Octavia Butler’s Good Stuff

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” – Octavia Butler

Sometimes we need someone to make a suggestion or a recommendation (or give an assignment) before we will try something different, something we didn’t think we would like. Sometimes that nudge pushes open a door to something amazing that we’d been judging based off of the view through a grimy and distorting window. It’s like the moment Dorothy steps through the door and sees the colorful world of Oz. I have my undergraduate lit studies professor to thank for introducing me to so many writers I’ve come to love. Octavia Butler is one of those writers I’m certain I never would have discovered on my own. Butler’s work, in turn, opened me up to the genre of science fiction, towards which I had largely been indifferent.

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Knowing full well the value of the Brontë Sisters

“You know full well as I do the value of sisters’ affections: There is nothing like it in this world.” – Charlotte Brontë

With another adaptation of Jane Eyre heading to theaters, it feels like the right time to review the most famous works of all three Brontë sisters. From the more famous and gothic Charlotte and Emily to the more socially relevant Anne, these sisters who first published under the masculine pseudonyms Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell, wrote three of the most iconic novels of the nineteenth century.

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

Agnes Grey comes from a poorer English family but she was lucky enough to receive enough of an education to make her way in the world as a governess where it’s debatable whether her pupils, their parents, or rival staff create the most difficulties for her to overcome. Agnes struggles not to lose her perspective and manages to find comfort in her faith (and the company of a local clergyman). Anne’s portrayal of a young woman out in the world is far more realistic in it’s presentation than her sister Charlotte’s. The social pressures that Agnes deals with and Anne’s depiction of them may not be as dramatic, but they were far more identifiable for readers of the time and they continue to resonate with readers today. Anybody who has ever volunteered to babysit can sympathize with Agnes’ plight and becomes more grateful for being able to say goodbye at the end of the night to return to their own family.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

After a childhood of being put down by her aunt and cousins and then being shipped off to a harsh school, Jane Eyre grows up to become a governess for the mysterious Mr. Rochester’s young ward. An unlikely and unprecedented romance ensues but Mr. Rochester’s hidden past proves to be an obstacle that might be too difficult for them to overcome. Jane’s struggle to prove her worth to herself as well as those around her is timeless but there are just some aspects of the story and Jane’s reactions for which I just cannot suspend my disbelief. Perhaps my mindset is too twentieth/twenty-first century, but I don’t find Mr. Rochester to be as romantic a lead as he is often made out to be.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

When Catherine Earnshaw’s father brings home Heathcliff, a young orphan he found on his travels, they each found their soul-mate. However, as they grow up and the Lintons move into the neighborhood, Cathy’s ideas of who she is and where Heathcliff fits into her life begin to change. Tragedy strikes not once but twice after the death of Cathy’s parents and the death of her brother’s beloved wife during childbirth. Her brother takes his frustrations out on his infant son and on Heathcliff, doing everything he can to drive Heathcliff and Cathy apart. But Catherine and Heathcliff can’t be apart without bringing down those around them as they strike out at each other in their own pain. Emily’s approach to the novel, narrated by a new comer to the neighborhood years after the driving action, is unexpectedly charming and allows for a greater freedom in exploring the multitude of perspectives in this twisted tale.

Kurt Vonnegut: A writer who had plenty to say

“Who is more to be pitied, a writer bound and gagged by policemen or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?” – Kurt Vonnegut

I’m a fan of The Daily Show and in September 2005, they had a guest who is my favorite to date: Kurt Vonnegut. It’s a fantastic interview that I go back and watch every so often, including four or five times the week he died in 2007, (watch it HERE). In many ways, he was the way I have always imagined Mark Twain would have been if he had been born about a hundred years later.

Vonnegut was one of the greatest satirists with a sense of humor that is hard to find and impossible to replicate. His novels contain a number of my favorites in literature.

Mother Night: My favorite closing line(s). An amazing look at the handling of war crimes justice after World War II, Mother Night is wonderfully poetic in its irony, but in no scene is it more pronounced than the novel’s closing scene.

“Harrison Bergeron”: My favorite short story. There are many great short stories out there and Vonnegut wrote many of my favorites. Welcome to the Monkey House includes most of these stories, including “Harrison Bergeron”, a look at the need to create equality at all costs.

