Monday, November 10, 2014

October 2014 Book Reports

1. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

I listened to Gone with the Wind narrated by Linda Stephens during two weeks in October. Forty-seven hours! I thought it would take at least the whole month, but I became obsessed. I listened to this book in the car during all my carpooling, while I was watching the boys at Itty Bitty Football, while I cooked and cleaned, during my baths, and for an hour or so at bedtime. There was a road trip to Pocatello in there, too. Anyway! Obsessed. Linda Stephens was remarkable. The accents, the different voices - all amazing. 

Let's get one thing out of the way, Gone with the Wind is not great literature. But! The story is consuming. We all know it, right? I thought I did. I was shocked (shocked!) at the overt racism. I cringed many, many times. How can anyone talk like that?! How can anyone even think like that?! The thing is, this is the life they (privileged white people) knew - negro slaves were property, but also intimate family members. I do not get it. This is essentially a love story, so all the slaves were in the background, just a normal part of everyday life. I watched a documentary on Margaret Mitchell in which they told the story of her leaving a college class because there was a black woman in the class. She wrote to her mother that she knew that none of those Yankees had ever nursed a black person or cared for a black person. Both the Southerners and the Yankees were racist in different ways based on what they knew. Nobody wins here. It's all very ugly. Moving on...

Reading Gone with the Wind made me realize that I've really only read the Yankee perspective on the Civil War.  Scarlett O'Hara is an anti-hero - she reminded me several times of Don Draper from Mad Men. I rooted for her to wake up and realize that she didn't really love Ashley and she did love Rhett and that Melanie was her best friend and champion. Scarlett was a horrible person. She always did the unethical, disloyal thing. Every single time. She also survived when so many others in her situation could not figure out how to. The thing is that Melanie Wilkes also survived (thanks to Scarlett a few times), but she was always decent, always good. And Rhett Butler is such a great character. He always saw the war for what it was and he took advantage. He could never stop himself from holding up the mirror to all the Southern "gentleman" so they could see what was really happening. (They didn't see, though, they just hated Rhett for saying things.)

Gone with the Wind is part of the American story now, so I don't need to summarize it. I can see why it was such a big deal. Margaret Mitchell was raised in Atlanta, Georgia, sitting on the porch listening to the old people tell stories about Civil War battles and plantations getting burned to the ground and starvation and the Ku Klux Klan. (One of the most disturbing aspects of this book is the sympathy toward the KKK. Nope.) Mitchell said she was about 10 years old before she found out they'd lost the war. The way of life that the Southern "aristocracy" (which is really what they were - there was more venom for Poor White Trash and Crackers than negro slaves in Gone with the Wind) enjoyed is gone forever. For continuing the traditions of their fathers and not seeing slavery as an abomination (again, how could they not?!) the plantation owners lost everything. A generation of men, their land, their self-respect, their homes. All of it. Having their story told from their own perspective in Gone with the Wind must have seemed like a victory for sure, late though it was. (The book came out in the late 1930s.)

So if you've only seen the movie, I highly recommend listening to the book. (Notice I didn't say "read" the book. Ain't nobody got time for that!) I wanted to immerse myself - I watched that documentary on Margaret Mitchell and I watched the movie and I read about the movie. That led to a brief obsession with Clark Gable. I've always thought his ears were too big. They are, but hubbahubbazingzing! That is a handsome man, y'all. And Vivien Leigh! Ahhh. It's all so grand and glamorous. Then I stopped myself and felt grateful that I can read about such a time, but live in a world where Hattie McDaniel (the woman who plays Mammy in the movie) would get to come to the premiere and stay in the same hotel as white people. For real.

2. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

This is one of the books on the Battle of the Books list and Bridget has decided to participate in the battle, so we read it. It's the story of Ivan, a Silverback gorilla who was kidnapped from his home in Africa and brought to the United States. A man named Mack makes Ivan the headliner in his mall/circus show. Ivan is an artist. He has other animal friends who live in the mall, too. My favorite of Ivan's friends is a mutt named Bob. Bob is scrappy and wary of humans and their motives. Bob is also very sarcastic. Ivan is also friends with a young girl, Julia, whose father works at the mall. Julia is also an artist.

