Friday, August 08, 2008

More Erdrich

Tracks by Louise Erdrich

In this novel, Erdrich returns to the reservation and many of the characters from her first novel. She actually bridges the two previous novels, and has many of the citizens of Argus show up in the early part of Tracks. The novel takes place between 1911 and 1924, thus serving as a kind of sequel to the occurences in Love Medicine. I liked this one a lot more than The Beet Queen. Tracks tells the story and development of two characters in particular that were simply minor, though influential/mysterious characters in the previous novels: Fleur Pillager, who is later a type of medicine woman, and Pauline Puyat, who bears a different name in the other novels and is rather sinister. Pauline starts off nice enough but soon goes a little off the deep end, perhaps because she was always a little weird and couldn't fit in. It was interesting seeing the relationships develop between all these people, and the way it explained certain situations that occured in Love Medicine. For example, finding out that certain people were related shed light on their interactions decades later. In another example, it was kind of disturbing to discover that two people were actually related, making their relationship in Love Medicine somewhat incestuous.

The parts narrated by Nanapush were the best since Pauline is, well, insane. In addition to dealing with all types of personal relationships, the novel also explores some of the issues of reservation life in the beginning of the century, as the people are ravished by disease, hunger and must struggle to hold on to their lands.

Purity and Shame

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

I'd actually wanted to order Brother, I'm Dying by the same author based on this review, but when I looked it up on Amazon, I realized it was going to come out in paper back very soon, and decided not to spend the money on a hardcover as a result. Instead, I decided to give this a try.

I really enjoyed the first half of the novel, but I feel like it lost steam or something in the last half. Maybe I just felt like some things were left too open or unanswered (even though it's not exactly open-ended; I just felt like there could have been more). I'd definitely still recommend it, and will pick up Brother, I'm Dying.

After being raised in Haiti by her aunt, Sophie has to join her mother in the United States when she sends for her. Twelve year old Sophie doesn't remember her mother, and would rather stay with her aunt, but accepts her fate. Once with her mother, Sophie more or less adjusts to her new life, and her mother labors endlessly to give her daughter the opportunity to get a good education. When Sophie meets a man at 18, her mother worries about this upsetting Sophie's future, and also shows an abnormal obsession with ensuring her daughter's purity. As a result, Sophie and her mother have a huge falling out.

A few years later, Sophie returns to Haiti to visit her family, and get some clarity on her past. She discovers this obsession with purity also plagued her mother, her aunt, her grandmother and other generations as they were growing up, which makes it easier for her to understand and forgive her mother's actions. Additionally, she finally gets the whole story on her conception and birth.

While Sophie is in therapy to deal with her problems, it doesn't necessarily seem to be helping her too much. Her mother, however, is afraid to confront her past, and ends up being destroyed by it. Danticat not only explores the generational bond between the women in the novel, but also shows hints of the violence and unrest that were occuring as a result of politics in Haiti.

Family Portrait

Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende may be quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. Chronologically, Portrait in Sepia occurs between her novels The House of Spirits and Daughter of Fortune, and links all the characters of these two previous novels. The narrator, Aurora del Valle, is the granddaughter of Eliza and Tao Ch'ien and Paulina del Valle. Additionally, Severo del Valle and Nivea, who are the parents of Clara from The House of Spirits, make appearances as a young couple. Certain themes tend to reoccur from the other novels: Eliza, her daughter Lynn and Aurora all make horrible decisions when it comes to first loves, but have more luck with their second chances.

While Aurora is the narrator, Paulina often dominates the novel. Mostly, Aurora seems to be telling more of a family history than narrating her own life. Aurora does not remember what happened to her in the first five years of her life, and finally discovers the truth at the end of the novel. The final explanation isn't too much of a mystery or even very suprising, but it actually never seemed to important to find out the truth for the story to progress, and instead the revelation simply provides the reader with additional information and closure with another character.

It doesn't have as much going on plot-wise perhaps as the other two novels, but rather is simply a straight-forward narrative about the del Valle family, and an opportunity to reconnect with some of the characters from her other novels.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

A Hit and A Miss

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

Spanning over fifty years, and narrated from the perspective of a variety of characters, Love Medicine tells the story of life on a reservation in North Dakota. It mainly focuses on the Kapshaw family and Lulu Nanapush and her offspring. I really enjoyed the women in this novel. They were complex, three dimensional and strong, while the men often seemed weak and useless in comparison. It is the women that held the families together while some of the men were selling away their dignity and birth rights. As a result, there were a few chapters I couldn't wait to get through while I savored others based on who was narrating. My favorites were Lulu Nanapush and Marie Lazarre, while I didn't really care for Lipsha Morrisey's chapters too much, and was rather indifferent to Lyman Lamartine. Overall, it was very good, and I enjoyed the interweaving characters and ever-evolving relationships.

