Monday, February 28, 2011


,I don’t know if you’ve picked up on this, but I’m just about as white as they come.  I can’t even get a proper tan, preferring instead to lobsterize when exposed to the sunlight.  I grew up in a neighborhood of almost all white families, and I remember only three Black kids in my entire school until we moved to Florida.  It was also the 80’s, so my exposure to books including and/or about other cultures, even other American cultures, was limited.  Seriously, take a look at any school book until about 1995 and just count how many kids in the pictures are not white.

Since February is Black History month, I thought I would celebrate and broaden my horizons by swapping out what I had planned for a Black author.  I had a few already on my list, but in the interest of learning more stuff, I decided to try a book I had not heard before.  I have to give props to my librarian.  I give her three criteria – Black author, made into a movie, at this branch – and she comes back with a list of, like, 20 books.  I suppose it’s not that hard to find, really, with internet, but some of the stuff she came back with is kind of obscure.  This book, however, isn’t.  I say that because, while I had not heard of it before, every person familiar with Black literature has.

Toni Morrison won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Fiction for Beloved.  It is a powerful story, even for me who has no racial connection to the events that drive the main character, Sethe.  Morrison was inspired to write the story by the true story of Margaret Garner; because Garner’s story spoils Beloved so nicely, you are free to click here at your own risk.  The novel was published in 1987 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., a publishing house under Random House.

There are essentially three stories in this book.  The main story is kind of a psychological drama ghost story of Sethe dealing with her past and Sethe’s daughter Denver discovering her sense of self, with romance mixed in.  Told in flashbacks mixed into the story when it comes to the mind of one of the characters are the respective histories of Sethe and her fellow Paul D, former slaves that had run away from a farm called Sweet Home.  No, it wasn’t in Alabama, and what kind of person would I be if I didn’t make that joke?  It was in Kentucky, and owned by a couple by the name of Garner, surly a tribute to the inspiration for the story.

Sethe has some skeletons in her closet.  A lot of skeletons, actually.  And they haunt her house – literally, the ghost of her two year old daughter from eighteen years ago says hi every now and then by wrecking havoc on the furniture, the cooking, and the dog.  The haunting has driven away her two sons and, because Sethe doesn’t want to lose her, has sheltered her last remaining child.  Sethe’s driving force is her love for her children, who most unusually are all sired by the same man – her husband Halle who was also a slave at Sweet Home but who never showed up at their meeting place the night they ran.

Denver has become reclusive and lonely since she’s afraid to leave the yard and no one comes to their haunted little spot of town.  She kind of hides out in the woods in a little tent the plants have grown into, and takes a certain pleasure in the tantrums of her ghost sister because it’s at least company.  Here is a detail that confused me quite a bit: I had trouble getting a beat on how old Denver was supposed to be.  She was ten, then she was six, then she was eighteen all within the first ten pages…  and since she has essentially been spending nearly all of her time in only the company of her mother, she acts a bit like a twelve year old.  I spent about a quarter of the book thinking that was how old she was.  She’s eighteen, which eventually becomes clear.

Paul D is not without past traumas, as well.  He pops out of nowhere on page six and tells Sethe how he’s been roaming for the past seven years.  What happened to him in the years between leaving Sweet Home and the Emancipation Proclamation (seven years prior to his showing up on the front lawn) is his storyline.

Yeah, she won a Nobel, too.
The title of the book has many, many layers of meaning, not the least of which is a character by that name who Sethe takes in after finding her sleeping on the stump in the front yard.  Beloved is at first ill, but seems to get more and more manipulative and selfish as she gets better and as she is accepted into the family.   Depending on how you interpret what she says (more on that when I talk about the movie), you can get the sense that she is either innocent as a child or sinister with dark secrets of her own.

It was difficult for me to get into the story in the beginning.  The occasional verb tense changes and the frequent point of view changes and usually unannounced flashbacks were a little confusing at first, and I had to reread or relisten to passages a few times until I got used to the style about halfway through the book.  However, unlike some other books that I’ve read, the flashbacks were always relevant and added to the understanding of the characters, their background, and the “best thing” in each of them.  And once I got used to the style, it was easy enough to follow what was happening during which time period.