Breakfast of Champions: My favorite instance of playing with narrative perspective and the author. Though Ian McEwan’s Atonement is my favorite examination of perception and perspective, no one plays with them the way Vonnegut does. It’s not something that can easily be explained, but it is amazing to read.

Kilgore Trout: Favorite recurring character. There are writers that generate series around certain characters and then there are writers like Vonnegut. There are few characters in literature like Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout, the science fiction writer who appears in a number of his works including Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse-Five.

Mother Night is my favorite Vonnegut book, and, though I couldn’t think of where in my great list of favorites it fits, Cat’s Cradle comes in at a close second. Oh wait, I thought of one: Favorite “I’ve never thought of it that way before” moment for pointing out the confusion caused in children by naming the game Cat’s Cradle when there are no cats and no cradles involved. It is only the first of many, “I’ve never thought of it that way before” moments that novel and his others possess (and I absolutely love it when books make me do that, make me think about things differently).

The eternal and irrepressible freshness of Edith Wharton

“A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.” – Edith Wharton

Almost everyone I know read Ethan Frome in school, though for some reason my English class was exempt and I read it of my own free will (maybe that’s why I seemed to like it better than everyone else). It wasn’t until I had to read some of her short stories for a lit class in college that I really fell in love with Wharton’s work. Party to an unhappy marriage in the high society of the turn of the century, Wharton’s writing focuses on the roles of men and women in a society where the old definitions of marriage and the interaction between the sexes is shifting. Continue reading

Books Toni Morrison wanted to read so badly, she had to write them

“If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” – Toni Morrison

One of only a handful of Americans ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Toni Morrison has revolutionized the way novels are both written and read. She has never been afraid to tackle issues of race and gender, examining the way that society and the community interact with individuals. Her language is simple yet echoes with the African American oral tradition and she combines the historical and supernatural seamlessly.

I have read all but two of Toni Morrison’s novels and a number of her essays (Love is sitting on my To Read shelf and I’ll probably pick up Tar Baby when I go on my major book spree soon). Some of them I’ve had to read several times for class (Beloved is easily the perennial favorite for lit professors and there is no shortage of critical articles discussing it; I think I wound up using it for about four papers in my college career). They’re all so different, it’s hard to rank them but there are definitely some I preferred to others.

My favorite thing about Morrison is that she always manages to nail the endings. They force the reader to decide what happened, who bears responsibility for what happened, and what happens next. Does Sethe get out of bed? What really happened at the old convent? Does Macon Dead fall or fly?

Beloved: The Nobel Prize winner for 1987, Beloved is dedicated to the sixty million and more who were taken into and lived under slavery. Addressing issues of what it means to be free, what it is to be a mother, and how far is too far before the community should step in and help, Beloved was and still is, groundbreaking. Its cyclical narrative can be confusing for first time readers but each reading is easier than the last. While I understand why it won the Nobel Prize, I don’t think it is necessarily Morrison’s best novel (and it certainly isn’t my favorite). Though the film adaptation wasn’t the best (sorry Oprah), there is an interview with Toni Morrison about Beloved that is fantastic. I must have watched it four times for classes but I could sit and just listen to her speak for hours.

The Bluest Eye: In Morrison’s first novel, she explores the relationship between the African American and White American communities and how it affects the process of growing up in pre-WWII America. Specifically, she looks at definitions of beauty and self-image. The story is heart breaking but one of her best.

Jazz: Often grouped into a trilogy of sorts with Beloved and Paradise, Jazz explores Harlem at the height of jazz. Morrison somehow manages to capture the cadence of jazz music in her prose. The people of the city search to an order from chaos, but do they ever really succeed? Jazz fights with Paradise and A Mercy for my favorite Morrison novel.

A Mercy: Morrison’s latest novel, A Mercy was published in 2008 (it came out during the last few weeks of my Morrison class so we ended up switching it into the syllabus at the last minute). What I like so much about this one is that even though it deals with race and slavery, it looks at the earliest days of slavery when it was determined more by class than by race. It also examines the interaction between the different faiths that made up the early American colonies. It was vastly different from what I’d read by Morrison before and I love that her work continues to evolve.

Paradise: The stories of several women from varying backgrounds who have found one another and created their own peaceful balance living with one another and the town that feels threatened by them are the basis for Paradise. I enjoy examining the way Morrison addresses the relationship between individuals and their communities, and Paradise fits right in with those themes.

