiscent of the great southern Gothics such as Flannery O’Connor, to build tension and anticipation, and to foreshadow the story’s more important events.

Allowing the story to be told from Scout’s point of view, in retrospect, adds both honesty and evidence to the story, but also some room for doubt.  She narrates the entire story in the first person, as through her childhood self’s eyes, but then adds analysis and supplementary thoughts to the narration, as an experienced adult revisiting these events after many years.  The inclusion of these comments makes the narrator more trustworthy, as it reveals to us that she is aware (and admitting) that she is somewhat distanced from the time and place of the story and, therefore, could possibly be over or under-exaggerating certain things.  The tone of her narration, like the tone of the story, begins in childhood innocence but becomes increasingly foreboding and self-conscious as the tale unwinds.

To be sure, To Kill a Mockingbird holds a beloved place in the hearts of many readers and also a coveted spot in the canon as a “classic” of American literature.  When I first read this book, many years ago, I was not as much of a fan as I thought I would be, but this re-read has proved me wrong.  The book is well-written and masterfully constructed (where and how Lee begins the story, for instance, really struck me as perfection, this time around).  The characters, good, bad, and indifferent, are believable, interesting, and important to the plot and scenery.  This is a book I will be revisiting again and again.

I read this book as part of a read-along, with additional thoughts posted Here.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 16+
Interest: Social Justice, Racism, American South, Courtroom Drama, Coming of Age, Southern Gothic.

Notable Quotes:

“Thus we came to know Dill as a pocket Merlin, whose head teemed with eccentric plans, strange longings, and quaint fancies” (9).

“There were other ways of making people into ghosts” (12).

“It’s best to begin reading with a fresh mind” (19).

“When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults” (99).

“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (103).

“Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that just doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience” (120).

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what” 128).

“Dill was off again. Beautiful things floated around in his dreamy head. He could read two books to my one, but he preferred the magic of his own inventions” (163).

“I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks” (259).

“Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret court of men’s hearts Atticus had no case” (276).

“I came to the conclusion that people were just peculiar. I withdrew from them, and never thought about them until I was forced to” (279).

“As I made my way home, I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, except possibly algebra” (321).


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American Lit, Beats of Summer, Blog Post, Events, Jack Kerouac

Friday’s Featured Beat: Jack Kerouac!

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Name: Jack Kerouac

Born:   March 12, 1922 (Lowell, MA)

Died:   October 21, 1969 (St. Petersburg, FL)

Seminal Work:  On the Road

Relationship to The Beat Generation:

Jack Kerouac, with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, founded The Beat Generation in 1940s New York City.  He was inspired by Jazz music and by the mantra of “first thought, best thought.”  His writing reflects a quest for honesty and a mythical approach to ordinary life.   

Importance to Literary History:

As one of the founding members of the Beat Generation and arguably its most influential character, Jack Kerouac has a very real place in American literary history. On the Road has appeared on almost every published list of “greatest American novels,” since the 1960s and has become one of the most enduring American novels of the 20th Century.  

on_the_road_book_cover 

Jack Kerouac and Automatic Writing:

Kerouac wrote his seminal work in one frantic, frenzied burst that took him three weeks.  He had been taking notes for years, in preparation for what would become the novel, but when he actually sat down to write a book – he did it all at once.  He termed this particular style, “spontaneous prose” and compared it to his greatest influence, jazz music.  Kerouac believed that prose had the ability to capture truths, particularly “the truth of a moment,” but to be faithful to this, the writer could not revise or edit; these corrections, in Kerouac’s opinion, would be like lying – presenting an untrue prose, lacking truth of the moment. This was certainly a new concept, one which publishers were leery of, and it was partly because of this style (and partly because of the book’s content) that it took 6 years for anyone to publish On the Road

  “Jack went to bed obscure and woke up famous.”                  -Joyce Johnson

Biographical Information & Fun Facts:           

