Nushell-Ian McEwan

HERE I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting and wondering who I’m in what I’m in for.”

The narrator of the story abruptly and charmingly introduces himself to the startled reader. The first page of the book is as startling and as inspired as any of McEwan’s book. It is an invitation, a brazen plot, to the reader to journey with author into an altered realm. The narrator of the story is a foetus, a conceited and wily unborn boy, and the beginning of his unconsciousness is marked by the ultimate nightmare-overhearing a plot to kill his father.

I listen, make mental notes, and I ‘m troubled. I’m hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I’m terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in.”

One can’t help but love this unborn hero whose character integrates wit and will. He tells his dark tale with great intensity and style. Like a sentinel in his mother’s womb, he keenly observes the criminal lust of his mother and uncle to the end. He’s determined to foil the plot, and if not, to avenge it.

Nutshell is another little gem-an excellent novel that should be celebrated almost equally with Atonement, The Children Act as one of Ian McEwan’s strongest works of fiction. The novel is a fascinating story of man’s villainy in-as-much as can be said of Shakespeare’s tragedies: Hamlet (the inspiration for this novel), Othello and Macbeth. The author’s light falls on three characters: the pregnant Trudy, her lover and brother-in-law Claude, and the unborn narrator of the story. The fourth , John, hovers on the margins, like Hamlet’s father.

While the narrator “floated dreamily in the bubble” of maternal confinement waiting to be born, his ears “pressed all day and night against the bloody walls” of his mother’s womb, the narrator overhears his mother’s and uncle’s deadly scheme to kill his father, John. Nothing fascinates a reader more than an alternative reality to the accounts of human nature. There are a few writers I have come across who have successfully pulled off such creative feats. Toni Morrison’s Beloved comes to mind, and so does Ben Okri’s The Famished Road. Shakespeare’s (the supreme dramatist of all time) Hamlet, transcends genius.

From the outset, the narrator’s hatred towards his uncle is undisguised: “Who is this Claude, this fraud who’s wormed in between my family and my hopes?……His existence denies my rightful claims to a happy life in the care of both parents. Unless I devise a plan. He has entranced my mother and banished my father. His interests can’t be mine. He’ll crush me. Unless, unless, unless…”

Claude has no qualms in not only stealing his brother’s wife but in permanently removing him as well.

The narrator’s ambivalence towards his mother is palpable: “I try to see her as she is, the gravidly ripe twenty-eight- year old, youngly slumpled across the table,….blonde and braided like a Saxon warrior, beautiful beyond realism’s reach,…..I try to see her and love her as I must, then imagine her burdens: the villain she’s taken for a lover, the saint she’ leaving behind, the deed she’s spoken for, the darling child she’ll abandon to strangers; Still lover her? If not, then you never did. But I did, I did. I do.”

But, Trudy, is no innocent victim. Her surrender to the wiles of Claude is calculated, and what binds them is not love but greed. Trudy is a deadly miscreant and the villain of the story, like the character, Zenia, in Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. Like Zenia, she is a Jezebel, an Iago on stilettos-an abomination whose betrayal of her husband, her marriage and her son is unforgivable.

The narrator is devoted his father even though his disdain for him as a weakling complicit in his own annihilation is apparent. He describes his father as a psoriatic poet without recognition, his work outdated and stiffly formal, and remains moonishly in-love with his devious and cruel wife. He can’t understand why his father allows his wife to eject him out of his childhood home.

Nutshell is the highest form of literary pleasure with every scene skilfully choreographed and every sentence beautifully crafted. The novel is beguiling at the beginning, thrillingly dark in the middle, and very strong at the end. McEwan, a writer undoubtedly at the very top of his game, is no moralist and adroitly depicts the challenges of life in all their configurations.

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    THE BUSINESS OF HEALTHCARE-Managing your Private Practice: Dr Hlombe Makuluma

    B1In the Garden of Eden, during the fall of man, God asked Adam: “Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” Adam answered by blaming his wife, Eve. And when God asked the woman: “What is this that you have done?” Eve responded by blaming the serpent. Man’s inability to take responsibility for his wrongs, it seems, was embedded in his genetic makeup from the beginning of time.

