Some Thoughts on Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1983)

To be frank, this is a difficult post as I really struggled to finish this book. A few years ago I have read some books by Alice Walker. One of them was Possessing the Secret of Joy. The book tells Tashi’s story. Tashi is an Olinka woman – a people invented by Alice Walker – who has to undergo circumcision. I remember that I thought it was well done and a very important book. I didn’t know that Tashi already plays a role in The Color Purple. I think The Color Purple also contains a lot of topics that are still important today but it is a book I should have read as a teenager. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the first books my mother read to me when I was a child, it made a big impression. If there wasn’t such a lot of violence and some explicit sex in The Color Purple it would be great for children as well. I’m too familiar with the topics by now to care much for the educational intention behind the story and the narrative voice – a childlike voice narrating the story in form of letters addressed to God and later letters addressed to a distant sister – annoyed me a lot. After a hundred pages I could hardly bear to go on reading. Still, as I said, the topics are important and some elements were interesting.

The most important topics are sexism and racism. Cultural heritage and religion. Slavery and freedom. Self-esteem and lack of confidence. Each character embodies one or more topics but with the exception of one of the central characters Shug Avery, the Blues singer and lover of Celie and Celie’s husband, all the characters undergo a journey from a fractured self to a complete self. Only Shug is fully herself from the beginning of the novel until the end and as such functions like a catalyst. She is also the only one who has the “true religion” or rather spirituality. A religion free of false patriarchal images, a religion which celebrates life and God in everything and everyone. This aspect of the novel is interesting and was glad to finally find out what the title of the novel means.

Listen, God love everything you love – and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.

You sayin God vain? I ast.

Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.

Well, us talk and talk bout God, but I’m still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from) Not the little wildflowers. Nothing.

Towards the middle of the novel, Celie discovers that her long-lost sister Nettie has been writing to her ever since she left. Her letters form an important part and if they hadn’t been so wordy they would have been a relief as they are not written in spoken language. Nettie’s letters give another dimension and add the topic of Africa to the novel. I’m surprised that there haven’t been a lot of critical voices mentioning the depiction of Africa in the book. Nettie goes to Africa as a missionary and describes in great detail the poverty and illnesses, the illiteracy, the patriarchal society which forces girls to undergo the painful and dangerous circumcision. What I found amazing is that Nettie sees a direct link between the fact that many African people have sold other Africans to whites as slaves and their poverty and illnesses.

Although Africans once had a better civilization than the European (though of course even the English do not say this: I get this from reading a man named J. A. Rogers) for several centuries they have fallen on hard times. “Hard times “is a phrase the English love to use, when speaking of Africa. And it is easy to forget that Africa’s “hard times” were made harder by them. Millions and millions of Africans were captured or sold into slavery- you and me, Celie! And whole cities were destroyed by slave catching wars. Today the people of Africa-having murdered or sold into slavery their strongest folks-are riddled by disease and sunk in spiritual and physical confusion. They believe in the devil and worship the dead. Nor can they read or write.

I can’t help it but this passage shocks me. Africa has no homogenous population. It hasn’t and has never had. Africa has always consisted of extremely diverse peoples, with different cultural backgrounds, social systems, governments, religions, etc. From the highly elaborate kingdoms to the hunter gatherer societies there was everything before the white people even arrived. The way this is treated in the book or in this passage makes it sound as if there was such a thing as THE African while there were and are so many different people. While, yes, certain African people were actively selling other Africans – mostly the coastal people sold those from inside the country, the lesser developed people – and without the assistance of Africans slavery wouldn’t have been possible, not everyone has partaken in this. This is simplifying and distorting history. The end of the big cities was brought upon them by the whites. As developed as Africa was, in art and culture, they had no pistols or guns or any such weapons and were brought down relatively easily by a small number of white traders and explorers.

All in all, as I mentioned before, the narrative voice annoyed me. It was very repetitive. I also thought there was much too much in this book. Celie’s and Shug’s story would have been sufficient. There was no need to add a sister who travels to Africa as a missionary. It’s as if she had wanted to touch upon each and every subject related to or important in the life and history of Afro-American women. It may be mean to say so but I don’t think this would received a Pulitzer if it had been published now and not 30 years ago.