Ivan decides to save baby Ruby (an elephant) from a life as a circus animal. He has to communicate with the right people and make them understand what he wants without using words. The whole book is told from Ivan's perspective. Some of it is very much like poetry. 

Bridget and I really enjoyed reading The One and Only Ivan. Some of the chapters were a little too abstract for Bridget, but she understood what was going on. We both especially liked the happy ending.

3. Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini

Bob: What happened in college that I was never exposed to the wondrous style of Raphael Sabatini? He seems to transform the English language into something rich with meaning and overflowing with precision and humor. Here is an example: “He was beginning to torture his mind with conjecture, when the door opened, and to Don Diego’s increasing mystification he beheld his best suit of clothes step into the cabin.” 

One of the more intriguing aspects of the novel is the continuing conqueror motif. Peter Blood, innocent doctor wrongfully enslaved becomes Don Pedro Sangre, who becomes Captain Blood, who becomes an officer first in the British and then the French Navy, who becomes Deputy Governor of Jamaica. He takes over one ship and renames it after the girl of his dreams and keeps taking over ships and captains and treasures until at last he and the girl of his dreams work out their differences. 

This too, the working out of differences, is so very well done. They meet, they squabble, they love each other but the timing’s a little off. Then, she’s gone from the story line and we’re left to say, “What happened to the girl?” We know, because no one would publish a novel where the hero doesn’t get the girl, that she will reappear eventually. And, the story line is so compelling that we resist the temptation to read ahead to find out how it ends. 

The absolute confidence possessed by Captain Blood is never overstated. It’s treasured and anticipated from the first chapter. This is a man in control of his destiny even when it appears that he has lost control. He is a man’s man – educated, skilled in medicine, martial arts, languages, personnel management, sea tactics; but, alas, not in love. This love affair seems thrown in for interest. Who would care about a novel without a pretty woman who was part of the story line? It’s too true that I would probably have put the darned thing down were there not a woman involved, but the lovely Arabella is little more than window dressing when all is said and done. 

The other thing that is so refreshingly wonderful is the moral use of language. Sabatini makes inferential references to vulgar statements without actually printing them. He is an educated man after all, and can communicate the strongest feelings of the human heart without descending into language of the gutter for the sake of realism, shock or sensationalism. 

While the book might claim to be a thinly veiled attack on the evils of slavery, there seems to be no hesitation to place the Negro in a position of slavery and servitude which would have been culturally acceptable to the average English language reader of Sabatini’s day. References to blacks in this novel are never other than those incidental scenes where slaves or servants of necessity would be mentioned. This is perhaps the glaring unfavorable light that caused me to wince when the unfortunate servants were inserted into a scene. 

Captain Blood is swashbuckling at its best, language at its best, story line at its best, and detail at its best. It is not laden with the philosophy of the author à la Victor Hugo or Mark Twain. It is simply a fine story well told. And, for that, I will read it again.

Nicole: This is my second Sabatini book and I look forward to another one. The heroes are thoroughly heroes - I knew Peter Blood would never take advantage of anyone, he would save the underdog, he would conquer the villain, and he would get the girl. I agree with Dad, the language is sublime. And no vulgarity. It's a story with pirates and tortured slaves and Spanish marauders and it's still not vulgar. See?! It can be done.

I thought the love story was underdeveloped. It was nice that Arabella was a strong-willed tom-boyish kind of girl, but a little more interaction between the two of them would have gone a long way toward the eventual resolution of that plot line.  The villains were fantastic! So evil. I looked forward to them getting what was theirs before the book was over.

Thanks for bringing up the normalcy of the black slaves versus the injustice of white men being slaves, Dad. They didn't see it, did they? Remarkable. 

I definitely appreciate Sabatini keeping this about the story. So well done.

1 comment:

allyn said...

Keep 'em comin'. Reading your reviews is so enjoyable. Someday I hope to read them all