  • Kerouac’s birth name was Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac.
  • He began his writing career in the 1940s but his first success, On the Road, was not published until 1957.
  • Kerouac was a High School football star, at the position of running back. He always dreamed of becoming a writer but thought sports would be his best chance at getting himself and his parents out of hardship.
  • He received a football scholarship to Columbia University and moved from Massachusetts to New York in 1939, at the age of 17.
  • In New York, Kerouac would discover one of his first loves and greatest influences: Jazz music.
  • After breaking his leg and being benched by his football coaches, Kerouac quit the team, quit school, and started working odd jobs while writing more seriously.
  • He joined the U.S. Marines in 1943 but was honorably discharged after 10 days, for ‘strong schizoid trends.’
  • Kerouac returned to NYC and met Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and William Burroughs. The Beat Generation of writers began to form.
Clockwise from bottom left: Gregory Corso (in cap), the painter Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac, David Amram (musician), and Allen Ginsberg.

Clockwise from bottom left: Gregory Corso (in cap), the painter Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac, David Amram (musician), and Allen Ginsberg.

  • Kerouac and Cassady took several road trips across the country, from NYC to Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, and Mexico.  These trips would inspire Kerouac to write On the Road.
  • In the late-1940s, Kerouac wrote his first novel, Town and City. It was published in 1950 (with help from Ginsberg).
  • Kerouac wrote On the Road in 1951.  It took him just three weeks, and he wrote it on a single scroll of paper that was 120 feet long, though he had been taking notes for years.
  • Upon publication, On the Road became an instant classic, with The New York Times claiming that the book would do for The Beat Generation what Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises did for The Lost Generation.
  • Following On the Road, Kerouac published many books in rapid succession, including: The Dharma Bums and The Subterraneans in 1958, and Dr. Sax, Mexico City Blues, and Maggie Cassidy in 1959.
  • In the 1960s, Kerouac wrote and published other novels, such as Big Sur (1962), wrote poetry, including experiments with Japanese haiku and long-form free verse, and also released multiple albums of spoken-word poetry.
  • Kerouac did not handle fame well.  He spent most of his years post-On the Road in drunkenness and drug addiction. 
  • He was married three times (1944, 1950, and 1966) and divorced twice.
  • Kerouac died of an abdominal hemorrhage at the age of 47, just 12 years after publication of On the Road.
Mortal%20Combat

William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. September-October 1953. (Ginsberg Caption) c. Allen Ginsberg Estate.

Notable Quotes:

“My fault, my failure, is not in the passions I have, but in my lack of control of them.”

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles” (On the Road).

“One day I will find the right words, and  they will be simple” (The Dharma Bums).

“Happiness consists in realizing its all a great strange dream.”

“I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness” (On the Road).

“Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry.”

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road” (On the Road).


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American Lit, Book Review, Fiction, Mark Twain, Religion, Satire, Short Story

Thoughts: Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven by Mark Twain

CaptainStormfield

 

Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven by Mark Twain
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 37

Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven is a satire of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward’s The Gates Ajar, which was published in 1868 and became widely popular at the time.  In that religious novel, the protagonist-narrator, Mary Cabot, discusses her ideas of the afterlife with her widowed aunt, shortly after the main character’s brother has been killed.  The author had lost her mother, stepmother, and fiancé in short order, during the American Civil War, and wrote the book as a sort of coping mechanism, and also as a way to reach out to women readers in similar situations.  She claimed that the book was divinely inspired (“The angel said unto me, ‘Write!’ and I wrote”), and its positive views of heaven, one wherein families and friends would be reunited (a newish concept, not based in the true vision of heaven, as explained in the Bible) would later inspire other writers, such as Emily Dickinson.

Although Twain began writing the book sometime around 1868, it was not published for the first time until 1907, just a few years before he died.  It was the last of Twain’s works that would be published in his lifetime and it clearly reflects Twain’s disillusionment with the promise of heaven and a “happily ever after.”  Twain, like Ward, suffered great losses in his life.  His wife and his daughters all died in relatively quick succession, and Twain struggled in his later years with depression and anger.  Although always a satirist, the themes in his stories became much darker, more biting and anti-religious, as his own sadness and heartache grew.

