GoodReads Review: Answering to Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre (Penguin Classics) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

My review


rating: 5 of 5 stars
Jane Eyre, at fifteen she seemed entirely too cerebral, almost to the point of pretension. Too downtrodden and bound to earthly matters, certainly no match for the metaphysical and passionate likes of her literary sister, Catherine Earnshaw. I was not a fan of Charlotte Bronte in high school. I much preferred the transcendental and other-worldly spiritedness of Cathy and Heathcliff. Charlotte and Jane were just too drab and dreary.

Some fifteen years later, most of my adolescent ardor has tempered. I no longer think The Doors are the end all be all, and I cringe at my idolisation of Jim Morrison. I see the gaping faults in Cathy and can’t forgive Heathcliff. And Jane, dear, wise, level-headed, answer-to-her-own-will and stick-to-her-own-principles, Jane Eyre is an end all be all in Charlotte’s profound and unsettling universe. I recently re-read Jane Eyre this past month and was so swept away with awe and inspiration, I read it again. That’s right, twice, in a row. Jane Eyre is as complicated, keen, and perceptive as any philosophical protagonist. Move over Stephen Daedalus, watch out Raskolnikov, shut your pipes, Pip, and stuff it Hans Castrop.

I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.

Jane is as strong willed and autonomous as any man. A critique of the Biblical story of woman as temptress, in Bronte’s world, men are weak and tempt damnation. Rochester urges Jane to live in sin with him, but Jane is too upstanding and moral, not in a cloying and nauseating way as Esther Summerson or any other Victorian female do-gooder, think Eliot’s Romola and take your pick of Dickens’ heroines. Jane stands apart because we see from the beginning that she holds firmly to her own principles. And, at most, we share her credo. We want her to leave Rochester, we hail her for rebelling against Mrs. Reed, and we hold the same caution as she does against Helen Burns’ extreme piety. The brilliance of Bronte’s first person narrator, is that we see exactly why and how Jane acts on her decisions, and we follow her every step and struggle with heart and reason. Throughout all the trails and turbulent tribulations, and even in the advent of marriage, Jane doesn’t lose her autonomy but gains only more agency and wisdom for herself while Rochester pays for his transgressions through his body and soul. He literally becomes a broken man by his own doing.

Such is the imperfect nature of man! Such spots are there on the disc of the clearest planet; and eyes like Miss Scatherd’s can only see those minute defects, and are blind to fill brightness of the orb.

The Brontes revel in flaws. Their characters are glorified by humanly fatal flaws. Jane is too headstrong. Rochester, prideful. There’s dogmatic Helen, the statuesque and too evangelical St. John, and Adele, who’s just too French. Bronte had just a smidge of the xenophobe in her. That’s sarcasm for you. Because, of course, there’s Bertha, the inner animal, the monstrous Other, who, despite her foreign origins, lives in each and everyone of us. Bertha is kin to Heathcliff. Without either the world would be a very cold, barren desert. Each character’s fault shapes them and makes them who they are, an Achilles Heel that makes them larger than life. Bronte magnifies each defect, and, in doing so, rejects perfection and purity. The only absolute is there are no absolutes. Absolutes are sent to the sweltering heat of India to wither and die. St. John, the model of perfection and piety, is a Greek god of beauty and has the morals to uphold his handsomeness. Yet his perfection is grotesque. And Rochester’s grotesqueness is not perfection, but we definitely prefer him over the maniacal rigidness of St. John who both repels and attracts women.

From the start, Eyre wants nothing more than earthly love. Burns says to her “Hush, Jane, you think too much of the love of human beings; you are too impulsive, too vehement.” Yet, Jane is extremely hardy and adaptable. She can grow without love. In darkness and solitude, she’ll survive and be better for it. She is capable of finding her inner strengths without outside support, and this makes her divine, god-like. Resilient and resourceful, as formidable a hero as Dante or Odysseus. Jane Eyre defines the heroine’s journey. Heroine as opposed to hero in that Jane thrives best in her relationships to those she loves and those who reciprocate equal care and compassion. “Only connect,” Jane embodies the mantra and shows us the truer and greater path, more significant than any trail a hero might trek. Our heroine happily and proudly commits herself to serve others, not in the service of god, not in any submissive or subservient manner but out of a deep sense of duty to simply care for those she loves. This is true nobility, truly heroic. To be of use, to have purpose, to fulfill duty, and uphold virtue in the Classical sense. Jane knows where she stands among the Cosmos. She knows the station to which she was born and does not seek to transcend her place, in terms of shirking from duties and responsibilities, but should anyone transgress against her rights to equality, free speech, or free thought, should anyone violate her own humanity, they will have to answer to Charlotte Bronte.