    In my twenty-five years in private practice, there has been plenty of serpents to blame for my personal and business woes. I was never short of excuses for my failures, shielding myself in the process from my inadequacies. I had also witnessed dozens of colleagues abandoning the medical profession, driven to other fields, and hiding behind similar excuses to mine for their failure.

    Some had gone on to thrive in their newly found occupations, but for others, disappointment stalked the rest of their professional lives. For the latter, I am certain no other question tormented them more than: What does it take to win? What does it take to get things right in their floundering medical practises?

    Winning in business is a seminal objective since the success extends beyond the individual. Not only do our health practises prosper but also our families, children and marriages win. Winning at work can lead to being a champion at home. If for anything else then, that is why the message contained in Dr. Makuluma’s compelling and riveting book is vital. Inspired by his own experience, and profoundly stirred by the doom he witnessed in private practice, the author’s sublime ‘project’ reminds us that success, and indeed failure in health care practice, is often not by accident.

    Success, he tells us, is a choice. When we run a race, we should do so with the mind of a champion: and that is do so with a plan to win and not surrender to the myriad business setbacks endemic in the medical profession. In “The Business of Health Care” Dr. Makuluma gives us his blueprint -a strategy which when properly executed would eliminate flaws in private health practice, unravel the mystery behind success, and lead to victory.

    The genius of his plan is the sheer simplicity of its precepts. The author readily confronts the complexities of running a medical practice with carefully thought out principles, and with also simple but deliberate language. From the outset, he jolts the reader with invaluable advice: The key to successfully operate a health practice is to be financially literate. This is the “basic formula”, he writes, for operating any business. On the surface this observation is obvious, and yet it remains the cardinal reason for the failure of many health practises.

    It has also been stated repeatedly in several different ways throughout the ages. “A fool and his money are soon parted”: goes the old adage. “The men who can manage men manage the men who can manage things, and the men who can manage money, manage all.” _Will and Ariel Durant, The Lesson of History.

    In my practice, I never saw my role extending beyond my skills as a surgeon. My energies were continually sapped by upskilling my surgical skills. My relationship with my practice as a business, was at best lukewarm. I had, more than most, put in the long hours at work, but I had failed to grasp the very simple notion that I was a ‘health practitioner running a business,’ as the author so aptly and eloquently puts it.

    As with the unprofitable servant in the biblical parable of talents, my thoughts on money were restricted to the fear of losing it, than in making it. When it came to wealth, and its creation, my mind mostly saw limitations rather than possibilities. Hardship was consequently the fingerprint of my practice, and financial ignorance was engraved in its soul. My professional life was a narrative of unfulfilled dreams.

    The Business of Health Care is the strategic omnibus that will undoubtedly carry the modern medical practitioners into the future. It is a well-written and well-researched book, and is destined to be the bible for all doctors going into private practice.
    In it, Dr. Makuluma, takes us by the hand and offers the treasures and tools of running a successful practise in the twenty-first century. The author’s ‘project’ is a priceless gift to health practitioners. It is an august framework for success, underpinned by the supremacy of design. Dr Makuluma provides the implements not just to manage a business, but also to manage life.

    After reading the book, it is as if one has suddenly woken up from a nightmare. It is difficult to suppress the indignation at the harm which ignorance has wrought upon our venerable profession. But, now doubt has been supplanted with optimism. One now approaches every day at work, and every challenge, with renewed hopes and sense of purpose.

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      THE GREAT GATSBY-F. SCOTT FITZGERALD

      Deliberate Concealment - Mtutuzeli NyokaThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is an extraordinary novel on many levels. The writer magnificently draws a portrait of America in the 20s-an era of unprecedented prosperity that transformed and even disfigured the country. It was the Jazz Age,-a world of the beautiful and the damned. It was an epoch of bright lights, idleness, self indulgence, dreams, boom and doom. Unrestrained materialism expanded moral boundaries, trampled on values, and shaped the aspirations of an entire nation.

