Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Gone_with_the_Wind_coverGone With the Wind

by Margaret Mitchell

So many thoughts … where to start?

I just read this epic Civil War novel for the third time in my life.  The first time I read it, I was a mere teenager.  My mother would park herself on the sofa every year when the movie was on TV and cry her way through it (if my memory serves me), and by the time I was a teen, I had seen the movie numerous times because of this.  Being an avid reader, of course I read the book when I arrived at a certain age.  In truth, though, I don’t have any memories of how the book made me feel all those years ago – I only remember that I liked it very much.

The second time I read it was almost ten years ago when it was chosen for my book club.  Apparently I never wrote about it – I’ve searched – but I did give it five stars on Goodreads.  I had hoped that I had written about it so that I could go back and compare and contrast my feelings about it then with my feelings about it now, but alas, no such luck.  I do clearly remember loving it, appreciating all the details about the Civil War it contains, feeling a strong admiration for the character of Scarlett O’Hara (my goodness, that character – or at least her name – was the inspiration for my youngest child’s name!), feeling deeply invested in the story and the people who populated it, and wanting to go back to page one and read it all over again as soon as I finished it (I didn’t do that, though; it took almost ten years before I would reread it).

And now I am well into middle age and have read it for the third time.

Over the last few years, as I’ve become more aware of and invested in social justice issues, I’ve come across articles that mention Gone With the Wind as a monument to racism.  The first time I came across an article like this, my knee-jerk internal response was defensiveness.  How could one of my favorite novels be racist?  I’m not racist!  I understand how wrong racism is!  It’s just a fictional story about a time and a place that no longer exists.  That’s just the way things were back then.

You get the idea.  The usual white-person thought process in the face of uncomfortable truths about racism and prejudice.

So, when I picked it up (actually, I listened to the audio book; for the record, the reader did an excellent job) this last time, I knew that I would see it through a different lens than I did a decade ago.  Here are my main thoughts:

First and foremost, GWTW absolutely does romanticize slavery.  It portrays the owning of human beings as property as a mutually beneficial institution, in which slave owners took good care of their “darkies” much like pets or small children.  They fed them generously, nursed them in sickness, and generally appreciated their service like anyone today might appreciate the service of a paid, voluntary service provider.  If an occasional “lick” was meted out, it was for the negro’s own good – but violence against slaves was exceedingly rare.  And the slaves not only accepted their lot of being owned by other human beings, they were happy about it!  They did not pine for freedom.  They gladly accepted that they were put on this earth solely to serve their white folks.  Any stories coming from the Yankees about whipping slaves or sending bloodhounds after runaway slaves or any mistreatment of negroes was propaganda.  So, when the slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, it was a cruelty not only to the genteel Southerners, but the slaves themselves, who never wanted freedom in the first place, and couldn’t cope with it once they had it.

Well, that’s all propaganda if I ever heard it.  I did a lot of eye rolling, jaw-dropping, and cringing through all of that.  I felt ashamed that I had ever read this book before and not seen this, not given it much thought at all.

Speaking of Yankees, they are the bad guys in this story.  Yankees are horrible, murderous, unscrupulous blights.  Even after the war, the Yankees remain The Enemy.  And I’m sure there is actually a lot of truth in this.  As I read, I kept wondering when the South began to see the North as fellow Americans again.

Also, the Ku Klux Klan features prominently in this novel, and it’s portrayed as a necessary organization in the face of Reconstruction in order to preserve the Southern way of life.  Members of the KKK are upstanding, respectable, honorable noble men – they are the good guys.

I know, right?

Two characters in the story, Ellen O’Hara (Scarlett’s mother) and Melanie Hamilton-Wilks (Scarlett’s sister-in-law, and the wife of the man Scarlett pines for) are portrayed as near saints.  “Truly Great Ladies” they are called – meaning selfless, humble, kind, compassionate, gentle, forgiving, and utterly virtuous. However, they are both utterly devoted to “The Cause”: preserving the Southern way of life with its class hierarchy (of which they are at the top), and the institution of slavery.  Gentle, self-effacing Melanie frets that she doesn’t want her child going to school with “pickaninnies.”  So, really, how virtuous and saintly can someone be who has a bone-deep belief that owning other human beings and depriving them of liberty is the way things are supposed to be?