Captain Stormfield, though comic and seemingly light in tone, clearly demonstrates Twain’s darker outlook on life and the afterlife (or lack thereof).  The main character is Captain Elias Stormfield, who is traveling on a ship through space, chasing comets and other vessels from distant planets.  He becomes lost along the way and ends up at the gates of heaven.  But, as it turns out, he’s at the wrong entrance (which is realized only after much discussion with the gatekeepers, who must evaluate maps for days on end before they can locate our tiny, miniscule, germ of a planet, Earth) and must be transported to the correct gates before he can be admitted to the afterlife.

storm

Captain Stormfield was inspired by Captain Edgar Wakeman, a sea captain whom Clemens met in 1866. Wakeman’s eccentric personality made a tremendous impact on Twain, and he is the inspiration for many other Twain characters. Wakeman’s retelling of a dream he had about his own visit to heaven was the inspiration for the story.

The bottom line is this:  Twain uses humor to poke fun at how very silly are our beliefs in heaven.  The evolution of this “new heaven” came about during and after the American Civil War, when so many people were in need of comfort; they found this comfort in the belief that loved ones would be seen again in heaven.  This new heaven is the one we, most of us, think about today – so that evolution clearly held true, though Twain mocked it from the start.  Twain seems to be calling out these fantasies as exactly that: fantasies.  He had no illusions of being able to meet his wife and daughter in heaven again, and that stark view of life and the afterlife certainly affected his writing and his temperament.

But it is not just the vision of heaven he mocks, but also the way we perceive greatness in the here and now.  Nearly everyone is present in heaven, from Napoleon to Socrates, King Henry VIII to Shakespeare.  But, as Stormfield’s guide,  Sandy McWilliams, explains – those great and influential figures from history, be it the epic poet, Homer, or the prophet Mohammed, if lined up end-to-end, might still come up at the rear, behind average, everyday folks who were capable of so much but were never afforded the opportunity to be great.  Earth’s heaven is also geographically similar to the physical earth, but when a new arrival goes looking for someone to talk to in his home region, say England, he might soon discover that the majority of souls wandering that region do not speak English at all, because the history of that land is so ancient, and our perceptions of it always so “now” – so self-centered.

Captain Stormfield learns soon enough that heaven is not what he expected it to be.  Although he does don a halo and wings, and sits on a cloud playing a harp, he soon realizes that to do this forever would be madness.  How boring would it be to sit in one place for all eternity, strutting strings and smiling at people?

In this short story, Twain asks us to re-evaluate our conceptions of celebrity, fame, and power, to keep our tiny little planet and our tiny little lives in perspective – to, in effect, check our egos at the door.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  High School+
Interest:  Humor, Satire, Atheism, American Literature, History.

Notable Quotes:

“Well, when I had been dead about thirty years I begun to get a little anxious.”

“Inside of fifteen minutes I was a mile on my way towards the cloud- banks and about a million people along with me. Most of us tried to fly, but some got crippled and nobody made a success of it. So we concluded to walk, for the present, till we had had some wing practice.”

“It’s the sensiblest heaven I’ve heard of yet, Sam, though it’s about as different from the one I was brought up on as a live princess is different from her own wax figger.”

“You have got the same mixed-up idea about these things that everybody has down there. I had it once, but I got over it. Down there they talk of the heavenly King–and that is right–but then they go right on speaking as if this was a republic and everybody was on a dead level with everybody else, and privileged to fling his arms around anybody he comes across, and be hail-fellow-well-met with all the elect, from the highest down. How tangled up and absurd that is! How are you going to have a republic under a king?”

