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Mapplethorpe

By Patricia Morrisroe

Random House  New York   1995    461 pages

I have always been a fan of photography and, in a marginal way, ever since college, Robert Mapplethorpe was on my radar. Somehow over the years his daring imagery made an impression and I was drawn to the macabre and fringes like the artist. I was interested to know more about him and a biography was just the thing. Yet, the more I read the less I liked the artist. I haven’t read many biographies, so I suppose I just presumed that, in the main, they highlighted the more lovable aspects of their subjects. This was a no-holes-barred type study that slowly but surely revealed a person I would never want to know. Mapplethorpe only cared about fame, period. Well, fame and fucking. Okay: fame, fucking and drugs…perhaps in that order. If those are the top three things you care about, imagine what you will do to get them. Mapplethorpe did them all. He used people in every way imaginable while being an asshole prick all the while. While reading the last half of the book I was audibly huffing and puffing every time he would make a dick move. Once, I was reading in bed while my husband was going through his pre-bed toilet and I said, “Man…this guy is just an asshole.” By the time my husband finished brushing his teeth I said, “He’s made five more dick moves since you’ve been in there.” It’s kind of a bummer when your gods are burned, but in this case he ended up burning himself. All his excess led to a slow death from AIDS. 

Prologue

“Mapplethorpe’s artistic credo had always been to ‘see things like they’ve never been seen before’” (4). “…the fascination of the abomination” (7).

Part One: Dark Secrets

“Robert Michael Mapplethorpe was born on November 4, 1946” (13).

“What Robert liked best, however, was the freak displays, where ‘ape girls,’ bearded women, tattooed men, snake charmers, and dwarves were hidden away in dark booths. His older sister, Nancy, was terrified of them, but Robert always wanted to peek inside and was frustrated by his grandmother’s efforts to keep him away. ‘There’s nothing worse than wanting to see something and having someone stop you,’ he said. The freaks became symbols to him of all things strange and forbidden, and while he would not pursue them as vigilantly as Diane Arbus did in her photographs, they would crop up in different guises in Mapplethorpe’s pictures. By identifying the Catholic Church and Coney Island as the two most vivid memories of his childhood, he was touching upon the essential drama of his photographs–the push-pull between the sacred and the profane that was to give his work what he called an ‘edge’” (18).

“Up until now, Robert’s vision of art had been limited to the iconography of the Catholic Church–the madonnas and Christ figures to whom he directed his prayers. His trips to the museums added another dimension, and he began drawing Cubist madonnas, inspired by Picasso. ‘These were not beautiful Botticelli-type madonnas,’ said Cassidy, ‘but grotesque creatures with split profiles. I guess they were religious in that they were madonnas, but there was something disturbing about the way he had broken up their faces’” (21).

“His lunch hours were spent at Times Square, where, after a hot dog at Nathan’s, he would got to Hubert’s Freak Museum to feast his eyes on such human curiosities as Sealo the Seal Boy, whose hands grew out of his shoulders; a hermaphrodite named Alberto Alberta; and Congo the Jungle Creep, a Haitian in a fright wig who performed voodoo rituals. Diane Arbus found many of her subjects at Hubert’s, but Robert lost interest in the freaks after he spotted a gay pornographic magazine in a store on Forty-second Street” (26).

“They led the overwrought pledges into another room, where they had devised a variety of different tests, many of which evoked the rituals of gay sadomasochistic sex. The Pershing Rifles were regarded as an elite military unit, and their stylish uniforms played into the fantasy of the master-slave scenario. In this case the ‘masters’ stripped the pledges naked, blinded them with sanitary napkins, and commanded them to perform close-order drill with their bayonets. Subsequently they bound the pledges’ penises with one end of a rope, then attached bricks to the other end and ordered them to hurl the brick across the room. Next the pledges were ordered to crawl into a bathroom on their hands and knees; they were told to eat excrement from a toilet bowl–it turned out to be mashed bananas and chunky peanut butter. Mapplethorpe later confided to Patti Smith that someone had also inserted the tip of a rifle into his rectum” (31).

“He preferred the art of self-presentation to self-analysis…”

[Margin note: Not “writing what he knows”] “Mapplethorpe was aware of Warhol’s growing reputation as a pop provocateur, and he had already targeted the elusive artist as ‘someone who knew what he was doing.’ Mapplethorpe’s attraction both to Warhol and to the Pershing Rifles was an early indication of how he would later take a ‘cool’ approach to his militaristic S&M imagery, but at Pratt he was still too intimidated by his own instincts to allow his creativity free rein” (32). 

[The monkey skull story]  “Scratch’s brief and bizarre history encapsulated many of the major themes of Mapplethorpe’s adult life–his preoccupation with images of death and violence; his fascination with the devil; his desire to transform the ugly, or freakish, into works of beauty. It also pointed to a darker side of his nature, which would later emerge in his sexual relationships with other men–a need to break all the rules and transgress taboos.”

“…his LSD flowers have more in common with Walt Disney’s Fantasia, but his benign, giddy view of nature was perhaps reflective of his belief that LSD had provided him with the ability to lose himself in a guilt-free sensory experience. And since he felt guilty about so many aspects of his life, drugs temporarily solved his moral dilemma.

“For the next twenty years Mapplethorpe would use drugs almost daily–marijuana, amphetamines, Quaaludes, acid, MDA, cocaine, and amyl nitrite; they became an integral part of his sexual experimentation, for they helped blur the distinction between pleasure and pain and allowed him to silence his internal censors. He found that drugs enhanced his creativity, too, and from that time on, he would never put pencil to paper–or later take a picture–without first getting stoned.

“Timothy Leary’s Psychedelic Reader became Mapplethorpe’s new bible, and instead of going to church he attended Leary’s “Celebrations” of the League for Spiritual Discovery (LSD) at the Village Theater on Second Avenue in Manhattan, which featured multimedia light shows and guest speakers such as LeRoi Jones and Allen Ginsberg.

“From living at home, to sharing an apartment with two army men and a studio with a monkey, Mapplethorpe settled into a brownstone on St. James Place, with was described by one occupant as a ‘psychedelic Animal House.’ The parquet floors were strewn with mattresses and drug paraphernalia, and hanging from the top of the mahogany staircase was an upside-down Christmas tree decorated with rubber chickens. ‘Everybody was doing so many drugs that the place had a real hallucinatory quality,’ said Claude Alverson, an interior-design major who lived on the top floor. The tenant devised a grotesque game called ‘Creative Kill,’ for which they were obliged to record on a kitchen clipboard the dates and ‘creative’ ways they exterminated the resident cockroaches. Visitors recalled seeing bugs impaled on safety pins and dangling from tiny nooses made of dental floss.

“Acid-inspired art was becoming so common at Pratt that teachers could often tell the exact moment a student had discovered drugs. Mapplethorpe’s drawings, for example, became more obsessive and detailed, and after taking LSD he would retreat to the brownstone’s garden, where he would spend five or six hours drawing a single leaf, or covering a piece of paper with his signature or thousands of colored dots. He shared a bedroom with Harry McCue, and although McCue refrained from taking drugs, he, too, was enthusiastic about the idea of being a psychedelic artist’. They searched for inspiration in the dreamlike eroticism of Hieronymus Bosch and Egon Schiele, and in photographs by the German surrealist Hans Bellmer, know for his unnerving images of dismembered dolls. They came to the conclusion that they would never be able to produce such graphically disturbing work unless they rid themselves of their traditional Catholic morality and embraced life at its most extreme.

“Mapplethorpe picked Andy Warhol to be his role model; the artist had created an antichurch within the Factory, his silver-walled studio on West Forty-seventh Street, where his followers–many of who, like Warhol, had been raised Catholic–were involved in exploitative sexual games that hinged on a need to confess their sins and seek absolution for them. Their outlandish and pathetic antics had recently been documented in Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, which Mapplethorpe had found ‘terrifying’ in the way its stars willingly descended into drug-induced paranoia and self-hatred. Clearly, Warhol was more Satan than saint, and after seeing the movie Mapplethorpe was further convinced that exploring the dark side would incite his imagination. He vowed that when he moved to Manhattan after graduation he would find Warhol, and perhaps befriend him.

“‘We wanted the power of Satan,’ McCue said, ‘so we tried to seek out people and situations through which we could get in touch with him.’ Some of their efforts were almost laughably juvenile, as in the time they bought a goat’s head from a butcher’s shop and, encircling it with candles, attempted to raise the devil himself. They targeted blacks and homosexuals as two groups with intimate ties to Satan, and they made a concerted effort to socialize with Bioletta and Rosita Cruz, whom Mapplethorpe was convinced knew voodoo witchcraft; they also visited Greenwich Village for the purpose of staring at homosexuals in order to bask in their malevolent aura.

“On one occasion McCue purchased a pirat’s shirt from a shop that catered to gay men, and although Mapplethorpe teased him about looking like a homosexual, he bought the same shirt the following week. It was all done in the spirit of ‘exploring the weird,’ as McCue described it, but given Mapplethorpe’s attraction to men, his motivations seem far more complicated. As with the Columbian Squires jacket and the Pershing Rifles uniform, he used clothing to forge an identity for himself, and with the pirate shirt he could play at being gay–for art’s sake.

“Mapplethorpe’s wardrobe at the time revealed a psychologically divided man; switching back and forth between a magician’s cape, a ‘homosexual’ shirt, and an ROTC uniform, he was still at war eith himself. That spring, the growing tension between Pratt’s art students and the engineers–’North Prattnam versus South Prattnam,’ as the school’s newspaper described them–would force Mapplethorpe to choose between the two uniforms.

“The engineering students largely comprised ROTC, and as the antiwar sentiment grew at Pratt, the army–and the engineers–were targeted as the enemy.” [margin note: turning point] “On April 15, 1967, fifty students from ‘Pratt Action for Peace’ joined 125,000 protesters in Central Park, and roused by the demonstration, they staged a sit-down four days later, to denounce the presence of a visiting army colonel on campus. Trapped inside the athletic hall along with the ROTC cadets, the colonel eventually escaped through the back entrance, leaving Robert and his regiment to face the 150 demonstrators who waved signs that read WAR IS HELL and USE YOUR BRAINS NOT YOUR GUNS. Mapplethorpe was booed and hissed by members of his own art department, and soon afterward he began soliciting advice from friends on how to fail his upcoming army physical. They suggested everything from puncturing an eardrum to mangling a leg, but Mapplethoorpe eventually opted to swallow a tab of acid before traveling to the army’s induction center on Whitehall Street. By the time he submitted to his physical, he appeared so psychotic the doctor deemed him unfit to serve.

“Escaping the army was Mapplethorpe’s last hurdle to freedom. No longer obligated to keep his hair clipped short, he let it grow past his collarbone. He had always toned down his outfits before he visited Floral Park, but he could not hide his hair; when his father saw it, he flew into a rage. Fathers across America were engaged in similar battles with their long-haired sons, but in this case Harry’s contempt was fueled by his growing suspicion that Robert was homosexual. Why else, Harry wondered, would his son have been rejected from the army? ‘You look like a girl,’ he shouted. ‘You make me sick.’

“In addition, Harry was infuriated by Robert’s latest revelation that he would not be graduating with the class of ‘67, for, having switched majors, he was now a semester behind. Harry had warned his son that he would pay for only four years of college, and true to his word, he refused to give Robert an extra penny. It was not a totally unreasonable position; Harry still had three children to educate on his modest salary. But Robert had failed to make any contingency plans, and he drifted through the rest of the semester in a druggy haze. Same Alexander, who had taught Robert typographic design several years earlier, recalled that Mapplethorpe stumbled into one of Alexander’s evening workshop classes and passed out on the floor. ‘He wasn’t even enrolled in the class,’ Alexander said, ‘but he stood there by the door, then he just fell.  I caught him and put him in a chair. He was totally blotto’” (42-6).

Gothic crow

“‘When I work, and in my art, I hold hands with God,’ he once scribbled in Smith’s notebook. She sparked his interest in the occult, and he often accompanied her to Samuel Weiser’s bookstore on Astor Place to buy manuals on witchcraft and astrology. She read the books while he studied the pictures, and he began to fashion an aesthetic that combined Catholic and occult symbols. His favorite motif was the pentagram, a five-pointed ‘magical’ star that would reappear again and again in his sculptures and photographs” (53).

“‘Nineteen sixty-eight had the vibrations of an earthquake about it,’ reported Time magazine. ‘America shuddered. History cracked open: bats came flapping out, dark surprises’” (56).

“‘Robert and Patti had gotten into a fight,’ Michels explained, and ‘Robert had hung the wolf.’ The next time Michels visited Smith, she sat in a corner muttering an incantation, and as her voice grew louder and the words more jumbled, a strange black cat pounced on the windowsill and entered the room. ‘It was like a death cat from Hell,’ Michels said. ‘I totally freaked.’ Michels made a swift retreat from Smith, and their relationship ended on that bizarre note.

Part Two: Patron Saints

“Mapplethorpe’s exposure to the Dionysian atmosphere of Max’s had made him even more determined to use gay pornography in his art, and he began searching through Times Squarre bookstores for old copies of gay magazines in order to understand the conventions of homosexual erotica. In the late forties, muscle and fitness publications such as Grecian Guild Pictorial and Physique Pictorial had begun to include photographs and drawings aimed at a growing gay readership, and the models, posed in bathing suits and loincloths, personified the idealized man. George Quaintance, an American illustrator and painter, contributed to Physique Pictorial, and before his death in 1957 he produced a series of pictures os naked cowboys and sailors who projected the all-American athleticism of Johnny Weissmuller. It was the Finnish-born artist Tom of Finland, however, who pointed to a new homoeroticism that was more overtly sexual. Aroused by this memories of German soldiers during World War II, he created drawings of men in black leather jackets, motorcycle caps, and knee-high leather boots that centered on the ‘butch’ male. It was an image that would become more and more visible as the growing gay rights movement helped erase the prevailing ‘camp’ behvioral style, by which some men adopted feminine mannerisms. Instead, gay activist advanced the notion that a man could be both gay and virile, which served to focus attention on the previously hidden S&M subculture, where men in leather bars enacted complicated master-slave scenarios that tested one’s masculinity” (72-3).

“Throughout the summer Smith had been giving impromptu poetry readings at the Chelsea, and using her raspy voice to accentuate the rhythm of the words, she was unconsciously edging her way toward a career in music. Certainly she could not have failed to notice the sudden prominence of rock and roll at Max’s Kansas City, where the Velvet Underground performed five nights a week, thereby paving the way for the emergence of a local New York band scene. Encouraged by the success of the Velvet Underground, Mickey Ruskin opened a cabaret on the second floor and helped launch the careers of Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen. Eventually the musicians began to outnumber the artists, as Max’s evolved from an art scene to a music scene” (90-1).

Colta  [what a cool name]

Part Three: Sex and Magic

“At the beginning, though, punk didn’t have such an extreme connotation; in fact, when Patti Smith and her band played an eight-week engagement at CBGB in the spring of 1975, the term ‘punk rock’ wasn’t even being used to define the emerging sound. ‘I think all the groups had one similarity in that we wanted to elevate the idea of rock while still trying to keep it simple,’ Smith said. ‘It was a real reaction against disco music and the glitter-rock thing. Our lyrics were much more sophisticated, and we weren’t into artifice at all. The whole punk phenomenon in England was much more reactionary and more ‘high style.’ We didn’t comb our hair not because we were making a political statement, but because we just didn’t comb our hair.’ Smith has often been credited with initiating the trend for ripped or shredded clothing, as she mutilated her T-shirts because she often felt ‘claustrophobic’ in them. Other performers embellished the ‘ripped’ style by piecing their clothing together again with safety pins, and later borrowing the accessories of the S&M subculture, to which punk owed a debt in its outlaw mentality and fascination with extremes. Such was the connection between music and sex that malcolm McLaren even owned a shop in London called SEX, which sold leather and bondage gear to both hardcore enthusiasts and artists alike. The shop was co-owned by fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, who summed up the prevailing ethos: ‘We’re totally committed to what we’re doing and our message is simple. We want you to live out your wildest fantasies to the hilt’” (154-5).

“Years later, when Rolling Stone composed a list of “The 100 Greatest Album Covers of All Time,” Horses ranked twenty-sixth. The stark black-and-white imagery provided a dramatic contrast to the psychedelic palette of most seventies rock albums, and Smith’s swaggering unisex pose radically altered the prevailing feminine stereotype of ‘girl singers.’ ‘I saw Horses in a record store in Australia,’ said art critic Paul Taylor, who died of AIDS in 1992, ‘and immediately fell in love with the picture. I didn’t know anything about Patti Smith or about punk, but I bought the album on the strength of the photograph. It was elegant and totally modern, and I remember looking at the photo credit and wondering, ‘Who is Robert Mapplethorp?’”

“But Studio 54 was more for socializing…[whereas] Mineshaft, [was] a hardcore ‘leather environment’” (189). “‘The scene at the Mineshaft was not about conversation.’”

“Nick…menacing demeanor of a pit bull, and his swarthy face, with its dark brows and black eyes, was made even more ominous by the flaming skull tattoo on his forehead” (190-1).

“Do it for Satan” (192).

“Arthur Fellig, better known as Weegee, who, during the thirties and forties, documented the seamy underside of New York’s nightlife” (204).

“Mapplethorpe was loath to be labeled a ‘gay artist,’ yet his rise to prominence paralleled the acceptance and assimilation of a gay aesthetic into the cultural mainstream. Frank Rich, in a 1987 essay for Esquire entitled ‘The Gay Decades,’ delineated nine episodes in ‘the homosexualization of America.’ These included Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band; the rise of Bette Midler and her campy bathhouse sensibility; rock music’s ‘merchandizing of androgyny’; the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 resolution that homosexuality should no longer be classified as a psychiatric disorder; and Studio 54’s institutionalization of gay chic. The gay rights and women’s movements helped liberate the male nude; women could now look at photographs of naked men in magazines such as Playgirl, thereby blurring the lines between ‘the sex that looks,’ as art scholar Margaret Walters defined the traditional male voyeuristic pose, and ‘the sex that is looked at.’ George Stambolian, who taught a course in the male nude at Wellesley College, explained: ‘For years the male nude was repressed, and when one spoke about ‘the nude,’ one usually meant the female nude. But in the late seventies, all that began to change. The Marcuse Pfeiffer Gallery did a major survey on the male nude that included works by both male and female photographers, and that inspired a lot of debate about the sexist notions we held about male nudes versus female ones–mean having to project a powerful image, women passive and powerless.’”