The Beet Queen by Louise Erdrich

I was kind of disappointed by this novel. After reading Love Medicine, I had high expectation of this author, and this book just didn't do it for me. Like in her previous novel, it is very beautifully written, her characters are well developed and complicated, but none of them were that likable. As a result, it was hard to get into the book because everyone was slightly obnoxious and on the depressing side. It started off strong. In the beginning, Mary Adare seemed like a good character, but as the novel progresses, she becomes stranger, more isolated and depressing. She has a hard time making connections, and for the most part, she seems to have resigned herself to this. Celeste, while more likable, similarly has isolated herself and restricted her life to only a few people. I didn't like Karl from the very beginning since he was too needy and used people. Mary's cousin, Sita, reminded me of Nell from Little House on the Prairie when she was first introduced. She remains rather superficial her entire life, and also suffers from mental health problems. The only likable character was Wallace Pfef, a closeted homosexual, who is in love with Karl, and along with Mary, helps Celeste raise her daughter Dot, an incredibly angry, spoiled, ungrateful brat of a child (who has small appearance in Love Medicine). In an interview in the back of the novel, Erdrich describes Dot as her alter-ego who symoblizes all the anger Erdrich herself felt as a teen but never expressed. In and of itself, an angry character wouldn't be bad but Dot has no redeeming qualities. Her mother, her aunt and Wallace all feel an incredible amount of love for her, but she just keeps acting out.

Unlike Love Medicine, this novel takes place in the town Argus, rather than the reservation. However, a few characters from Love Medicine make brief appearances, such as Fleur, Eli and Sister Leopolda. My professor, who recommended Erdrich to me, actually compared her to Faulkner since Erdrich's novels all take place in the same general community and certain people keep popping up as supporting characters. I like the way they all interweave, actually.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Memoirs and History in Germany

The Nazi Officer's Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust by Edith Hahn Beer and Susan Dworkin

I made it to 100 in less than a year! It might be fitting that my number hundred for the year would be a book about Nazi Germany; while I haven't read as much about the topic in the last few years, I went through a phase that was bordering on obsession while I was an adolescent. Overall, the story was interesting, though it doesn't necessarily say anything that hasn't been said before. Instead, it is another voice to be added to the history of the 3rd Reich. Edith was a young Jewish woman in Austria when the Anschluss happened in 1938. Her siblings quickly escaped, but Edith stayed behind because she was in love. At first, she obeys all the laws imposed upon her by the Nazis, and even becomes a forced laborer at a farm, but eventually, she decides to hide rather than report to be relocated to Poland. With the advice and help of some of her Aryan friends, she moves to Germany, passing herself off as an Aryan from Austria. While there, she ends up marrying, hence the title. Throughout the whole piece, Edith expresses her gratitude to the people that helped her and emphasizes her luck. While passing herself off as a good Aryan, she also hides/loses her personality - once she no longer has to fear being discovered after the Nazis have been defeated, her husband barely recognizes her because she stops being a good little housewife and once again becomes the intellectual law student she had been.

A while ago I was having a discussion with a sergeant in my company, and he'd asked me about how Germans taught the Holocaust. He said he'd heard that it wasn't really taught. I disagreed with him. I know directly after the Holocaust, there was a generation of Germans that really didn't want to confront or deal with their past. Their children, however, wanted to know the truth and demanded it. I went to German schools from Kindergarten to 7th grade. I admit, I don't remember a specific class on the Holocaust and I didn't learn about it in history class.

(This is due to the structure of my history classes in my German school. We started having history class in sixth grade, and sixth grade was exclusively devoted to ancient history - Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome. My 7th grade history class was slightly messed up because my teachers kept ending up pregnant, and then we'd have subs. However, it covered things like Charlemagne, serfs, the development of cities and the merchant classes, important religious pacts and documents – I think there may have been a little about Henry IV, etc. I happened to be visiting a friend in Germany in 9th grade, and went to class a few times with him, and at that point they were discussing the 1920's in Germany, so I just missed the World War II unit. Imagine my shock upon reaching the States where in one year we did all the world's history, devoting only two days to Egypt, Greece and Rome but then spent two years going through the exact same American history class - I honestly don't think I learned anything in my 11 grade American history class that I hadn't already known from my 8th grade American history class. Despite that, everyone in the class was always shocked when I knew all the answers - did they not pay attention, or just purposely forget everything? I also don't think AP History in 12th grade added any new knowledge.)