      Nick Carraway, the narrator of the story, was seduced by this lifestyle and mesmerized by its personalities. Jay Gatsby, his rich neighbour, idolized wealth and threw wild parties. There was music from his house through the summer nights.

      In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars…..On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains….At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough colored lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby’s enormous garden…By seven o’clock the orchestra has arrived, no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and low and high drums.”

      Affluence was the fingerprint of America in the 1920s, and decadent young love was engraved in its soul. Other than his lavish parties, Jay Gatsby remained a character of many enigmas. His real identity and origins were a mystery, and his trade a matter of whispered speculation. While some saw genius in him, others suspected menace and even madness. His greed and ambition were, however, profoundly stirred by the mood of the time. His only creed and religion, like many in his small and closeted society, was money

      Across the bay from Nick’s house lived Daisy Buchanan and her rich husband, Tom. Nick learns that his new friend Jay Gatsby once knew Daisy and was still enamored of her. His lavish parties were an attempt to impress her. Gatsby asks Nick to arrange a meeting between him and Daisy. The pair soon meet, and with their old love rekindled they begin a passionate affair. Tom Buchanan discovers his wife’s affair with Gatsby and is indignant though he also has an affair with a Myrtle Wilson. Illicit romantic entanglements defined the lives of the rich.

      From here, the author delightfully provides an astonishing account of doomed love. The reader observes the destruction of Gatsby’s life. On a drive back home to Long Island from the city, Nick, his girlfriend, Jordan, and Tom discover that Gatsby’s car has struck and killed Myrtle Wilson, Tom’s lover. Nick later learns from Gatsby that Daisy was driving when the car hit Myrtle, but Gatsby intends to take the blame.

      The reader asks himself at this point of Jay Gatsby: ‘How do I describe thee? Was he stricken by obsessive behaviour? What kind of man would take responsibility for a crime that he didn’t commit? The night of the accident, floating in air of melancholy, Gatsby spent the evening crouched outside Daisy’s house, worried sick about her. A sort of madness had, it seemed, seized up on him. He didn’t seem at all concerned about Myrtle Wilson’s fate.

      Tom, wilfully tells Myrtle’s husband, George, that Gatsby was the driver of the car that killed his wife. He might as well had driven the dagger into Gatsby’s heart because George believed that the driver of the car must have been the lover of his unfaithful wife. He finds Gatsby swimming in the pool of his mansion, shoots him, and then takes his life. Somehow, I don’t think Gatsby would have lamented his death since in his love-sick mind, he had sacrificed himself for someone he dearly loved.

      While many of Gatsby’s friends stayed away after his death, his father, the man Gatsby never once publicly acknowledged, appears. The funeral was a modest affair compared to his wild parties. There were three cars- the first a motor hearse, followed by the limousine with his father, the minister, and Nick Carraway in it, and in the third car, there were only three servants and the postman.

      Daisy Buchanan, the first “nice girl” that Jay Gatsby ever knew, never showed up. She had already withdrawn into her appalingly artificial, superficial, and selfish world….“redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery and orchestras…” To compare Gatsby and Daisy’s romance to that of Romeo and Juliet would be an insult to love. Will anything good happen to Tom and Daisy Buchanan? The reader can only wish them a sea of troubles, for they are the epitome of villainy.

      The Great Gatsby is a beautifully written tragedy-a narrative of mad ambitions and unfulfilled dreams. Fitzgerald’s book provides a window into a world where there are no heroes, little or no honor, decency or loyalty. In many ways, this novel is a scathing indictment, and even a prophesy of the self-destruction, of that world.

       

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        THE FRENCH LIEUTENANTS’ WOMAN-Review (John Fowles)

        Deliberate Concealment - Mtutuzeli NyokaIt is Harold Pinter’s brilliant movie that led me to read The French Lieutenants’ Woman. The haunting image of the motionless and mythical figure clad in black, staring out to sea at the edge of The Cobb, sets the scene for an uncannily beautiful movie.