“In contrast, Mapplethorpe was working at a time when many gay photographers were using their pictures to express both their public and private selves. Both Arthur Tress and Duane Michals analyzed their homosexuality through dreamlike images that borrowed from surrealism and Jungian psychology; Robert Giard took pictures of nude models in ordinary domestic settings, such as in the bathtub or reading the newspaper; Jimmy DeSana photographed S&M scenes in a crude, confrontational way that was the exact opposite of Robert’s cool classicism; and Peter Jujar expressed his melancholy vision of the world through moody pictures of friends and lovers” (216).

“…framing had always been an integral part of his art” (218).

“STill, she might not have removed herself so quickly from the ‘vicious game’ had she not become involved with a man who roused her fantasies of unconditional love like no other boyfriend before him. Fred (Sonic) Smith had been the rhythm guitarist for the MC5, the Detroit-based group managed by White Panther leader John Sinclair. The ‘Five,’ as they were known, were expected to take his convoluted message of rock, dope, and armed self-defense to the airwaves. Sinclair had established a commune in Ann Arbor–’Trans-Love Energies’–where the band lived in an eighteen-room house with a group of women who, according to Rolling Stone, provided the ‘domestic energies’ by cooking, cleaning, and sewing their clothing. ‘It was an astonishing thing,’ said Danny Fields, who had once promoted the MC5, ‘because here was this band preaching liberation of all aspects of humanity, of the races, of the sexes, of everything. Then the men would come back from a concert, and they’d sit at a table chomping on spareribs, and the women would be in the kitchen scurrying around. The women didn’t eat with the men, except for John Sinclair’s wife, who had gone to school and was tough. But the others were these little pansy types in flowered hippie dresses just cooking and serving their men. I don’t know if Fred was married then, but they all had ‘women.’ You couldn’t tell one from the other. They were like nonpeople’” (221).

Part Four: Blacks and Whites

[margin note: racism]

“Photographic images of the black male nude, however, were relatively rare. Of the 134 images in Constance Sullivan’s Nude: Photographs 1850-1980, the black male is not represented at all. Given the taboo against male nudity in general, white heterosexuals were not inclined to celebrate the erotic properties of the black male body. And since blacks rarely had the financial resources to become art photographers, it was left to gay white men to present their vision of the black male nude” (237).

“It was a dramatic reversal from the days of Max’s Kansas City, where famous artists had traded their work for a bar tab. But Max’s had been replaced as an artists’ hangout by the elegant Mr. Chow’s on the Upper East Side, and the art stars of the eighties were not reclusive intellectuals, but people such as Keith Haring, who would later open a shop that sold T-shirts, shoelaces, and wallpaper that featured his trademark doodle designs” (285).

“…a Warhol silkscreen portrait of Mapplethorpe himself”  (297).

Part Five: the Perfect Moment

“…and certainly one of the most macabre images was the photograph he took of a human skull. It was, for him, the purest sculptural image of all; neither hair nor flesh spoiled its clean lines, and everything, literally , was stripped to the bone.

“He had been drawn to skull imagery from the time he first turned his pet monkey, Scratch, into a musical instrument, but never before had he used the death’s head symbol to make such a powerful statement about the terrifying process of bodily decay. He returned to the same theme in a more personal way with Self Portrait, 1988, one of his finest photographs, and certainly the most intimate. At first he had only intended to take a picture of one of his walking canes, which had a carved skull at the top, but while Ed Maxey and Brian English were busy setting up the shot, he suddenly disappeared into the bedroom and emerged, five minutes later, in a black turtleneck. He knew that by dressing in black the body could be made to appear almost invisible–he had used the same technique to great effect in his portraits of Doris Saatchi and Roy Cohn. Intuitively, Ed understood what Robert was trying to do, and as he photographed his brother, he focused the camera on the hand holding the skull cane, leaving Robert’s blurred face to drift into the darkness” (335).

Epilogue

Chronology of the “Perfect Moment” Controversy

“The AFA targeted a New York artist named Andres Serrano, whose Piss Christ, an image of a crucifix submerged in a yellow liquid, had been exhibited several months earlier at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem. (Serrano described Piss Christ as a protest against the commercialization of sacred imagery.)

[I had always mistakenly associated Piss Christ with Mapplethorpe]

Woolgathering/Just Kids

Woolgathering By Patti Smith

A New Directions Book  1992

The Woolgatherers

“And the image of the woolgatherers in that sleepy field drew me to sleep as well. And I wandered among them, through thistle and thorn, with no task more exceptional than to rescue a fleeting thought, as a tuft of wool, from the comb of the wind” (12).

Just Kids

By Patti Smith

HarperCollinsPublishers  2010  New York

I read this book in tandem with Patricia Morrisroe’s biography of Robert Mapplethorpe. I was interested to see if any of the stories collided. They were obviously different works with Patti writing from first person and Mapplethorpe being a biography. Patti focuses her work, Just Kids, on the friendship between Mapplethorpe and herself, mythologizing along the way about both of their personas. I often felt like Patti was working to appear stranger and more quirky than perhaps was actually her true self. Morrisroe’s Mapplethorpe biography did not focus on the friendship, for its target is Robert himself. Whereas the Mapplethorpe biography (to be summarized in a separate piece) does not shy away from the decadent details of sexual exploration pre-and-inside the AIDS epidemic, Smith engages in very little discussion of Mapplethorpe’s twisted sexual proclivities. It feels as if she wanted his focus to remain on her as muse rather than face the harsh reality that she was simply another stepping-stone to Mapplethorpe’s promotion of his outsized ego. 

Monday’s Children

“On one such day, limping back to the home front beneath the anvil of the su, I was accosted by my mother.

“‘Patricia,’ my mother scolded, ‘put a shirt one!’

“‘It’s too hot,’ I moaned. ‘No one else has one on.’

“‘Hot or not, it’s time you started wearing a shirt. You’re about to become a young lady.’ I protested vehemently and announced that I was never going to become anything but myself, that I was of the clan of Peter Pan and we did not grow up” (10).

“I’m certain, as we filed down the great staircase, that I appeared the same as ever, a moping twelve-year-old, all arms and legs. But secretly I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not” (11).

Of Mapplethorpe she writes: “The light fell upon the pages of his coloring book, across his child’s hands. Coloring excited him, not the act of filling in space, but choosing colors that no one else would select. In the green of the hills he saw red. Purple snow, green skin, silver sun. He liked the effect it had on others, that it distrurbed his siblings. He discovered he had a talent for sketching. He was a natural draftsman and secretly he twisted and abstracted his images, feeling his growing powers. He was an artist, and he knew it. It was not a childish notion. He merely acknowledged what was his” (13).

“No one expected me. Everything awaited me” (25).

“We piled the best leaves on the bread and happily ate.

“‘A real prison breakfast,’ I said.

“‘Yeah, but we are free.’

“And that summed it up” (28).

“When it got really rough, I would go back to Pratt, occasionally bumping into someone I knew who would let me shower and sleep a night. Or else I would sleep in the hall near a familiar door. That wasn’t much fun, but I had my mantra, ‘I’m free, I’m free.’ Although after several days, my other mantra, ‘I’m hungry, I’m hungry,’ seemed to be in the forefront. I wasn’t worried, though. I just needed a break and I wasn’t going to give up. I dragged my plaid suitcase from stoop to stoop, trying not to wear out my unwelcome.

“It was the summer Coltrane died. The summer of ‘Crystal Ship.’ Flower children raised their empty arms and China exploded the H-bomb. Jimi Hendrix set his guitar in flames in Monterey. AM radio played ‘Ode to Billie Joe.’ There were riots in Newark, Milwaukee, and Detroit. It was the summer of Elvira Madigan, the summer of love. And in this shifting, inhospitable atmosphere, a chance encounter changed the course of my life” (31).  She meets Robert Mapplethorpe.

Just Kids

“But Robert, wishing to shed his Catholic yoke, delved into another side of the spirit, reigned over by the Angel of Light. The image of Lucifer, the fallen angel, came to eclipse the saints he used in his collages and varnished onto boxes. On one small wooden box, he applied the face of Christ; inside, a Mother and Child with a tiny white rose; and in the inner lid, I was surprised to find the face of the Devil, with his extended tongue.

“I would return home to find Robert in brown monk’s cloth, a Jesuit robe he had found in a thrift store, poring over pamphlets on alchemy and magic. He asked me to bring him books slanted toward the occult. At first he didn’t read these books so much as utilize their pentagrams and satanic images, deconstructing and refiguring them. He was not evil, though as darker elements infused his work, he became more silent.

“He grew interested in creating visual spells, which might serve to call up Satan, like one would a genie. He imagined if he could make a pact that accessed Satan’s purest self, the self of the light, he would recognize a kindred soul, and that Satan would grant him fame and fortune. He did not have to ask for greatness, for the ability to be an artist, because he believed he already had that” (62-3).

“Robert was cutting out sideshow freaks from an oversized paperback on Tod Browning. Hermaphrodites, pinheads, and Siamese twins were scattered everywhere. It threw me, for I couldn’t see a connection between these images and Robert’s recent preoccupation with magic and religion” (67).

“It was in that spirit that we would go to Coney Island to visit the sideshows. We had looked for Hubert’s on Forty-second Street, which had featured Snake Princess Wago and a flea circus, but it had closed in 1965. We did find a small museum that had body parts and human embryos in specimen jars, and Robert got fixated on the idea to use something of that sort in an assemblage. He asked around where he might find something of that sort, and a friend told him about the ruins of the old City Hospital on Welfare (later Roosevelt) Island.”

“We went from room to room and saw shelves of medical specimens in their glass jars. Many were broken, vandalized by visiting rodents. Robert combed each room until he found what he was looking for, an embryo swimming in formaldehyde within a womb of glass.

“We all had to agree that Robert would most likely make great use of it. He clutched the precious find on the journey home. Even in his silence, I could feel his excitement and anticipation, imagining how he could make it work as art” (68).

“In early June, Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol” (69).

“In response I made a collage drawing for him called My Hustler, where I used one of his letters as a component. Even as he reassured me that I had nothing to worry about, he seemed to be moving deeper into the sexual underworld that he was portraying in his art. He seemed to be attracted to S&M imagery–’I’m not sure what that all means–just know it’s good’–and described to me works titled Tight Fucking Pants, and drawings in which he lacerated S&M characters with a matte knife. ‘I have a hook coming out of where his prick should be, where I’m gonna hang that chain with dice and skulls from it.’ He spoke of using bloody bandages and starred patches of gauze.

“He wasn’t merely jerking off. He was filtering this world through his own aesthetic, criticizing a movie called Male Magazine as ‘nothing more than an exploitation film using an all male cast.’ When he visited the Tool Box, and S&M bar, he felt it was ‘just a bunch of big chains and shit on the wall, nothing really exciting,’ and wished he could design a place like that.

“As the weeks went on, I worried that he wasn’t doing well. It wasn’t like him to complain about his physical condition. ‘My mouth is sick,’ he wrote, ‘my gums are white and achy.’ He sometimes didn’t have enough money to eat.

“His P.S. was still filled with Robert bravado. ‘I’ve been accused of dressing like a hustler, having the mind of a hustler and the body of one” (84). [Well…if it looks, sounds and walks like a duck…]

Hotel Chelsea

“I’m in Mike Hammer mode, puffing on Kools reading cheap detective novels sitting in the lobby waiting for William Burroughs. He comes in dressed to the nines in a dark gabardine overcoat, gray suit, and tie. I sit for a few hours at my post scribbling poems. He comes stumbling out of the El Quixote a bit drunk and disheveled. I straighten his tie and hail him a cab. It’s our unspoken routine.

“In between I clock the action. Eyeing the traffic circulating the lobby hung with bad art. Big invasive stuff unloaded on Stanley Bard in exchange for rent. The hotel is an energetic, desperate haven for scores of gifted hustling children from every rung of the ladder. Guitar bums and stoned-out beauties in Victorian dresses. Junkie poets, playwrights, broke-down filmmakers, and French actors. Everybody passing through here is somebody, if nobody in the outside world.

“The elevator is slowgoing. I get off at the seventh floor to see if Harry Smith is around. I place my hand on the doorknob, sensing nothing but silence. The yellow walls have an institutional feel like a middle school prison. I use the stairs and return to our room. I take a piss in the hall bathroom we share with unknown inmates. I unlock our door. No sign of Robert save a note on the mirror. Went to big 42nd street. Love you. Blue. I see he straightened his stuff. Men’s magazines neatly piled. The chicken wire rolled and tied and the spray cans lined in a row under the sink.

“I fire up the hot plate. Get some water from the tap. You got to let it run for a while as it comes out brown. It’s just minerals and rust, so Harry says. My stuff is in the bottom drawer. Tarot cards, silk ribbons, a jar of Nescafe, and my own cup–a childhood relic with the likeness of Uncle Wiggly, rabbit gentleman. I drag my Remington from under the bed, adjust the ribbon, and insert a fresh sheet of foolscap. There’s a lot to report” (91).

Stanley Bard is the hotel manager. They have Room 1017 for 55 dollars a week to live at the Chelsea Hotel.

“Twenty-third Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues still had a postwar feel” (96).

The Manson murders occur.

“A week or two later I waltzed into the El Quixote looking for Harry and Peggy. It was a bar-restaurant adjacent to the hotel, connected to the lobby by its own door, which made it feel like our bar, as it had been for decades. Dylan Thomas, Terry Southern, Eugene O’Neill, and Thomas Wolfe were among those who had raised one too many a glass there.

“I was wearing a long rayon navy dress with white polka dots and a straw hat, my East of Eden outfit. At the table to my left, Janis Joplin was holding court with her band. To my far right were Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane, along with members of Country Joe and the Fish. At the last table facing the door was Jimi Hendrix, his head lowered, eating with his hat on, across from a blonde. There were musicians everywhere, sitting before tables laid with mounds of shrimp with green sauce, paella, pitchers of sangria, and bottles of tequila” (105).

“The Chelsea was like a doll’s house in the Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe. I wandered the halls seeking its spirits, dead or alive. My adventures were mildly mischievous, tapping open a door slightly ajar and getting a glimpse of Virgil Thomson’s grand piano, or loitering before the nameplate of Arthur C. Clarke, hoping he might suddenly emerge. Occasionally I would bump into Gert Schiff, the German scholar, armed with volumes on Picasso, or Viva in Eau Sauvage. Everyone had something to offer and nobody appeared to have much money. Even the successful seemed to have just enough to live like extravagant bums. 

“I loved this place, its shabby elegance, and the history it held so possessively. There were rumors of Oscar Wilde’s trunks languishing in the hull of the oft-flooded basement. Here Dylan Thomas, submerged in poetry and alcohol, spent his last hours. Thomas Wolfe plowed through hundreds of pages of manuscript that formed You Can’t Go Home Again. Bob Dylan composed ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ on our floor, and a speeding Edie Sedgwick was said to have set her room on fire while gluing on her thick false eyelashes by candlelight.

“So many had written, conversed, and convulsed in these Victorian dollhouse rooms. So many skirts had swished these worn marble stairs. So many transient souls had espoused, made a mark, and succumbed here. I sniffed out their spirits as I silently scurried from floor to floor, longing for discourse with a gone procession of smoking caterpillars” (112-3).

“This mission led us to the city’s Bermuda Triangle: Brownie’s, Max’s Kansas City, and the Factory had moved from its original location on Forty-seventh Street to 33 Union Square. Brownie’s was a health food restaurant around the corner where the Warhol people ate lunch, and Max’s where they spent their nights.”

“Max’s Kansas City was on Eighteenth Street and Park Avenue South. It was supposedly a restaurant, though few of us actually had the money to eat there. The owner, Mickey Ruskin, was notoriously artist-friendly, even offering a free cocktail-hour buffet for those with the price of a drink. It was said that this buffet, which included Buffalo wings, kept a lot of struggling artists and drag queens alive. I never frequented it as I was working and Robert, who didn’t drink, was too proud to go.

“There was a big black-and-white awning flanked by a bigger sign announcing that you were about to enter Max’s Kansas City. It was casual and sparse, adorned with large abstract pieces of art given to Mickey by artists who ran up supernatural bar tabs. Everything, save the white walls, was red: booths, tablecloths, napkins. Even their signature chickpeas were served in little red bowls. The big draw was surf and turf: steak and lobster. The back room, bathed in red light, was Robert’s objective, and the definitive target was the legendary round table that still harbored the rose-colored aura of the absent silver king.

“On our first visit we only made it as far as the front section. We sat in a booth and split a salad and ate the inedible chickpeas. Robert and Sandy ordered Cokes. I had a coffee.The place was fairly dead. Sandy had experienced Max’s at the time when it was the social hub of the subterranean universe, when Andy Warhol passively reigned over the round table with his charismatic ermine queen, Edie Sedgwick. The ladies-in-waiting were beautiful, and the circulating knights were the likes of Ondine, Donald Lyons, Rauschenberg, Dali, Billy Name, Lichtenstein, Gerard Malanga, and John Chamberlain. In recent memory the round table had seated such royalty as Bob Dylan, Bob Neuwirth, Nico, Tim Buckley, Janis Joplin, Viva, and the Velvet underground. It was as darkly glamorous as one could wish for. But running through the primary artery, the thing that ultimately accelerated their world and then took them down, was speed. Amphetamine magnified their paranoia, robbed some of their innate powers, drained their confidence, and ravaged their beauty” (116-7).

“We drew on everything from Butterfield 8 to the French New Wave. She shot the stills from our imagined movies. Although I didn’t smoke, I would pocket a few of Robert’s Kools to achieve a certain look. For our Blaise Cendrars shots we needed thick smoke, for our Jeanne Moreau a black slip and a cigarette.

