Intriguing Authors: Zora Neale Hurston

zora neale hurstonThe Reading Room rotation consists mainly of Christian books (both doctrinal and historical), books relevant to my personal history, historical fiction, classic fiction, and children’s books. All else is tier 2 stuff that I may or not get around to depending  on reviews and research.

Of late, I have spent a fair amount of time going back over what I thought I knew about my place of origin, and black American culture worth embracing (circa 1900). This brings me to my extensive study of Zora Neale Hurston.

Because I heard a lot about her as I grew up, I thought I knew a lot about her. My gathering of her writings was prompted mainly by the fact that reading her books offers me insight into my hometown. I then stumbled into learning about her rather than simply remembering odd facts from elementary school.

Hurston, widely embraced after her death while largely ignored most of her life, was in many ways a larger than life persona. Even the black feminist writers of the 80’s and 90’s, who revived her from obscurity, have a love/confused relationship with her. Her politics, views on relationships, and unwillingness to engage in racial victim-hood put her at odds with much of what they embrace.

In fact it was this very thing that caused her to be largely dismissed by the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. A cursory, unthinking post modern person would assume they criticized her because she was a female in a male dominated movement. That was however, not the case. They disliked Hurston’s work because she refused to write about black life in relation to white America. She didn’t think it did justice to the life and culture of blacks to pretend that their lives held no joy or worth except as compared to the white American mainstream. From her Dust Tracks on a Road:

“I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”

This permeated her writing and her refusal to get in on the racial protest writing that typified the acclaimed writers of the Harlem Renaissance stood in the way of her ability to be widely accepted. Much was and has been made of Richard Wright’s criticism of Hurston, but they simply approached what it meant to be black in America from different angles. To Wright, being black was serious business, while Hurston viewed it as a simple fact of her life which carried some good, and some bad along with it. Same as everyone else. It wasn’t that she was unaware of discrimination:

Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It is beyond me.

It was simply that she didn’t let it define her. The thing most bewildering to today’s cadre of black writers and activists, however, were Hurston’s politics. She wasn’t a liberal. That much is obvious. And although the neocons of today try to co-opt her views as evidence that she would be Republican were she alive today, it is probably closer to characterize Hurston as a libertarian, more akin to Ayn Rand than Ann Coulter. She recoiled against being treated as an inferior creature, and it didn’t matter if it was to her supposed benefit:

“It seems to me that if I say a whole system must be upset for me to win, I am saying that I cannot sit in the game, and that safer rules must be made to give me a chance. I repudiate that. If others are in there, deal me a hand and let me see what I can make of it, even though I know some in there are dealing from the bottom and cheating like hell in other ways.”

On the idea of one black person’s actions being a credit to or an indictment of us all:

“Now, suppose a Negro does something really magnificent, and I glory, not in the benefit to mankind, but in the fact that the doer was a Negro. Must I not also go hang my head in shame when a member of my race does something execrable? . . . The white race did not go into a laboratory and invent incandescent light. That was Edison. . . . If you are under the impression that every white man is an Edison, just look around a bit.”

It has been enlightening and fun to read and learn about this woman whose re-emergence put my hometown on the map.

If not for a few profound differences,  I’d say Hurston was my kind of woman.

Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648

christendom destroyedChristendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648, by Mark Greengrass. published November 2014.

First a confession: I didn’t read the entire book. I was slogging through the first 5 chapters while switching back and forth to Chesterton’s Orthodoxy to re-engage my mind. I am a history buff, and as such I thought I would find this nearly 700 page book more interesting than I did.

Or, that was the case until I decided to skip over Greengrass’ exploration of human migration, human replenishment, and the effects of climate change on the way these things took shape. There were some interesting portions as he delved into the lifestyle and political landscape that laid the framework for the 1517 religious upheaval which gripped and forever changed Christendom.

One of the marks of true reading is pushing through those parts of a tome that may be a little less exciting for the purpose of understanding the whole. I couldn’t go the distance with this author however,  so after the first 5 chapters, I decided to just skip to the good part, at the halfway point, the tenth Chapter.

Chapter 10, titled Schism, describes and dissects the fallout of the Reformation.  From this point I was completely engaged and found this book a wealth of historical information, well presented.