        I first read the book in 1981. The copy was old, from the local book exchange, with its cover torn. I was twenty-one, a medical student, and I had not read much contemporary literature. In a most masterful fashion, the author transports us into the nineteenth-century-an era I knew little about. The reader is allowed to listen in, to a wide range of discourse among the story’s unforgettable characters-the well born as well as the plebs.

        What then follows is an intriguing, philosophical and even humorous narrative. It is thick with mystery and full of memorable words and verse.

        But where the telescopist would have been at sea himself was with the other figure on that sombre, curving mole. It stood right at the seawardmost end, apparently leaning against an old cannon-barrel up-ended as a bollard. It clothes were black. The wind moved them, but the figure stood motionless, staring or to sea, more like a living memorial to the drowned, a figure from myth, than any proper fragment of the petty provincial day.”

        Watching the “forlorn” figure, Sarah Woodruff, clad in black, are the doomed lovers: Charles Smithson, one of London’s most handsome and eligible bachelors, and his fiancée, Ernestina Freeman. Sarah is an enigmatic character believed to be mad and ostracized because of her affair with a French officer, who later abandoned her. But, when Charles first laid eyes on her , there was to him no madness in her face: no mask and no hysteria. If there was any madness, it was in society for its lack of empathy for the woman’s sorrow.

        Even as Sarah turned to look at him: “it was not so much what was positively in that face which remained with him after that first meeting, but all that was not as he had expected; for theirs was an age when the favoured feminine look was the demure, the obedient, the shy.”

        Even though Sarah’slook” lasted for no more than a few seconds, it lit a fire in Charles, leading to his rejection of values that were the foundation of his Victorian society. Like the Ryabovich, in Chekov’s story “The Kiss”, driven to despair by a kiss from a strange woman, the “look” from Sarah causes Charles mad exultation. It is the most pivotal moment in the book. The woman’s “look” destroys Charles. He loses control, and an obsession for Sarah takes over his heart.

        The book is mainly about the apocalyptic convergence of their paths. One day, like a docile poodle, Charles follows Sarah into the woods:

        I have come because I have satisfied myself that you do indeed need help. And although I still don’t understand why you should have honoured me by interesting me in your…” he faltered here, for he was about to say “case”, which would have betrayed that he was playing doctor as well as the gentleman: “……I have come prepared to listen to what you wished me to hear.”

        I know a secluded place nearby. May we go there?” she said.

        In an act of idiocy, Charles throws in his lot with her. From the beginning of the book, the reader can almost smell the fate awaiting him. We accompany Charles in his doomed journey, with sadness and pity. We ask ourselves: why does a man forsake his standing for a woman he hardly knows. Perhaps there was a part of his fickle soul that he would not allow society to rule over. For Sarah, Charles was the dupe of all ages, a tool to be used to stick a dagger, metaphorically, into the very heart of high society.

        The French Lieutenant’s Woman, a book with two endings, is a charming tale and is meticulously written. John Fowles peoples his story with many interesting characters. The reader is equally captivated by the book’s beginning as well the end. The writer is very much the craftsman, with almost every sentence perfect.

        Over a half century after its first publication, its theme is still fresh since modern societies still retain the two-fold paradigm of the rich, destined to a life of priviledge, and the wretched fate of the poor. Strangely, many of our lives have a presence in the book, evoked less literally than philosophically. A novel that in my youth felt so foreign contained a chart of my future and the reckless decisions I was to make with my life.

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          The Hunchback of Notre Dame-Victor Hugo

           

          177“Without a doubt the Cathedral of Notre-Dame is, even today a majestic and sublime edifice. Though it has preserved a noble mien in aging, it is difficult to suppress the feeling of sorrow and indignation at the countless injuries and mutilation which time and man have wrought upon this venerable monument between the time of Charlemagne, who laid its first stone, and that of Philip-Augustus, who laid its last.”

          This Victor Hugo classic is set in ancient Paris, and it is an ode to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. Much as most of the characters in the book have a tragic fate, it is at the cathedral that the author mostly wants us to gaze with “reverent admiration”-an edifice where “everything had its place in that self-created, logical, well-proportioned art. By measuring the toe, we estimate the giant.”