As I wanted to read more African – American authors this year, I’m glad I’ve read it but I’m sure, I’ll pick Zora Neale Hurston or one of the novels by Toni Morrison I haven’t read yet, next.

I have read The Color Purple for the readalong hosted by Bettina (Liburuak). If you’d like to read other’s impressions here are the links.

Let me end this post on a provocative note and add a question for the readalong participants or anyone who has read the book.

After having read The Color Purple, do you really consider this to be a classic or is it not rather just a very famous book?

Katie Ward’s Girl Reading Readalong June 25 2012

A while back Rikki (Rikki’s Teleidoscope) and I have decided to read Katie Ward’s Girl Reading together. I discovered the book on Danielle’s blog. It was one of those posts that made me want to get the book and read it immediately. I added the blurb but Danielle’s wonderful review (here) will give you a much better idea.

A real wow of a first novel. The premise is alarmingly simple and yet somehow stunning: seven portraits, seven artists, seven girls and women reading . . . A wonderful, imaginative evocation of seven different worlds . . . It’s very rare for a novel to have a real freshness and originality but at the same time to evoke echoes of other literary memories. This feels incredibly clever. It’s a book packed full of adventures and stories and you completely lose yourself in them . . . This book’s great strength: the perfect, separate, involving worlds it creates. Like Mitchell, Ward is equally adept at shifting between completely different registers and voices . . .

What the blurb doesn’t say is that each episode captures another era and according to Danielle’s review some of them are done remarkably well.

If you have enjoyed Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue, you might like this as well.

It would be great if you would consider joining us in reading this novel.

We will discuss the book on Monday June 25 2012. Links to other participant’s posts will be added to our respective reviews.

Nigel Balchin: Darkness Falls From the Air (1942) Literature and War Readalong May 2012

With ostentatious lack of concern, Bill Sarratt, his wife and her lover spend the war wining and dining expensively, occasionally sauntering out into the Blitz with cheerful remarks about the shattered night-life of London’s West End. But beneath the false insouciance lies the real strain of a war that has firmly wrapped them all in its embrace. Wit may crackle at the same pace as buildings burn, but personal tragedy lurks appallingly close at hand.

I have always wondered how people lived during the Blitz. How they coped with the fear, the chaos, the exhaustion and lack of sleep. I have seen a couple of movies set during WWII. Something that struck me more than once was the depiction of the Londoners during the Blitz. More than one movie showed them dancing or dining all through an air raid. Almost as if nothing was happening. I always wondered if this could have been the case. And what about the air raids that went on during the whole night? How would you cope with that? A lot of the questions I had have been answered by Darkness Falls From the Air. While I’m sure Blachin took some liberties and may have exaggerated, I think it still manges to give a good impression. It is one of the rare books that has been written during the Blitz which makes it especially interesting. Balchin worked as a psychologist for the British War Office and later as Deputy Scientific Advisor to the Army Council. Both occupations can be felt throughout the novel.

What I liked is how the main characters’ personal story, their marriage, work life and the war are interwoven.

In the beginning of the novel, the air raids aren’t as frequent at night and whenever a bomb falls down somewhere, Bill and his wife Marcia go and watch because it’s to a certain extent exciting. They do not feel threatened at all. They dine in underground restaurants and sleep in their own apartment. But the longer the war lasts, the more precarious the situation gets. People start to live in the tube and Marcia and Bill move to a hotel as their apartment house has no shelter. They still go out and dine underground and walk around the city to see the damage but it starts to become a bit less carefree. What gets to Stephen the most is the lack of sleep.

The day raids were dying down now. I suppose the pace was too hot to last. But to make up for it the nights were getting rougher than ever. The chief difficulty was to get enough sleep to keep going. Everybody was turning up at the office looking half asleep and sour as hell. I think it was this which led up to my row with Lennox. Lord knows there were enough reasons for quarreling with Lennox even if you were sleeping eight hours a night. When you got dow to an average of about three the thing was a certainty.