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GoodReads Review on Chris Abani

Graceland Graceland by Abani, Chris

My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars
“Writers are dangerous,” so says A.S. Byatt, and when you read Chris Abani you see exactly how the truth can kill. Abani’s stories show us life balanced on the blade of a knife. His novel, Graceland, chronicles a dark page of Nigeria’s history as we follow a young boy learning to live and love in the turbulent eighties. Graceland opens with a nod to Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred.” Elvis, our young Nigerian protagonist, desperately wants to be a dancer, and in the midst of war and political revolution, this dream dries up, festers like a sore, and decays with the death that surrounds him.

Graceland, like Jessica Hagedorn’s novels Dogeaters or Dream Jungle, crams fistfuls of characters into bustling Third World nightmares. Whether its Manila or Lagos, each soul, for better or for worse, is forced to angle their own path to survival. Graceland is an Inferno on earth, and Abani’s hero, Elvis, follows the footsteps of Florentine pilgrim, Dante. As Elvis matures from self indulgent and naive boy to awakened man, he’s initiated into the sinful ways of his world, and, like Dante, he sees firsthand how degrees of sin match degrees of survival. Though unlike our Tuscan journeyman, Elvis is granted two guides, Redemption and the King of Beggars. Each play tug-o-war with Elvis’ conscience. Redemption, who entangles Elvis into a life of crime, lifts the veil of innocence for us and our hero when he asks, “So are you telling me dat stealing bread from bakery to feed yourself and killing some boy is de same? Everything got degree.”

As in Inferno, the one pure source of light, our pilgrim’s enduring star, is Beatrice, Elvis’ mother. Though Elvis strays from his path and is lost in the dark wood of his country in strife, his mother through her written notes on Igbo culture and her record of recipes for sustenance and medicine, reading more like prophecies, keep Elvis sane and compassionate.

What’s disturbing and therefore powerful about Graceland is knowing that Abani’s novel is most likely true. Though the characters are make believe, anyone who reads the newspapers or watches the BBC news knows that Elvis’ journey happens everyday. Pick a country, any country, whether it be Thailand, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Brazil, or Mexico, Abani’s work serves as live wire transmissions of today’s “urban anonymity” from all the dark nooks of our global metropolises. In that respect, we also see the over-reach of American and Western culture and ideals. As Barthelme’s writing reveals, no part of our life is left unadulterated by the media, and, in Abani’s novel, we also find that no corner of the earth is left untainted by Western influences. The consequences of this is a protagonist who is hyper self-conscious. His dreams and hopes feed off movies and music, which are then appropriated and made new by his Nigerian culture. The media is constantly recycling and transforming itself, as the lives it influences actively transform and reinvent new identities as new modes of survival.

Graceland is a testament to the shock and awe practice of today’s geopolitics. Abani doesn’t flinch to bring these stories to light. His writing is dangerous only in that he holds a mirror up to us and asks us to take a hard look at ourselves.

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Great Expectations Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
From Ovid’s Metamorphoses translated by A.D. Melville (Oxford)

There was a pool, limpid and silvery,
Whither no shephard came nor any herd,
Nor mountain goat; and never bird nor beast
Nor falling branch disturbed its shining peace;
Grass grew around it, by the water fed,
And trees to shield it from the warming sun.
Here–for the chase and heat had wearied him–
The boy lay down, charmed by the quiet pool,
And, while he slaked his thirst, another thirst
Grew; as he drank he saw before his eyes
A form, a face, and loved with leaping heart
A hope unreal and thought the shape was real.
Spellbound he saw himself, and motionless
Lay like a marble statue staring down.

As long as we prize youth and ideals, Narcissus’ spirit lives on. Like our vain, self-loving mythic hero, Beauty, Truth, Purity, and Justice seem to be just within grasp in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Pip is just as vain, just as full of pride that spoils quickly to greed, and, like Narcissus, he falls in love with the beauty and refinement represented in Estella, whose ladyship is no more real than Pip’s dream of becoming a gentleman. Like Echo and Narcissus, Pip and Estella are mirrored twins, though the gender roles may be reversed, both represent the very best ideals of youth, beauty, charm, admiration, and potential, and both are raised to redeem their benefactors, to make up for the corrupt pasts of their guardians.

Narcissus and Pip cling to their own innocence, which equals beauty. Think Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. If we truly “live, as we dream–alone,” as Conrad wrote, then we have only our self to love and our partners are mere reflections of those aspects we idolize and idealize. God made man in his image or man made God in his image. No matter how we boil it down, we essentially want to return to ourselves. Enter Plato’s Forms and Kant’s Absolute Spirit.