Now let us turn to Scarlett O’Hara.  What I mostly remembered from having read the book before (and seeing the movie countless times) is that I admired her mainly for her bucking a lot of the conventions women of her time were expected to uphold.  She spoke her mind at a time when women were expected to shut up and let the men do the talking – and thinking.  She was resilient, a fighter – she single-handedly pulled her family out of poverty after the war.  She went out in public while pregnant – a shocking and appalling thing to do at that time.  She owned a business – and a man’s business at that (a mill and lumber yard) – and ran it, and was good at it, at a time when women were expected to stay home and darn socks.  This admiration still holds.  In those ways, I do still feel that she is a heroine of a kind.

However, Scarlett O’Hara is a bitch.  She is jealous and petty and spiteful and 69234d55c356d4ae6f7ffbee80a7b9faself-absorbed and conceited, and often just plain mean.  She steps on people and doesn’t care who she hurts in order to get what she wants.  By the end of the novel, which spans twelve years, she has burned nearly every bridge she ever had.  She’s not actually a very likable person.  I’m left wondering how Margaret Mitchell wanted her readers to feel about Scarlett.  Did she intentionally create a character we aren’t supposed to like – was Scarlett meant to serve as a cautionary figure?  Or was Scarlett meant to be an admirable heroine?  Are we supposed to root for her or disdain her? Perhaps both.

As far as the love story – gah.  Scarlett spends the entire twelve years of the novel believing herself in love with Ashley Wilks, who is somebody else’s husband, as well as a pitiful, helpless, inept daydreamer of a man who leads Scarlett on by occasionally making proclamations of love for her in private, and on one occasion shoving his tongue down her throat (which she welcomed).  In reality, he really just longs to fuck Scarlett, but he’s too honorable to actually cheat on his wife.  Finally, at the end of the novel, Scarlett realizes that she never really loved Ashley (and she realizes that he only wanted into her bloomers), that she actually has loved Rhett for years without realizing it.

Rhett Butler is the bad-boy that women are believed to like so much.  He doesn’t give a crap about convention, he makes piles of money by unscrupulous means, and of course he’s tall, dark, and handsome.  And he’s in love with Scarlett from the first time he sets eyes upon her sixteen-year-old self when he is in his thirties (more on the prevalent lechery in the novel below).  Eventually, Rhett becomes Scarlett’s third husband, but he marries her knowing she’s in love with Ashley, but then ends up filled with resentment towards her for being in (fake) love with Ashley.  The relationship between Rhett and Scarlett is very fucked up once they get married.  They can never, ever, ever be vulnerable with each other.  Rhett plays very hard at not letting Scarlett know he actually loves her – and then resents her for not realizing that he loves her.  They communicate mostly with barbs and sarcasm.  Violence erupts between them occasionally.  All in all, it’s a very unhealthy coupling.  Funny that it’s often touted as “The Greatest Love Story Of All Time.”  They end up destroying each other because they can never be real with each other until it’s too late.

So, back to the lechery.  It’s plentiful in this story.  Scarlett’s mother Ellen was only fifteen when she married Gerald O’Hara, who was in his forties.  Scarlett is sixteen when the novel opens, and Rhett is thirty-three and falls in love with her.  Sue Ellen, Scarlett’s younger sister, is engaged to a middle-aged man (whom Scarlett woos away from her sister and marries for his money, but I digress).  It’s pretty gross and disturbing when you get right down to it.  Also, the incest thing.  Ashley and Melanie are first cousins and married.  Ellen, Scarlett’s mother, was in love with her own cousin, Phillipe, before she married Gerald.  I guess that sort of thing was accepted and common back in the day – but so was slavery.

All this being said, I confess I still enjoyed the book.  A lot.  From a purely literary standpoint, it’s a masterpiece – the writing is stellar, the characters and scenes come alive, it’s full of historical detail, and in all its nearly 1,000 pages, the story never drags.  I feel guilty about liking it because it’s so problematic in so many ways.  I also realize that I enjoy it specifically because I can only read it through the lens of a white person; I can’t imagine appreciating anything about it as a black person.  Racism persists, and the fact that white people have written stories glorifying such a heinous, miserable institution as slavery and portraying people of color as barely human, and the fact that white people (like myself) still enjoy these stories nonetheless is evidence of that.