Most interesting to note was the fact that much of what is attribute to Luther’s intent seems far radical than his original intent, although there did come a point in his lifetime when he was resigned to the reality that there could be no reunification of the Church he originally set out to reform.

The portions that covered John Calvin and his influence on the church were also informative as Calvinism has been a long fascination of mine, one that has caused me no small bit of angst in years past. Once again, this author’s description of Calvin’s position is much more benign than that of the rigid determinists who have carried his mantle after his death:

For Calvin, predestination was not an invitation to anxiety about God’s justice but a full stop to speculation on the matter. To the question: ‘Am I saved?’ he replied that belonging to the Church and knowing Christ in one’s heart were signs of election. That was liberation from angst. There was no need to build an ark. The rest was about living with Christ in the world, a midst a conflictual maze of human passions. Chapter 11, p. 364

In later chapters he gets into the ensuing conflicts between Protestants and the Catholic church (some of which were violent), and living with the newly formed religious divisions. He also explores the encroaching influence of Islam as it grew in Ottoman lands to the east. Also contributing to Christendom’s demise was the separation of the close ties between the RCC and the heads of state. Charles V was the last Roman emperor to be crowned by a pope in 1530.

This book is, for all intents and purposes, a European history work. Even the use of the word Christendom is clearly referencing a distinct geographical region at a precise period of time in history rather than the universal church as we often use the term.

There is no doubt however, and the author makes it clear, the cultural stage and atmosphere had been set for Luther’s protest and attempts at reform. Luther was, if you will, the straw that broke the camel’s back.

It was a heavy read for me at points, despite my being an enthusiastic student of history. All that said, I liked it well enough. I think it would have been a better book if didn’t read like a textbook at several points.

Grade: B-/C+

The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh

winnie the poohThe Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh, by A.A. Milne. Originally published in 1926.

There’s really no need to drag this one out. We’re big Winnie-the-Pooh fans here in the reading room, so when one of our girls pulled this entire volume off the library shelf, it served as our nightly read for the next 3 weeks.

There were tales here that we had not read before, such as when Tigger was introduced to the Hundred Acre Wood. Tales we hadn’t read in a few years were fresh and new.

The language of the Hundred Acre Wood and Pooh Corner is endlessly amusing, such as when Christopher Robin organizes a hilarious “expotition” to the North Pole, or when a search is “organdized” for one of Rabbit’s countless friends and relations. Oh yes, I almost forgot the attempt to search for and trap the ever elusive Heffalump, which lands Pooh and Piglet in trouble- yet again. And what would the stories be without Pooh’s inspired rhymes, songs, and hums?

This book offered a fun bed time reading experience and at 7 and 9 years old respectively, our youngest haven’t outgrown it. I even find myself laughing at the stories. When you outgrow the fun and humor of Winnie-the-Pooh, you’re too grown up.

Grade: A

Welsh Prince Trilogy, Book 1: Here Be Dragons

here be dragonsIt’s still taking a while for me to get through my current read (Christendom Destroyed). Since I’ve been pondering the right time to review and discuss Sharon Kay Penman’s Welsh Prince trilogy series, I figured I’d use my writing time this week to begin that. We’ll start with the first book in the series, Here Be Dragons.

Historical fiction, done well, is great reading ad I enjoy it no matter what era it covers. Having only a rudimentary and peripheral knowledge of the 13th Century conflicts between the English and Welsh, this book also gave me the opportunity to do some educational digging. It is a practice of mine to check the authenticity of any historical fiction  I read, and Penman does an admirable job of keeping with the spirit of life in 13th century England and Wales. Alas, it is historical fiction, so a plot summary is in order.

Wales was a country where royal title did not automatically pass from the ruling prince to his eldest legitimate son. Illegitimate sons were given equal rights to claim inheritance as their legitimate brothers and as such, it was a kingdom in constant turmoil and conflict.

Wales is a small country of proud people and a culture often at odds with those of England, to whom their princes must often swear allegiance in order to keep peace in their country.