Great Expectations is less a story of rags to riches, than a tale about Life as hell. The novel opens with Pip meeting the living dead, first the violent encounter with Magwitch in the graveyard, soon afterward he’s ushered to Miss Havisham’s, a living coffin. Before his journey from boy to man even begins, Pip’s already condemned to live a life of sin. None of the characters have much of a chance “to live” because of their poverty or their sins, which are often one in the same. Dickens plays with duality often in this story. Scenes between Miss Havisham and Pip reflect the myth of Janus, joining the old and new, in female and male counterparts, Pip looking forward and Havisham lost in the past: “So new to him,’ she muttered, ‘so old to me; so strange to him, so familiar to me; so melancholy to both of us!'”

Dickens’ own childhood of abandonment comprises the genetic makeup of each characters’ story. Everyone in turn is abandoned. Estella’s heart is abandoned for Miss Havisham’s revenge. Miss Havisham was jolted at the altar and therefore abandons her world. Pip, our central orphan, abandons Joe, Biddy, Magwitch, and his own integrity. Yet, in their abandonment, each desperately clings to another. Havisham searches for redemption in Pip, as does Magwitch. Pip looks to Estella, his bright, distant star. Funnily enough, the only person who is true to herself, aside from Biddy and Joe, who Pip readily casts away, as cold, love-lost, and love-less as she is, Estella, an echo of Hard Times’ Louisa Gradgrind who is also over-calculating and devoid of feeling, Pip’s one true love upholds her integrity throughout the novel. Estella knows exactly who and what she is and accepts because she has no other option. Money links people together, shackling Pip to Magwitch and Pip to Miss Havisham as well as Estella. Whether poor or rich, these characters need each other; they cannot escape the necessity of human relations.

As in Bleak House, original sin permeates Pip’s universe, and Pip longs to escape his wretched past. He essentially chases his own tail, and in his pursuit we learn Pip’s principles, and perhaps are own, are far too lofty, much too impossible for anyone to meet, especially his beloved Estella. Pip soon discovers everything he longs for most is no better than his own humble origins.

Pip, like any classic hero tries to be something he’s not. Prometheus bound, he longs to be Great only to find there is no such thing. In the end, Dickens warns us, quite violently, not to cling so tightly to our ideals. Pip’s maturation means to DESTROY his ideals. Ultimately, our life is not our own, so urges Dickens. Fate and the will of others toss us about on a ravenous sea. We may be forced to give up some dreams, and we may not always be willful agents of our own lives. The conscious decisions we are allowed to make, the choices we are free to act on become that much more significant and sacred, certainly not to be taken for granted. When Pip decides to return to his loved ones, to pay tribute to Miss Havisham or Magwitch, these acts of his own volition are true signs of divine compassion. Pip learns to love what is real and true, transcending his own vanity, pride, and greed. His love for others becomes his saving grace and finally sets Pip apart from his lonely and tragic waterside predecessor.

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The story of our time and the City of Ourselves

At Home in Venice, Los Angeles

In search of a suitable port for Spanish galleons coming from Manila, Antonio de la Ascension arrived on the island of Santa Catalina with Spanish troops in 1602. Ascension recorded one of the first written historical accounts of Los Angeles and it’s native peoples, who would later be called the Gabrielinos, after the San Gabriel Mission.  Antonio de la Ascension recorded the encounter in “Along the Coast, 1602” published in Los Angeles: Biography of a City.

The soldiers ran all over the island and in one part of it fell in with a place of worship or temple where the natives perform their sacrifices and adoration. When the soldiers reached this place inside the circle there were two large crows, larger than ordinary, which flew away when they saw strangers, and alighted on some nearby rocks. One of the soldiers, seeing their size aimed at them [the crows] with his harquebus, and discharging it, killed them both. When the Indians saw this they began to weep and display great emotion. In my opinion, the Devil talked to them through these crows because all the men and women hold them in great fear and respect.

Ascension depicted a very violent genesis of a city where cultures have always seemed to clash and collide. Today, over eighty languages are spoken in the City of Angels. Culture clash is a way of life. In his, inaugural address, “A City of Purpose” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa  affirmed, “Los Angeles is not only the one city that best embodies bold dreams. It is the destination of people’s imaginations, all around the world, whether or not they ever set foot here.” For some Los Angeles is a dream of promised American ideals and for others it is a nightmare of urban sprawl and catastrophe. In commemorating the death of Raymond Chandler, the LA Weekly also commemorates El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles. Judith Freeman in her article, “Raymond Chandler: 50 Years Dead,” writes:

He said he was the first to write about Los Angeles in a realistic way. To write about a place, he said, you have to love it, or hate it, or both, alternately, the way you do a woman. Vacuity and boredom were futile. L.A. never bored him. He found it banal, maybe, but never vacuous. He both loved it (when he first arrived in 1912) and hated it (by the time he left in 1946), until finally, he said, it became a tired old whore to him. Never mind that he, more than any other writer, helped to turn Our Lady of the Queen of Angels into a woman of the night. He got this city better than anybody else, its rhythms and rudeness, its gas stations filled with wasted light, the houses in canyons hanging in the blackness, the smell of the air, the feel of the winds, the very pulse of the place, which is why his novels never seem dated: He captured the essence of the city, not just its temporal surface…

Toward the end of his life Chandler said, “The story of our time isn’t the story of war or the atomic bomb. It’s the story of an idealist married to a gangster and how their children and home life turn out.” He could be describing The Sopranos.