“When I showed him Judy’s prints, Robert was amused by my personas. ‘Patti, you don’t smoke,’ he’d say, tickling me. ‘Are you stealing my cigarettes?’ I thought he would be annoyed, since cigarettes were expensive, but the next time I went to Judy’s, he surprised me with the last couple from his battered pack.

“‘I know I’m a fake smoker,’ I would say, ‘but I’m not hurting anybody and besides I gotta enhance my image.’ It was all for Jeanne Moreau” (125).

“I looked around at everyone bathed in the blood light of the back room. Dan Flavin had conceived his installation in response to the mounting death toll of the war in Vietnam. No one in the back room was slated to die in Vietnam, though few would survive the cruel plagues of a generation” (127).

Gregory made lists of books for me to read, told me the best dictionary to own, encouraged and challenged me. Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs were all my teachers, each one passing through the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel, my new university” (138).

“‘I don’t want to sing. I just want to write songs for him. I want to be a poet, not a singer’” (142).

“Memento mori. It means ‘Remember we are mortal’” (155).

I call my granddaughter LouLou, so this next passage stood out to me: “I liked Loulou, a charismatic redhead who was the celebrated muse of Yves Saint Laurent, the daughter of a Schiaparelli model and a French count. She wore a heavy African bracelet, and when she unclasped it, there was a red string tied around her tiny wrist, placed there, she said, by Brian Jones” (156).

“Michael Pollard was usually by her side. They were like adoring twins, both with the same speech patterns, punctuating each sentence with man. I sat on the floor as Kris Kristofferson sang her ‘Me and Bobby McGee,’ Janis joining in the chorus. I was there for these moments, but so young and preoccupied with my own thoughts that I hardly recognized them as moments” (159).

“It was an infamous address, having housed the Film Guild Cinema in the twenties, and a raucous country-western club hosted by Rudy Vallee in the thirties. The great abstract expressionist artist and teacher Hans Hoffman had a small school on the third floor through the forties and fifties, preaching to the likes of Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Willem de Kooning. In the sixties it housed the Generation Club, where Jimi Hendrix used to hang out, and when it closed he took over the space and built a state-of-the-art studio in the bowels of 52 Eighth Street” (168).

“I was excited to go. I put on my straw hat and walked downtown, but when I got there, I couldn’t bring myself to go in. By chance, Jimi Hendrix came up the stairs and found me sitting there like some hick wallflower and ginned. He had to catch a plane to London to do the Isle of Wight Festival. When I told him I was too chicken to go in, he laughed solely and said that contrary to what people might think, he was shy, and parties made him nervous. He spent a little time with me on the stairs and told me his vision of what he wanted to do with the studio. He dreamed of amassing musicians from all over the world in Woodstock and they would sit in a field in a circle and play and play. It didn’t matter what key or tempo or what melody, they would keep on playing through their discordance until they found a common language. Eventually they would record this abstract universal language of music in his new studio.

“‘The language of peace. You dig?’ I did.

“I can’t remember if I actually went into the studio, but Jimi never accomplished his dream. In September I went with my sister and Annie to Paris. Sandy Daley had an airline connection and helped us get cheap tickets. Paris had already changed ina year, as had I. It seemed as if the whole of the world was slowly being stripped of innocence. Or maybe I was seeing a little too clearly.

“As we walked down the boulevard Montparnasse I saw a headline that filled me with sorrow: Jimi Hendrix est mort. 27 ans. I knew what the words meant” (169).

“But the next night we would meet in Johnny’s room to console one another again. I wrote but two words in my diary: Janis Joplin. For she had died of an overdose in room 105 of the Landmark Hotel in Los Angeles, twenty-seven years old” (170).

Holy Modal Rounders

“It was like being at an Arabian hoedown with a band of psychedelic hillbillies. I fixed on the drummer, who seemed as if he was on the lam and had slid behind the drums while the cops looked elsewhere. Toward the end of their set he sang a song called ‘Blind Rage,’ and as he slammed the drums, I thought, This guy truly embodies the heart and soul of rock and roll. He had beauty, energy, animal magnetism” (171). That man turned out to be Sam Shepard “the biggest playwright off-Broadway. He had a play at Lincoln Center. He won five Obies!”

“I was also writing more pieces for rock magazines–Crawdaddy, Circus, Rolling Stone. This was a time when the vocation of a music journalist could be an elevated pursuit. Paul Williams, Nick Tosches, Richard Meltzer, and Sandy Pearlman were some of the writers I held in esteem. I modeled myself after Baudelaire, who wrote some of the great idiosyncratic critiques of nineteenth-century art and literature” (178).

“I wanted to infuse the written word with the immediacy and frontal attack of rock and roll” (180).

…”but then I remembered Lenny Kaye had said he played electric guitar. I went to see him.”

“With a nod to Brecht, I decided to open the reading singing ‘Mack the Knife.’ Lenny played along” (181).

“We finished with ‘Ballad of a Bad Boy’ accompanied by Lenny’s strong rhythmic chords and electric feedback. It was the first time an electric guitar had been played in St. Mark’s Church, provoking cheers and jeers. As this was hallowed ground for poetry, some objected, but Gregory was jubilant.”


“I was bombarded with offers stemming from my poetry reading. Creem magazine agreed to publish a suite of my poems; there were proposed readings in London and Philadelphia; a chapbook of poems for Middle Earth Books; and a possible record contract with Steve Paul’s Blue Sky Records. At first this was flattering, and then seemed embarrassing. It was a more extreme reaction than had greeted my haircut” (182).

“I thought of something I learned from reading Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas by Mari Sandoz. Crazy Horse believes that he will be victorious in battle, but if he stops to take spoils from the battlefield, he will be defeated. He tattoos lightning bolts on the ears of his horses so the sight of them will remind him of this as he rides. I tried to apply this lesson to the things at hand, careful not to take spoils that were not rightfully mine” (183).

“When we got to the part where we had to improvise an argument in a poetic language, I got cold feet. ‘I can’t do this,’ I said. ‘I don’t know what to say.’

“‘Say anything,’ he said. ‘You can’t make a mistake when you improvise.’

“‘What if I mess it up> What if I screw up the rhythm?’

“‘You can’t,’ he said. ‘It’s like drumming. If you miss a beat, you create another.’

“In this simple exchange, Sam taught me the secret of improvisation, one that I have accessed my whole life” (185).

“An important new presence entered Robert’s life. David had introduced Robert to the curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. John McKendry was married to Maxime de la Falaise, a leading figure in New York’s high society. John and Maxime provided Robert with an entrance into a world that was as glamorous as he could have wished for. Maxime was an accomplished cook and hosted elaborate dinner parties where she served obscure dishes taken from her knowledge of centuries of English cooking. For every sophisticated course presented, there was equally well-spiced repartee served up by her guests. Those typically seated at her table: Bianca Jagger, Marisa and Berry Berenson, Tony Perkins, George Plimpton, Henry Geldzahler, Diane and Prince Egon von Furstenberg” (189).

“Being allowed to lift the tissues from these photographs, actually touch them and get a sense of the paper and the hand of the artist, made an enormous impact on Robert. He studied them intently–the paper, the process, the composition, and the intensity of the blacks. ‘It’s really all about light,’ he said” (190).

“I never anticipated Robert’s complete surrender to its powers. I had encouraged him to take photographs to integrate into his collages and installation, hoping to see him assume the mantle of Duchamp. But Robert had shifted his focus. The photograph was not a means to an end, but the object itself. Hovering over all of this was Warhol, who seemed to both excite and paralyze him.

“Robert was determined to do something Andy had not yet done. He had defaced Catholic images of the Madonna and Christ; he had introduced physical freaks and S&M imagery into his collages. But where Andy had seen himself as a passive observer, Robert would eventually insert himself into the action. He would participate in and document that which he had previously only been able to approximate through magazine imagery.

“He began to branch out, photographing those he met through his complex social life, the infamous and the famous, from Marianne Faithfull to a young tattooed hustler. But he always returned to his muse. I no longer felt that I was the right model for him, but he would wave my objections away. He saw in me more than I could see in myself. Whenever he peeled the image from the Polaroid negative, he would say, ‘With you I can’t miss’” (192).

Separate Ways Together

“It seemed like Allen was always on the road with Blue Oyster Cult…”(213).

Todd Rundgren and Bebe Buell  [We now know what this coupling produced]

Holding Hands With God

Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary

by Gustave Flaubert

A Norton Critical Edition Trans. Paul De Man New York  1965

I can tell I read this book long ago because my reading note style has changed significantly since then. There were no end-of-chapter summaries which I incorporate now. The best bits were marked in highlighter which I find fades over the years. I caught up with plot twists by writing in pencil in very small lettering in the margins. Now I write in pen as long as the ink doesn’t seep through to the other side. I didn’t even write my name inside the front cover which I do now along with the season and year in which I completed the read. I wasn’t sure there would be enough material to share, but some of these lines are wonderful. I know I read this during the time before I’d read the intro or preface thinking it unnecessary and boring; it is not. I also did not read any of the critical reflections on the work afterward. If I were doing a serious college paper on Madame Bovary I would read all the critical works provided in the back of the book. Madame Bovary was first printed in 1857 and was originally written in French. At the time it was seen as scandalous and in need of censors.

“He grew thin, his figure became taller, his face took a saddened look that made it almost interesting” (7).

“For him the universe did not extend beyond the silky circumference of her petticoat” (24).

“This nature, positive in the midst of its enthusiasms, that had loved the church for the sake of the flowers, and music for the words of the songs, and literature for the passions it excites, rebelled against the mysteries of faith as it had rebelled against discipline, as something alien to her constitution” (28).

“Perhaps she would have liked to confide all these things to some one. But how tell an undefinable uneasiness, changing as the clouds, unstable as the winds? Words failed her and, by the same token, the opportunity, the courage” (29).

About the baby: “Thus she did not amuse herself with those preparations that stimulate the tenderness of mothers, and so her affection was perhaps impaired from the start” (63).

Because he is not the jealous type, Charles thinks nothing of Leon spending time with Emma. “Wasn’t the husband also a part of her after all” (71)?

Emma is praising Charles to Leon…out of nervousness? Charles is late and is due any minute. This irritates Leon.

Charles becomes the representation of her unfulfilled dreams: “What exasperated her was that Charles did not seem to be aware of her torment. His conviction that he was making her happy looked to her a stupid insult, and his self-assurance of this point sheer ingratitude. For whom, then, was she being virtuous? Was it not for him, the obstacle to all happiness, the cause of all misery, and, as it were, the sharp clasp of that complex strap that buckled her in all sides” (77)?

Emma meets Monsieur Rodolphe Boulanger who wants her, but only for an affair: “‘I think he is very stupid. She must be tired of him, no doubt. He has dirty nails, and hasn’t shaven for three days. While he is trotting after his patients, she sits there mending socks. How bored she gets! How she’d want to be in the city and go dancing every night! Poor little woman! She is gaping after love like a carp on the kitchen table after water. Three gallant words and she’d adore me, I’m sure of it. She’d be tender, charming. Yes; but how get rid of her afterwards’ (93)? He plans his strategy to use her.

By page 117, Emma and Rodolphe do the nasty.

The first thing Rodolphe does to slow things down: “‘What is wrong?’ she said. ‘Are you ill? Tell me!’

“He ended up declaring earnestly that her visits were too dangerous and that she was compromising herself” (118). 

There is regret and more regret.

When Charles was at his lowest Emma rejected him. She hates his existence. 

Uh-oh! Now the shop man knows Emma is having an affair! Emma begins to change and become more bold.

The shop man now knows she is planning to run away. The closer they get to their escape, the more Rodolphe understands this will be a mistake.

Although he was a womanizer, Emma regrets not being a man.

Another regret: “All her attempts at critical detachment were swept away by the poetic power of the acting, and, drawn to the man by the illusion of the part, she tried to imagine his life–extraordinary, magnificent, notorious, the life that could have been hers if fate had willed it. If only they had met! He would have loved her, they would have travelled together through all the kingdoms of Europe from capital to capital, sharing in his success and in his hardships, picking up the flowers thrown to him, mending his clothes” (163).

They see Leon at the opera. She is so easily swayed by the moment that it is pathetic!

Charles is absolutely oblivious to the motives of other men.

Charles puts even his grief for his own father’s death behind him for Emma.

Emma wants power of attorney in order to manage Charles’s inheritance.

Emma stays out all night…BRAZEN!

“One must not touch one’s idols, a little of the gilt always comes off on one’s fingers” (205).

“Besides, nothing was worth the trouble of seeking it; everything was a lie. Every smile concealed a yawn of boredom, every joy a curse, every pleasure its own disgust, and the sweetest kisses left upon your lips only the unattainable desire for a greater delight” (206).

Since Leon does not show with the money, Emma, at the last minute, thinks of Rodolphe.

You will have to read the novel to find how it ends!

The Norton Edition includes:

Earlier Versions of Madame Bovary 

“Structures of Imagery in Madame Bovary” by D. L. Demorest

“On Rereading Madame Bovary” by Albert Beguin

Biographical Sources:

“The Real Source of Madame Bovary” by Rene Dumesnil

“Flaubert and Madame Bovary: Outline of a New Method” by Jean-Paul Sartre

“Letters about Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert

Essays in Criticism:

Contemporary Reactions:

By Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve

By Charles Baudelaire

Stylistic Studies:

“Style and Morality in Madame Bovary” by Henry James

“The Craft of Fiction in Madame Bovary” by Percy Lubbock

“Flaubert’s Language” by W. Von Wartburg

Thematic Studies:

“On the ‘Inner Environment’ in the Work of Flaubert” by Charles Du Bos

Madame Bovary” by Albert Thibaudet

“The Realism of Flaubert” by Erich Auerback

“The Circle and the Center: Reality and Madame Bovary” by Georges Poulet

Madame Bovary: the Cathedral and the Hospital” by Harry Levin

“Love and Memory in Madame Bovary” by Jean Pierre Richard

Madame Bovary: Flaubert’s Anti-Novel” by Jean Rousset

Selected Bibliography

Pictures From an Institution

A Comedy

By Randall Jarrell

This book has been on my shelf for years. The paper cover is pretty battered and the colors are drab and boring. From the title and the cover, I assumed Jarrell had taken notes on various patients in a mental institution, perhaps in the 1950s or ‘60s. None of those things could be further from the hilarity that is this story. If I would have known it was about professors at a small girls college I would have read it a decade ago! The writing style is so lyrical and poetic that I had to look up Randall Jarrell. It all came to make sense when I found out he was a real-life poet! As you know, I like to share “the best bits” by transcribing the most beautiful, touching, joyous or heartbreaking lines, but the language in this book is so off-the-charts that I would have had to mark every line. I had to stop. If you are a professor, a lover of poetry, comedy or spot-on scathing character sketches, you must read this book!

Meridian Fiction  New York  1960

Randall Jarrell was born on May 6, 1914, in Nashville, Tennessee. He was educated at Vanderbilt University and has distinguished himself as poet, critic, novelist, and teacher. He has taught at various colleges, including Princeton, and has been poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. Jarrell has published five volumes of poetry; a book of criticism, and edited an anthology of short stories.

  1. The President Mrs., and Derik Robbins

It is Constance Morgan’s last day as assistant to the secretary. 

“…her features, as far as one could distinguish them, were undistinguished” (5).

Gertrude had been teaching at the college. Constance listens to Gertrude and President Robbins as they say goodbye.

“Gertrude and the President’s Friendship at First Sight had lasted only until they took a second look at each other. After this look Gertrude no longer felt as if she had just taken a drink, but felt as if she had a long time ago taken a great many: that look awoke both of them from their amicable slumbers.

“What a pity it was that that party had ever been given! –the party that brought with it their first terrible quarrel, a quarrel that ended their friendship after eleven days. Without the party, they both felt bitterly, it might have lasted for weeks. One could not help blaming Gertrude a little more than one blamed the President; the President, like most people, behaved in a different way after he had a great deal to drink, but Gertrude, knowing no other, behaved as she always behaved. But the drinks at the party, the almost unavoidable intimacies at the party, what they had said and what Mrs. Robbins had said and what people had said they all of them had said at the party–these, the memory of these, made Gertrude and the President look narrowly at each other, and their eyes widened at what they saw. George looked at the dragon and thought, Why, that woman’s a dragon; and the dragon looked at George and thought, That’s no man, that’s an institution” (7).

A very fun description of the novelist, Gertrude Johnson, who is leaving.

Who could explain President Robbin’s marriage?

“People did not like Mrs. Robbins, Mrs. Robbins did not like people; and neither was sorry.”

“Often, when you have met a true Englishwoman–the false ones are sometimes delightful–you feel that God himself could go no further, that way. Mrs. Robbins existed to show what he could do if he tried” (11).

“To hear her was to be beginning to despair” (13).

Mrs. Robbins’s horrid personality. Later in the book I began to realize that most of the text is description of character. Not much actually happens; therefore, chapter summaries became less and less frequent.

President Robbins has illusions about himself. There is the thought that only some people are very important. Derek is the president’s son and he is kind of odd.

President Benton is a slick orator, good at raising funds, and different than us.

“Not to have given him what he asked, they felt, would have been to mine the bridge that bears the train that carries the supply of this year’s Norman Rockwell Boy Scout Calendars. They felt this; it seems far-fetched to me” (27).

Did Gertrude go on to write lies about President Robbins in her next novel?

  1. The Whittakers and Gertrude

Couples attend a party at Gertrude’s house.

“People say that conversation is a lost art: how often I have wished it were” (41)!

“Gertrude didn’t want conversation, she wanted an audience” at the dinner party.

“…she was so thin you could have recognized her skeleton. Sometimes it seemed to you that she was not a person, not a thing, but an idea, and a mistaken one at that. A badly mistaken one: she always said not the wrong but the wrongest, the most wrongest thing–language won’t express it” (44).

“When well-dressed woman met Flo they looked at her as though they couldn’t believe it. She looked as if she had waked up and found herself dressed–as if her clothes had come together by chance and involved her, an innocent onlooker, in the accident. If a dress had made her look better than she really did, she would have felt guilty; but she had never had such a dress” (45).