The narrator of Darkness Falls From the Air, Bill Sarrat, is a public servant. He must be one of the most cynical characters I’ve ever encountered in a novel. I didn’t expect this to be an amusing book but it was. Grim but funny. Passages like the one below illustrate what type a of person Sarrat is. He has an acute sense of the times he’s living in but at the same time he evades self-pity because he ultimately doesn’t take himself too seriously.

I’d decided that, what with work and Marcia and one thing and another, I was getting out of touch with the war. So I got out an atlas and Whitacker’s Almanack and so on and studied the war. That took about ten minutes. Then I tried forecasting the next bits. The last time Ted and I did that was at the beginning of the year. Ted put down that Germany would invade Switzerland, and that Japan would have a crack at Burma. I said that Germany would attack Hungary and Rumania and that Turkey would join up with us. The next morning Russia invaded Finland. An experience like that takes the heat out of you as a prophet.

The book follows three different narratives. The first is the marriage between Bill and Marcia which becomes more and more dysfunctional the longer the war goes on and the deeper Marcia entangles herself in her love affair with Stephen. The second story line centers on the depiction of life during the Blitz. The third narrative strand evolves around Bill’s occupation as a Civil Servant. The absurdity of the bureaucracy stands in stark contrast to the urgency of the matters they deal with. While “there is a war on”, they spend hours and days in useless meetings. Half of the staff is unprepared while others try to sabotage great projects out of sheer jealousy or incompetence. These parts reminded me so much of corporate life where people who have no clue will add tons of comments, questions and words of caution to a well prepared concepts just to pretend to be involved and competent. Additionally nobody wants to take a decision and those who work and think are the one’s seeing the useless people being promoted because they are in the way and no one knows how to deal with them otherwise. All this is captured by Balchin and these elements made this a very amusing book.

Blachin was, as I have mentioned, working as a psychologist and that shows in the parts dedicated to the love triangle. While I could have slapped Marcia and her vain lover Stephen, the discussions, the back and forth and Bill’s analysis of the whole story rang remarkably true.

While Darkness Falls From the Air has been called the novel of the Blitz, which it certainly is, it’s an amazing analysis of bureaucracy and a hopeless marriage. This was my first Balchin and I’m glad I discovered this author on Guy’s blog. It isn’t a flawless novel, it could have done with some editing but the voice and the tone are unique and the grim sense of  humour appealed to me a lot.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)


Darkness Falls From the Air was the fifth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Bomber by Len Deighton. Discussion starts on Friday June 29, 2012.

Spanish Literature Month – July 2012

There have been requests last year and then a rumour started to spread and now it’s official: July is Spanish Literature Month. Stu (Winstonsdad’s Blog) and Richard (Caravana de recuerdos) who co-host this event have organized a watchalong (Carlos Saura) and two readalongs (Juan Carlos Onetti A Brief Life and Enrique Vila-Matas Bartleby and Co.) but if you cannot make them you are free to choose whatever you like. If you want to join, just leave a comment at one of the two blogs. Here’s Stu’s intro post and here the one by Richard.

As you can see I have an idea what I would like to read. Since I may not be able to read a lot, I want at least to read one of the books I have in Spanish. A few years back I bought Un mundo para Julius by Peruvian writer Alfredo Bryce Echenique. I like books about the end of an era. They are usually lyrical, nostalgic and melancholic. This seems to be no exception.

It has been translated into English as A World for Julius.

