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[801] Sula – Toni Morrison

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“Their evidence against Sula was contrived, but their conclusions about her were not. Sula was distinctly different. Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her and, with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.” (118)

Sula is compelling story about a black girl, mentally ahead of her time and of the social convention, who strives to achieve freedom and individualism. She is another pariah. She grows up in a household pulsing with larger-than-life people and activity, presided over by her tyrannical and probably sorcerous grandmother, Miss Eva. Left with three children after her husband left her, Miss Eva threw under a train, with one leg cut off, and collected insurance money. Sula’s gentle mother, Hannah, is devoted almost entirely to the practice and pleasure of sensuality. As the story unfolds, it is obvious that Sula, determined to flee the Bottom, is a fusion of the two. She is haughty but has a mind of her own.

Like Sula, Nel Wright is the only daughter of a distant mother, Helene, who is in perpetual query of everyone’s propriety. Sula and Nel have the immediate intimacy of friends who seem to have known each other all their lives, because “each had discovered years before they were neither white nor male and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden them they set about something else to be.” (52) Vivacity and closeness of their friendship over the year withers and the women are split into opposites. Nel becomes the conformer, assimilating to the conventions and values of black community and in large a male-dominant society. Sula, returning from the city after ten years, is the dangerous outsider whose amorality (like art with a form) poses a threat to the community. She is a living mockery, a sinister force, a sex-hungry, man-stealing figure of darkness and betrayal. She is frowned upon on and coined the evil—who is to be survived and overcome. Having dread to smash the taboos that are her neighbors’ poor guarantees of simply surviving, she is scorned, despised, and abandoned by the people she grew out of—even after she was dead. In short, she is shunned by her people, punished for her rebellion against traditions.

Morrison does not only make you question the small town morality, but something deeper, about the meager choices available to black women outside their own society’s approval. Sula is the quintessential outsider who has gone on a real trip. She risks individualism in a determinedly individualistic, yet radically uniform and socially static community. She is strange but compelling. She doesn’t feel obliged to please anyone—not even her best friend. She is an outlaw not because of her outrageous behavior, partly out of vengeance and partly rebellion, but because historically women are seen as naturally disruptive. The end is heartbreaking and very moving, as Nel realizes she is no different from her friend, whom she misses.

173 pp. Vintage UK. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Independent Bookstore Day

Last Saturday was Independent Bookstore Day. I visited my local indie and got some goodies. The bookstore is on College Avenue in Berkeley, nested in a colony of shops and restaurants. They’ve got snacks and lemonade and coffee to greet book lovers. I was quick to snatch the very last zip pouch with famous literary cats painted on it. I brought home also a stash of books, including The Luminaries, which, hopefully I’ll muster courage to read soon.

It’s All About the Motive

I’ve been on an Agatha Christie binge between books and BBC drama. The mysteries are skyways welcoming intervals between literary door-stoppers. I reread Peril at End House all in one sitting. It’s a fun romp not only in its twists and turns but also the plotter has Hercule Poirot fooled.

The mystery is one of Christie’s cleverest although it doesn’t achieve the cult status like Murder on the Orient Express does. But it is a classic study of what defines the mystery genre—motives. At the heart of all mysteries is one crucial question: what drives a human being to take the life of another human being? Poirot neatly breaks it all down and expounds.

Ruling out spur-of-the-moment perpetration and clinical madness, the motives that actuate a murder:
1. Gain: financial gain, inheritance; an instinct very deeply implanted in some human beings
2. Hate: or love that had turned to hate. Melodramtic but also very truly human
3. Jealousy: different from love/hate because it’s not always a sexual emotion. There’s envy—envy of possession, envy of supremacy
4. Fear: victim might hold somebody’s secret in his/her power. Knowledge that might ruin another life.

[800] N or M? – Agatha Christie

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“It was so still, so unblinking in its regard, that it seemed to Tuppence as though it was not human. Staring, staring up at the windows of Sans Souci. It was devoid of expression, and yet there was—yes, undoubtedly there was, menace about it.” (Ch.9, 92)

N or M? is all about atmosphere, not so much a whodunit as an espionage mystery set during the Second World War. Tommy and his wife Tuppence follow a dead British agent’s last words to seaside guest house Sans Souci for male N and female M, Hitler’s most trusted to lead Fifth Column. They assume other names to check in to the hotel and maintain secrecy and consistency of their adopted identities. Their antics are hilarious; but they on occasions forget to lie and thus risk blowing their covers.

Other than a German refugee von Deinem, Tommy and Tuppence are looking at a group of ordinary everyday people. Could the German spies be part-Spanish landlady Mrs. Perenna, sulky daughter Sheila, bulky Mrs. O’Rourke, bluff Major Bletchley, elderly Miss Minton, invalid Mr. Cayley or his attentive wife Elizabeth? Surely not Mrs. Sprot with lisping toddler Betty?