Slavery is a main theme of the story, obviously.  Both of the flashback stories detail Sethe's and Paul D’s life in slavery and their respective journeys of escape.  Death, violence, fear, hope, love, despair, desperation, they all come into play as the stories unfold.   I did not intend to do two stories that involved slavery back-to-back.  As I said, this one was on the suggestion of my librarian, whom I had asked suggestions of on a bit of a whim because it’s February.  But, since we did just do Huck Finn, and talked about slavery and running away from it then, let’s do a little comparison.  Jim was running away because he was afraid of being sold and taken away from his home and assumingly his family.  His trek to freedom is fraught with fear, but little else.  He’s in the company of a clever white boy who can and will hide him, lie for him, and provide company on his journey.  Sethe’s plight started with her sending her children ahead of her, being beaten, setting off alone, nearly dying, having a baby along the way, and losing one of her children who then haunts her and drives almost all of the other ones away.  Skeletons.  Well, Beloved is definitely an adult book, and Huck Finn is a children’s novel.

The 1998 movie adaptation, directed by Jonathan Demme and released by Harpo Productions, starred Oprah Winfrey (big surprise) and Danny Glover.  Apparently, Oprah had tried for over ten years to get the movie made, since she bought the rights to do so even before the book got its Pulitzer.  I received a tip that the movie wasn’t that good from my best friend, but I like to form my own opinions.

And I can’t say that I wholeheartedly agree.  The movie is remarkably faithful to the book, and the actors give some stellar performances.  But I don’t completely disagree, either, because the movie is remarkably faithful to the book and tends to drag on.  It’s three hours long.  Three.  Flipping.  Hours.  Stellar performances or not, there’s no need for three hours for this story.

So... is this a love story?
As far as story retelling goes, there’s not too much deviation from the book.  Although I could have used more acting and less yapping.  The movie was a lot more of the current storyline – that of Paul D and Sethe’s relationship, and the arrival of Beloved.  While I had trouble getting used to the flashbacks in the book, I felt that the movie needed more.  There was a lot of just sitting around and talking.  Maybe we’d get a fifteen second flashback at the end of it.  Come on, you’re going to go through all that trouble to get a location, actors, and costumes for the amazingly well-dressed slaves and not use them to the fullest? Show, don’t tell!  Telling is boring, and actions speak louder than words, you know.

I know I harped on Oprah for playing the lead role in a movie that she produced and her studio filmed, but she does play Sethe perfectly.  She was hard when Sethe was supposed to be, girlish where she needed to be, losing it where she needed to be, and never overdone or underdone.  She obviously has a lot of love for this story and for Sethe.
That's better!
The other performance that I thought was well done was Beloved, although it’s not how I interpreted her.  The way Thandie Newton plays Beloved (oddly, that’s what Thandie’s name means) is as a constant child.  She seemed to genuinely feel the remorse, shame, and love – never developing proper speech and often somewhat innocent even when she’s being manipulative, almost as if she was mentally challenged.  My perception of the Beloved in the book, fueled by Toni Morrison’s reading of her, was very conniving, sharp, and sinister.  She knew exactly what she was doing at all times, and the expressions of sorrow and helplessness that she showed were not genuine, only done to control Sethe.  The underdeveloped speech and accompanying childlike demeanor in the movie may have been a decision that had little to do with a genuine interpretation of the character and more to do with Thandie’s British accent, certainly not something that was commonplace amongst post Civil War ex-slaves.

Movie Denver had two modes: happy and jealous.  I’m not sure if that was a directorial decision or if Kimberly Elise was having trouble emoting.  I’m not too familiar with her talent, though, so maybe I could take a look at some of her other work before making assertions about her.  I will say she wasn’t bad, just that there wasn’t much substance to Denver, no hint of the dilemma she faced.  Just one day she was doing one thing and the next she was doing the opposite, with the occasional jealous glare in Paul D's or Beloved’s direction, or the playful laughter as she ran around with Beloved in the woods.

I don’t know what really to make of this movie.  It shows respect for the story and characters (for the most part) even if the interpretation of them is slightly different.  It’s not bad, and if you don’t have time to read or listen to the book a couple or more times, you can get the story out of the movie.  The full emotion and psyche is lost, though, on the refusal to show us why we really should care, what is so heavy or shocking, about these characters.  In order to fully understand the story, you need the book.  Be prepared to read and reread.

124 was spiteful.  Full of a baby’s venom.

Yeah, about listening…  I hope you guys don’t think less of me for using the audiobook for, well, almost all of it.  Audiobooks are awesome, especially if you need your hands and eyes (but not your ears) for, say, work, and because of my professional and academic schedule this month, I didn’t have much time to curl up and read.  Related note: sorry this is so late.