Julius was born in a mansion on Salaverry Avenue, directly across from the old San Felipe Hippodrome.” Life-size Disney characters and cowboy movie heroes romp across the walls of his nursery. Out in the carriage house, his great-grandfather’s ornate, moldering carriage takes him on imaginary adventures. But Julius’s father is dead, and his beautiful young mother passes through her children’s lives like an ephemeral shooting star. Despite the soft shelter of family and money, hard realities overshadow Julius’s expanding world, just as the rugged Andes loom over his home in Lima. This lyrical, richly textured novel, first published in 1970 as Un mundo para Julius, opens new territory in Latin American literature with its focus on the social elite of Peru. A member of that elite, Bryce Echenique incisively charts the decline of an influential, centuries-old aristocratic family who becomes nouveaux riches with the invasion of foreign capital in the 1950s. A World for Julius, his first novel, marks the first appearance in English of this important Peruvian writer, whose Latin American postmodern fiction has won critical acclaim throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

I may end up reading something less challenging in terms of pages. Two authors I like a lot are Almudena Grandes from Spain and Maria Luisa Bombal from Chile. I still have some of their books I have not read.

Product Details

The crime novels by Teresa Solana A Not So Perfect Crime and A Shortcut to Paradise are possible choices as well.

Or another Peruvian author. I just recently got Vargas Llosa’s Death in the Andes – Lituma en los Andes.

Set in an isolated, run down community in the Peruvian Andes, Vargas Llosa’s riveting novel tells the story of a series of mysterious disappearances involving the Shining Path guerrillas and a local couple performing cannibalistic sacrifices with strange similarities to the Dionysian rituals of ancient Greece. Part-detective novel and part-political allegory, it offers a panoramic view of Peruvian society; not only of the current political violence and social upheaval, but also of the country’s past, and its connection to Indian culture and to pre-Hispanic mysticism.

I have read Juan Carlos Onetti before and liked him very much. To make sure that I really read at least something, I will join the readalong of A Brief Life. The details can be found on Richard’s and Stu’s blog.

I could suggest some other books but I think Stu and Richard are doing a great job at pointing out books you should discover.

Are you joining as well? What are you going to read? Do you have favourites of Latin American and Spanish literature?

Funny Novels

I like to read a funny novel once in a while but when I’m in the mood, I never seem to know what I should pick. So when I discovered the ten books you can see on the picture, offered as a collection for only 9£ by the book people (only available in the UK), I had to have them as they were called a “collection of classic funny British and American novels”. One of the books, Lucky Jim, has been recommended to me by a friend as the funniest novel she has ever read.

Here are the ten novels:

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

Mapp and Lucia by E.F. Benson

Nothing….Except my Genius by Oscar Wilde

Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman by E. W. Hornung

Modern Baptists by James Wilcox

The funniest books I’ve read so far were

John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row

Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary

Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,

Erich Kästner’s Drei Männer im Schnee – Three Men in the Snow (oop)

Philippe Jaenada’s Le chameau sauvage (not translated)

I also thought that Janet Evanovitch’s One For the Money was very funny. Other than that, I’m a bit at a loss.

The problem with recommendations for funny novels stems obviously from the fact that the sense of humour of one person is so very different from the sense of humour of another one. I even suspect that relationships have ended due to incompatibilities in that department (following right after incompatible tastes in music). Especially satire and black humour aren’t everybody’s cup of tea. While I consider the movie No Man’s Land to be extremely funny, other people think it’s in bad taste to laugh about three guys trapped between enemy trenches with a bomb strapped to one of them.

What is considered to be funny or comic and why is a topic even great minds deemed worthy of analysis. If you are interested to explore this some more I can recommend two classic essays which are quite interesting, Bergson’s Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic – Le rire: Essai sur la signification du comique  and Freud’s The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious – Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewussten.

While I could make a long list of funny movies and series (and might do so in a future post), I have, as you may have realized, a hard time to come up with a similar book list.

Do you know any of the novels in my collection? Do you consider them to be really funny? Which are the funniest novels you have read?

Ferdinand von Schirach: Guilt – Schuld (2010)

After having read Ferdinand von Schirach’s excellent first collection CrimeVerbrechen (here is my review), I had to have his second collection Guilt – Schuld and his novel Der Fall Collini right away. The novel isn’t out in English yet but it is due end of 2012.

Any which way you want to look at von Schirach’s books, “literary”, “true story”, whatever, they make for pretty addictive reading. I finished this in a sitting or two.

