Saturday, June 25, 2011

Cry, the Beloved Country

Yes, God save Africa, the beloved country. God save us from the depths of our sins. God save us from the fear that is afraid of justice. God save us from the fear that is afraid of men. God save us all.

In 1948, a novel was published that told the world of the struggles, heartaches, and injustices of the people of South Africa. It called upon those in power to face the problems that they had created, and to strive to bring hope and healing back to the land. That same year, the horrible political system of apartheid became the way of life in South Africa, a way of life that would not be destroyed until almost 50 years later. Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country is a call for truth, justice, freedom, and human dignity.

The Plot:

Stephen Kumalo is an Anglican priest living in a small village in South Africa. When news comes regarding his sister, who left for Johannesburg years previous and did not write, he makes his first journey to the big city. He is immediately overwhelmed by the size and pace of city life. He is also shocked and saddened by the poverty and degeneration of the local native population. It is not long before Rev. Kumalo learns that his son, Absalom, who has also been gone for awhile, may have fallen into a life of petty crime.

Tragedy strikes when Absalom is accused of the murder of a local engineer who was heavily involved in seeking justice for the native tribes. Rev. Kumalo realizes that the engineer was also the son of a white farmer who lived near Kumalo's village. Shame, regret, doubt, anger, and grief envelope Rev. Kumalo as he struggles to keep his faith in God, in people, and in the country he loves. He can only wonder if the broken tribes of his people will ever be made whole again.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

In his introduction to the novel, Lewis Gannett writes, "We have had many novels from statesmen and reformers, almost all bad; many novels from poets, almost all thin. In Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country the statesman, the poet, and the novelist meet in an unique harmony." That is the perfect description of what this novel is.

First (and in my mind, foremost) this is a beautiful novel. It is lyrical in it's style and from the first line to the last, you will be swept away by the rhythmic, powerful tone that Paton uses. In fact, there are many places where the book reads almost like one long poem. It isn't often that a novel can be enjoyed simply for it's words, regardless of the story.

But, of course, the story itself is powerful too. So powerful, in fact, that it was one of the banned books during South Africa's apartheid. Like Rev. Kumalo, Paton is not blind to the degeneration of the native population like crime, alcohol abuse, and prostitution. But rather than simply view it as an internal problem, Paton lays the blame squarely at the European's door. The breaking up of the tribes, the forced labor in the mines, the ruining of tribal lands, the poverty, the lack of useful education...all of these have contributed to the problems that plague South Africa. The other part of the problem is that South Africa is not a unified country. Rather, it is three separate worlds (English, Afrikaans, and native) fighting for space and power. Paton attacks this also, urging us to not seek power over another, but to realize that true power is found only in love.

With such a heavy message as this, one has to wonder if this book can be at all uplifting. The answer is a resounding "yes". Though Paton deals with many difficult issues, he ends the novel with a glimmer of hope. Rain falls once again on the sunburned valley, local native farmers are given instruction on better methods, and a local white farmer uses his position to better the whole valley. Hope has come to the valley, but only because grief, anger, and prejudice have been laid aside in favor of a country built by and for the English, the Afrikaans, and the natives. I also enjoyed the strong faith portrayed in the novel. It is more than obvious that Paton's own faith had a great role in shaping him and his writing.

This is by far the best book that I have read this year. I can't begin to describe how enthralling, gorgeous, and uplifting I found it. If you have not yet read this gem, I suggest you do so immediately. It is a story that the world must continue to hear.

The Movie:

There are currently two version of this story on film. The first is the 1952 version starring Canada Lee, Charles Carson, and Sidney Poitier. I have not seen this one.

The other is the 1995 version starring James Earl Jones and Richard Harris. This was a very good version. Of course, some of the beauty and scope of the novel did not translate to the film, but overall it was a very good adaptation. I recommend it.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Weekly Geeks 2011-19: Notable Quotables

We all have our favorite bookish quotes. Some well known, and some not so well known. This week for our geeky assignment I thought it would be fun for us to share some of those favorites. It can be just one favorite that you'd like to highlight, or a whole list. It can be quotes from books, or quotes about books and reading.

I absolutely love bookish quotes. It always makes me feel good to see someone else express the felling for reading that I have. Here are some of my favorite quotes on books and reading. They have made me smile, laugh, and find kindred spirits among the family that spans time and place..the family of readers. Enjoy!

An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only. There is hope for a man who has never read Malory or Boswell or Tristram Shandy or Shakespeare's Sonnets: but what can you do with a man who says he 'has read' them, meaning he has read them once, and thinks that settles the matter? -C. S. Lewis from On Stories.