More accurately, these truces are for the purposes of keeping peace with England, which is constantly encroaching with the express intent of making Wales a permanent English territory. There was hardly ever real peace in Wales because its princes were instigating civil wars rather than unifying to keep their beautiful and exotic country sovereign and out of English hands. Penman describes it thus:

Theirs was a land of awesome grandeur, a land of mountains and moorlands and cherished myths. They called it Cymru and believed themselves to be the descendants of Brutus and the citizens of ancient Troy. They were passionate, generous, and turbulent people, with but one fatal flaw. They proclaimed themselves to be Cymry—’fellow countrymen’—but they fought one another as fiercely as they did their English neighbors, and had carved three separate kingdoms out of their native soil.” Prologue, pg. xi

In 1283 England finally seized full control of  all Welsh territory and went to great lengths to wipe out what was left of the culture of the people there, whom they considered barbaric and primitive, and making it fully English. The title Prince of Wales was not always held by an Englishman.

However there was a brief period in Welsh history when the country was unified under the leadership of one powerful and charismatic prince, Llewellyn the Great, and it is this era which Penman uses as a starting point for her novel, Here Be Dragons.

Llewellyn earned his place as ruler of Wales in battle and by brokering a peace with his brothers. He then marries Joanna, the illegitimate daughter of England’s King John to form an alliance, however fragile, with the English crown. After a rocky start to the union, Penman weaves together a great love affair, which becomes inevitably stressed when tensions rise between Llewellyn and the English king, who insists on treating the Welsh Prince as his vassal.

While the story of Joanna and Llewellyn is central to the story, what drew me into this book was the family dramas, political intrigue, fierce battles, and descriptions of daily life in 13th century England and Wales. I was frequently engrossed with the well offered descriptions of natural beauty, perhaps because I live in the midst of suburban sprawl.

The stark differences in the ways of government, family, and marriage rights in the two countries was fascinating as well, as I bothered to fact check Penman’s work. This isn’t to say that I agreed with Welsh law, but was fascinated that such laws existed.

I like this book because it was fast paced without being a facile, and it was historically authentic.

It has romance in it, and some racy stuff at that. However, I would not categorize it as a romance novel as it can just as easily be categorized as an adventure story, or a war story.
Continue reading

Real Music Interlude: Fall is Here Edition.

My latest read is a big book, one that also requires thinking as you read it. I’m resisting the urge to hurry through it simply because I have a stack a half mile high waiting for me. There are so many books I am looking forward to reading for various reasons, but I need to finish this one first. Since it will be a bit longer before the next review, I figured some real music is in order.

Fall is finally arriving here, or at least peeking out at us for a day or two. The combination of sun, breeze, and creatures I saw on my walk Thursday morning brought this hymn to mind. Enjoy How Great Thou Art, an instrumental arrangement as performed by The Piano Guys:

Have a great weekend!

Literature Based Unit Studies for Young Students

We are finding that a good way to have home school lessons with a cohesive thread running throughout is by using literature. Using books that young children will enjoy, which also contain overlapping subject and educational topics, helps keep things interesting and learning fun. We’ve used books in this way over the first quarter and it has changed my perspective on the idea of unit studies.

It started out as an exercise primarily for our 7-year-old’s class, but as it turns out, the 9-year-old has gotten a lot out of it as well. Here is one example of a children’s picture book we used as a unit study.

make way for ducklingsMake Way for Ducklings, by Robert McCloskey. This children’s book is a Caldecott Medal winner, as I tend to gravitate toward books where the art is as integral to the story as the words on the page.

Make Way for Ducklings tells the story of Mr. and Mrs. Mallard duck as they search for a place to hatch and raise their ducklings. It is very entertaining to kids and well written (which is why it’s a classic). We covered several subject areas while reading it:

  • Time period: The artwork as well as the occupations of the secondary characters offered discussion of the time period covered in the book, the 1940’s. The children noticed many things that are different from life today, beginning with how well dressed the people were when they went to the park.
  • Science: Study of mallard ducks, their habitats, diets, family formations, and life cycle.
  • Vocabulary: Older books almost always offer opportunity for expanding young children’s vocabulary. Molt, dither, beckoned, and responsibility were among the vocabulary words we explored as we read Make Way for Ducklings.
  • Geography and beginning map skills: Set in the historic city of Boston, the book offered several well known landmarks and city building as we follow the ducklings flight through the city to find their new home.

As a rule, I believe only classic, timeless children’s books are worth the effort of putting together a unit study. At the elementary level, they are very useful so long as you choose good books.