Only it isn’t The Sopranos. It’s us. It’s the story of our time, just as he said, the unending and timeless tale of America, with its idealists on one end of the ideological spectrum, and its gangsters on the other, be they Wall Street crooks or your ordinary garden-variety thugs. We are the children he spoke of. And we are still waiting, 50 years after Chandler’s death — with ever more urgent concerns filling our minds — to see just how our collective home life will turn out.

Seismically fractured and infinitely diverse, the experiences Angelenas/os face are not strictly unique to the City of Angels but mirror the world. Chandler knew this and gave us to ourselves. His words still haunt a city that represents the very best and the very worst of our nation. Our City of Angels, the place that I called home for so long, will always be a reflection of ourselves and our inextricable links to [an]other.

Review of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism

From The GoodReads Review:

Pico Iyer opened his New York Times review of Yiyun Li’s latest novel, The Vagrants saying:

All the world’s stories are America’s stories now, and this constant glory of our literature; as never before in our lifetimes, so many histories flooding into America, and so many Americans going out to claim the world as an extension of their homes, that our imaginations are being stretched (one hopes) along with the words we use, the wisdoms we inhabit, the sounds and philosophies we can begin to reinvent. What Barack Obama represents on the global stage, those of his generation and younger (from Kenya, from the Dominican Republic, from Korea) are bringing to life on the planetary page.

From our Latino landscapers, to our South or South East Asian nurse technicians, to our U.S. Banks inextricably intertwined with international banks, as Gertrude Stein said, “there is no there there” because “there” is here, and the other is us. The world is hot, flat, and crowded, so says Tom Friedmann. How do we stay cool, calm, and compassionate? Kwame Anthony Appiah proposes a philosophy and world view in his book, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, which outlines how we can stretch our imaginations, why we should inhabit the sounds and philosophies different from our own, and how we can reinvent ourselves and our worldview while we struggle to co-exist on this shrinking, ozone-depleted, big, blue ball. Like our 44th president and like most people of younger generations, including myself, Appiah is of mixed race. His mother, English, his father from Ghana, Appiah was raised in his father’s homeland and currently teaches at Princeton University. In Cosmpolitanism he speaks compassionately and honestly about pluralism; his philosophy obviously and insightfully infused with his own multiracial, multi-cultural, and multi-national heritage.

Filled with critical examinations about how we are all inter-connected, whether we like it or not, debates on cultural property, evaluations of facts versus faith, and questions against our own prized rationalism, Appiah succinctly defines his philosophy of Cosmopolitanism at the beginning of the text as: “the one thought that cosmopolitans share is that no local loyalty can ever justify forgetting that each human being has responsibilites to every other.” Though he warns at the beginning, “There’s a sense in which cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge.” His philosophical treatise is crammed with enlightened and engaging anecdotes about his father’s tribe, the Akan, and stories he’s heard from colleagues or lifted from the news. Appiah, overall, makes a strong case in explaining his philosophical ideals, yet at the conclusion he problematizes his thesis when he tries to argue why we should be responsible for another life clear across the big blue ball.

In the concluding chapter he bookends his thesis with a reference to a Balzac story, Pere Goirot, and this fiction is his last scrap of evidence to reason a pressing yet stubbornly abstract argument. Why use fiction as support, especially when trying to convince us to make living, breathing connections across a very real and often volatilely physical world? As a fiction writer, I’m honored that a philosopher would turn to story-telling and invoke, therefore virtually vindicate a genre often excused as anachronistic entertainment. Appiah pays tribute to the magic that stories conjure. He praises how fiction allows us to imagine alternatives in what could otherwise be a cold and unforgiving world. Still, this nod to stories and their import is at the cost of his entire thesis, and, as a Composition instructor, as well, in the end, his case doesn’t hold water if he’s going to refer to the make-believe.

Students in my Argument & Research were assigned to read and write about Appiah’s book, and they grappled with complex ideas, seeming to be genuinely interested in the principles Appiah critiqued and proposed. Inspired by Appiah’s sincere and compassionate treatise, I was able to develop some very creative and urgently relevant formal writing assignments. As a class, we were all humbled by the complexity and diversity of humanity, and, as Appiah so gently nudged us to do, we actively felt more connected to the world at large. Mission accomplished!