Book Review

Their Eyes Were Watching God: Book Review

I recently finished reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and I was asked by someone if I thought this was a good book?

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The short answer is no.  I don’t think it’s a good book.

And here’s why: Hurston sends conflicting messages about the meaning of love, marriage, and sacrifice.  She gets it all wrong, and I’ll do my best to briefly explain it below.

It might be helpful to begin with a simple definition of love, for love is not an emotion, as Hurston would have one believe.  Emotional “love” is flitting; it is changeable and passing.  Oh the agony one will find in marriage if one doesn’t understand this!  Rather, to love is to will the good of another.  It is to die to oneself.  It is selflessness.  Likely, most of you readers already know this.

Janie Crawford, the main character in Hurston’s 1937 novel, does not think of love in this way.  Rather, she wants to feel love, which is why her first marriage fails.  In fact, she simply walks away from that marriage, literally with another man, whom she then marries a day later.

In other words, Janie has become a polygamist, and not a word is said about it.  Apparently this doesn’t bother her as she steadily marches onward with this new man.  The interesting thing is, however, that she also begins to detest this new husband very quickly.  A good portion of the novel details her reluctance to help him and her lamenting the fact that he doesn’t understand her.  She doesn’t want to help him; she wants to do her own thing, and fortunately for her, he dies after a few years, leaving her with a lot of money.

What to do then?  All the men in the town are eager to marry her, as she’s beautiful and rich, but Janie senses the shallowness of this.  Within a year of her husband’s death, however, she runs off with another man, whom she marries.  This man, she claims to love deeply, even though he steals money from her, lies to her, beats her, and cheats on her.

Now, I get that Hurston may simply want to paint an accurate picture of this time period–this culture.  In fact, that would be the merit of this book.  For those who are looking to understand the conflict, thoughts, and feelings of turn-of-the-century black Americans, perhaps this would indeed be a good book.

But I can’t recommend it because there’s a blending of good and bad.  Sometimes good things are seen as bad.  For example, it would be good to help one’s spouse out regardless of one’s feelings, but Janies does not think so.  Furthermore, sometimes bad things are seen as good, such as when Janie breaks her marriage covenant.

Any book that celebrates bad things as good or good things as bad, without any redemption in the end, I can’t recommend.

Language and Beauty

Lastly, I want to address the issue of language.  This novel is written almost exclusively in a rough dialect coming from the south, which can be difficult to read.  Indeed, writing in such a manner can be a risky thing for an author, as you may limit your audience to only those who are willing to slog through it.  (If I hadn’t wanted to read this novel for a local book club, I never would have forced myself to finish it.  It wasn’t worth it.)

Then secondly, poor language becomes dangerous to those readers who may be immersed in such a culture.  It drags one down, and after hours of reading in such a way, one finds oneself thinking in these words–even speaking aloud in that language, and that language is not beautiful.  It is far from uplifting.  And there’s something to be said for beautiful, uplifting, and intelligent language.  Truly an author who has mastered the English language is a pleasure to read.  I’m thinking of Charlotte Bronte.  Each time I read something of hers, I can’t help but to marvel at her vocabulary and her ability to express so well the human heart.

Let me illustrate this with an example of a different nature.  Many modern churches are built in a “low” way, lacking what St. Thomas Aquinas requires for beauty–namely, clarity, proportion, and integrity.  Without getting into details and going directly to my point, there is a difference between worshipping in a pole barn and worshipping in a magnificent gothic cathedral.  Any child could tell you so.  One is inspiring, and one is not.

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Pole Barn, from Wikimedia Commons.
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Chartres Cathedral, from Wikimedia Commons.  Anybody see a difference between the two?

Books can be the same way.  This is why I would be very wary of a novel done completely in the style of a pole barn–rough, ugly, and utilitarian.  What message are you conveying?  It had better be clear.  Truth had better be Truth.  If one wants to show a picture of something ugly, it had better have a clear purpose.  There had better be redemption in the end.  Indeed, there are authors who have mastered writing in slang or local dialects–I’m thinking of Charles Dickens–so I know it can be done well.  But given Hurston’s confused manner of addressing such things as love, marriage, and sacrifice, I think she fails in her endeavor.