 

Not Always Happy by Kari Wagner-Peck

51sHRGqjqXL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Not Always Happy

by Kari Wagner-Peck

I stopped reading memoirs about raising a child with Down syndrome awhile back mainly, I think, because they all started seeming the same. Most follow a fairly predictable trajectory: a child is born with Down syndrome, there is much grief, then acceptance, and finally celebration. It’s not that there is anything wrong with this storyline (which, if I’m honest, fits my own storyline with regard to having my own child with Down syndrome), it’s just that after a time, I had read enough of them. So when I saw mention of Not Always Happy – probably on Facebook, I can’t really remember for sure – and that it was funny, my interest was piqued.

Continue reading here.

The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal

51Upscve4gL._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_The Heart

by Maylis Kerangal

I know, I know, it’s been forever since I’ve written a book review.  I haven’t stopped reading, it’s just the writing that’s been hard to carve out time for.  That said, I had to come and tell you about this book, because I can’t get it out of my head.

When I moved with my family up to the Pacific Northwest early this year, I started a new book club (because I can’t imagine life without a book club).  I chose The Heart as our book for August, having stumbled across a synopsis of it somewhere – I can’t even remember where.  I was intrigued because the title leads one to believe it’s a romance novel (of which I am not a fan), but the synopsis made clear that it’s as far from romance as you can get.  Or rather, it’s not the sort of romance most romance novels are about.  This is no saccharine love story about boy meets girl – no.  This is a love story of a different kind: a love story about the human heart – the actual muscle and tissue and blood version of the human heart – and its ability and sheer power to give and sustain life.

The novel opens in the early dawn hours on the shores of a beach somewhere in France as three boys, barely adults, tumble out of a van, don wetsuits, and head out to the sea with surfboards under their arms.  On their way home a couple of hours later, exhausted from surfing, the young man driving falls asleep at the wheel.  Two of the boys survive the ensuing collision, but nineteen-year-old Simon Limbres is pronounced brain-dead at the hospital, having been thrown through the windshield of the van head first upon impact with the pole.

Yet, his heart still beats.

The story takes place over a mere twenty-four hour period, which stretches out into eternity as Simon’s family is notified, and terrible decisions must be made.  Simon is dead, but his body still has the ability to give life to other people in desperate need of organ transplants.  And time is of the essence.

The Heart reads with the grace and fluidity of a ballet.  Gorgeous prose, taut and intense, every word purposeful and deliberate.  Every person in the story, from Simon himself, to his parents, to the doctors and nurses involved in the procedures that take place, is presented with his or her own story, background, thoughts, emotions, and observations, so that we understand the absolute human element in the extraordinary events that take place.  This is a beautiful, haunting story written with astonishing clarity and reverence for life, for death, and for grief.

This book is going to stay with me for a very long time.

Still Reading

Have you ever read a book that affected you so profoundly that you just couldn’t shake it for days and days and weeks, even?  Have you ever read a book that transported you so completely that when you were done, you felt sorrow at the realization that the story wasn’t real?  Have you ever read a book whose characters you became so emotionally invested in and attached to that finishing the book felt almost like a death (and if any of those characters died before the story was over, it shook you to your core?)?

That book for me is Lonesome Dove.  I recently finished it for the third time (however, this time I listened to the audio version, which wasn’t quite as good as reading it myself), and immediately after finishing it, I spent the next several days watching the 1989 miniseries.  Although the miniseries left quite a bit of the book out, and changed numerous things, it’s still, in my view, one of the best miniseries ever made, and one of the best film adaptations of a book ever produced.  I fell in love with Robert Duvall as Gus McCrae, and watching him in this movie still makes me weak in the knees, and his death still leaves me ugly crying.

So, although it’s been two months since I last wrote here, I have still been reading (or listening, as the case may be), but writing has gone on the back burner because, well, life.  I hope to come back here and share my thoughts about a couple of other books soon.

In the meantime, tell me what books you’ve read that have affected you deeply.

The Trespasser by Tana French

The Trespasser

by Tana French

In this latest installment by Tana French, Det. Antoinette Conway and her partner, Det. Stephen Moran of the Dublin Murder Squad take center stage.  Handed what on its surface appears to be a textbook domestic abuse-turned-murder case to deal with, Det. Conway and Det. Moran quickly realize that all is not as it appears.  Battling sexism in the squad adds to the complexity of trying to solve a murder case.  Gathering evidence and interviewing parties with different connections to the murder victim lead Conway and Moran on what ends up being a wild goose chase – possibly intentionally.  In the end, who killed Aislinn Murray and why threatens to blow the Dublin Murder Squad apart.