Despite a specific class or unit on the subject, however, I think at some point, we all kind of knew in general what had happened. In probably fifth grade, we spent a week or two reading the novel Die Welle, an exploration of how group mentality takes over a high school in America. I'm pretty sure this novel led to discussions about the Third Reich and the Holocaust, and was in fact specifically chosen for that reason. At some point, my school also had a presentation on Nazi Germany in our auditorium - I can't remember the exact reasoning but one day there were several poster boards and display cases filled with pictures, artifacts and discussions of that time period. Additionally, we did actually have the occasional opportunity for extra credit in German schools, usually by doing a short presentation and book recommendations in literature class (I think my teachers got sick of me quickly because I always had something to recommend) or a presentation in religion class on a topic somehow related to religion or the Jews. Quite a few book recommendations were about children and Nazi Germany, such as Als Hitler das rosa Kaninchen stahl, while in religion class, someone chose to discuss the medical experimentations in certain concentration camps.

I acutely became aware of Germany's history in 3rd grade. My parents and I were in Munchen for a day, and for some reason, my parents decided to take me to Dachau. It was a dreary, rainy day, basically the perfect atmosphere for that kind of place. My mom says I was walking through the museum portion asking loudly how could people let this happen. I don't remember that part, but I was basically hooked on the subject after that. My favorite bookstore in Regensburg had a very good section of young adult literature, and they also had a shelf more or less specifically devoted to Holocaust stories, fiction and non-fiction. Some of the books I read included Chaja Heisst Leben, Dank Meiner Mutter etc. Some of them were about families on the run from the Nazis who had to leave everything behind, others about life and death in the ghettos, some about the actual camps - basically, some were more graphic than others. I read them all. Collections of stories, novels, everything. My mother and I actually would exchange books on the topic. The point is that the material was easily available and prominently displayed in the young adult section - Germans realized the necessity of not hiding their past. Perhaps they didn't teach it in an organized fashion until later in school, but the information was always accessible. It was part of a terrible past, but a past that Germany acknowledged.

Even now, I will still pick up books about Nazi Germany when I see them but I don't actively pursue them as I used to. I have a slightly different focus now when it comes to history and literature. As a result of growing up in Germany, and having that country's history as part of my past, I believe I was more critical of American history when I arrived in the States (Germany never glorified its history after all). While in Germany, I always thought of America as the shining example of freedom - they fought a Civil War to free the slaves (I didn't quite realize or consider the fact that they fought it against themselves). Once actually in the States, however, I saw that America, too, had dark stains on its past; they just didn't acknowledge or discuss them in the same way: the treatment of the Native Americans, blacks etc. I was probably the only one in my 8th grade history class thinking that the colonials were bitching a little too much with their refrain "no taxation without representation" - after all, they were only being asked to help pay for a war that had helped them out. Westward expansion was equally unjustified, as was the war against Mexico. I even had problems with the Alamo - after all, Mexico had allowed a few Americans to settle there, and next thing you know the ungrateful jerks are trying to take the whole place for themselves.

I took a class on 20th Century Germany in college, and one thing I enjoyed about that class was the fact that the professor chose to use novels instead of history texts to represent Germany's mentality of the time. We started the class with Gunther Grass's Crabwalk. It's not necessarily a great novel, but it raises some interesting questions, and shows how Germany is still grappling with how to approach and represent its history. It also discusses the idea of victimhood and complicity, using the victims of a ship wreck to illustrate the point. At the end of the war, many German refugees were trying to escape on a former cruise ship that was sunk by a submarine. Obviously these people had benefitted from Hitler's regime and who knows how much they knew about what was going on, yet at what point can their suffering be discussed? Obviously it doesn't compare. I guess that could be applied to many situations in history. For example, the Japanese civilization that was bombarded during the Tokyo Firing Bombings vs. the Japanese army that invaded China, and committed atrocities such as Nanjing. Where is the balance?

A few other books on the topic:

In My Hands: A Polish woman working for a German officer uses her position to hide Jews from deportation.

On Hitler's Mountain: A woman's memoir of growing up in Nazi Germany. It doesn't really discuss the Holocaust part at all, but for me it was interesting because it showed what an average German may have seen and thought. Also, my grandfather was about ten or eleven when the war ended so I figured there must have been similarities to his childhood.

The Investigation: A play written using exclusively court documents from trials against Nazi criminals after the war.

Black Women's History 101

When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Sex and Race in America by Paula Giddings

One of my professors recommended this book to me as a good overall beginning to black women in America. I'd already read Angela Davis's Women, Race and Class earlier in the deployment, and this book discusses similar topics. Unlike Davis, however, Giddings provides a much more comprehensive piece on black women's history. Davis focused much more on certain eras, and skipped over others, while Giddings goes basically through each time period and decade and discusses issues that were affecting black women, analyzing issues of race and gender. This means she not only discusses black women in relation to white women, but also discusses black women and black men and how their needs intersected and converged. Overall, a very good intro, and I am thinking about adding a few biographies to my reading list in the future, first off being Ida B. Wells, and possibly Eleanor Roosevelt. I already have a few ideas for Wells, but as far as Roosevelt is concerned, I am sure there are quite a few out there, but which ones are the best?