“In the classroom, where Dr. Whittaker was almost as much at home as in his study, this would not have happened; there each sentence lived its appointed term, died mourned by its people, and was succeeded by a legitimate heir” (50).

There are hilarious descriptions of Flo and others and a dinner party at which no one ate. Gertrude disparages the South from which she still keeps an accent. How Gertrude feels about the music teacher. We meet Gertrude’s devoted husband, Sidney.

  1. Miss Batterson and Benton

Miss Batterson was an earlier creative writing teacher.

The teaching philosophy and life at Benton.

“Benton was, all in all, a surprisingly contented place. The people who weren’t contented got jobs elsewhere–as did, usually, any very exceptional people–and the others stayed. They didn’t need to be exceptional: they were at Benton. One felt that they felt that all they had to do was say, “I’m at Benton,’ and their hearer would say, raising his hand: ‘Enough!’” (105).

We learn why Benton is the subject of Gertrude’s novel. Miss Batterson got a better job but soon died. There is a funeral.

How the Rosenbaums live; very European. The narrator recalls a story told by Miss Batterson about her father.

  1. Constance and The Rosenbaums

Gertrude looks at life as fodder for her novels.

Dr. Rosenbaum’s wife and Constance’s friendship with the Rosenbaums.

“Old faces are forbidding or beautiful for what is expressed in them; in a face that is young enough almost everything but the youth is hidden, so that it is beautiful both for what is there and what cannot yet be there. Constance’s face was a question mark that you looked at and did not want to find an answer for” (146).

Constance and her music. Colleagues talking about home with the Rosenbaums. Irene singing. Constance is upset about the portrayal of the Rosenbaums in Gertrude’s story. The Rosenbaums’ personalities are described.

“…it is better to entertain an idea than to take it home to live with you for the rest of your life” (173).

How Americans are different from Europeans. Irene and her personality.

  1. Gertrude and Sidney

Gertrude was filled with anger she couldn’t understand. The narrator is dropping some work from a student at Gertrude’s. Gertrude takes care of her sick husband.

“But now that she saw she could not possibly get along without Sidney, her trust was shaken. When Sidney found out that she was in his power–if he found out, her heart substituted hastily–what would he do? How could you trust anyone with such power” (206)?

“…if Sidney had come home from work some evening and had said to her, ‘I’m not interested in you any more, Gertrude,’ she would have thought this a disastrous but perfectly reasonable, perfectly predictable thing for him to say–he would simply have come to his senses” (207).

“…she was like a magic sword that is content only as it comes shining from the scabbard” (209).

Gertrude can do without all others, except Sidney.

  1. Art Night

Gertrude is drunk as they head to Art Night.

“Mr. Daudier had a queer look on his face, as if he were a box of mixed nuts, but mostly peanuts…” (242).

  1. They All Go

If you are a teacher and/or love lines that run like crazy poetry, please read this book!

On Reading


[Author’s note: There are all types of reading material and all reading time is well-spent. This information is specifically focused on books and how to study books. Thoughts on reading are never final; I may be adding to and editing this piece until I die.]

Do not undertake the acquisition of a book lightly. In fact, do not even pick up or buy a book that you do not sincerely intend to read. Books not only take up physical space but mental space. Now you are expected to do something with that thing you bought; that money you spent. When you buy or acquire a book, you are making a promise. Think of the book as a living being. You are now committed, at least until the last page of the book, to that being. In the acquisition of a book you are saying, “I may place you on the shelf, but you are there for a good reason. I will see you. Although you must wait your turn, you will have your time to shine. You will be lovingly handled, read, contemplated, marked, discussed, explored. What is inside of you will end up inside of me. I will not make you wait for nothing. You mean something to me.” If you are not going to read the book, why have it around? Ego boosting? One who has a well-curated bookshelf but does not read is only a fake.

Do not short-shrift the reading of the book. The reading of the book is the enactment of the commitment you have made to the book. Don’t attempt to read deeply in noisy or distracting places. Everyone knows you are not absorbing that Shakespearean play in the middle of a Starbucks. You are not contemplating moral philosophy while also watching television. Turn off your music. Turn off the tv. Go to a quiet place. Set yourself up for success by having something to sip within arm’s length. Have a pen or pencil nearby. Chew gum. I prefer the use of a bookmark rather than torturing the book with dog ears; that’s disrespectful. (Remember when I said to treat your book like a living being?) Bookmarks can be any flat material (even that Starbucks napkin), so don’t say you don’t have one. Proper bookmarks that have flat-edged stiffness are good to use for underlining so your annotations look less palsied. Choose active brain time to read as well. Sure, you can read at bedtime, but once you have determined you are falling asleep, you are no longer absorbing the material. Magazines are better suited for this purpose. If you only use reading in order to sleep, then you are not sincerely reading; you are using the text for an off-brand purpose. What you need is chamomile tea, not zombie-like meanderings through books.

Once you begin a book, commit to finishing the book. Don’t punk out. You can view the book as a challenge: You won’t best me! I have endurance! If the book evokes your fighting spirit, all the better. Don’t allow even the longest of books to intimidate you. YOU intimidate the book! If you are not on a timeline, who cares how long it takes you to complete the book? A page a day is for babies, but even three or six pages a day will eventually lead you to complete that book. Of course, it is best when the book absorbs your mind and you cannot put it down. In this case, you have found your genre and/or author. Find more books of like-kind because now you know this is your jam. The converse may be true. You may be reading a sci-fi paperback and early on you think this crap is really not for me. What are you going to do…give up? No! Finish that book if only to come to learn what you don’t like. It is difficult to argue against something you’ve never tried. When I find myself committed to a book I am not enjoying, I shift into viewing reading as a practice. I am practicing reading. I am practicing mindfulness. I am practicing patience. I am practicing reading aloud. I am expanding my vocabulary and knowledge. I am exploring what I don’t like. It sounds counter-intuitive, but we can’t constantly surround ourselves with only the things we like. We also learn from fully engaging in the things we don’t like. We are learning all the same.

Reading is The Great Escape. Don’t want to twiddle your thumbs in that waiting room? Take a book. Standing in line at the DMV? Take a book. Being told to take a nap but you are wide awake? (I’m thinking of my granddaughter here.) Take a book. Called for jury duty? Take a book. In jail again? (What did you do this time?) Demand your reading material! Reading is a tool to make certain periods of time that would normally be torture, fly by with the greatest of ease. We can’t all travel the world, but most of us can get to a library. We can’t all afford luxurious lives, but we can read about those who can. We can’t all be heroes, but we can find them in books. I know about so many things I’ve never experienced in real life because I’ve read about these things in books. In books, we can travel to far-away places and learn of ancient customs. We can envision people on the other side of the earth or aliens from outer space. We can explore imaginary worlds or knock around the thoughts of a crazy person. Being able to escape our current moment to experience the world through the eyes of others allows us a greater capacity for empathy. Perhaps there is a connection between an ancient sherpa’s quest for home and your own longings for your childhood abode. We can escape by reading more profound thoughts than we could ever think on our own. We can find words that represent images in just such a way to make us burst out laughing or crying. We can come across a set of ideas so achingly beautiful that we tattoo it on our arm…and it came about through words on a page!

Don’t judge yourself regarding the type of reading you prefer. Who cares? Like trashy romance novels? At least you are reading! Into manga or graphic novels? Historical war novels or biographies? Plays or sports writing? Children’s literature or Native American narratives? The topic is up to you; the exercise is the reading. When it comes to reading, there is literally something for everyone. Here is where your local library comes in handy. Walk right up to the closest librarian, plant your feet like Superman and say with all dignity, “I’m into dancing robots who farm but also use technology to learn about humans. Have anything like that?” They’ll come up with something, and it’s free! If some jerk comes along and says, “Ech…why are you reading that?” You could possibly deflect punching them in the nose by asking, “What are you reading?” If they don’t have an answer, you just won. If they do, then maybe you can discuss reading again in the future. You will just as often find people who say, “Oh wow! I love that book!” Instant friend. Books can bind people.

Some people are book borrowers (like those library visitors) while others are book keepers, like me. Both are excellent and most people are probably a combination of the two. People who frequent libraries perhaps seek a wide variety of reading material without having to give up money or space for the luxury of reading. They are discouraged from marking or dog-earring the books; they are merely a temporary keeper of the kingdom. They can start something, dislike the proposed journey and return the book the next day; no harm done. Book keepers are involved in a deeper commitment. They are willing to invest money and concede space to inanimate objects that simultaneously capture their hearts. They mark books. They highlight, underline, circle and write in the margins. They revisit the book and stick nameplates inside the front covers. I write short summaries at the end of each chapter. Lately, I’ve taken to writing not only my name inside the front cover but the season and year in which I read the book. I can picture my son or grandchildren one day inheriting the book and seeing what their grandma (or great-grandma!) marked in a book decades before. If I have enjoyed the book more than normal I make a note to myself to read it again in the future. Conversely, I may get to the end of a book and be so happy it is done! I don’t place a nameplate in those books; I give them away or take them to the Goodwill.

There are many different reading levels. You will hear of a child in third grade who “reads on a ninth grade level.” That means they are able to comprehend material above the normal reading comprehension for their age group. Try to diversify your levels of reading. Some stuff you read might be kind of dumb or just for fun. Some stuff you read is right at your level and you don’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about unfamiliar concepts or words. Every once in a while, try to tackle a reading project that is a bit beyond your normal comfort level. You are pressed to do this in school, but don’t drop the habit just because you’ve graduated. Pressing your reading into territory just beyond your total comprehension stretches and exercises the mind. There may be so many words in a row that you don’t completely understand, but are you comprehending the broad overview? Are you able to understand the overall idea? You may not want to spend time looking up every word you don’t know while in the midst of this exercise because it would prove too time consuming (unless looking up the meaning of unfamiliar words is your new super cool hobby). In this case, read slowly and in smaller chunks. Write notes in the margin when you clearly understand an idea. Spend time simply sounding out the words and reading upper-level sentences out loud. It does feel strange to be exploring a world of words and ideas that seem abstract, but if we practice reading beyond our level every once in a while we become less stressed by the practice. There is no shame in saying, “I don’t understand half of what she is saying, but I’m trying.” 

On that note, don’t forget that you can always bring in outside reinforcements if you are not understanding what you are reading, or if you simply want to know more. If there is a concept that is not quite clear, you can always Google it! If you have completed a short story and now you are wondering how a certain theme works within it, you could use Google Scholar and type in something like “the role of domestic violence in the works of Zora Neale Hurston” and see what comes up. You could also use the search word “critique(s)” which will lead you to critics who have analyzed and written about the work. For example, in a Google, library or Google Scholar search box one could type: critiques on “the mother” by Gwendolyn Brooks. You may then be bombarded with different points of view pointing out different ideas of that one work. Filter through and see what you are looking for. The text is not simply the text; there are usually texts (or some sort of outside reference) about that text that expand upon and attempt to explain the original work.

Reading for School/Study

Once you have signed up for a literature course (in high school or college) see if you can acquire the syllabus or reading list right then. Ask the teacher or school which books you will need and find a way to get them. If you are reading older material, don’t forget you can find many works in full on the internet or through your school’s library or online resources. Project Gutenberg (gutenberg.org) has tens of thousands of works-in-full whose copyright has expired. Beginning the reading list and taking notes before the semester begins is a life-saver. We are unable to predict a future in which we may acquire a new job or experience a bump in the road that will throw off our reading schedule. Reading early safeguards against unforeseen misadventures.

Once you have received the syllabus, (a rules and to-do list for the semester) create a reading calendar. The best syllabi will have the reading pages listed for each entry. This will let you know how many pages are required per week/project. If the page numbers are not listed, go inside the book and, using the table of contents, jot down how many pages are involved in each reading. Only you know how much reading time you have per day or on particular days. Break down the number of pages into a per-day goal. If all the readings for the week add up to one hundred pages, you will have to read 14.2 pages per day over the course of seven days. In school, there is no getting around this. If you skip a day of reading, guess what? Instead of fourteen pages tomorrow, you will have to read 29. Now you are under pressure and you are not going to absorb the material as well as if you’d stuck to the reading plan. At the end of each week check to see if you have met your reading schedule. If not, you have to set your alarm earlier or stay up later in order to get the reading done. Mark the readings off in your calendar as they are completed; this will boost feelings of success and accomplishment.

Accept the challenge that while taking a literature course you must do the readings. This is not a sit-in-class-and-I’ll-probably-pick-it-up scenario. Your professor may focus on one work and not the others for the week. They may focus on answering questions rather than deeply exploring the text. They may discuss historical events or the backgrounds of authors rather than the text. In all of these scenarios, you have not gained a deeper understanding of the readings themselves just by being in class. Do not take a reading class unless you sincerely commit to the process of reading deeply.

When reading for school you are always reading for a purpose. If you are not given reading guides or questions to answer along the way, then you are reading in the wilderness out there on your own to decide what is and is not important to note within the text. Whatever situation you are reading for in school, always incorporate your reading tools. You should never just plop down with only the material. You must have a pen or pencil and notebook paper or computer to take notes. With the amount of reading you have to do for school, you are not going to remember everything. As you read, mark what you have critically determined to be the most important elements on the page. Train yourself to think of a page, section, or chapter like this: If a person asked you “What was _ about?” what would you tell them? Would your notes (without the book) sufficiently answer their question? Imagine even more pressure: you are in the classroom and the professor asks you, “So, what takes place on page 375?” Would you be able to answer the question from what you underlined or highlighted on page 375? What would your notes from page 375 reveal? In this particular situation there is a handy trick: as you are writing or typing notes from the reading material, note the number of the page you are on along the left-hand margin of your notes. For each new page of material, update the page number. This trick helps in many ways. Page numbers within your notes help you save time when you are searching for something specific, and the professor can never trip you up in class with the above question. When the professor asks about the plot twist in chapter five, you have noted “Chapter Five” at the top of a page along with the page number. Your notes reveal the unusual twist that happened in this section. Boom! You raise your hand.
You are taking separate notes in addition to your in-text annotations for three reasons: 1) it keeps you on-task while reading. Constantly going back and forth from the page to writing/typing notes keeps your thoughts engaged and your body alert; 2) knowledge of the material goes deeper into your brain if you not only read the material but also put the ideas into your own words by writing or typing reading notes; 3) you will study these notes for quizzes and exams. Once you have read the material and notated the most important information into your own words and notes, you have a way to go over and over the material for whatever may be thrown at you in the future. Many professors allow/encourage open-note quizzes or exams. How smart would you look without your book having taken excellent notes you can now use to pass the test? Score!

When you are reading elevated college material, you may come across various unfamiliar textual practices. Anthologies are collections of writings that are merely pieces of larger texts. For example, instead of the entire novel of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in the anthology you may get chapter one, chapter seven, and bits of chapters thirteen and twenty. The point with anthologies is to give you a broad overview of the best works in a certain genre or area of writing. To read the entire work, you’d have to buy or borrow it separately. Ideally, while reading anthologies you will come across an author or work that resonates with you leading you to go out and seek the entire work to read later on your own. For school purposes, you are merely learning more about the characteristics of certain types of writing performed during a certain time in history (sometimes associated with a particular country or geographical area). Because the works do not appear in full, you will see the word “From”, often in italics, which indicates that what you are about to read is not the entire work but selected pieces. You may also come across a series of asterisks running across a page. This signifies that at this particular juncture, the editors removed material from the original work and we are jumping ahead; something is missing. In addition, you will often find little numbers (in order) scattered throughout a work. These mini-numbers indicate footnotes which can usually be found at the bottom of the same page. Footnotes provide a reader additional information shared by the editors of the anthology or the author of the piece. The information may not flow in the body of the text or the information gives a definition, background, or historical information not needed in the body of the text. I prefer to stop at each footnote to read it right then. Afterwards, I go back and apply that new information to the sentence and context. Others view footnotes at the beginning or end of reading the page.

While reading for school pay special attention to the full names of authors, the full titles of the pieces, the year they were published, and from what country or area. For each new text, write the name of the author in large script at the top. Include their birth and death date. Before their works begin, there is often a biographical section that tells us about the author. Begin taking notes here. Where were they born? Did they suffer through unusual hardships? Did they have early success? Were they rich, poor, educated, or not? Was there anything unusual about their families like mental illness or extreme poverty? What writing characteristics did they come to be known for? What are two or three titles of their most famous works? What I search for is any biographical information that may have influenced their writing. What in their background can give us insight to their work?

Once you get to the text itself, note the full title of the piece. It may be long, but thems the breaks. (Yes, I meant to write that.) Pay special attention to lead sentences (the first indented sentence of each paragraph) that announce the topic of the paragraph. You don’t always have to notate them, but each new paragraph should move the story or material forward. Also, pay special attention to the last sentence of the paragraph. Pause at the conclusion of each paragraph. Do you understand what is going on? If not, go back and read it again. If you still do not understand the material, jot down a question (or place a sticky note) next to that page number in your notes. At the end of the paragraph, ask yourself if there is anything important to note. Sometimes a paragraph can result in a one-word note like, “war” and the next paragraph might be “famine” and the next, “farming.” If the author is simply describing an area during a certain time, you will still have noted the broad ideas discussed on that particular page. Not all paragraphs warrant a note.
Look for themes that seem to run throughout the piece. Themes can be many things, but a few examples are man vs. nature, the search for immortality, the downfalls of hubris, gender roles, naming and identity, rituals, social mores, the family, ritual, the domestic sphere, etc. Is there a unifying idea that each part seems to reflect? What is it and how does each part reflect that theme? Is there a recurring symbol such as decay or death? Why do you think this symbol continues to appear? Does something happen more than once like dreams or missed opportunities? Does society place rules and restrictions upon the people? What role does gender play in the story? Is religion playing a role?