The angle in this collection is a bit different but some of the striking features of the first are present here as well. Most of the crimes are astonishing, many go wrong, often the perpetrator ends up being the victim and not everybody gets punished.

The focus is less the tipping point than the question of guilt. Interestingly not only the criminal’s guilt but to a certain degree even the lawyer’s guilt. There are a few cases, some date back to von Schirach’s early days as a criminal defense lawyer, where at the end I had the feeling that he felt guilty. Guilty because someone walked who shouldn’t have.

Like in the first collection, we get a close look at the German criminal system. I find it interesting how important it is for the lawyer to follow the law 100% even if the punishment doesn’t sound just. I always find it fascinating how a definition can alter the sentence completely. There is one case in which it is crucial to establish whether if someone kills a sleeping man it can ever be anything else than murder. Can it be manslaughter or even self-defence when the person is asleep? Or let’s say someone tries to kill someone, hurts the person badly but then stops before he is dead. That changes everything as well. These details were the best parts in this collection.

There are cases in which you even wonder whether there is not some superior justice at work, for example when a perpetrator gets run over by a car before being even able to commit the gruesome murder he had planned in many details and written down in his diary.

The tone is close to the first book, laconic, brief, to the point. There is no judging of people, no pointing the finger, just a very factual account of what happened.

All in all I liked this collection but not as much as the first. Whether there is a difference – I felt the cases in the first collection were more astonishing as a whole – or whether they are too alike, I’m not sure but I found it a bit less original and not as touching but still well worth reading. I’m really looking forward to read the novel and as I know it will be published soon in English, I will review it in a couple of weeks. If you don’t have any of the two collections yet it may be worth waiting as they will be released together in September Crime and Guilt.

If you are interested in hearing Ferdinand von Schirach talking about crime, punishment, guilt and his very special laconic writing style you might enjoy watching this interview (English and German with translation).

Montreux, Lake Geneva, Anita Brookner and some French Books

I didn’t pick the best of days for my trip to Montreux, located on lake Geneva in Switzerland. Still, I’m sure you can see why it’s worth a trip even when the Jazz Festival isn’t on.

Montreux’s promenade along the lake is very famous. It is lush and green, with palm trees, Bougainvillea, Oleander and Rhododendron. At the same time you see snow-covered mountains in the background.

Many of the big houses bordering the promenade are fin de siècle buildings and house hotels and spa’s. All these hotels have what I call a “sanatorium style”, like the hotel in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain.

Most people do not know that the old part of the city is high up on the hill. Quite a steep walk but definitely worth it.

Yes, I liked this sign on the house quite a bit.

You can see many picturesque buildings, small alleys, and a breathtaking view into the gorge and of the lake in the distance.

The steep gorge is in the middle of the old town, cutting right into it.  An icy cold mountain brook rushes down to the lake.

This statue of Freddy Mercury is located close to the Montreux market hall. It’s very lifelike. He used to live in Montreux and performed with the Queen several times at the festival. On his memorial day there is quite a lot going on every year.

Too bad that it was so cold and windy. When it’s sunny it’s nice to sit outside and have a drink.

While this isn’t a town I would like to live in, it’s too picturesque, too perfect – if you know what I mean – I still love to visit.

I felt like visiting Montreux after having watched Hotel du Lac which is set on lake Geneva. The movie is based on Anita Brookner’s eponymous novel. I have never read an Anita Brookner novel so far and would love to start with Hotel du Lac.

Do you have any Anita Brookner suggestions?

And since I was in the French-speaking part of Switzerland I bought a few books. Not all that many though. I’m very interested in Le sel by Jean-Baptiste Del Almo as he is compared to Virginia Woolf. Jean Molla’s Sobibor and Besson’s En l’absence des hommes – In the Absence of Men are the only ones which have been translated. Emma just reviewed Besson’s novel here. Sobibor is a novel in which an anorexic girl tries to find out what horrors lie hidden behind the word “Sobibor” which her Polish grandmother uttered just before her death.