          There are three main characters in the story. The first is Claude Frollo, a scion of a middle-class Parisian family. As a boy, Frollo was reserved, bright and by nature melancholy. His parents had destined him for priesthood, “and at sixteen was a match for a father of the Church in mystical law.” His thirst for knowledge drove him to the study of canon and civil law, liberal arts and medicine. He later thoroughly digested the science of herbs and studied languages. All this learning gained him a reputation so great for one so young.

          After his parents had died, fate prematurely bestowed on him the duty of looking after his younger brother Jehan. For someone who spent most of his young life pinioned to books, his devotion to his younger brother was his first human affection. This infant brother ‘who had dropped from heaven into his arms,’ made a new man of him. He discovered that there was much more to life than the poetry of Homer and the mysteries of science. He discovered the necessity of affection. He threw himself therefore at the care of his brother, showing him all the love he could.

          At the age of twenty, Frollo was ordained a priest. It was at this time that he found Quasimodo, a deformed infant and the other major character in the book, abandoned outside the door of the church. When Claude Frollo pulled the sack covering the child, he found himself looking at a monster: “the head pushed down between the shoulders, the spine curved, the breastbone protruding, the legs bowed.” The child’s ugliness inexplicably heightened the priest’s compassion.

          Frollo adopted the child, baptized him and raised him as his own. When frightened dogs barked at him, it was between the legs of the Claude Frollo that Quasimodo sought refuge. The priest also taught him to speak, read and write. Quasimodo was, therefore, grateful to the priest but the relationship between them was no better than that of a master and his dog.

          Quasimodo grew up to be the bellringer of Notre Dame. Cut off from society by the double tragedy of deformity and orphanhood, the Cathedral of Notre Dame became his prison and his universe. Like a reptile, he could be seen all day crawling along the arches and corners of the church. The latter had no height he could not scale and no depth he could not plumb.

          But, what mostly gave him joy, and seemed to arouse his soul the most, was ringing the bells of the Notre Dame. Though their noise turned him deaf, he loved them, talked to them, danced to the frenzy of their sound, and caressed them as one human would another. The third major character is the dancing gypsy, La Esmeralda, with beauty so rare and incomparable ‘that she seemed to diffuse a light all of her own.’

          Victor Hugo eloquently takes us on a tour of ancient Paris. While it is the doomed relationships between these three that he narrates with skill and humor, it is the spectacle of the Cathedral of Notre Dame that his literary torch shines on. Even though the main protagonists lives are replete with events, the reader gets the impression that the author sees nothing remarkable or memorable about them.

          In the story, the citizens of Paris seemed to be dancing their way across the stage of their doomed lives in a predictable fashion. They have do-nothing kings, happy bourgeois, dungeons and the scaffold for the both the innocent and the guilty, and the merry, noisy, naïve, haggard and filthy masses. Human life is portrayed in the book as a sad spectacle without charm.

          But not so with the cathedral, ‘it was a vast symphony in stone,’ the author writes, ‘the colossal work of a man and of a nation, a unified complex ensemble, like the Iliads and the Romanceros, to which it is a sister production.’ Its facades, its chiseled arches, its steps, its steeples, its pillars, its statues, its chubby cherubims, its art, its windows are so intricately and elaborately depicted. Their beauty seemingly juxtaposed to the ugliness of human life.

          There is a lament in the author’s voice about the changes and mutilations that humanity has wrought on this imposing edifice, but no such sentiment is displayed for the wretchedness of the lives of fellow humans. It is as if the appalling and endless carnage of human life is told merely to show, if not accentuate, the beauty of the cathedral. The reader gets the impression that the author had given up on humanity, rejected and rebelled against the fierceness of the world, and hid in his hovel-art.

          The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an excellent historical novel and a grand sojourn of old Paris. Its depiction of place and person is symphonic and skillful. Its narrative, with strong political, social and even religious themes, soars to the end. The book is a classic that deserves to be read and re-read.