I’ve been a devoted reader of Tana French since her first novel, In the Woods, was published a few years back.  Some of her novels I’ve liked more than others (the above-mentioned In the Woods, as well as The Likeness and Faithful Place, stand out).  The Trespasser is a superb whodunnit, but I was put off by Det. Antoinette Conway’s character.  She’s written as a little too tough-as-nails to be believable or likable.  While I appreciate French’s representation of sexism in the workplace, Conway feels like a bit of an overcompensation – an over-the-top cisgender, heterosexual anti-female.  I was also put off by Conway’s use of “retard” and “fucktard” in the story.  Come on, Ms. French.  Do we really have to continue to use slurs against marginalized people in an effort to be edgy?

Worth reading if you like police procedurals/murder mysteries, but with caveats.

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

Did You Ever Have a Family

by Bill Clegg

I heard about this book when it was first released last year, but put off buying it because I knew that the premise was a tragedy.  I’ve recently started a new book club in my new neighborhood, though, and decided to choose this book as our first book.

The premise of Did You Ever Have a Family is indeed a tragedy: a catastrophic house fire kills four people the night before a wedding.  The victims are the bride-to-be and her fiance, her father, and her mother’s boyfriend.  June, the bride’s mother, is the only survivor.  After the funerals, June flees without a word to anyone, setting out on a cross-country trip in an effort to outrun her grief.  She ends up on the opposite coast, holed up in a little seaside motel that her deceased daughter once stayed at.

In the wake of the horrors of the house fire, the stories of numerous other people emerge – June’s boyfriend’s mother, the florist who was supposed to provide the wedding flowers, Silas, a local teen who can only be described as a hoodlum, the couple who own the motel at which June takes refuge, and various other people whose lives intersect in various ways.

Ultimately, this is a story about family, but also about profound loss and grief, and the formidable effort of surviving all of those things.

I appreciated this story, but it wasn’t the tear-jerker I thought it would be.  I found it difficult to connect with any of the characters.  I wanted to feel sympathy for June, the main character, but she’s somewhat of an enigma, a little cold and a little distant, which made it hard for me to feel much for her.

Still, it’s a well-written, nuanced story that I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See

by Anthony Doerr

Truth be told, I only read this book because I saw somewhere that President Obama had it on his summer reading list last year.  Although I was aware of the book before discovering that fact, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise, only because I’ve read so many books set during WWII that they don’t especially appeal to me at this point.  I’m glad I decided to read this one.

The story centers around a young blind girl named Marie-Laure who lives with her devoted father, a locksmith for the Museum of Natural History in Paris.  When Marie-Laure, motherless, loses her sight at a young age, her father goes to great lengths to ensure his daughter’s ability to navigate her world, spending years painstakingly crafting a miniature wooden replica of their neighborhood so that Marie-Laure could memorize its characteristics by touch and translate that to an understanding of the life-size reality of the landscape.

When France is invaded by Germany, Marie-Laure and her father flee to a seaside village and take refuge in the house of an eccentric and reclusive uncle.  The uncle, suffering all these years from PTSD from fighting in WWI, has not left his house in twenty years.  In this tall house in Saint-Malo, Marie-Laure’s father again undertakes the building of a model of the village in order that his daughter may be able to navigate it if the need arises.  Soon, Marie-Laure’s father leaves her with her uncle when he is summoned back to the museum, ostensibly to return a highly prized, rare, and valuable gemstone that he spirited out of Paris when the city was invaded.

Running parallel to Marie-Laure’s story is Werner Pfennig’s, a young German orphan boy with an affinity and aptitude for radios, which eventually earns him the attention of influential Nazis.  As a teen, rather than being sent to work in the coal mines like so many of his peers, Werner is sent to a prestigious boarding school for boys, which is his induction into the Hitler Youth.  Werner struggles continually with what he witnesses and takes part in, both willingly and by force.

Eventually, Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories collide in a way that is unexpected.

I began this story feeling a little ho-hum about it, but was quickly taken in.  It’s beautifully told, and full of characters and settings so vivid that I felt as if I were a bystander, watching it all unfold.  Weeks after finishing this book, I am still pondering it.