Edit 4-17-11: I just noticed, while doing research for a future post, that Beloved is on the ALA's most frequently banned books lists for 1990-1999 (#45) and 2000-2009 (#26). I swear I looked when I wrote this post, so I don't know why I missed it.  Ah well, here's the mention, and the addition of it to my banned books link.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

This is the first book that I decided to read because of the news surrounding it.  (The Da Vinci Code doesn’t count; I had already decided to read that one and it so happened that I saw a news report.)  If you haven’t heard, NewSouth Books has released a version of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with some, shall we say, edited language.  The use of racial terms that many Americans of all races find offensive, or at least are uncomfortable hearing, has been removed or changed in order to present the novel’s story and themes in a more updated fashion.  I am referring to the repeated used of the N-word being replaced by the word “slave”, as well as a term “Injun” (i.e. “honest Injun”) which is not used so much nowadays being removed or changed (I don’t know what to - I didn’t read the new version).  The N-word especially has been the target reason for the banning of this book all over the country, ranking #5 in the 90’s and #14 in the 00’s on the ALA banned books list.

I have mixed feelings about this.  My most fundamental belief is that censorship is a violation of free speech, and if some people are upset at the language used in the 19th century, then that’s their problem and they don't have to read the book.  When historical fiction is concerned, use of the language that was used in the time period of the story gives credibility and believability to the story, and removing it is almost like denying the term ever existed or was used in that fashion, especially if it did exist in the book originally.  But because some people are so upset by the N-words peppering the book – not so much with the derogatory meaning that we have come to use it today, but meaning a Black person in the manner that it was used in 1854 (free or slave)* – they have denied their children the chance to read it and get the very valuable lessons out of it.

I think it’s kind of a moot argument anyway since, seeing as that I don’t think the book is really appropriate for elementary school students due to its narration in“incorrect” grammar and use of many dialects.  And anyway, many of the children being “protected” from this book are listening to rap and hip-hop that make gratuitous use of the N-word for the modern purpose of it – to be derogatory or “shocking” and akin to courser language (which the songs often also use).  If you have never read the book, I recommend reading it or listening to its audio book in the original language as it was intended, but if you are too squeamish to encounter the N-word and not faint, then I suppose the edited version is better than nothing.  I just fear what other edits are in our future in the name of “modernizing” classics.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, considered one of the Great American Novels, was first published by a London publisher in England, Chatto & Windus (now part of Random House).  It was written, of course, by Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, and published in 1884 in London and a few months later in the US.  The book opens with a disclaimer, but I will ignore it to find and talk about the moral, motive, and perhaps a little of the plot knowing full well that I may be prosecuted, banished, and shot (respectively) by the author.  It is a sequel of sorts to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; the first line of Huck Finn’s book is a plug for Tom Sawyer’s even.  It continues the story of Huck, who escapes from his abusive father by using some clever skullduggery to fake his own death, and Jim, a neighborhood Black slave trying to escape because he is about to be sold and taken away from his family.  And he is accused of a murder he didn’t commit – Huck’s to be exact.

Throughout the book, Huck goes through a number of moral dilemmas, conflicting what he is told he should do and what he feels is right or what gets him and Jim through situations alive or without being caught.  He questions everything that he is told is right, and his biggest moral conflict is whether he should turn in Jim for being a runaway slave.  He calls himself wicked for trying to help Jim to freedom, and ignorant because he doesn’t have the overactive imagination of his pal Tom Sawyer.  The few chapters where Tom Sawyer is involved with the story demonstrates that, even though Tom was “brought up right” and schooled all of his life, Huck is generally smarter, or at least more clever, than Tom, who tends to overcomplicate things because that’s how it’s done in the books he reads.

Jim is portrayed as an unlearned, superstitious man who, now that he sees his chance for freedom, wants to skip off to the free states, then raise money to purchase his wife and children’s freedom.  He is skeptical of all the school knowledge that Huck tells him about, like that Frenchmen speak French.  While he and Huck are floating on the river pretty much where no one can see them, the two are near inseparable.  Whenever they risk Jim being seen and therefore caught and sold back into slavery, Huck leaves Jim hiding, usually with a story to tell to deter people from approaching him, Huck occasionally going over his dilemma of right/wrong in his mind.  When the Duke and the King, a couple of con men they meet about halfway through the story, commandeer the raft and essentially make Huck work for them, Jim is left behind to just sort of wait off page for days with a sign “sick Arab” to keep people from stealing him.