A hefty amount of pages devote to Tommy and Tuppence’s secret probing and meeting away from the house. There’s a mysterious woman seen around town. There’s room being searched. The toddler is kidnapped. Kidnapper is killed. The haven of peace and quiet does bode menace, something indescribable, a queer formless dread of something is going to be. Despite the plenty twists and turns, the surprised ending is rushed and weak.

191 pp. Dell Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[799] 13 At Dinner – Agatha Christie

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“Hers was not a face to command instant attention or recognition. It was one of those mobile, sensitive faces that pre-eminently lend themselves to the act of mimicry.” (9)

A well-known, beautiful actress Jane Wilkinson approaches Hercule Poirot with an unusual request: to convince her husband, Lord Edgware, to divorce her. The actress shamelessly makes no secret about how her husband is in the way of her romantic dreams. She is in love with a Duke to whom she plans to marry. The next day Lord Edgware tells Poirot that he has already agreed to the divorce and had mailed a letter to inform Jane of his agreement. That very evening Lord Edgware is murdered. The police regards Jane the prime suspect based on evidence of two witnesses, Lord Edgware’s butler and secretary, who corroborate seeing her in the house on the night of the murder.

The best of the book is the investigation by Detective Japp as instructed by Hercule Poirot. Solving the mystery means looking at many different options. A plethora of seemingly unrelated evidence baffles them. Jane Wilkinson has the perfect alibi as corroborated by thirteen dinner guests in the party she attended. How could she be in two places at one time? Before the detective can pursue the many questions, another woman is found dead, a reputable American actress-impersonator Carlotta Adams.

Christie gives us a lot of clues—almost too many clues that the book risks of going too long with no resolution and no real breaks in the case. But the solution is obvious except one has to make sense of all the puzzle pieces. Characterization is supple and well done in this book, shining light on the period details (1930s) and women’s roles in society. Majority of the characters are women, and they all have to fend for themselves and improve their social status by marrying above them or having a life made on their own.

213 pp. Dell Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[798] My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk

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“It is Allah who is creative, who brings that which is not into existence, who gives life to the lifeless. No one ought to compete with Him. The greatest of sins is committed by painters who presume to do what He does, who claim to be as creative as He.” (Ch.28, 160)

My Name is Red, set in late 16th century Istanbul of the Ottoman Empire, is rich in details, ambitious in scope, and subtle in philosophical meanings. In the center of this book, far from being a mere historical novel, is the recurring Pamuk’s internal East-West war. The novel is set in the time when the Ottomans’ confidence in the ever-expanding empire had begun to be shaken by the power of the West.

The story in a nutshell tells of two murders among Sultan Murat’s court artists; one of Elegant, a master miniaturist and gilder, the other of Enishte, the cunningly complicated organized commissioned by the sultan to produce a book that desecrates the Islamic religion. By contributing individual style to these art works, Enishte’s artists are accused of heresy, since the deviation of rote perpetual imitation is illustrating away from Allah’s perspective. Allah’s criterion of beauty is the only that which matters. The style the sultan’s artists surreptitiously adopt is that of Italian Renaissance. Figures are individuals, portraits are of specific people, and even trees, dogs, and dervishes are particulars.

Unlike mere decoration of the text, to portray individuals or objects for their own sake is to give them iconic standing. To coin such stature to objects and people is utter disrespect to Allah. The detective is Enishte’s nephew, Black, who has returned to Istanbul after his uncle had rejected his suit for the hand of Enishte’s daughter, Shekure. He has been summoned back to help organize the book for the sultan. When his uncle is slain, Black hastily weds Shekure, whose first husband disappeared in battle four years ago.

The book is itself constructed around the individualizing perspective; each chapter offers the varying first-person truths experienced by the characters. Death, Satan, a coin, a horse, also give their narratives. The irony of the heinous act is the murderer, who is faithful to the older artistic creed, betrays himself by a distinctive and detectable artistic style that proves his undoing. The narrative of Satan is by far the most provocative and profound. It evokes the philosophical duality that evil is as important and necessary as virtue (good). It’s the duality that one cannot exist without the other. Then at the very heart is an aesthetic tradition renewed and glorified without hatred and rancor. Though not always plot-driven, the book is a literary feat delving on how art, religion, and love intersect.

413 pp. Vintage International. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading Sula

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Pamuk’s My Name is Red is too dense to read all in one sitting, so I set it aside for Sula. In Morrison’s Sula, women experience adversities generated from the idea that women should project a certain image in society and maintain a specific role in the home. Most commonly, masculinity is defined by aggression and dominance, whereas femininity is portrayed as emblematic of passivity and submission. The need for women to be submissive in a male-dominated society causes many women to suffer from a lack of individuality and self-expression. Sula and Eva suffer from the victimization of patriarchy, even though the victimization may sometimes be self-inflicted. Morrison portrays the strength perseverance, and determination that reside in women.

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