Depending on your reading experience, you will encounter words you don’t know. Depending on why you are reading, it may be best to pause, click over to dictionary.com, plug in the word, and note the definition. This technique is needed if you are analyzing or writing about a specific idea or if you are required to know certain vocabulary. Pausing to look up words does not mean you are dumb; it means you are becoming smarter. If, time and again, you simply skip over words you don’t know then you will continue not to know them. How is this learning? An expansion of vocabulary is a byproduct of active reading. Note the definition in the margin of the text or in your notes. You could also set up a vocabulary page that you revisit from time to time just to learn new words. Many words have more than one meaning. You will have to study the context of the word to understand how it is being used. Use clues from the rest of the sentence to choose the best definition. The meanings of words also shift over time and can be used in different ways in different countries.
Slowly sound out unfamiliar words; don’t simply skip them. I like attempting unusual names out loud just to see how close I can get to actually saying it. I may be incorrect, but I’m trying (and no one else is around, so who cares). I became slightly irritated one semester in class while observing students who mumbled their way through the name Dostoyevsky. Not only did it hurt my feelings for one of my favorite authors, but they didn’t take the time to look at the name more closely. The name Dostoyevsky may look intimidating at first glance, but sound it out: Dos-toy-ev-sky. You can say all of those syllables and the name is spelled like it sounds. It is only difficult if you skip over or mumble through it because you didn’t take the time to try.

From time to time, read out loud. It doesn’t matter how slow your progress. Sometimes reading slowly is better if it means you are taking in more of the information. Reading quickly doesn’t make you smarter; comprehending what you read makes you smarter. You may be surprised how difficult it is to smoothly read text out loud. While your mouth is verbalizing the current words, your brain is listening to the information while simultaneously your eyes are scanning ahead for the next bit of information. I often see students attempt to skip ahead of the wording in order to read faster; that is not reading what is on the page. You are “reading” what you imagine is on the page. Take the time to complete each word and try to incorporate inflection and emotion. The more you practice reading out loud the smoother you will become. Sometimes hearing the words out loud helps you make sense of a piece. Sometimes you want to share a particular thought or image with someone else. Sometimes you just want to hear your own beautiful voice. Sometimes you want a challenge. You can’t read all material out loud all day; it tires the voice. You may switch between reading out loud for one page and reading in silence the next just to keep yourself in active reading mode.

As you take notes you are also asking questions of the text. Active reading is like a conversation between the text and the reader. Your mind is doing multiple things at once. You are performing all the tasks mentioned above, yet in addition, you are using the back of your mind (I call it the back burner) to roll around ideas such as: This has happened to me! Can this be true? The same storyline happened in my favorite show this year! I like this writer’s tone or style. I wonder if the author combined events to give us a representation of reality at that time. This female character is taking on the role normally given to men. There is a leap in logic here that I don’t think holds up. This part is ridiculous. This reflects in direct parallel to what is happening today. These behaviors seem to indicate mental illness. Ect. Some of those “back burner” ideas and sparks could later lead to an essay or class discussion. You are reading what is on the page, but you are also connecting what is there to other things in reality.

Along with these critical questions, sometimes you just have flat-out questions. I don’t understand what is going on, or how did the author get from here to there? Not understanding while reading will cause discomfort. That is okay. When we are in a state of not knowing, we feel unmoored, somehow intellectually (and slightly emotionally) out of control. Becoming a reader means accepting a level of discomfort that varies with the material. Sometimes we see the big picture but may get lost in the finer details. Sometimes a piece is just beyond our grasp…above our heads. This is why you have a professor. Write down your questions. Go to office hours. Use email. Google it! Good professors and teaching assistants love to answer questions of students who have read the material, taken notes, and really tried to understand. They see you putting in the effort so they are willing to explain further. Don’t be upset if they tell you that you are concentrating on the wrong stuff. Ask to be re-directed so you don’t waste further time. You can’t get your questions answered if you don’t ask the questions! I remember in one of my grad classes I came upon a piece of philosophy that, for the life of me, I couldn’t understand. It was difficult to even take notes because the ideas were so muddled in my brain. When it came to writing a response paper that week I asked the professor if, instead of writing the regular short response, I could draw what I thought was happening in the form of a diagram or map. He loved the idea and accepted the work. What I found most interesting was that the diagram formed a circle! The point is that I was engaging with the text and trying (albeit in an alternate form) to make sense of it.

Another way of attempting to comprehend the material is pretending that you will have to teach the material. (Sometimes professors actually assign this project.) Pretending that you have to teach the material really shines a bright light on close reading, note taking and comprehension. If you have thirty minutes to teach a short story, would you first give the class a handout? What would be printed there? How much time would you spend on the plot versus various themes or ideas within the text? What issues would lead to relevant class discussion? If you were to give a quiz or test, what questions would you include and how would you answer them? If you were to generate a reading guide what would it include? The teacher’s point of view is a simple yet effective brain trick to hyper-focus your attention.

The Literature of Slavery and Freedom: 1746 – 1865

Study Notes The Norton Anthology of African American Literature Third Edition Volume 1 pgs. 75-87

THE RELIGIOUS AND POLITICAL MISSION OF AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE

Impulse of African American literature is resistance to human tyranny. Sustaining spirit, human dignity.

Impetus for writing:

  1. They would articulate the spiritual and political ideals of America to inspire and justify the struggle of blacks for their birthright as American citizens.
  2. Demand fidelity to those same ideals from whites whose moral complacency and racial prejudices had blinded them to the obligations of their own heritage. The first AA writers in the US appealed to the traditional Christian gospel of the universal brotherhood of humanity as a way of initiating a discussion with whites that did not directly confront their prejudices and anxieties. Social significance.
  3. The least advantages of black Americans had feelings to voice and stories to tell to the public at large.
  4. Mastery of language, the essential sign of a civilized mind, to the European, implicitly qualified, a black writer, and by analogy, those whom he or she represented, for self-mastery and a place of respect within white civilization.
  5. Challenged the dominant culture’s attempt to segregate the religious from the political, the spirit from the flesh, insofar as racial affairs were concerned.
  6. To dignify black experience with spiritual significance and divinely ordained importance.
  7. The abolition of slavery and the promotion of the black man and woman to a status in the civil and cultural order equal to that of whites.

Exhorted their white readers like preachers, imploring a backsliding congregation to live up to the standards of their reputed religion and their professed political principles.

Explored through various forms of irony the chasm between white America’s words and its deeds, between its propaganda about freedom and its widespread practice of slavery.

Early: pointing out the inconsistencies between the Declaration of Independence and the simultaneous promotion of chattel slavery. Later: the right of AA to armed resistance to slavery was proclaimed.

SLAVERY IN THE AMERICAS

Slavery as perpetrated by the European colonizers of Africa and the Americas brought man’s inhumanity to man to a level of technological efficiency unimagined by previous generations. This era in the history of international slave trading is generally dated from 1501-1867. An estimated 12.5 million captives were conveyed from Africa to Europe and the Americas. To maximize profits from the production and export of precious metals, sugar, rice, rum, tobacco, cotton, coffee, and indigo in the Americas. Africans were viewed as strong. By 1820 African slaves constituted roughly 80% of all immigrants to the Americas since 1500. Only about 8% of the Transatlantic slave trade disembarked in North America. Sugar plantations.

The first people of African descent who came to North America were explorers. The first Africans in British North America were brought to work as laborers; indentured servants. By 1700 however, the expanding plantation economy of Virginia demanded a workforce that was cheaper than free labor and more easily controlled and replenished. By establishing the institution of chattel slavery, in which a black person became not just a temporary servant, but the lifetime property of his or her master, the tobacco, cotton, and rice planters of British North America, ensured their rise to economic and political preeminence over the southern half of what would become the US. Slaves were divested of his or her culture. The system of chattel slavery was designed to prevent Africans and their descendants from building a new identity except in accordance with the dictates of their oppressors. Instead of an individual, slavery devised what Patterson calls “A social non-person”, a being, that, by legal definition, could have no family, no personal honor, no community, no past, and no future. Absolute dependence on and identification with the master’s will. They could not even possess themselves.

SLAVERY AND AMERICAN RACISM

Insistence that enslavement was the natural and proper condition for particular races of people. Visual differences equaled internal differences. A sizeable school of racists writers in the first half of the 19th century in the US followed Jefferson in arguing that the AAs physical and cultural differences amounted to an intellectual, spiritual, and moral otherness that only slavery could manage and turn to some productive account.

RESISTANCE TO SLAVERY AND RACISM

Framers of the US constitution wrote into law several measures that protected slavery. “⅗ compromise”: counted as ⅗ of a person for the purpose of apportioning representation for a given district in the congress. Slaves could not vote, the ⅗ compromise did nothing but augment the size and power of the Southern block in the US House of Representatives. Antislavery advocates issued a call for the gradual abolition of slavery in the new republic.

Newspapers, public schools, churches, mutual aid, fraternal and debating societies were all used to share abolitionist ideas.

British textile industry, farming, and cotton in the 1790’s, wedded the South more and more tightly to slavery. The slave population in the South grew rapidly, from 700,000 in 1790 to 2,000,000 in 1830.

Nat Turner crystalized the impending crisis. Executed 60 whites. The Confessions of Nat Turner the leader of the most successful slave revolt in US history was hanged on November 11, 1831. The Virginia state legislature made slavery more repressive. Suspicions were heightened. The compromise of 1850 instituted the Fugitive Slave Law and balanced the power maintained between the North and the South. Compromise only intensified the feeling in each section that the opposition was gaining an unfair share of power.

RADICAL ABOLITIONISM AND THE FUGITIVE SLAVE NARRATIVE

A new generation of reformers in the North proclaimed their absolute and uncompromising opposition to slavery. Led by the crusading white journalist William Lloyd Garrison, these abolitionists demanded the immediate end of slavery throughout the U.S. Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society mobilized on all fronts. New departure in African American lit: the fugitive slave narrative which dominated the literary landscape. A black message inside a white envelope (often with white people writing the introduction). Slavery in the South to freedom in the North. Antebellum slave narrator portrayed slavery as a condition of extreme physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual deprivation, a kind of hell on earth. It followed a familiar structure. Reaching the free states but by renaming oneself and dedicating one’s future to antislavery activism. Slave narratives qualified as America’s only indigenous literary form. In 1845 the slave narrative reached its epitome with the publication of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. Immensely successful. The subtitle Written by Himself on a slave narrative bore increasing significance as an indicator of a narrator’s political and literary self-reliance. Trickster motifs, biblical allusion, and picaresque perspective. Mid-century slave narrative took on an unprecedented urgency and candor. Moral and social complexities of the American caste and class system in the North as well as the South. Jacobs’s autobiography shows how sexual exploitation made slavery especially oppressive for black women. Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman: new models of female self-expression and heroism.

THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERARY RENAISSANCE

1850s and early 1860s: the first renaissance in A. A. letters. Spur intellectual independence and expansion of literary horizons in both form and theme. Models of black manhood. Travel books, mixing fact and fiction, sentimental image of the “tragic mulatta”, testing the limits of gender conventions in fiction, plays, serialized novels, slave revolutionaries, women’s fiction, socioeconomic realities of life for a black working-class woman in the North.

FOLK TRADITIONS

Genius of the spirituals rested in their double meaning, their blending of the spiritual and the political. Only in the next world would they find justice.
Animal tales: commonsense understanding of human psychology and every-day justice in this world. How the world came to be as it is, exploits of trickster figures, Brer Rabbit, who used their wits to overcome stronger animal antagonists. Power of mind over matter.

THE CIVIL WAR AND EMANCIPATION

In 1860 the first avowedly antislavery candidate for president, Abraham Lincoln of the Republican Party, was elected in one of the bitterest campaigns ever waged in the U.S. In 1862 Lincoln finally permitted free blacks in liberated portions of Louisiana and South Carolina to form regiments. By the war’s end, more than 186,000 blacks had served in the artillery, cavalry, engineers, and infantry as well as in the U.S. Navy. More than 38,000 A.A. gave their lives for the Union cause. When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the summer of 1862, which declared all slaves in the rebellious states to be free as of January 1, 1863, blacks in the North felt that, at long last, their country had committed itself to an ideal worth dying for. When the army of the Southern slaveocracy surrendered at Appomatox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865, A. A. pressed for the enactment of laws ensuring a new era of freedom and opportunity for every black American. On Dec. 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished “slavery and involuntary servitude” throughout the country, was ratified by the newly united states of America.

This is Where I Leave You

by

Jonathan Tropper

New York Times bestseller A Plume Book 2010 339 pages

This novel had me hooked and in stitches from page one. How rare is that? The novel opens by describing the personality of the narrator’s family and how they deal with life. I could immediately relate to the crass, harsh, hilarious and real way the Foxman family does family. The patriarch has died which becomes a framing device for the story. While Dad was sick he requested the family come together and sit Shiva for seven whole days. For years they have actively avoided bonding family time and none of the four grown children are looking forward to all this togetherness. Each sibling has a lot going on including spouses and assorted lovers. We get to peek inside each life, but we are always in the head of Judd, the narrator, whose life is completely upside down. Even though the situations are not obviously funny, Tropper gives Judd such a twisted sense of humor that somehow you laugh even when you are not supposed to. On the other hand, Tropper can be very nostalgic and heart-felt when discussing family, sometimes even waxing poetic. The story is told in the present tense and is counted by the time on the clock so that, in effect, you are also sitting Shiva with the Foxmans. This novel is full of belly-laughs that will make you want to read out loud to your friends. What follows are my favorite bits (I like to call “the best bits”) and chapter summaries.

1 “If we sound like a couple of callous assholes, it’s because that’s how we were raised” (2).

“Dad didn’t believe in God, but he was a life-long member of the Church of Shit or Get Off the Can” (3).

[Story being told by Judd who has an older sister (Wendy), older brother (Paul) and younger brother, Phillip. Their dad has finally died after a long battle with stomach cancer. They will gather for the funeral. Judd has been having a tough time even aside from his father’s death.]

2 “…trying to look like someone trying not to look bored” (10).

“You get married to have an ally against your family, and now I’m heading into the trenches alone” (11).

[Judd and Jen are divorcing. They had met in college. Jen is sleeping with Judd’s boss and is pregnant. Judd and Jen were pregnant once. Still birth. You can tell Judd still loves her and is very hurt.]

3 “Because the thing of it is, no matter how much you enjoy sex, there’s something jolting and strangely disturbing about witnessing the sex of others. Nature has taken great pains to lay out the fundamentals of copulation so that it’s impossible to get a particularly good view of the sex you’re having. Because when you get right down to it, sex is a messy, gritty, often grotesque business to behold: the hairs; the abraded, dimpled flesh; the wide-open orifices; the exposed, glistening organs. And the violence of the coupling itself, primitive and elemental, reminding us that we’re all just dumb animals clinging to our spot on the food chain, eating, sleeping, and fucking as much as possible before something bigger comes along and devours us” (16-17).

[Margin note: No romanticizing here! Thank you for telling it like it is.]

“Naked men shouldn’t run” (24).

[Judd goes into gross, horrible and hilarious detail about the day he caught his wife and boss together in HIS bed. Now he lives in a cheap basement room and is somehow still spiraling downward.]

4 “…even as his ridiculous raincoat makes him stand out like a bloodstain against a sky the color of a dead tooth” (33).

[Father’s funeral.]

5 [After the funeral the extended family gather around the dinner table. Chaos ensues.]

6 [Judd recalling the first time he met Jen.]

7 “And as the room starts to fill with the first somber-faced neighbors coming to pay their respects, it becomes clear to me that the reason for filling the shiva house with visitors is most likely to prevent the mourners from tearing each other limb from limb” (63).

[In high school Judd and Alice lost their virginity to each other. Alice later married Paul and the brothers have had a rocky relationship ever since.]

8 [Judd escapes shiva for a short drive to pick Horry up from the store and take him home. Judd learns an old flame also works at the store. His interest is peaked.]

9 [First day of shiva finally ends. Judd listens to voicemails from pregnant Jen who wants to hurry along divorce proceedings.]

10 “There is nothing more pathetically optimistic than the morning erection. I am depressed, unemployed, unloved, basement-dwelling, and bereaved, but there it is, every morning like clockwork, rising up to greet the day, poking out of my fly cocksure and conspicuously useless. And every morning, I face the same choice: masturbate or urinate. It’s the one time of the day where I feel like I have options” (84).

[Judd’s relationship with his mother.]

11 [All the kids are giving Mom a “Dad” story but Judd can’t recall a time he had his dad’s undivided attention.]

12 [Mr. Applebaum is already scoping out the widow.]

13 [Judd is lonely and every woman in society has his attention.]

14 [Judd re-lives quitting his job when Wade was his manager.]

15 [Tracy is now competing with old school chums of Phillip’s. Judd puts in a good word for Horry’s independence.]

16 [Judd sees Penny who he had a thing with in college. They made a pact to marry by age 40 if they were both still single. Horry cannot live alone even though he desires independence.]

17 [Horry brought back a memory of a dog attack that Judd and Paul experienced as kids. Now Judd is dreaming about it.]

18 [Paul and Phillip finally go to blows and Jen appears out of nowhere. Will Phillip join the family business? Will Paul let him?]

19 [Judd sums up what sex is like after you’ve been married for years.]

20 “‘Please,’ she says. ‘Tell me what you’re thinking.’

“It’s an absurd request. Our minds, unedited by guilt or shame, are selfish and unkind, and the majority of our thoughts, at any given time, are not for public consumption, because they would either be hurtful or else just make us look like the selfish and unkind bastards we are. We don’t share our thoughts, we share carefully sanitized, watered-down versions of them, Hollywood adaptations of those thoughts dumbed down for the PG-13 crowd” (137).

[Jen comes to tell Judd that she is carrying HIS baby!]

21 [Judd recalling when he and Jen learned they had lost their first (and only) child. It led to the demise of their marriage.]

22 [Mom gives her input on her kids’ relationships then Paul decks Phillip to return the favor from the day before. Phillip drops the bomb about Jen being pregnant.]

23 [Judd visits Penny and they have a short skate holding hands. Phillip is cheating on Tracy. Dad’s death is starting to sink in.]

25 [Horry still has a thing for Wendy. Does she still think of him too?]