Jim’s portrayal may seem to those who have not paid too close attention to be that Black folks aren’t that smart.  Jim, having been a slave all of his life, has not been educated because it was illegal to educate slaves.  There is, however, a description of a free Black man from Ohio who is smart – a professor, actually – who can speak all kinds of languages and can even vote when he’s back home.  The only reason I could see for putting that description in there, albeit from Huck’s pap complaining about him, is to show that Jim’s portrayal was not in general the way the author saw Black people, but that this professor is what was possible if it would be allowed.  Of course, I’m not Mark Twain and can’t actually speak for him, but that’s what I got out of it.

I’m gonna go out on a limb here, and run the risk of being prosecuted and/or banished (since I’m already gonna be shot) and say that the book tackles many social issues of the time.  Racial and slavery issues surely, futility of a family feud that no one remembers the cause of and the families continue just ‘cause, fright of illness to the point of abandoning a near orphan boy whose family is sick (although Huck uses this to his advantage), insubstantiality of blind faith (i.e. you should do something about your problems rather than just pray for good things to happen), gullibility of people at the time (how many times did Huck pretend to be a Mississippi boy or an English valet or a girl?), but mostly, how kind but hypocritical people can be, satirizing – what was it that Wikipedia called it - Southern antebellum society.  Nope, I don’t know what that means, either.

There have been many movie adaptations of this book, mostly made-for-TV movies.  The most recent is the Disney version from 1993, directed by Stephen Sommers.  This is the one I will be looking at, partly because I think Elijah Wood is adorable in it (like in a little kid way – he’s only 12 in it – and not yet in the hobbitlicious way he is in The Lord of the Rings).

Disney has a knack for unnecessary alterations in their movie adaptations.  Some may be necessary for time or budget constraints, for example, Tom Sawyer is nowhere to be found in this movie, leaving some of the things that happen to Tom up to happening to Huck.  But often the addition or changes are frivolous.  Jim in the book is hinted at practicing a non-Christian religion such as Vodun for instance, but in the movie, even though he has the mystical ox bezoar, he gives more Christian-centric explanations, i.e. a black spirit and a white spirit turns into a spirit with horns and a spirit with wings respectively.  Jim goes wherever Huck goes and ending up getting caught and then just kind of walking off the new plantation that enslaved him.  So now he’s a double runaway slave.  When the Duke and the King show up toward the end, they dress him up like a
A geographical enigma.
“Swahili warrior” for the sole purpose of comic effect, since they never do anything with him and in fact end up leaving him by the raft.  Was that really needed?  No.  No it was not.  The movie does have its legitimately humorous moments, and I do get a few chuckles out while watching it.  And I do kind of find it funny that when the King (played by Jason Robards) and the Duke (played by Hagr Robbie Coltrane) and Huck go into town pretending to be from England, that not only is the kid from Iowa better at a Cockney accent than a Missouri one, but that the only one who actually is English plays a guy who pretends to be a deaf-mute (and thus doesn't need to speak with his pretending to be put-on accent).

See?  Little kid cute.
The movie’s message is not quite the same as the books.  It’s simplified to “slavery is bad” and shoves that message in our face no less than four times.  Huck is a bit more selfish, blaming Jim for thinking only of himself at times, although still a rough rapscallion of a boy raised in a hut in the woods.  Jim’s portrayal is the most drastically different.  He’s smarter and not so accepting of the “white folks knows best” attitude, although a half-hearted attempt at showing he is uneducated is made.  He starts right off the bat talking about how he was planning to run to the free states almost as soon as he meets up with Huck in the beginning, as if that was part of the reason he ran away in the first place.  And Jim says Huck is his best and only friend as a guilt trip in the movie, not in the sincere way he does in the book.  As far as the language used… Well, I must say when I first saw the movie a few years ago (during my Elijah Wood themed movie rental week…  What?  He’s always been one of my favorite actors) I was surprised by the amount of cussing present in a Disney movie.  “Honest Injun” does make a couple of appearances, but the N-word is swapped for “slave” – I guess Disney can stretch their image only so far.

The way the movie tells the story is incomplete.  There is no antebellum society to mock (I think) and no dilemma for Huck to overcome, he’s just a “wicked” boy from the beginning (interpret with the slang meaning if you wish.  I think he’s pretty wicked in that respect myself. J)  It’s heavy handed with the message, but still has some of the lightheartedness interspersed.  And there’s no Tom Sawyer to overcomplicate things.  Internal conflict is difficult to put on screen, I suppose, but we could have a subtler message or at least not be told what the message is so many times.  All-in-all, a better movie could have been made with this story.

You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter.
(See!  It’s a plug for Tom’s book in the very first line!)