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2013 Challenges, Allen Ginsberg, American Lit, banned books, censorship, Classics, Classics Club, Drugs, Events, Fiction, Gay Lit, Giveaways, GLBT, Jack Kerouac, LGBT, Literature, Read-Alongs, Reading Challenges, Reading Event, Sexuality, William S. Burroughs

The Beats of Summer: A Reading Event! (Sign-Up Post)

Welcome to the sign-up post for:

BeatsOfSummer-ButtonThe Beats of Summer: A Reading Event!

Summertime is coming, and what better time than Summer to immerse ourselves in the works of the most rebellious, daring, and “hot” generation of American writers??

For this event, the goal is to read as many pieces of “Beat Generation” literature as you want to, from June 1st through July 14th. Audiobooks, fiction, poetry, and non-fiction all count, as long as the writer is considered to be a part of the Beat Generation.  Memoirs, biographies, essays, theory/criticism or other works of non-fiction written about The Beats are also acceptable!

Update: We are looking for volunteers to provide Guest Posts and/or offer Giveaways throughout the event. If you would be interesting in participating in this capacity, please fill out This Form. And Thanks!

What is the Beat Generation?

“In American in the 1950s, a new cultural and literary movement staked its claim on the nation’s consciousness. The Beat Generation was never a large movement in terms of sheer numbers, but in influence and cultural status they were more visible than any other competing aesthetic. The Beat Generation saw runaway capitalism as destructive to the human spirit and antithetical to social equality. In addition to their dissatisfaction with consumer culture, the Beats railed against the stifling prudery of their parents’ generation. The taboos against frank discussions of sexuality were seen as unhealthy and possibly damaging to the psyche. In the world of literature and art, the Beats stood in opposition to the clean, almost antiseptic formalism of the early twentieth century Modernists. They fashioned a literature that was more bold, straightforward, and expressive than anything that had come before.”  –The Literature Network

I will post throughout the event to  discuss different subjects related to The Beat Generation, its writers, and its influences on later movements in literature, film, and music, as well as my own reviews of the Beat Generation books that I finish.  I will also be offering giveaways, and I am hopeful that some participants will be interested in writing guest posts or hosting giveaways of their own, to make this more interactive!

Below is a  list of writers and works of The Beat Generation.  This list is by no means comprehensive, it is simply a starting point.

Major Writers:
Richard Brautigan
William S. Burroughs
Neal Cassady
Gregory Corso
Diane DiPrima
Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Allen Ginsberg
John Clellon Holmes
Joyce Johnson
Hettie Jones
Jack Kerouac
Joanne Kyger
Gary Snyder
Carl Solomon

Important Works:
Dharma Bums
Gasoline (poetry)
Howl (poetry)
Minor Characters (memoir)
Naked Lunch
On the Road
Queer
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (memoir)

Affiliated Writers/Biographers:
James Campbell (This is the Beat Generation)
Carolyn Cassady (Off the Road)
Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
Brenda Knight (Women of the Beat Generation)
Matt Theado (The Beats: A Literary Reference)
Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test)

In the meantime, if you would like to host a giveaway or provide a guest post, please: CLICK HERE.

And if you want to sign-up to participate in The Beats of Summer (yay!), just leave a comment on this post saying YOU’RE IN! Maybe include some of the books you hope to read.  I plan to read Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey, Howl by Allen Ginsberg, and Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac.

Please also post the button somewhere on your blog (in an announcement post or in your blog’s side-bar) so that we can spread the word, gather excitement, and encourage participation.  It goes without saying that this is meant to be a positive, fun, and educational event – it’s an at-will project, so negativity is a no-go!

Sign-ups are open from now through June 15th.  If you sign-up after June 15th, you can still absolutely participate, but you may not be eligible for some of the early giveaway prizes.