26 [Paul and his wife are trying to conceive and everyone knows it.]

27 [After a make out session with Penny in the pool, Judd calls Jen. Wade answers and doesn’t appreciate this late night call.]

28 [The crazy party in high school where Alice and Judd were going to make out but instead Judd gets kicked in the balls. Paul comes back to revenge his little brother, but Paul ends up being attacked by a guard dog owned by Judd’s attacker. The two brothers’ relationship has never been the same.]

29 “You can sit up here, feeling above it all while knowing you’re not, coming to the lonely conclusion that the only thing you can ever really know about anyone is that you don’t know anything about them at all” (188).

[Judd is accidentally electrocuted which brings forward a dad memory. He mourns with his mother.]

30 [The brothers sneak off during church service to smoke dad’s last joint. They accidentally set off the fire alarm.]

31 “Back when I lived with Jen, I had some friends. In the aftermath of our separation, Allan and Mike had met me for drinks and we’d all raised our glasses in agreement that Jen was a cheating bitch and I was the good guy here. I didn’t know it at the time, but that night was actually my good-bye party. Jen would retain custody of our friends and I’d be wordlessly discarded. A few weeks later, as I circled the multiplex parking lot, I saw Allan and Mike with their wives, leaving the theater along with Jen and Wade, all walking in standard formation, talking and laughing in the cinematic afterglow, like it had always been just so. I tried to tell myself it was simply a chance encounter, but it was clear from their body language that they were all together, and probably not for the first time. It’s a sad moment when you come to understand how truly replaceable you are. Friendship in the suburbs is wife-driven, and my friends were essentially those husbands of Jen’s friends that I could most tolerate. Now that I’d been sidelined, Wade had stepped in for me like an understudy, a small note was inserted into the program, and the show went on without missing a beat” (214-215).

[Jen wants to talk but Judd is having none of it. He makes mischief in his old house when no one is there. He is practically raped by his sister-in-law Alice who has been trying for 2 years to get pregnant with Paul. Later, Judd goes on a date with Penny and for the second time says nothing about Jen being pregnant.]

32 [Judd dreams a sweet dream of his father who heals him.]

33 [Wendy and Judd talk about life. Why did Linda (Mom’s lifelong friend) stay the night?]

34 [Old high school friends come to visit during shiva. Their lives have all turned out pretty mediocre.]

35 [Visiting high school friends prompt an impromptu batting round in the side yard where Paul hurts his ravaged shoulder and Boner gets hit in the face with a ball. Have mother and Linda been lovers for years?]

36 [Judd lets all the older women know he DOES NOT want to be set up with their daughters.]

37 “She is waiting in front of her building when we pull up, looking edible in a T-shirt, short shorts, and tennis shoes. She could be nineteen. She could be my girlfriend. We could be going out to the amusement park, where we’d kiss on the lines, hold hands on the rides, and share cotton candy. I’d win her one of those giant stuffed animals and we’d carry it around the park with us like a badge of honor. Afterward it would take up permanent residence on her pink bedspread, where she’s lie across ti while we spoke for hours on the phone” (252).

“A kid with a name tag and a digital camera asks us to pose for a picture with the cheesy plaster palace behind us. There are countless pictures of my family at various ages in just this spot. If we pulled them out of all the messy albums in the living room bookcases, you could probably track the steady growth of our family, like annual pencil marks on the wall to show how tall you’ve grown. Dad isn’t in any of the Wonderland pictures, because he was always the one taking them, with this old Yashica he’d bought when he first got married, because why the hell would he pay for a picture he could take better himself? As a matter of fact, you’d have to turn a lot of pages to find Dad in any of our albums. The inadvertent result of being the default photographer is that he was relegated to the role of a bit player in the actual recorded history of our family. There are entire years of our lives where he doesn’t appear at all” (253).

“Sometimes, contentment is a matter of will. You have to look at what you have right in front of you, at what it could be, and stop measuring it against what you’ve lost. I know this to be wise and true, just as I know that pretty much no one can do it” (255).

[The last date with Penny.]

38 [Judd is having a moment with Jen at the hospital listening to their baby’s heartbeat when Wade arrives. He ends up arguing with both Judd and Phillip who ends up decking him. A bit of vandalism meets Wade’s car before the brothers exit the parking lot.]

39 [All the brothers are feeling quite beat up by their wives. They need a night off.]

40 “He sinks his teeth into every word, and they come out chewed” (276).

[The brothers go out but it was not the bonding experience they had imagined.]

41 “Down in the basement, I wash some of Boner’s foam spray off the mirror to better study my reflection. My bottom lip is split and swollen, my eyes bleary, my cheeks pale and puffy. I look like a corpse pulled from the river a week after the suicide. It’s time for a gut check. I mean that literally. I pull off my shirt, which is caked with just enough blood and vomit to represent a much wilder night than the one I’ve had, and step back to study my torso. The overall effect does not match the image I cling to in my head. My belly is not yet what you’d call a gut, but you can see where the inevitable expansion will happen. I have no real chest to speak of; you’d miss it altogether if it weren’t for the two hairless nipples pressed on like decals. Broader shoulders would create the illusion of fitness, but I am sorely lacking in that department as well. The overall impression is lean but soft, and getting softer. This is the package, ladies. Come and get it.

“I lie down on the floor to do some sit-ups and promptly fall asleep” (285-5).

[Drunk Judd gets a punch and an apology from Wade who is leaving Jen. He just can’t do the step-father thing.]

42 [Another dream of Dad who is cradling Judd’s future baby.]

43 “The whites of his eyes are vaguely pink, like something ran in the wash” (295).

[Tracy knows it’s the end of the line with Phillip. Horry lays girls who don’t truly know him. Alice apologizes for raping Judd. Lina leaves after a heated argument.]

44 [Mom comes out of the closet.]

45 [The kids discuss their mom being bisexual.]

46 [Shiva is over. Judd drives home to a long talk with Jen. He is ready to work on forgiveness.]

47 [Mom and Linda get to tell their story. Mom was the one bringing them all together…not dad’s dying wish.]

48 [All the kids prepare to return to the lives.]

49 [Judd goes to apologize and say good-bye to Penny.]

50 [I never summarize the last chapter. That is a prompt to go read the book yourself!]

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession

By

Allison Hoover Bartlett

Riverhead Books  New York  2009

262 pages excluding notes

I like the way Bartlett sets up the story. She speaks directly to her audience and first describes what made her interested in tracking a rare books thief. It sounds almost like she is setting up a master’s thesis; she first states her driving curiosity and why which sets us on a journey together. The language is straightforward yet sometimes repetitive. She narrows in on a notorious rare book thief named John Gilkey whom she interviews multiple times. She gets to know him and tries to figure out his motivations. I did not feel the need to summarize every chapter, but there were some quotes and reflections on the love of books themselves which I really enjoyed. What follows are the quotes and reflections Bartlett used that captured my attention. If you are a book fanatic, you will enjoy this read. Numbers at the beginning of an entry indicate the chapter followed by the chapter title. My own reflections I will place in brackets.

[Dude! You are not going to believe this!]:

From Anathema in a medieval manuscript from the Monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona:

For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner…let him be struck with palsy, & all his members belated…Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, & when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever.

[So badass]

From A. S. W. Rosenback, twentieth-century book dealer:

I have known men to hazard their fortunes, go long journeys halfway about the world, forget friendships, even lie, cheat, and steal, all for the gain of a book.

[The book begins with a story of a borrowed book: the Krautterbuch. Referring to the book, Bartlett writes]:

My favorite remedy, though, is for low spirits. “Often we are missing the right kind of happiness, and if we don’t have any wine yet, we will be very content when we do get wine” (4).

[Prologue summary:

Introduction of the Krautterbuch, a book from the 1600s which was supposedly stolen from a library. The author speaks in first person and explains how this book set her on a journey.]

1  Like a Moth to a Flame

[This passage brought a tear to my eye because it so accurately describes the magic of becoming attached to a book.]

Walking by a booth with an impressive selection of dust jacket art, I heard a dealer say to a passerby, “don’t judge a book by its content!” I had read enough about book collectors before the fair to get the joke: Many collectors don’t actually read their books. At first, I was surprised, but having given it some thought, it’s not so shocking. After all, much of the fondness avid readers, and certainly collectors, have for their books is related to the books’ physical bodies. As much as they are vessels for stories (and poetry, reference information, etc.), books are historical artifacts and repositories for memories–we like to recall who gave books to us, where we were when we read them, how old we were, and so on.

For me, the most important book-as-object from my childhood is Charlotte’s Web, the first book I mail-ordered after joining a book club. I still remember my thrill at seeing the mailman show up with it at our front door on a sunny Saturday morning. It has a crisp paper jacket, unlike the plastic-covered library books I was used to, and the way the pages parted, I could tell I was the first to open it. For several days I lived in Wilbur’s world, and the only thing as sad as Charlotte’s death, maybe even sadder, was that I had come to the end of the book. I valued that half-dream state of being lost in a book so much that I limited the number of pages I let myself read each day in order to put off the inevitable end, my banishment from that world. I still do this. It doesn’t make sense, though, because the pleasure of that world does not really end for good. You can always start over on page one–and you can remember. Whenever I have spotted my old Charlotte’s Web (on my son’s shelf, then my daughter’s), I have recalled how it came to me. It’s a personal record of one chapter of my life, just as other chapters have other books I associate with them. The pattern continues; my daughter returned from camp last summer with her copy of Motherless Brooklyn in a state approaching ruin. She told me she’s dropped it into a creek, but couldn’t bear to leave it behind, even after she’d finished it. This book’s body is inextricably linked to her experience of reading it. I hope that she continues to hold on to it, because as long as she does, its wavy, expanded pages will remind her of the hot day she read it with her feet in the water–and of the fourteen-year-old she was at the time. A book is much more than a delivery vehicle for its contents, and from my perspective, this fair was a concentrated celebration of that fact.

[The author is most interested in the type of book thief that steals for the love of books. Gilkey is notorious. He says he will tell his story from prison.]

2  Half-truths

[The author’s first interview with Gilkey.]

3  Richie Rich

[Gilkey sees his book collection as a representation of himself. He wants to appear rich and cultured. He wants people to be impressed.]

4  A Gold Mine

5  Spider-Man

6  Happy New Year

7  Trilogy of Kens

In 1644, John Milton wrote: “For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”

8  Treasure Island

9  Brick Row

10  Not Giving Up

11  This Call May Be Recorded or Monitored

Of having taken their lives, he said, “Every man must die, sooner or later, but good books must be conserved.”

12  What More Could I Ask?

13  And Look: More Books!

14  The Devil’s Walk

Afterword

From Warning written by medieval German scribe:

This book belongs to none but me

For there’s my name inside to see.

To steal this book, if you should try,

It’s by the throat that you’ll hang high.

And ravens then will gather ‘bout

To find your eyes and pull them out.

And when you’re screaming

“Oh, Oh, Oh!”

Remember, you deserved this woe.

[Man, these medieval book lovers were not playing.]

Ordinary People

by Judith Guest Ballantine Books New York 1976

This is a classic and an easy read with short chapters. The writing is not flowery or dreamy although when someone is experiencing disordered thinking the writing reflects what that might look like with few punctuation marks and fragments of sentences. The story deals with difficult family issues. The story and emotions are realistic. There are no easy answers if there are any answers at all. We learn that parental love can come in many forms, but it can also not be shown at all. Accidents happen, emotions and behaviors become twisted, people lose their shit and those around them don’t know what to do with that lost shit. Trigger warning issues of accidental death, suicide and mental institutions.

What follows is a plot summary excluding the epilogue; that’s for you to get to. The numbers indicate the chapter.

1 We meet young Conrad Jarrett fresh out of the mental facility and having trouble starting his day.

2 Calvin Jarrett is the father. Being abandoned as a child makes it even more difficult for him to parent a teen with mental illness. (The chapters alternate between these two characters’ points of view. The novel is written, interestingly, in the present tense.)

3 We learn about Conrad’s school life. All his friends are seniors but due to his illness he is still a junior. He has trouble feeling normal although he is trying to get back to his old routine.

4 Calvin doesn’t think it wise to go on their annual Christmas vacation. He doesn’t want any trouble. We learn that another son, Jordan, (older brother to Conrad) is now deceased.

5 Conrad sees a crazy local psychiatrist who appears inept. Conrad says his older brother died in a boating accident.

6 Calvin, the dad, seems every bit as lost as his mentally ill son. He has no idea who he is or what he wants.

7 Conrad attempts an afternoon date with Karen, a girl from the mental facility. She doesn’t feel mentally safe and leaves quickly.

8 Calvin drinks quite a bit. The neighbors are curious about Conrad’s situation. Beth (Conrad’s mother/Calvin’s wife) doesn’t want to discuss the topic at parties (or generally in public). Calvin misses hearing both sons in the house. We learn Conrad has slit his wrists.

9 Conrad is actually getting something out of seeing this wacky psychiatrist, Dr. Berger.

10 Conrad quits the swim team; he doesn’t like those people. They are too mean and he is too sensitive; too raw.

11 Calvin thinking about his law partner’s life and marriage.

12 Conrad successfully visits with a cute girl. He recalls a ski trip with his brother.

13 Beth finds out Conrad quit the swim team from an outside source. He quit a month ago and his parents didn’t know. There is a big family freak out. Conrad feels his mother hates him.

14 Dr. Berger’s genius is slowly being revealed.

15 Instead of talking about their grief, Calvin and Beth simply fight.

16 Conrad gets his looks complimented. He is starting to gain positive momentum. His psychiatrist is very helpful.

17 Calvin is now the one seeking Dr. Berger’s help.

18 Bumbling through exams and asking out girls.

19 Calvin’s business partner is worried about him.

20 Conrad’s date goes well. They set up another for the following weekend.

21 Calvin evaluates his fears and how he is most motivated to be safe.

22 Conrad gets in a fist fight with an asshole in the school parking lot.

23 Conrad tells his dad about the fight. Mom doesn’t even notice Conrad is waiting up for Dad.

24 Conrad’s new girlfriend is experiencing family drama. His own parents are out of town and he has to stay with his grandparents. His grandmother is a ball buster. (You can see where his mom gets it.)

25 Calvin and Beth on vacation at her brother’s place in Texas.

26 Karen is a girl Conrad was in treatment with. She has killed herself. This sends Conrad into a tailspin thinking about his brother dying on the lake and about electric shock therapy in treatment. He calls his psychiatrist and is driving to see him.

27 Conrad has a bad night but he makes it through.

28 Calvin and Beth can’t get through a vacation without fighting. Beth feels her son cut his wrists to show HER how much he hates her.

29 Everyone seems relieved to be home again.

30 Conrad has a girlfriend and they can discuss important things.

31 Calvin and Conrad discuss Beth and her leaving them. There are no clear answers and they’ll just have to be okay with that.

Epilogue

Mama Day

By Gloria Naylor

Vintage Books 1993  312 pages

Naylor was born in New York City in 1950. She is the author of The Women of Brewster Place and Bailey’s Cafe among other works. Pay special attention to the ever-changing narrator; people take turns telling this story. A tip: once you figure out who is speaking, jot their name at the top of the section. 

Sapphira Wade, a true conjure woman, who in 1823, “smothered Bascombe Wade in his very bed and lived to tell the story…”. Had seven sons. “…ain’t Miss Abigail and Mama Day the granddaughters of that seventh boy” (3).

[Legends of the original matriarch: a slave.]

“…18 & 23 at all–was really 81 & 32, which just so happened to be the lines of longitude and latitude marking off where Willow Springs sits on the map. And we were just so damned dumb that we turned the whole thing around” (8).

“Cocoa is like her very own, Mama Day tells him, since she never had no children” (9).

[Section one opens with a chapter about Cocoa.] She is in New York City. [The narrator is the office man, George, telling about his childhood.] 

“It only takes time for a man to grow older, but how many of them grow up” (27)?

[George Andrews and Ophelia (Cocoa) meet at a job interview.] Cocoa tells George that after her cousin and family were lost that she is the only grandchild left. The Linden Hills Christmas fire had claimed cousin Willa, her husband and her son.

[In this chapter we are joined by a third narrator: Great Aunt Miranda, or Mama Day. She describes when Peace died.] “She will see Peace breathing too, at the bottom of the open well, long after her daddy carves the box and they wrap her in white flannel” (36).

“But coming on down to them, it was just her, Abigail, and Peace. And out of them just another three girls, and out of them, two. Three generations of nothing but girls, and only one left alive in this last generation to keep the Days going–the child of Grace” (39).

[A theme emerges of things falling apart.]

“Dr. Buzzard’s pickup truck is missing both fenders and the wheels wobble inward on loose axles; there are so many dents along its side, it’s hard to tell that it was blue at one time. He’s sitting alone behind the wheel, but he’s wearing his beyond-the-bridge clothes…” (46).

“‘Buzzard, I oughta kill you.’ Abigail hugs her granddaughter. ‘My heart almost stopped’” (47).

“Home. It’s being new and old all rolled into one. Measuring your new against old friends, old ways, old places. Knowing that as long as the old survives, you can keep changing as much as you want without the nightmare of waking up to a total stranger” (49).

“‘No, you didn’t have to, but it speaks right well of you that you did. You the only one Abigail’s got left now, with Hope’s child gone’” (50).

[Cocoa loves coming home. She catches up on gossip and Momma Day mixes her up some herbal remedies. For this next scene we have to wonder if George is just a dick:]

“I worked especially late that night, never allowing myself to think about the rationale for any of this. There wasn’t any. I hadn’t done you a favor. I hadn’t felt sorry for a black woman out there up against it looking for a job. I hadn’t thought you the best person for the position. I hadn’t thought at all, not even two weeks later when I sent the roses” (56).

“Well, so much for you, buddy, and your call-me-George. Now, I’m managing the accounts of the man you’re working for. Life goes ‘round, doesn’t it” (57)?

[Mama Day hates to be wrong and doesn’t believe in cuddling. Between grandma and aunt, Cocoa describes the perfect mother.]