*Although I admit the sentiment behind the use of the N-word may have been not particularly humane, I only know that because of other books I’ve read.  Many people, especially in the south, thought of Black people as less than human in order to justify their use as slaves, as Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry explains.  There is no other word in Huck Finn that denotes a Black person, and if you have read the book, or even just read this post, you’d know that Huck doesn’t think that way, even though he’s told by most of the adults that he ought to.

Also, I have nothing against rap or hip-hop, or how anyone chooses to express themselves.  I merely observe that the artists who use the N-word in their expression also use certain four letter words, and those who choose not to use those four letter words do not use the N-word.  And that middle and high school (and some elementary school) kids whose parents ban Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn listen to these artist.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Cliché Play: Fletcher's Syndrome

I’m writing today to tell you about a very serious disease that affects hundreds of main characters.   Fictional sleuths everywhere succumb to it's influence.  For where there is mystery series, there is Fletcher’s Syndrome.

Fletcher’s Syndrome is a dangerous and potentially fatal disorder that affects main characters who are detectives or otherwise investigators of crime.  Symptoms of Fletcher’s Syndrome include, but are not limited to, someone being murdered while at a friend's dinner party, someone being murdered while on that weekend getaway that has been in planning for months, someone being murdered while at a class reunion or extracurricular club reunion, a long-estranged (or at least hasn’t been seen an a few years) relative being murdered and the affected being the main suspect, a celebrity who the affected either idolizes or is seeing live being murdered or suspected of murder, and pretty much any leisure or professional situation the affected may find him- or herself in resulting in or involving murder.  Often, the sidekick, partner, family, or friends of those with Fletcher’s Syndrome show symptoms as well.    Those affected by Fletcher’s Syndrome are more often than not plagued by an incompetent police force and/or forensics team and an overzealous arresting officer or prosecuting attorney that is willing to base his or her entire case on circumstantial evidence.  Faced with these obstacles, the detective or investigator will usually try to solve the case him- or herself, and is often the only one who can. 

The only known remedy for those with Fletcher’s Syndrome is to clear the name of the accused party by coercing the guilty party into a confession.  This task does not necessarily need to be overly complicated due to the tendency of guilty parties involved in crimes in the general vicinity of those affected with Fletcher’s Syndrome to leave a plethora of evidence in their wake, overlooked by the aforementioned inept police and/or forensics force.  Guilty parties that are confronted by those with Fletcher’s Syndrome will nearly always admit to their crime once told the sequence of events conjectured by the clue gathering of affected.

There is no known cure for Fletcher’s Syndrome.  Those who have this dread disease cannot go about their daily lives without someone being murdered wherever they go.  Even if they take on cases that do not involve murder, the case will eventually involve murder or attempted murder or a death that is suspected murder but is actually accidental or natural.

Fletcher’s Syndrome is sometimes, but not always, contagious.  The disease will usually only spread to another character if said character becomes a partner of the original, takes over cases of the original, or has a spin off series.

Well-known sleuths with Fletcher's Syndrome include:

Author Jessica Fletcher.  Has a knack for turning her disorder into profit by turning her experiences into best-selling novels.  For this, Fletcher’s Syndrome was named for her.

Defense Attorney Phoenix Wright.  No less than half his cases were a result of Fletcher’s Syndrome, often with him, his sidekick Maya Fay, or his friend Larry Butz as the suspect.  He eventually passed the disease to both his successor Apollo Justice and his rival prosecutor Miles Edgeworth.

Shinichi “Jimmy” Kudo, aka Conan Edogawa.  Displays the worst case of Fletcher’s Syndrome on file.   Is really a seventeen year old sleuth whose Fletcher's Syndrome resulted in his age reversal to the body of a six year old boy.

"Psychic" and rather handsome detective Shawn Spencer.  Shows early signs of Fletcher's Syndrome in his first two seasons.  Progression of the disease can be observed in later seasons.

If you know someone with Fletcher’s Syndrome, add their name to the comments.  The more voices we have, the more we may someday find a cure.

[Yes, I am working on a full book/movie post.  It’s been a hectic week. All the reading and watching is done, I just have to do the writing.  I should have the new one up by Thursday.]

Just a note: All the series I referenced are series that I like and geek out about.  They are generally good, but I am kind of getting sick of seeing the main detective have murder follow him/her wherever he/she goes.  In the line of duty, sure if the client comes to him/her with a murder case or something with high potential of becoming one.  But out on a social call to a friend's house, in the middle of a roller coaster ride, or at a spelling bee?  It's a bit much, doncha think?