Song of Solomon: One of Morrison’s only novels where the central figure is male, Song of Solomon incorporates African American legends with the questions of ancestry for the descendants of freed slaves. I had trouble with the central character of Macon Dead. I didn’t start to care about him or find him really intriguing until the second half of the novel and by then it was almost too late.

Sula: An examination of friendship through the years as well as the role society’s opinions play when making decisions about one’s self and one’s future, Sula takes place in the aftermath of World War I. Sula defies the expectations of her town while her best friend embraces them. The best part of Sula are the vivid characters. The background family characters and townspeople frequently stole the show (at least, in my opinion).

Some quick reasons for approving what we like about Jane Austen

“How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!” – Jane Austen

At a time when most novels were melodramatic and ridiculous, Jane Austen wrote novels that forever changed the idea of what novels should be. Though still frequently marketed to women, anyone can enjoy Austen. Her characters have distinctive personalities. Her plots are not overly complicated. And her writing style is enjoyable and witty, even after almost two hundred years. It also lends itself well to adaptation as evidenced by the many films and numerous remakes of each of the novels.

I have read all of Jane Austen (except some of her juvenilia; I haven’t been able to locate a collection of it that I really liked). I’ve actually read most of it two and three times. Last summer a bunch of friends and I created our own Jane Austen book club and yes, there were even a few males in our group who wound up enjoying Austen’s work more than they anticipated. My final semester before graduation I lucked out when one of the English professors decided to try running a Jane Austen class. Most of our book club turned around and took the class together too.

Since she only completed six novels, it’s easy to say that I recommend them all. But if I had to rank them in some fashion it would have to be as follows:

Persuasion – I love this short novel and the message of hope it carries. The supporting characters are hilarious in their vanity, hypochondria, and smug ambitions. The heroine is Austen’s oldest and it shows that love can be found at any age. It also shows that age and maturity don’t always go hand in hand and that even friends with the best intentions aren’t always right.

Pride and Prejudice – For me it’s pretty much tied with Persuasion and is at the top of most lists for her best novel. The pacing and organization of this novel make it easy to read (over and over again). Containing some of Austen’s most memorable and beloved characters, from Mr. Collins to Mr. Bennet, and of course, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, two of the greatest romantic leads of all time, Pride and Prejudice shows that our first impressions of others aren’t always correct and that our best match might be someone who reveals to us our own short comings.

Northanger Abbey – This novel of Austen’s, though published after her death along with Persuasion, was actually among the first she ever wrote. Critics love the way that Austen pokes fun at the typical novels of her time for their melodrama and fancy but also criticize the way the second half seems to fall into some of those same patterns. Many find Catherine Morland unbelievable or silly but I love her blind naivety and find it charming. She’s one of my favorite heroines. If read lightheartedly instead of seriously, Northanger Abbey can easily be a favorite.

Sense and Sensibility – It’s only down this far because of how much I love the others. I don’t care as much for the supporting characters, but the main Dashwood sisters and their struggles are just as engaging as those of Austen’s other heroines.

Emma – Though it’s a favorite for many, it isn’t for me. I liked it better the second time I read it, but Emma is a character who grates on my nerves. And then there’s the ick factor. I’ve been in many debates about the Knightley/Emma pairing and though valid points are made, it still doesn’t work for me. I’m a great fan of Jane Fairfax’s character, though. Trying to figure out what the story would be like if we had a glimpse into her mind is my favorite part.

Mansfield Park – I’m not sure what Austen was trying to do with this novel and I don’t think I’ll understand it no matter how many times I read it. I just can’t stand Fanny Price and it isn’t because she’s judgmental or a push over or anything like that. She just doesn’t do anything (and I know there are those who defend her by saying that she’s acting through her inaction but it doesn’t make it any more interesting to me). There’s so much build up to events that fail to happen, which is fine here and there but the repetition of it gets old fast.

As far as I’m concerned, each of the novels ends on its last page. The sequels and alternate versions of events that seem to be taking over the shelves are the work of pretenders who need to have more confidence in their own writing and ideas. Post them online as fanfiction where they belong but please, stop trying to profit from someone else’s characters and stories. I don’t see how it’s any different than if someone tried to publish their own 8th Harry Potter