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            BELOVED-TONI MORRISON

            Book Extracts - Mtutuzeli NyokaIn this Toni Morrison’s 1987 masterpiece, Beloved, a runaway slave, Sethe, with her capture imminent, kills her infant child rather than have her taken into bondage. What kind of mother would cut her daughter’s head off with a hacksaw? This is what Toni Morrison explores in this chilling and the brilliantly written book which is inspired by real life events.

            ”I was amazed by this story I came across about a woman called Margaret Garner who had escaped from Kentucky, I think, into Cincinnati with four children,” Ms. Morrison said. ”And she was a kind of cause celebre in the fight against the Fugitive Slave laws, which mandated the return of escapees to their owners,” Morrison writes. “She killed one of them, just as in the novel. I found an article in a magazine of the period, and there was this young woman in her 20’s, being interviewed – oh, a lot of people interviewed her, mostly preachers and journalists, and she was very calm, she was very serene. They kept remarking on the fact that she was not frothing at the mouth; she was not a madwoman, and she kept saying, ‘No, they’re not going to live like that. They will not live the way I have lived.”

            Beloved, like so many great novels, is not easy to sum up. So nuanced is its view of life and human beings, and so rich and profound is its intention.

            Frontally, Beloved is the story of Sethe and her daughter, Beloved. Sethe is an escaped slave and mother of four young children. Her joy at successfully escaping while pregnant, giving birth in flight, and finding refuge at her mother-in-law’s, Baby Suggs, home comes to an end twenty-eight days later. Her cruel owner has tracked her down, and rather than let her children suffer the pain of slavery Sethe proceeds to kill them. For killing her third child, Sethe spends time in jail. She is later freed and returns to her mother-in-law’s house-number 124. It has now become a haunted house-full of the dead baby’s venom.’

            After all the misery of her life, Sethe, now a free woman returns to a house of shattering mirrors, turned up slop jars, and smacks on the behind. Hers became a life suspended between the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead. It doesn’t take long for her sons, Howard and Buglar to turn their backs on 124, and flee from the ghost’s invisible spite. Even Baby Suggs soon dies in the midst of the outrageous behaviour of the baby ghost.

            Enter Paul D, one of the ”Sweet Home men”, the male slaves, from Sethe’s past. Their owner, Mr. Garner, treated them well. But, he later dies, and his sickly widow, Mrs. Garner, brings in her relative, who is known as ”the schoolteacher.” The latter’s cruelty and sadism defy all description. He also had two repulsive nephews. Sweet Home soon becomes Hell on earth, and most of the slaves, including Sethe, flee. Halle, her husband, doesn’t. But, Paul D. does. Eighteen years after fleeing from Sweet Home, they meet again, as Paul D arrives in house 124, despairing and with his spirit broken from his travails.

            Paul D and Sethe try to form a ”real” family, and the baby ghost is driven out by Paul D. For a while some domestic equilibrium is established. But, then, a strange, beautiful, real flesh-and-blood young woman arrives at 124. She is about 20 years old, the same age as Sethe’s dead daughter would be.

            The young woman doesn’t remember where she comes from, takes an intense interest in Sethe, and says her name is Beloved. It is as if the dead child has been resurrected, determined to make Sethe pay for having taken her life.

            The book then fluctuates between the present and the past, and through different voices the sordid past of America is narrated. The novel is a harsh dissection of slavery, and it abounds with suffering and loss. Many of its characters are either captives or fugitives from captivity. The characters in Beloved are all stained by the inhuman and predatory culture that prevailed at the time.

            There is also a strong theme of the supernatural. Beloved is an intriguing character, and through her we learn about Sethe-her childhood, her adolescence and Sethe as a mother. The discourse and interactions between a mother and her ghost-child are told with great skill. Despite her tormented life, Sethe’s love for her children is immoderate. She lives in a community where there is loyalty among friends, and the poor share the little they have.