“I couldn’t imagine how an evening alone with you and that twelfth rose could be anything but a total downer. I was never in that camp of a night out with someone is better than a night alone. I was someone, and there was always something to do with me” (58).

“It was like when a kid labors over a package–the wrapping paper is poorly glued, the ribbon is half tied–and all of his attention is directed toward that space between the hands that offer and the hands poised to receive. It’s the gesture that holds the heart of the child” (59).

[Wow. That one brings a tear.]

[George and Cocoa’s first date goes horribly, but he asks her out again anyway.]

[The following reminds me of me:]

“‘More than one way to skin a cat. We wouldn’t have to be trying to figure all this out if you’d let her call more often.’

“‘Daddy always said no news is good news. My heart would be pounding every time that phone rang, so I’d rather have her write, if nothing important’s happening.’ Abigail continues her letter” (67).

“‘I guess you qualify as a widow, even though you murdered your first husband.’

“‘Ruby did no such thing.’

“‘She did.’

“The man drowned, Miranda.’

“‘You would, too, if someone hit you in the head with a two-by-four and pushed you off your boat. She told him she was gonna kill him if he kept messing with that little loose gal of Reema’s” (69).

“Miranda kinda blooms when the evening air hits her skin. She stands for a moment watching what the last of the sunlight does to the sky down by The Sound. They say every blessing hides a curse, and every curse a blessing. And with all of the aggravation belonging to a slow fall, it’ll give you a sunset to stop your breath, no matter how long you been on the island. It seems like God reached way down into his box of paints, found the purest reds, the deepest purples, and a dab of midnight blue, then just kinda trailed His fingers along the curve of the horizon and let ‘em all bleed down. And when them streaks of color hit the hush-a-by green of the marsh grass with the blue of The Sound behind ‘em, you ain’t never had to set foot in a church to know you looking at a living prayer” (78).

[This next quote reminds me of my father]

“A bramble scratches her on the face, and a few feet on she trips over a creeper from a sweet bay. No point in cussing, she hears her daddy’s voice. Little Mama, these woods been here before you and me, so why should they get out your way–learn to move around ‘em” (78). [Yes, this is why I keep Kleenex on my desk. Shut up.]

“Daddy, you said live on, didn’t you? Just live on” (88).

[Mama Day never had children, but she has delivered everyone else’s. Frances and Ruby fight over Junior Lee.]

“‘A man don’t leave you unless he wants to go, Frances. And if he’s made up his mind to go, there ain’t nothing you, me, or anybody else can do about that’” (90).

“‘I raised me some decent, Christian children.’

“‘Miracles do happen,’ Miranda says, turning her back. She walks off before Pearl has the chance to take another deep breath; she can keep talking half an hour on just three lungfuls” (94).

Abigail and Miranda are talking when in Miranda’s mind she thinks “She’s thinking of the child she gave to Mother. But I begged her not to do it. She couldn’t put her own guilt to rest by naming her first baby Peace. Peace was gone, I told her. And now Peace is gone again. She only lost one of her babies to Mother, I lost them all. She’s got much less to forgive than me” (95).

Cocoa thinks “I had seen Mama Day do a lot of things out at the other place, and when I told the kids at school they called me a liar” (97).

[Cocoa seems confused by platonic friendship. She learns that George has a girlfriend. George tells Cocoa they are going to renew their commitment (at the same time George and Cocoa are falling in love).]

[The fake world of dating is discussed from a man’s point of view on pages 104-5]

[George and Cocoa seal the deal.]

[The “other place” is mentioned again when Mama Day tells Abigail she should start storing her gifts there.]

[Remembrances of Dad, below:]

“And Miranda says that her daddy, John-Paul, said that in his time Candle Walk was different still. Said people kinda worshipped his grandmother, a slave woman who took her freedom in 1823. Left behind seven sons and a dead master as she walked down the main road, candle held high to light her way to the east bluff over the ocean. Folks in John-Paul’s time would line the main road with candles, food, and slivers of ginger to help her spirit along…And even the youngsters who’ve begun complaining about having no Christmas instead of this ‘old 18 & 23 night’ don’t upset Miranda. It’ll take generations, she says, for Willow Springs to stop doing it at all” (111).

[A friend brings Mama Day a rocking chair that she says is destined for the “other place.” Maranda’s dad and his six brothers are buried on their own land. Her grandfather and his six brothers are there. Peace, Grace, Hope and Peace again. They never found Maranda’s mother’s body.]

[Speaking of the “other place”:]

“Where do folks get things in their head? It’s an old house with a big garden, that’s all. Me and Abigail and Peace was born there. My daddy and his brothers as well. And it’s where my mama sat, rocking herself to death. Folks can get the craziest things in their head. But then again there was the other place, where she was gonna bring Bernice in the spring. Will she see just an old house with a big garden” (118)?

[A bit about ghosts:]

“She tries to listen under the wind. The sound of a long wool skirt passing. Then the tread of heavy leather boots, heading straight for the main road, heading on toward the east bluff over the ocean. It couldn’t be Mother, she died in The Sound. Miranda’s head feels like it’s gonna burst. The candles, food, and slivers of ginger, lining the main road. A long wool skirt passing. Heavy leather boots. And the humming–humming of some lost and ancient song. Quiet tears start rolling down Miranda’s face. Oh, precious Jesus, the light wasn’t for her–it was for him. The tombstone out by Chevy’s Pass. How long did he search for her? Up and down this path. What had daddy said his daddy said about Candle Walk? She was trying too hard, she couldn’t remember. But she’d bring out the rocking chair. Maybe move back here herself after spring. Lord knows, she’d be back in that garden enough come then. And summer, it’d be real pleasant. Listen to the wind from The Sound. Maybe it would come to her. Yes–it just might come to her. Up and down this path, somehow, a man dies from a broken heart” (118).

[Cocoa:]

“George, I was frightened. Can you understand that? Things were going so well between us that I dreaded the day when it would be over. Grown women aren’t supposed to believe in Prince Charmings and happily-ever-afters. Real life isn’t about that–so bring on the clouds. And each day that it was exhilarating and wonderful; each time you’d call unexpectedly just to say, I was thinking about you; each little funny card in the mail or moment in a restaurant when you’d reach over for no reason and squeeze my hand–each of those times, George, I’d feel this underlying panic: when will it end? And it was worse when we were in bed. You’d take me in your arms with such a hunger and tenderness, demanding only that I be pleased, that I’d feel a melting away of places in my body I hadn’t realized were frozen voids. Your touch was slowly making new and alive openings within me and I would lie there warm and weak, listening to you sleep, thinking, What will I do when he’s not here? How will I handle all this space he’s creating without him to fill it?

“And you–you would be so cheerful the mornings after you slept over. Running down to the deli to get us fresh rolls and orange juice. Circling some announcement in the paper for a show we could catch that weekend. Never understanding that it was three whole days until the weekend and my seeing you again. Three days was time enough to settle into what my girlfriends were saying: ‘He sounds too good to be true.’ I’d look around that empty apartment and yes, it had to be that–untrue. You were only part of some vision, or at best a temporary visitor in my life. Too good to be true. Too good to last” (119).

George discusses how easy it is to make a woman think he cares for her. Come over when she calls. Send random Hallmark cards. Cocoa discusses real sharing; personal things she has shared that meant a lot. George gives Cocoa a speech on the difference between being a son of a whore and a son of a bitch. He was the son of a whore who abandoned him and was found washed near a pier near Bailey’s Cafe (131).

“Small places live on small talk, but sometimes the happenings can be too lean for everybody to get enough fat out of it to chew over” (132).

“Trunks and boxes from the other place gave up enough for twenty quilts: corduroy from her uncles, broadcloth from her great-uncles” (137).

Mama Day performs a hoodoo ritual on Bernice so she will become pregnant. “But she wasn’t changing the natural course of nothing, she couldn’t if she tried. Just using what’s there. And couldn’t be nothing wrong in helping Bernice to believe that there’s something more than there is. It’s an old house with a big garden, and it done seen its share of pain. And I’m just an old woman who’ll be waiting in a rocking chair…” [like her mother] (139).

“There’s a lesson in gratitude floating around here somewhere, but it looks like it’s gonna be a while before it settles” (149).

Mama Day refuses to let Cocoa go out and party with her male friends.

There is a wonderful soliloquy on the passing of time on page 158. Four years later, George and Cocoa are still married.

“When you raise a god instead of a child, you’re bound to be serving him for the rest of your days” (162).

“A sow takes better care of her young. And don’t be sitting there whining about a no-good daddy–if he ain’t never here, it means he ain’t stopped you from cleaning this house. And he ain’t the cause of you stuffing this child with white bread and sugar lard to keep him quiet while you’re watching them soap operas. That’s right, cry, you oughta cry. And while you at it, use them tears to water the truck garden you’re gonna start growing with a dollar’s worth of seeds and a little work. Chickens will eat anything you won’t eat–even their own mess–and give you eggs for breakfast to boot. God don’t like ugly” (193-4).

Mama Day and George make a fishing date.

“I know I ain’t giving her credit. Maranda laughs. She done mellowed plenty since this marriage. Soft around the edges without getting too soft at the center. You fear that sometimes for women, that they would just fold up and melt away. She’d seen it happen so much in her time, too much for her to head on into it without thinking. Yes, that one time when she was way, way young. But after that, looking at all the beating, the badgering, the shriveling away from a lack of true touching was enough to give her pause. Not that she mighta hooked up with one of those. And not that any man–even if he tried–coulda ever soaked up the best in her. But who needed to wake up each morning cussing the day just to be sure you still had your voice? A woman shouldn’t have to fight her man to be what she was; he should be fighting that battle for her. It weren’t so in her time, though, and from what these young women tell her, it’s rare to find it now. So a lot of ‘em is waking up like me, except they’re waking up young and alone” (203).

Here’s a bit of brilliance:

“But you wouldn’t have believed me because they never said a word as they sat at that kitchen table chatting away with you retching in the background. But I knew them: idle hands are the devil’s workshop, and you had come home reeking with his brew. There was a soul in that bathroom to be saved with hard work. They were going to demand practically every minute of your day while you would think you were volunteering your butt off. When she puts her mind to it, no one can beat a southern woman at manipulating a man. And these women had been around long enough to take it to the level of art.

“They were much too skilled to honey, sweetheart, or sugar you into anything. On the contrary, you would be told to run off, to rest, to leave them alone with their work. But context would be their masterstroke and versatility their finishing touch. So Grandma starts out talking about her age. This will probably be the last year she’d fool with that garden. Her appetite is hardly what it used to be–why worry about growing beans? More there than she’ll ever use and even too many to give away. A long, long sigh. She’ll just go on up to the store and buy a few old frozen packages of something. She’s a lot better off than them other old people she reads about in the newspapers having to eat cat food. You see, then she totally drops that subject. Goes on to something else, and finally with another long, long sigh, she says that since these beans are already growing, she’ll go through the last hurrah and get out there and tie them up. To grab at her back when she stands up would be a bit too much, so she just shuffles slowly toward the rear porch. And, of course, you volunteer. That’s gentle pity. 

“Mama Day jumps in by the afternoon and uses fierce pride. She waits until she spies you on the porch before dragging that heavy rag rug out to the clothesline. She lets it rail along the ground, stopping several times to hoist it up in her arms. That gives you the time to get across the road with an offer of help that’s flatly and emphatically refused as she struggles unsuccessfully–much too unsuccessfully–to swing it over the line. You get begrudging thanks for insisting that you do it and finally several pointers on the most effective way to beat out the dust. But she’ll keep you supplied with lemonade for your dry throat–at least she ain’t too old and decrepit to squeeze a few lemons. They exchange tactics on the second day and by the third, none are needed. You’ve been allowed to overhear the quiet whispers about how marvelous you are, to witness glimpses of melting awe at the strength of your back, your arms. Yeah, they could lie back now, your ego would take over.

“I guess if I’d really taken those lessons to heart, we could have gotten along better. They had you under their heels and you were purring. But I found treating a grown man like a five-year-old a little nauseating. If they had just come out and said, We want you to help around the house, you would have. As a matter of fact, you would have done it for the remainder of your vacation and not have resented it. That was more my style: Hey, look, keep your tail here and help me. But like I said, they were artists. And they wove the illusion that you were doing more than helping, you were in charge. You wanted to do all those chores. You even thought of things to be done that hadn’t crossed their minds. The fact that you weren’t in charge had absolutely nothing to do with the results: Grandma’s roof got painted, the garden got weeded, Mama Day’s rugs were spotless. And you were too tired to go anywhere. If you only knew, I thought, watching you laughing and talking with them on the porch at night. Grandma shelling boiled peanuts for you, Mama Day rubbing liniment into your sore shoulders. And maybe you did know, but it was what you believed that counted” (216-7).

In the woods Cocoa hears the whispers of ghosts that George can’t hear. They say she is going to break his heart. We learn some more history of the other place. 224-5

“Well, the Scriptures do say it: man was the last thing the Lord made.”

“He shoulda quit while He was ahead.”

“Just letting things crumble apart, ‘cause everybody wants to be right in a world where they ain’t no right or wrong to be found. My side. He don’t listen to my side. She don’t listen to my side. Just like that chicken coop, everything got four sides: his side, her side, an outside, and an inside. All of it is the truth. But that takes a lot of work and young folks ain’t about working heard no more. When getting at the truth starts to hurt, it’s easier to turn away” (230).

Junior Lee puts the moves on Cocoa and Ruby sees him.

“Miranda shakes her head and takes a final look around her garden before she turns her face to the sky. Gray. The color you’d get from blending a bridal dress and a funeral veil” (243).

Little Caesar dies. The poison Ruby plants in Cocoa has begun to take effect.

“There’ll be no redemption for that. She ain’t gotta worry about going on to hell. Hell was right now. Daddy always said that folks misread the Bible. Couldn’t be no punishment worse than having to live here on ear, he said” (261).

Lightning hits Ruby’s house twice and it explodes after Mama Day had turned some hoodoo on her.

“And if you’re worried about us, you can stop. We’re going to be fine because I believe in myself.”

“That’s where folks start, boy–not where they finish up. Yes, I said boy. ‘Cause a man would have grown enough to know that really believing in himself means that he ain’t gotta be afraid to admit there’s some things he just can’t do alone.”

Read the book to find out all the twists and turns!

Western Echoes of the Harlem Renaissance: The Life and Writings of Anita Scott Coleman

Edited by Cynthia Davis and Verner D. Mitchell

In a preface margin note: It wasn’t her location, but the time period and the topics she discussed that made her a Harlem Renaissance writer. There was a west and east coast renaissance. After the preface the book contains an “Anita Scott Coleman Chronology.”

Introduction: Anita Scott Coleman in the Southwest

“…the issue of where an African American family should locate its physical, moral, and spiritual ‘place’ or home becomes an important theme in Coleman’s oeuvre.” She was able to share more with family than with the public. “…home is not a restrictive space or a domestic prison for women, or even an escape from racist reality, but a site of agency for the African American family. Home thus functions as both a response to and a goal of migration and diaspora…” (5). Coleman’s grandmother was marked as mulatto on the census, probably from Seminole heritage. “Coleman’s poem ‘Hands,’ like ‘America Negra’ and ‘El Tisico,’ weaves together family history, the theme of home and migration, and biblical allusion to explore important issues in African American history” (6). “…African American presence in New Mexico and Arizona, the race has contributed to the region’s development since the time of the first Spanish explorers.” Some became “linguists and translators of Native American languages” (10). The lived in a town that reminded me of the all-Black town where Jodi and Janie live in Hurston’s book Their Eyes Were Watching God. “American history, in its persistent attempt to eradicate the black presence in the West, not only ignores the participation of blacks in law enforcement, but edits out their connection with legendary American outlaws.” “…two African Americans rode with the posse that eventually killed [Billy the kid]. Blacks were actively involved in law enforcement.” “…25 percent ‘of the 35,000 mean who went up the trail from Texas with herds during the heroic age of the cattle industry, 1866-1895…were Negroes'” (Porter 347) (14).

“Coleman seems to have enjoyed an unusually close relationship with her parents, with whom she lived until their deaths. According to family members, Coleman enjoyed a privileged childhood under her mother’s watchful eye (Caffey; Green). While other children might ‘wallow at will in the dusty street,’ Anita, ‘in stiffly-starched gingham and ribbon bows in her hair…spend her time among the flower-beds, playing ‘a’leery’ with her rubber ball, or mimicking grown-ups with her dolls and tea set’ (‘…G’Long, Old White Man’s Gal…’). In turn, Coleman provided the same meticulous attention to her own children; her daughter Willianna started kindergarten in ‘a frilly white dress and spotless white soxs and shiny black shoes'” (W. Coleman 4) (16). Later, Anita employed her father’s use of irony as a way to treat issues of racism and discrimination in her work” (17).

Coleman graduated from high school. “Her parents encouraged her self-esteem and taught her to be proud of her race and to value character and spirituality over physical attributes, qualities she passed on to her children, grandchildren, and foster children” (Green). “Coleman’s characters are undaunted by hegemonic standards of beauty to which they do not conform and are blessed with strong, protective, and intelligent families” (19).

“Anne, in being willing to take ‘pot luck’ and chance her future with Jim, is rewarded with stability and love. Significantly, Coleman names the couple in the story after herself and her husband, James Harold Coleman. the initial encounter of the fictional pair does, in fact, resemble their meeting: Anita saw James walking down the street one day ‘and just decided he was the man she was going to marry’ (Green). Their relationship inspired a number of stories in which a privileged woman wisely, if unconventionally, chooses a man of sterling character but of lesser status. The positive male-female relationships in ‘Silk Stockings,’ ‘Pot Luck,’ ‘The Little Grey House,’ and ‘Bambino Grimke’ all originate in such intuitive, spontaneous, life-altering decisions as the one Anita apparently made upon seeing James. Like the couple in ‘Two Old Women,’ they may have courted for some years while James solidified his economic prospects. In October 1916, they married and moved in with Anita’s parents on the ranch” (20-1).