To Share/Discuss on Twitter, Use Hashatag #BeatsOfSummer

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2013 TBR Pile Challenge, American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Drama, Expressionism, Gay Lit, Gender Studies, GLBT, Literature, Madness, Play, PTSD, Sexuality, Tennessee Williams, Tragedy

Thoughts: A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

12222A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 24

A Streetcar Named Desire is my first experience with Tennessee Williams.  Going into this work, I knew very little about it and I knew very little about the writer.  As it turns out, I may have just discovered a new favorite.  Williams was a semi-openly gay man (at the time of this publication – he did come out publicly in the 1970s) whose works, though certainly rife with queer elements, did not deal directly with gay characters or situations.  A Streetcar Named Desire, though, like The Glass Menagerie, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is a perfect example of how Williams subverts heteronormative literary traditions in order to queer his text.  The play is about two sisters: Blanche, a mild, hypersensitive, and mentally disturbed/delusional middle-aged woman; and Stella, subordinate, sexual, and a symbol of the “New South.”  It is also about Stella’s husband, Stanley.  He is disturbingly sympathetic – an evil man who one can’t help but identify with.  Not since reading Lolita and encountering Mr. Humbert Humbert have I felt so simultaneously enthralled by and repulsed by a literary character.

Blanche, who has suffered two major traumas, comes to New Orleans to stay with her sister and brother-in-law for a short time, until she can get back on her feet.  It is soon discovered that these traumas have been the impetus for certain scandals which have forced Blanche out of her hometown and her career.  These secrets are revealed to Stanley through informants (he is a man of “connections” – likely due to his time in the Army and his lingering camaraderie with GI Vets), but Blanche continues to lie and tell stories right up to the end; the end being one of the most disturbing imaginable. Stanley, in all his pure heterosexuality and machismo is the source of the play’s sexual gaze.  This is a revelation for the time period and is in fact, ironically, one of the two major sources of queerness in the play.  Blanche and her history explain the second and more obvious queering.  The most interesting element of this play, and there are many, is that these two queer representations are battling each other for supremacy over the heteronormative element, which is to say – Stella.

What is particularly powerful and unique about the play, and I hear this is common for most of Williams’s plays, is that it is much more about language and character than it is about story (though that is there too, obviously).  The nature, the structure, of plays typically do not lend themselves well to story-through-language or through characterization, due to their sparseness; however, Williams tells quite a bit of his story in the stage direction, so it is easy to see why this play would be so difficult to stage successfully (and, to my knowledge, it has only been done perfectly well in one instance – with is that of the first staging, including Marlon Brando).  Williams comments on the changing nature of gender roles and sexual politics, post-World War II; he adeptly, brilliantly, exposes the new American male – the romantic but tragic and dangerous hero-come-home.  Women, who had taken up work and head-of-household positions were suddenly forced back into their homes, back into submission, and the power dynamics, social confusion, and family disruption this caused is clearly explored and sensitively, if shockingly, delivered.

He also comments on elements such as “New South versus Old South,” mental health, pederasty, post-traumatic stress disorder, class, race, gender, power, and control.  This short play packs a wallop – it is loaded with themes, yet so delicately crafted that the characters and their stories still manage to come first. While Tennessee Williams is largely considered to be a “New Realist” or “Expressionist,” and this certainly shows in the themes of this play and in its construction, I would argue that this play is a work of Modern Tragedy, particularly due to the absence of religion/morality and the inability of any character to gain redemption or find peace.  The film, though perfectly cast and lovingly produced, unfortunately changes the ending and one of the most important dialogic moments, which eliminates the modern and tragic elements of the play.  This is a great disappointment, as the play itself is perhaps perfect – which is simultaneously why it is one of the most often produced, most sought out by high-profile actors, and most disappointingly delivered.

This is one of the most moving, enjoyable, disturbing, and surprising works that I have read this year.  I am eager to read more from Tennessee Williams, hopefully in the very near future (I’m considering pursuing him as a project, after finishing with John Steinbeck).

Notable Quotes:

“They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!”

“When I was sixteen, I made the discovery – love. All at once and much, much too completely.”

“What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.”

“I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth. And it that’s sinful, then let me be damned for it!”

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

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