The venerable dead are waiting in my library to entertain me and relieve me from the nonsense of surviving mortals. -Samuel Davies

"But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do." -C. S. Lewis from An Experiment in Criticism

I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves. -Anna Quindlen, "Enough Bookshelves," New York Times, 7 August 1991

Where is human nature so weak as in a bookstore? -Henry Ward Beecher

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. -Jane Austen

You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children. — Madeleine L'Engle

A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say. —Italo Calvino

When I read a book, I put in all the imagination I can, so that it is almost like writing the book as well as reading it -- or rather, it is like living it. It makes reading so much more exciting, but I don't suppose many people try to do it. -Dodie Smith from I Capture the Castle

You think your pains and your heartbreaks are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who have been alive. -James Baldwin

Try to avoid your house catching fire, as this does no good at all. And while your house is still intact, it is a sound idea to persuade all babies and animals to live in another one - and if you really value your books, only offer hospitality to illiterates who won't persist in bloody touching them all the time. Mind you, you will have to tolerate them telling you you could open a shop with all these books (people have suggested this to me - in the shop) and betting that you haven't read them all. — Joseph Connolly (Modern First Editions: Their Value to Collectors)

Friday, June 3, 2011

Jayber Crow

"You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out - perhaps a little at a time."

Community. It is a word that very few of us understand in today's hurried modern life. Though we communicate more and more through television, social media, and the internet, we do not connect on an intimate level. The days of neighbors REALLY knowing their neighbors is a thing of the past, even in some of America's smallest communities. It is those days that American author Wendell Berry hearkens back to in his collection of novels centering around the lives of the members of the fictional community of Port William, Kentucky. In his 2000 novel Jayber Crow, Berry gives us a glimpse of this bygone era through the eyes of the community barber, who is at once a part of the community and outside of it.

The Plot:

This is the life story of Jonah "Jayber" Crow. Orphaned at a young age and raised at a river landing in Kentucky by relatives, Jayber is just beginning to learn what it means to belong somewhere when death again forces him to move on. After years spent at a charity institution, a seminary, and doing odd jobs, he finally finds his calling as a barber. That calling is completed when through chance (or providence), he finds his way back to the town not far from where he grew up, Port William.

As he spends his days cutting the hair of the men of Port William, Jayber gains a unique perspective on life in the small farming community. From friendly Burley Coulter and snobby Cecelia Overhold, to traditional farmer Athey Keith and his modern-thinking son-in-law Troy Chatham, the members of the Port William community are as varied and colorful as could be. As the years pass, time and modernity take it's toll on the community, and Jayber Crow must watch the things that have meant the most to him come to an end, one by one.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

There is a notice given by Berry at the beginning of this novel that reads as follows: "Persons attempting to find a 'text' in this book will be prosecuted; perons attempting to find a 'subtext' in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise 'understand' it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers. By order of the author." Thus, it is with some trepidation that I write a review of this book.

I first heard about Wendell Berry through the many recommendations over at The Rabbit Room where he is one of their more revered authors. That makes lots of sense, since Berry, like that website, places a lot of emphasis on community. Not the "we've got 2,000 friends on Facebook" kind, but the intimate, raw, and beautiful kind. Though Port William is far from the perfect place (there's plenty of lawlessness, immorality, and hurt going on), it still has much to recommend it. The closeness of it's people and the idea that what affects one member affects them all create an intimacy that few of us know today. Jayber himself might have the best perspective of the place. Though he is hard-working member of the community, as a bachelor, he is somewhat outside as well. He is well-involved in all of the public dramas, but as far as the personal ones he is left outside looking in.

But the loss of community is not all that Berry deals with throughout the novel. The destruction of war, the end of traditional farming, and the ever-growing dependence on debt are all touched on. But it is in his role as conservationist that Berry truly waxes poetic. Kentucky as it once was is given lots of space, and one cannot help but feel a connection with it, even if you have never been there. Many reviewers have stated that reading Berry's works have made them want to sell everything and find a piece of "heaven on earth" for themselves. Of course, the beauty the Berry describes is no longer there, for the preservation of community and of nature go hand in hand. Once the community of Port William begins to disintegrate, so do the natural wonders that surround it. It is this idea that ultimately gives Jayber Crow its bittersweetness.

So what was my overall impression of this work? It was fairly good, but I'm not enamored with it. I couldn't help but compare it with my impression of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, which I absolutely loved. While a worthwhile read, it won't be going on my "favorites" list. If this kind of book piques your interest, then you should definitely read it...but I wouldn't throw it out there as a must-read. Satisfying, but not what I would call delicious.