Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes

In honor of Black History Month this year, I decided to read a work by an African American author. I had several options to choose from on my Classics Club list, but I eventually settled on The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes. Prior to reading this, I was only familiar with Hughes' poetry. I don't read much poetry in general, but my work as a teacher has brought me into contact with several of his most famous works. Hughes' poems, without a doubt, are beautiful and thought-provoking. I was interested to see how this collection of short stories would compare.

The Ways of White Folks contains fourteen short stories, each exploring different interactions between white people and African Americans in the 1920s and 30s. These interactions run the gamut of human emotions. Some of the stories are humorous, showing white people that fetishize black culture and fail to understand how their fascination with all things African is ironic and silly. Other stories are tragic, showing the naked racism and violence that white people regularly employed to terrorize the black community. Many of the stories fall somewhere in the middle of those extremes, showing the awkwardness, unfairness, and hypocrisy that inevitably arise between two groups on opposite sides of an unequal society. All of the stories, no matter their tone, invite readers to pause and think about how strange and cruel life can be. Hughes is an excellent storyteller, and his keen observations of human behavior feel genuine. One gets the sense that this is an important work with layers of meaning to unpack.

I enjoyed each story in the collection, but a few stand out to me. In"Passing," a young man who is able to pass as white writes a letter home to him mother. In it, he apologizes for pretending not to know her when he saw her on the street. He was with his fiancé, who thinks he is white, so he couldn't acknowledge his mother without revealing his race. He feels bad about this, but knows that if he wants to have any semblance of a nice life, he must keep up the ruse.  It's a clever bit of story construction by Hughes that in order to pass for white, he is forced to literally pass by those he loves.

In "Little Dog," a white woman who lives alone decides to adopt a dog for companionship. She relies on the black janitor in her building to bring her dog food each night. After a while, she begins to have romantic feelings for this man. Her thoughts are entirely inappropriate for more than one reason. Aside from it being unthinkable for a white woman to be with a black man in America during this time period, the janitor is happily married with a houseful of children. She becomes so disturbed by what she feels that she ends up moving away. Her sadness and confusion hit me in a personal way. As someone in an interracial marriage, the idea of pulling away from someone you like based on skin color is especially sad to me.

There are several stories more dramatic and tragic than the ones I mentioned here, but I think I like the quieter ones the best. These little moments of fear, confusion, and sadness are more like the racism I've observed in my own life, so it was easy to make a lot of connections to modern society. One only has to consider the recent rise of white supremacy groups in the United States and the comments about people of color made by our current president to find chilling examples of how the attitudes of whites haven't changed much over the years when it comes to race--they've just gotten a bit less overt. This collection provides an excellent place to start examining these attitudes, and to consider the dark legacy of racism in this country.

I haven't read very many short story collections, so I don't have much to compare The Ways of White Folks to. It is clear, however, that this novel, with all of its humor, sarcasm, violence, and tragedy, is a great work with something important to say. While I wouldn't term this an easy read, it is a quick one that will challenge readers to explore how race relations in the United States have developed over time. This was a fitting choice to celebrate Black History Month, and anyone interested in Langston Hughes would do well to pick this one up.

Challenge Tally:
Back to the Classics (a classic with a color in the title): 3/12
Classics Club (#11 on my list): 24/100

Total Books Read in 2018:9

Monday, February 5, 2018

Heidi by Johanna Spyri

I happen to have a predilection for classic, squeaky-clean children's books. The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, The Chronicles of Narnia, Black Beauty, and Little Women are just a handful of books like this that hold a special place in my heart. I don't know what it is about these innocent little stories that draw me in. Maybe it's the depiction of goodhearted young heroes overcoming the odds, or maybe it's the simplicity of seeing kids being happy and kind to everyone. Maybe it's all the talking animals that tend to pop up. Whatever the root of my fascination, I can't help but fall headfirst into these sorts of books. When I saw that one of the Back to the Classics categories was to read a children's classic this year, I knew that I wanted to find another sweet novel to enjoy, so I chose Heidi by Johanna Spyri.

Heidi is the story of a little Swiss girl who is sent to live with her grandfather after her parents pass away. Heidi is only five years old when she joins her grandfather, who lives in an isolated little hut high up in the mountains. His troubled past and grief over his son's death have made him quite reclusive, earning him the nickname 'Uncle Alp' among the people that live in Dörfli, the nearest village. It doesn't take long, however, for little Heidi, with her inquisitive nature and joyful spirit, to win his heart and soften his gruff exterior.

Heidi spends a few years living with her grandfather in the mountains, enjoying the breathtaking scenery. She runs about all day with Peter, a young goatherd, exploring the forests and playing with the animals. At home, she helps to keep her hut tidy and to make cheese from the milk that Daisy and Dusky, her grandfathers goats, provide. She makes fast friends with everyone she meets, including Grannie, Peter's blind and sickly grandmother, whom she cheers up with her innocent chatter and natural optimism.

Her life takes a unexpected turn when her aunt suddenly arrives on the mountain and whisks her away to become a companion to a sickly, rich little girl living in Frankfurt. Heidi tries to make the best of her new situation, but pines away with homesickness for the Alps, her grandfather, and her friends. The noise and crowded buildings of the city cut her off from the natural world that she had come to love and fill her with sadness. Eventually, seeing her unhappiness, the family she was staying with allows her to return home. What ends up coming out of her time there, however, is a miracle, and this allows Heidi to learn a lesson about how life is full of surprises and generally turns out for the best, even if things seem dark for a time.