            One of the things that make Beloved the supreme novel it is about history, humanity’s excesses and survival is Toni Morrison’s virtuosity-delivered with intellect and imagination that is unmatchable. The canvas the author paints on is vast, and yet she is able to bring to life characters in a world that is both real and magical. Even the most gruesome aspects of the story, strangely, are delivered with humour.

            For all its literary beauty, Beloved remains a novel against injustice and the erasure of memories. The women are the primary symbol of that protest and fight against the trivialization of human life. Beloved is a gem and a treasure to be savoured, read and re-read.

             

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              SONG OF SOLOMON-TONI MORRISON

              Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison is a song for the ages. This is the first Toni Morrison book that I discovered, and for over two decades I have repeatedly gone back to it. It is has cast a magical spell on me since, and has been my best introduction to modern works of literature. Its narrative never ceases to invigorate and enthral. The language is rich, apt, deliberate, uninhibited, and beguiling

              The novel is a reflection on family, community and nationhood. It is about the torment of dispossession, power without bounds, and the ugly face of bigotry. It is also about survival, about human resilience and the indestructible quest for identity. The narrative is carefully crafted and wonderfully lyrical-a song with almost no equal

              We journey with the story’s main protagonist, Macon (Milkman) Dead Jr, from birth, through the vacuous, stultifying, and even lurid terrain of his adolescent life. We finally witness his life-and-death encounter with a world, a repellant landscape, which sought to drown him when he desired was to find purpose to his life. His history, his metamorphosis and his flight are the foundations of the song.

              Milkman is the son of Macon Dead Sr,-a rapacious, irascible, but successful entrepreneur. The father suffocates and poisons his family, and his son, with his rage, his contempt, and his disappointments. His tormented spirit becomes the swamp in which the Dead family daily wades in. His success is no balm to his bitterness. His wife, Ruth (Forster) Dead, the main object of his outrage is reduced to a pathetic creature that exists only in the shadows-daily reproached, maligned, despised, and humiliated by the husband that she loves.

              His daughters’ Magdalena Dead and First Corinthians Dead shrivel from the isolation that their closeted life bestows upon them. Their father’s wealth, stained with his scorn and pomposity, begets them a life of loneliness and disappointment. Their friends are scared even to touch their silk stockings and expensive dresses. Like their mother, Ruth, their souls are emptied of all emotion-rendering them incapable of loving or being loved. They are frustrated and querulous spinsters whose fury for their father rages like a flooded river. Their contempt for their selfish brother, Milkman, is irrepressible.

              You’ve have been laughing at us all your life, Corinthians. Mama. Me. Using us, ordering us, and judging us: How we cook your food; how we keep your house. ….Who are you to approve or disapprove anybody or anything?….When you wanted to play we entertained you, and when you got grown enough to know the difference between a woman and a tow-toned Ford, everything in this house stopped for you.’

              The world that Toni Morrison describes is grim. In Dante’s Inferno the gates of Hell are flung open, and in Song of Solomon the reader is immersed in a world that has a disturbing odour of slavery, with depravity hovering menacingly in the background. It is a pernicious domain that produced men and women whose souls were deformed by loss and suffering. Milkman Dead’s narcissism is juxtaposed to the nihilism of his friend Guitar.

              Guitar responds to the mayhem around him with rage. Throughout the book he sizzles, like a piece of bacon burning in its own fat. It is with violence that he tries to reclaim his own freedom. Guitar possesses all the destructive sentiments that an organically dysfunctional society imposes on its denizens. However, Milkman, in order to go beyond his father’s drive for more wealth embarks on an odyssey to his ancestral home of Shalimar. It is the discovery of these roots that finally leads him to discover his inner self.

              Professor Morrison once again raises the bar very high with this novel. The reader is enchanted by the story’s characters, and is besotted even with the minor ones. There are long passages of dialogue in the vernacular unique to the epoch and people she describes, and it is mostly written with simple and yet jarring language. This book is a portrait of the world, a time which may be hidden but not forgotten, through her gaze-and that of her clan.

              Song of Solomon is a work of extra-ordinary beauty and integrity…a true masterpiece.