“Home is thus a site of empowerment for both men and women, and a shred entrepreneurial venture is a form of resistance to racism. In the same way that Coleman’s father and grandfather seem to have inspired Coleman’s older black male characters, so her husband appears to be the model for the younger generation who are sensitive, intelligent, and skilled. Unfortunately, they are also frustrated in their attempts to establish themselves professionally.” “Coleman’s mean are complex, nuanced, and believable” and they “behave in a variety of ways” (22). “The tension in Coleman’s stories arises from the reader’s connection to sympathetic male characters who must find their way out of unjust and discriminatory situations” (23). “Although the characters were rural Southerners, they expressed themselves in proper English, instead of in stereotyped dialect” (25).

“Not surprisingly, considering that he personally read and critiqued Coleman’s submissions to the Crisis contests, W.E.B. DuBois became an important influence on the content and style of her work. Although she apparently admired Booker T. Washington during her college years, her stories about the underemployment of skilled black men indicate that she perceived the flaws in the Tuskegee model. She would undoubtedly have read the 1914 editorial in the Crisis in which DuBois asserts that vocational training will never achieve Washington’s aims since there was never any intention on the part of white industry to hire black graduates of trade schools. In several of her stories, Coleman dramatizes DuBois’s critique of the Tuskegee model and the pointlessness of vocational training given the structural inequities in hiring practices” (26).

Coleman wrote stories of passing: “Three Dogs and a Rabbit” and “The Brat.” “Like Johnson, she explores passing as subversion and posits race as a social and economic construct. Coleman’s preoccupation with alienation and isolation, the psychic costs of passing, gives her work a particularly modernist affiliation. “The Brat” borrows Johnson’s trope of African American music as a ‘symbolic projection of a double consciousness’ (Baker 21). Both Coleman’s and Johnson’s protagonists agonize between embracing black culture through music and using music to disguise their origins. Music thus functions in Coleman’s text as both an escape from and a marker of race.” “Coleman thus sets the stage for a fairy tale of race, shape-shifting, and metamorphosis” (28). Charles Chesnutt has a similarly-themed story to Coleman’s: “The biblical allusion to Moses and Miriam, and Jennie’s sacrifice in giving up her child, underscore the terrible psychic cost of passing.” “Kane’s secret makes him ‘lonely, so lonely. His poor heart aches and he can’t tell why.’ Coleman then suggests that Aggie too is passing; after all, the reader only has Jennie’s word that Aggie is white, and of course she was mistaken in assuming that her friend Biddy was black. Both Aggie and David Kane, then, choose the white world but at great cost to their psychic integrity and emotional stability” (29).

“The second frame is Mrs. Ritton’s story. Accused of sheltering a ‘runaway Negro’ pursued by the police, she refuses to divulge the fugitive’s location; instead she tells the court that as a young slave girl (the courtroom gasps in disbelief), she made the arduous journey west with her owners. On the trail she protects a frightened rabbit being pursued by her master. Despite her own hunger and the beating received from her master, she hides the animal. The master’s son observes the flogging, and although he had always teased and annoyed her, ‘he changed from that day.’ The two eventually marry, and Mrs. Ritton’s racial identity is absorbed and obliterated in her social position until the day that she sees the fugitive and has a sudden flashback to the events of her youth. Phipps, although he ‘knew the fugitive was free, and making a rough guess at it, likely to remain so,’ is overwhelmed by the lovely woman ‘standing alone in the midst of all those hostile people, tearing apart with such simple words the whole fabric of her life.’ Even without knowing the surprise ending, one can see how Coleman approaches the theme of passing as a social construct and explores issues of miscegenation and racism in the legal system, all within the framework of a western ‘tall tale'” (31).

Since I’m a huge movie/tv buff, this next bit of information earned a margin note of: awesome! “Finally, the medium of film clearly shaped Coleman’s writing. While writing ‘Three Dogs’ Coleman worked as a script writer for Pathe films; she understood the syntax of film narration, including flashbacks, fast-forwards, dissolves, fades, visual symbols, compressed dialogue, and scenes that are both intimate and dramatic, all of which appear in her work. Coleman remained interested in writing for the media all her life; later she wrote television scripts, including one for Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone.

“…it is possible that the story editors did not know her race. Coleman describes a similar situation in ‘Jack Arrives’ (1920) when a young black architect wins a contest but does not reveal his race until afterward, confident that his demonstrated talent will supersede any prejudice” (32).

“The Brat”

[random notes on this short story]

“A wild night, a blazing hearth, a rose-lit room, low, sweet music, an over-stuffed armchair and a companion; who can tell a tale of life, as she is–ah, there’s charm and warmth a-plenty.”

“Old Jennie, all twisted and bent with premature age, which wrapped her about like an ill-fitting garment…”

“A night for surprises indeed. Old Jennie esteeming me above my fellows. A pleasing surprise bobbing up to nod at me like daisies on a hillside.”

A wild child who reluctantly gives up her baby so that he can have a better life with white people. The separation has broken her heart and made her grow old. She never reveled her true identity to her son; she just visits once a year like she was his old servant. Eventually, the boy stops seeing her and she must let him go. He becomes a famous singer. he got his singing voice from his mom.

“Three Dogs and a Rabbit”

“The picture had to be finished, Gentleman. The rabbit, no the man–had to be protected. Thank you, Sirs. That is all.’

“Yes,” said Timothy Phipps, pensively. “I was the running black gentleman in the story–” he tilted his head a bit backwards and sideways and laughed. His laughter echoing–joy–joy–joy!”

An ex-slave woman who has a penchant for saving those on the run.

“El Tisico”

A story of patriotism for the U.S. The idea that if you are sick you want to go “home.”

“The Little Grey House”

Two lonely people come together in the little grey house.

“Cross Crossings Cautiously”

“Usually Sam was a cheerful creature. Work and love; love and work, that, boiled down to brass tacks, is the gist of all life…”

“Sam swung around like a heavy plummet loosed from its mooring.”

Did Sam come to a bad end because he was black? Did they take him from Claudia before she could see?

“Jack Arrives”

Dreams come true for Jack who wants to be an architect.

“Bambino Grimke”

The “nobody” finds a way to become somebody by collaring a grifter.

“Bambino: Star Boarder”

Grimke strikes again. Almost ran away with another man’s wife but forgot to show up.

“Rich Man, Poor Man”

Rich little Drusilla who thought she’d never work finally found a compelling reason to do so: love!

“Pot Luck: A Story Tue to Life”

“So if any of you expect Life, Life the capricious woman, to pitch her decorum to the winds and do a handspring for the sake of converting the child of a clod-hopping hodcarrier whose mate is a washwoman, into a finished musician or a distinguished linguist, you simply don’t know Life. It’s far more befitting her caprice to make the sons and daughters of musicians and poets the rag-pickers and scullery maids of tomorrow. If you notice, she takes generations in which to produce and only moments in which to destroy.”

“But a lady–bah, a lady–any female who chooses can be that. Take for instance, a little bit of natural inclination, a fair amount of right association, a smattering of education; and a knack at imitation, and you have it.”

People were surprised that she was so good at her job AND black.

We didn’t think Anne Borden would amount to anything since she didn’t take to education. She was loved by children so she ended up working with them and found love along the way.

“Two Old Women A-Shopping Go! A Story of Man, Marriage and Poverty”

“Tis a trouble men folks be,” offered one.

“But a sweet trouble ’tis,” proffered the other.

“Trouble ain’t never harmed nary one of us. What’s more, us wimens can make men folks what us choose to.”

“Deed so! Us ’tis what makes ’em or breaks ’ems.”

The wisdom of old women is heeded by a young woman who holds on to love while she has it.

“The Mechanical Toy”

“…an old dreaming sentimentalist, it mattered not, that Jonathan Connors was a black lad and Haven Addams a white one. He adored friendship wherever it was found…”

Jonathan saved all his earnings in hopes of going to industrial school. Haven came from money, so would spend what he had.

“They were very young and laughed a great deal and talked overmuch; because youth loves to flaunt itself and is never secretive.”

A prank kills an old man of fright.

“Love for Hire”

An old lady is becoming too chummy with her black house maid according to her children. The maid is so upset at her boss’s death because she might not be able to find another position that high paying. Ahh…so it wasn’t sympathy…it was loss of income she was mourning.

“…G’Long, Old White Man’s Gal…”

Mercy Kent is left a “good sized fortune” by an old white man.

“She hobbled towards the door, then turned and came back. She was like a little black spider in the midst of them, weaving a web with which to catch flies. And the flies, see them, flies will always be caught.”

They talk of white men never leaving black women anything if there weren’t some other exchange involved. There is a description of Mercy’s family growing up.

“There was rejoicing within the little white and green cottage, the sort of joy that bubbles over the rim and splashes down the sides, and makes little puddles about the bottom of the bucket and eventually forms into little rivulets to run here and there and everywhere.”

The black people of the town put down the black family that profits from working for a rich white man. Even with all her money, Mercy will never be accepted by her peers.

“Phoebe and Peter up North”

There is talk of looking whiter to change; to fit in. Peter gets what for when he calls his wife Phoebe a countrified thorn in his side.

“Phoebe Goes to a Lecture”

Birth control is discussed.

“Alright then, ” exclaimed Mayme. “Honey-child, that’s why I urged you to come, not that I thought you’d enjoy that especially, but get out, see with your eyes and hear with your ears, and give your brains an airing. That’s what city life is for, to put the ‘pep’ in living. You don’t need to think other people’s thoughts. Think up your own; but you can’t think looking inside yourself. You’ve got to look out. Do you get me? Then you won’t have time for such nonsense as loneliness.”

Phoebe gets out. She needs to broaden her mind, even if it only leads back home.

The poem “Hands” reminds me of my dad. When one does hard labor all his life these are the hands that are created. Working man’s hands.

The poem “Idle Wonder” Do we only imagine our pets and employees to be contented?

Silver Borne

Final book in the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs

Phin, the bookstore owner, seems to be missing. Mercy has one of his books about the fae.

Someone (or more than one) from the pack is able to enter Mercy’s head and mess with her thoughts. She wants to learn more about this from Samuel, but he has called for Mercy’s help at the hospital.

Samuel tried to kill himself. His wolf has now calmly taken over until Mercy can figure out what to do.

An unknown named Daphne Rondo sent bounty hunters with a false warrant to bring in Adam. It didn’t work.

Is an unknown woman trying to kill Adam? She gave the kill orders AFTER she’d been missing for a couple of days. Adam knows Samuel is staying in wolf form and is breaking the rules to keep him safe.

I made a note that Briggs came up with a scent I think I’d like as a perfume: earth, forest, magic, wood fire, air and salt water. Make that burning sandalwood and I think we have a hit!

Where is the bookstore owner? Is the fae folklore book important? Is grandma at the bookstore good or bad? Will Samuel still want to kill himself if he turns back human?

Sam and Mercy break into the bookstore and learn it has been destroyed by Phin. They win the battle, but now Adam needs help.

Someone blew up Mercy’s house. Mary-Jo let it happen, but who was working with her?

Gabriel has been taken hostage by the fairy queen who wants to make an exchange with Mercy.

The word “slugabed” is used here which I’ve never heard. Self explanatory though.

Behind the scenes, Mary Jo’s boyfriend, Henry, has been plotting how to get rid of Adam who is the focus of Mary Jo’s romantic wishes. Paul and Adam are set to fight for pack leader.

Fights for control!!

We hear a long-ago story of Samuel and Alicia and how she was tormented by her father. “…scars do not bother me. They are the laurels of the survivor.” The fairy queen has tricked Mercy, Jesse and Alicia into her lair where she is keeping Phin and Gabriel.

Will the group be saved from the fairy queen? Will someone have to stay behind as the queen’s prisoner? Read the fifth and final book in the series of Mercy Thompson!

Bone Crossed

fourth in the series of Mercy Thompson books by Patricia Briggs

Stefan reappears! Marsilia has come to collect on the debt for Mercy killing Andre. An old college acquaintance, Amber, comes to Mercy to help her with a ghost. Stefan is badly injured. He’s at Adam’s recovering. Mercy visits with her mom. Tim’s cousin engages a companion to help deface Mercy’s car shop. Tony is on the case.

Adam and Mercy are now a couple even though she is in constant worry over Marsilia coming to kill her and everyone she loves.

There was a trap set by vampires out to get Mercy. The trap instead turned one of the fae into an ice monster and people got hurt.

In order to turn down the heat in the city, Mercy goes ghost hunting at Amber’s.

Amber and her husband, Corban, know Blackwood as a business associate. Mercy knows him as “The Monster,”; the only vampire in the area. Mercy has no memory of receiving a vampire bit in the night. Is Amber having an affair with a vampire? Stefan? Blackwood? Amber definitely has a ghost problem.

Stefan and Mercy get Amber and her family to a hotel and they head home. Stefan and Mercy exchange blood so that Blackwood can be kept at bay. Vampire Estelle approaches Stefan to ask if he wants to join forces against Marsilia. He refuses.

They hypothesis now is that Blackwood wants to overthrow Marsilia for the Tri-Cities territory. Bernard and Estelle want Marsilia destroyed as well. Stefan will not agree to kill his leader, Marsilia.

Marsilia has her showdown. Estelle is killed, Bernard is allowed to leave. Stefan remains loyal to Marsilia then disappears. No werewolves were hurt.

Adam and Mercy make love. She is still having trouble making a pack connection. Corban shows up to kidnap Mercy. He says Chad has been taken. Is it Blackwood?

The ghost visits Mercy. Blackwood feeds from those whom he wants similar powers. Due to Mercy’s bonds to the pack and Stefan, Blackwood will have to keep her and feed on her over an extended period. The ghost is a vampire he killed when she confronted his behavior. Now the old lady ghost wants to feed on Mercy in exchange for information.

Mercy is becoming stronger through four types of magic: walker, fae, pack and vampire. Does the walking stick end up helping Mercy at all? Will Amber and Corban’s son be saved? Who will clean up this mess? Read volume four to find out!

Iron Kissed

third in the series of Mercy Thompson novels by Patricia Briggs

Zee needs help finding a serial murderer on the fae’s reservation. Mercy is trying to sniff him out. The smell that links all the houses was the rent-a-cop working the gate. Could he be involved in the killings?

Zee and Uncle Mike were on the scene of O’Donnell’s death but don’t know who killed him. Zee is in jail and needs a lawyer.

Mercy goes to the crime scene which O’Donnell’s ghost re-enacts. He says “mine” but Mercy cannot see who ripped his head off.

A magic raven appears then disappears with the magic walking stick. Through talking with Uncle Mike and online research, Mercy is trying to learn more about Zee and the magic stick. Zee is mad at Mercy for “secrets” being shared with the lawyer and police.

Some kids from school attacked Jesse. There will be consequences.

Tim at the bar knows O’Donnell and is part of an anti-fae hate group. Mercy is invited to the next meeting. Mercy has decided on Adam as her future love mate. He seems less controlling than Sam.

The magic stick is following Mercy. Nemane, the magic crow, can take the human form of Dr. Altman. She came to either warn or harm Mercy, but Samuel showed up just in time. Now Nemane knows the type of army Mercy has behind her. The fae are happy for Zee to take the fall for O’Donnell’s death. The others want to keep searching for the real killer. There is a building war.

Fideal is a fae monster who follows Mercy home with deadly intent. The wolf pack has to fight him off.

Uncle Mike, Samuel and Mercy talk about the killer being in possession of some magical items. Uncle Mike says to leave it to the police and the Grey Lords. Mercy doesn’t think they care enough to do a thorough investigation.

A shocking rape occurs by the same person as the killer. He wanted to collect magical fae items and he used an inside man to get them. What does Mercy do to her rapist? What does the wolf pack do before the police arrive? There is some interesting discussion about rape and the psychological issues involved. Mercy will deal with these effects for the rest of the series.

This concludes the three books I had on my shelf. I was having so much fun within the world of Mercy Thompson that I scoured the local bookstore then went online to order the last two books in the series.

Blood Bound

second in the series of Mercy Thompson books by Patricia Briggs

Cory Littleton is a sorcerer vampire. Once Littleton feeds, the spirit of the demon retreats. Littleton has Stephan in a trance and now Mercy’s coyote self is trying to fight him. When Stefan was immobile and enchanted he was engaging in the feeding in his mind. Littleton can kill while putting a spell on another vampire so he/she thinks they did it instead. Daniel is a young vampire who’d been entranced and tricked before. In the altercation, Mercy appears to have gotten a bite from Littleton. Demons can inhabit others but they must be invited. A reporter confronts Mercy at work. She is saved by her friends. She is about to go meet the head mistress vampire to explain what she saw happen at the hotel. Stephan’s trial goes well; they believe him. Now they want him to track down the sorcerer.

Did someone within the seethe tip off Littleton that Stefan was coming to see him that night? Samuel is upset Mercy has been hanging with Adam. He tells her a story about a girlfriend in med school. When she got pregnant she aborted the baby and left him. Sam still mourns this loss.

Side story: Mr. Black has a daughter who is a werewolf. He doesn’t know how to deal and has come to Mercy for help. Warren is nearly killed and left for dead. Now Marsilia is turning to Mercy even though two vampires and two werewolves have not been able to take care of the problem. Stefan is believed dead. Mercy has now been tasked with finding the sorcerer.

Does Marsilia want to own the demon vampire? Mercy has been learning more about vampires. Adam and Samuel (and Stefan) are missing. Littleton pays Mercy a terrifying visit.

Mercy is trying to learn about vampires as she goes. Why is Littleton doing this in the first place? Who is the vampire who made Littleton? Mercy gets more clues about the sorcerer’s location.

Andre, Stefan, Ben, Adam and Samuel are all in the church with Mercy and Littleton. The demon is in full control. Stefan, Sam and Adam are in cages.

Littleton’s head is cut off and the body turned to ash by Mercy. Everyone is checked out at the hospital. Sam kisses Mercy.

Stefan shared the news that Andre’s trial was over. Because Marsilia still wanted a sorcerer vampire, she wanted Andre to try to make one again. Mercy is now searching for Andre. Will Mercy be successful in breaking the cycle that Andre hopes to perpetuate? Will Marsilia get in her way? Read the book for the harrowing conclusion!