Heidi has been adapted into several movie versions and been published in many different languages all over the world. From the first chapter, it is easy to understand how this little story captured the hearts of so many people. It is, to put it simply, a ray of light. Everything in it, from the beautiful setting of the Swiss mountains, to the lovable cast of characters, to the simple plot, is heartwarming. Everyone in the story loves Heidi once they meet her, and all readers who appreciate these sorts of stories will invariably feel the same. Her personality is so sweet, kind, and generous that it inspires you to be a better person yourself. Her example is one well worth following, even if her relentless enthusiasm for everything might be a bit unrealistic.

Her relationship with her grandfather was probably my favorite part of the story. I definitely have a soft spot for nice paternal relationships in novels, and Heidi has that in abundance. To watch mean old Uncle Alp turn soft and caring under Heidi's influence was a treat. He learns a lot of lessons about forgiveness and courage right alongside his granddaughter, although what he learns has a bit of a darker side to it. When we first meet him, he is nursing a lot of pain, anger, and regret over things that happened in his past. While we don't get a lot of detail on his backstory, we do get the impression that he is a man who has made significant mistakes in his life, and he is quite hard on himself and others because of it. I know firsthand from my classroom how the example of an innocent child can inspire adults to change, and the watch it play out on the page made me smile.

Another wonderful aspect of this novel is how well the natural world is described. The Swiss landscape is shown in beautiful detail. Everything from the trees, to the flowers, to the little goats gamboling around the mountainside are lovingly rendered. The imagery is so strong that it made me homesick for a place I'd never been. Spyri based the scenery on a town where she spent many family vacations, and her own, personal connection to the setting shine through. I felt like I was getting a little peek at paradise, and I was suddenly jealous that I wasn't living in a hut in the Alps drinking goat milk and making cheese all day.

Anyone who enjoys sweet, classic children's stories will find a lot to love in Heidi. It is a book where life is beautiful, people love each other, and things always turn out for the best. I think the world could do with a few more stories like this these days, where simple kindness is enough to make everyone think the world of you. This book is a feel-good treasure and a fine addition to my collection of classic novels. I'm glad that I chose it for my challenge this year.

Challenge Tally:
Back to the Classics (a children's classic): 2/12
Classics Club (#22 on my list): 23/100

Total Books Read in 2018:8

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Out of all the books in the stack that my mother loaned to me, the one that I thought I'd like the least was The Rosie Project. I don't read a lot of romance in general, and definitely not modern romantic comedies. She took the time to recommend it to me though, so I felt honor-bound to give it a shot. Imagine my surprise when I ended up loving it.

The plot concerns Don Tillman, genetics professor with quite the quirky personality. He has Aspergers Syndrome, and he lives a life ruled by strict routines based on his incredible intelligence and logic. His skills have led him to become very successful professionally, but he has had less luck socially. He decides that he most efficient way to find a suitable romantic partner would be to create a questionnaire designed to weed out incompatible women and match him up with the ideal person for him.

His questionnaire brings a young PhD student named Rosie Jarman into his world. He immediately disqualifies her as a potential partner, but becomes interested in her personal project of trying to discover her birth father. Strangely drawn to Rosie's unpredictable and carefree ways, Don decides to use his genetics lab to try and help her figure out who her father is. As they work together more and more on this project, Don begins to realize that his interest in Rosie goes far beyond genetic testing, and he is forced to reconsider some of his preconceived notions about love, relationships, and himself.

This story was absolutely charming from top to bottom, and unlike any other romance I have read. Being written from the male perspective was one element that made it stand out, but Don's personality was its most unique aspect. His character is a bit similar to Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, but without the snark and pop culture obsessions. Being inside his head was both funny and a challenge, as you had to take his interpretations of various situations and figure out what social cues he was missing. Don's brain gets him into all sorts of situations--some are humorous, some are completely embarrassing, and some are pretty sad. It all felt genuine. I was completely engaged in the story from page one and was rooting for him to succeed.

Rosie, on the other hand, was less of an interesting character. Her personality, while fun and socially competent, was a bit flat. She had some emotional issues that made her somewhat frustrating to read too. She could be flighty and judgemental at times, and I felt like her interpretations of her stepfather's actions were quite immature. However, Don's character is so enjoyable that he largely made up for Rosie's drawbacks. I believe that Simsion was probably going for a whole "two damaged people meet and help each other" type of narrative, so I didn't let my dislike of Rosie bother me too much.

As far as romances go, this novel is about as PG as it gets. While I loved the overall story and Don's character, I did wish there had been a bit more chemistry between the leads. As Aspergers is a major factor in the romance, however, I understand why the spark was absent. Truthfully, this story is just as much about personal discovery as it is about love. While it is a romance, the relationship is only one part of Don's development. Watching him open himself up to new experiences and grow as a person was a treat.

So, I have to admit, mom was definitely right on this one. The Rosie Project is pure joy to read and is an easy book to recommend to pretty much everyone. It's a very different kind of romance, and I mean that in the best way possible. It's loving without being sappy, unique without trying too hard, and happy without being vapid. It's nice when a story can surprise you, and it's doubly nice when that surprise is so sweet.

Challenge Tally:
Clear the Shelves 2018: 3 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018:7