               

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                GOD HELP THE CHILD-TONI MORRISON

                B1This book is another insightful Toni Morrison masterpiece. From the beginning, the reader is entranced by the narrative. The novel is a symphony, a poem and a thesis wrapped in one. It is a book about lives-young lives-and the chaotic and painful history behind them. It is about dislocation, torment, and mending-about endings and beginnings. Once gain the terrain of Professor Morrison’s story is strewn with the bodies of children.

                God Help The Child, is about two young beings wading through the swamp of their childhood misadventures. Lula Ann Bridewell, the main protagonist, was an unlovable child to her mother, Sweetness, because of how dark she was. Midnight Black, Sudanese Black, is how the mother saw her. Sweetness was so enraged at her daughter’s color that once she held a blanket over her face and pressed. She even thought of giving her away to an orphanage.

                Sweetness’s obsession with color was brought about by the world around her. In it color accorded one respect, priviledge and bestowed a decent life. The darker one’s skin, the grimmer and bleaker the canvas of one’s life. Their color is like an affliction they have to suffer and humiliation stalks them like an implacable enemy.

                Even Lula Ann’s father, Louis, could not bring himself to love his Tar black child. He never even touched her. “We had three good years,” Sweetness tells us, “but when she was born, he blamed me and treated Lula Ann like she was a stranger, more than that, an enemy.” When his wife told Louis that the child’s blackness must be from his side of the family, he left.

                But, Lula Ann Bridewell grew up to be a beautiful woman and a senior executive at a cosmetics company. Toni Morrison gives us a heroine who attains beauty and success in spite of her appearance (in the same way the author did in her field). Her complexion, the source of her parents’ shame, was the foundation of her success.

                The kindest meaning of her name Lula is the Arabic definition which means a pearl. And what a beautiful gem she became, with beauty that turned heads wherever she went. She recovers her life by shedding her name-she jettisons the Lula Ann, and only becomes Bride. Years later her boyfriend, Booker-another victim of a tormented childhood, walks out on her. An old wound was cut open. She had consummately dealt with her family’ rejection, but Booker’s flight from her life almost drove her mad.

                Like the jilted Florentina Ariza in Marquez’s Love in the time of Cholera, she embarks on random relationships. Bride eventually sets out to find Booker in a pilgrimage that takes her to the woods of northern California. The reader never quite knows where reality ends and fantasy begins in Bride’s travels. Her body is changing in ways only she can see, shrinking and becoming hairless as if she is regressing back to girlhood.

                Booker doesn’t fare well in his life. The loss and pain of his childhood continue to stalk him. In rejecting Bride, he is escaping from the demons that drove him away from home. As in Songs of Solomon, escape is a major theme in the book. Perhaps this is flight, not the geographical type as the author states, but flight from the wounding of their childhood-an odyssey of the soul.

                The book has a beautiful end with the two lovers surrendering to each other-not without Bride breaking a bottle on Booker’s head. One wonders as they sail away if the two young lovers will indeed find the happiness that had eluded them all their lives. At the end of the Marquez’s Love in the time of Cholera, as the boat reaches its final destination, Fermina Daza sees people she knows and understandably seeks to avoid them. One hopes that Morrison’s maimed lovers will not cling to their past hurt and sorrow, or rewrite the old painful themes of their lives. One hopes that the presence of one in the other’s life will cause them to find joy, and release them from the choke hold of childhood misery.

                There are ancillary characters that help move the story along and even give it strength. There is Sofia Huxley, the white teacher that Bride as a schoolgirl accused of molestation. There is Brooklyn, her assistant, and friend, also reeling from the travails of a difficult childhood. But, at the very heart of the story is Lula Ann Bridewell-the little hurt black girl who made good.

                God Help the Child is a magnificent achievement by Toni Morrison. It is a compelling narrative that elegantly delves beyond superficial emotions and deftly describes the horror that adults wreak on children. It’s about their struggles, conflicts, and in the God Help the Child, their survival.

                This novel is an incredible celebration of literature- a gem that will be read and re-read for many years. Professor Toni Morrison has to be one of the most important writers of the last century.

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