The Girl Who Loved Dorothy the Most by Andrew Scott Turner

51EFnmcrWeL._SY400_The Girl Who Loved Dorothy the Most

by Andrew Scott Turner

I will confess, first that I “know” Andrew Turner – at least on Facebook.  I don’t even remember how we connected, but for a couple of years now I’ve been continually moved by what he writes, both on Facebook and on his blog, Six Theories.

I will also confess that I’m not a huge fan of poetry.  I can appreciate the artistry of it, but it’s not typically a genre I’m drawn to.

So, what did I think of a collection of poems written by a guy whose writing I love?  In a word (or three): I loved it.

Deeply personal and contemplative, Andrew Turner taps into his own experiences and observations, and puts them into words that resonate with the human condition.  The sparse prose of this gorgeous little book touches on grief and longing, love, hope, and melancholy.  What comes through most of all is his devotion to his family.  This man has a way with words.

I hope he writes more, because I’ll read anything he writes.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

51pfzg0xtsl-_sx367_bo1204203200_News of the World

by Paulette Jiles

Whew!  I’m finishing up January with my seventh book read.  I’m on a roll!

News of the World tells the story of Captain Jefferson Kidd, a veteran of the Civil War.  Captain Kidd is somewhat of a loner, a grouchy old widower who is still plagued by memories of war, who prefers solitude to the company of people.  However, to make a living, he travels from town to town reading from newspapers to paying audiences.

During his travels, he crosses paths with a representative of the U.S. army who has in his custody a ten-year-old white girl recently recovered from the Kiowa Indian band that killed her family and captured her.  Captain Kidd is offered $50 to take the girl and return her to her relatives in Texas, an offer he grudgingly accepts.

Young Johanna has been so completely assimilated into her Kiowa family that she believes herself to be Kiowa.  She has forgotten her biological family, her native language, and all of the white people customs she was ripped away from as a young child.

Over their 400-mile trek to Texas, Joanna gradually learns to trust Captain Kidd, whom she begins to address as “Grandfather” in Kiowa.  For his part, Captain Kidd grows attached to and protective of this wild orphan girl.

When Johanna is finally reunited with her aunt and uncle in Texas, she is bewildered at being left by Captain Kidd, and her aunt and uncle are not exactly thrilled to have her thrust upon them.  With many reservations, Captain Kidd does leave Johanna with them; what choice does he have?  He was paid to carry out a task, and the duty must be fulfilled.  Besides, the cold, stern German couple are Johanna’s next of kin.

What follows, you will have to read the book and find out for yourself.

I really enjoyed this novel.  By turns tender and harrowing, it’s a fascinating portrait of a child captured by Indians who became completely assimilated into the tribe and forever considered herself Indian.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

1jlegv-so-9The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

by Gabrielle Zevin

A.J. Fikry is trying to drink himself to death – or at least drink himself comfortably numb.  His beloved wife died in a car accident not too long ago, and the bookstore they opened together in a small east coast island town is failing.  When things seem like they can’t possibly get any worse, an extremely rare and valuable collection of poems by Edgar Allen Poe that served as A.J.’s nest egg is stolen.

Soon after, A.J. makes a strange and wholly unexpected discovery: a baby has been left in his bookstore.  Accompanying the two-year-old girl, Maya, is a diaper bag and a note from her mother imploring A.J. to care for her, as she is unable to care for the babe any longer.  A.J. knows nothing about babies, nor is he particularly fond of babies or children, or even people for that matter (he’s kind of an asshole, but we forgive him because who wouldn’t be an asshole having been through what he’s been through?).  A search for the child’s mother is undertaken, but it’s short-lived, as she is soon found dead of an apparent suicide.  When it is time to turn Maya over to the authorities so that she can enter the foster system, A.J. can’t bring himself to turn her loose; he has quickly become attached and feels responsible for the girl.

As you would imagine, A.J.’s life begins to turn around when Maya enters his life, and what ensues is the sweet evolution of a deep father-daughter bond.  A.J. also pursues Amy, a sales rep for a small publishing company who once arrived at the bookstore, before Maya’s appearance, to pitch the winter book releases to him and was insulted and driven out by a rude and curmudgeonly A.J. in short order.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a very enjoyable book about loss, starting over, and the love of books.  I think it tries to be profound at times but doesn’t quite get there, but all in all a good read.