Monthly Picks

February Picks

Here are some of my favorite things for February:

Favorite New Parish:  St. James the Less in La Crosse, WI.  Seriously, we couldn’t have landed in a better place for kind families, beautiful Latin Masses, and heavenly scholas.  I’ll telling you, this place has got it going on.  They even have potlucks every Sunday after the 11am Mass.  It’s all such a blessing.

Favorite Outdoor Activity:  Hiking.  The weather seems so much more mild here that it makes it easy to be out-of-doors.

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Hiking around Grandad’s Bluff

I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention all the sledding going on.  The boys drag their sleds almost every day to the park and sled down the steep sides into the baseball field.

Favorite Cocktail:  The Copyright, which is a signature drink from the La Crosse Distilling Co. and consists of Barrel-aged Fieldnotes Potato Vodka, Orange Liqueur, Honey, Lemon, and Angostura Bitters.  Here a picture of it:

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High Rye Highball on the left and Copyright on the right.

This place was hopping last Saturday night.  We can’t wait to go back and try more local drinks.  Click HERE for their website and more pictures.

Family Game of the Month:  Last month was Catan, and indeed, the children are still at it, but lately Chess has captured more attention.  This is because the 4 older children played in a local Chess Tournament, wherein The Eldest actually took the championship. She claims it was all luck.  My husband said it was all his doing with his careful and attentive teaching at home.  Her brothers say that she owes it all to them for spending hours playing with her, and I say it was all due to her grandpa’s expertise and guidance.

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This tournament was a “Swiss” style tournament with 5 rounds.  (Whatever that means.  I’ve never played Chess in my life.)  It was held at Providence Academy.

Best Amazon Purchase:  My 3 Tier 12 Bottle Wine Rack for $14.99.  Too bad it didn’t come stocked with wine.

Most Enjoyable February Book:  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.  I’m revisiting it again, probably for the 4th or 5th time.  If you’ve never read it, you’re missing out.  Mr. Rochester is my all-time favorite male character in a novel.  Yes, he even beats Mr. Darcy from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  HERE’S my favorite Audible version.

My Kids’ Favorite February Supper:  Hot dogs.  Yuck.  Just yuck.  But I was desperate the other day.  We were in Survival Mode.

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That’s sauerkraut on the back burner.

And here’s what I had for supper that night…

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That’s my new wine rack in the background.

Anybody have anything good to share for February?

Book Review

Cranford: One Big Yawn

Some of you may be wondering what I’ve been reading lately?

The answer is Cranford.

I’ve been trying to read this book for years.  I’ve started and stopped three times.  So, as part of my Lenten penance, I’ve finally decided to bite the bullet and just do it.

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Cranford was originally published as a series for a periodical in 1853.  I wonder if small doses wouldn’t be a better way to read this thing?

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Now I really enjoy reading Elizabeth Gaskell.  I’ve read three of her other books, and they’re excellent.  I couldn’t put them down.  A friend of mine introduced me to her a few years ago because she knew of my obsession with Jane Austen.  (I like Austen so much that I’m almost always rereading one of her six novels.)  And apparently most people know that if you like Austen, you’ll also like Gaskell.

But that statement needs clarification.  Let me rephrase it as follows:  If you like Austen, you’ll like Gaskell’s North and South and Wives and Daughters, but not Cranford.  You might also enjoy Gaskell’s biography, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, but again, not Cranford.

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Need a good book?  Read these instead of Cranford.

Cranford is just one big yawn.  The whole book details the lives of a few of old spinsters sitting around in nineteenth-century parlors, knitting and mending caps and shawls, and gossiping.  Only a most devoted lover of Gaskell could ever find this interesting.

However, it may be that the deficiency lies with me, instead of Gaskell.  Likely I don’t appreciate the niceties of nineteenth-century etiquette and culture as much as I should.  Or, if only I had a better understanding of this time period, perhaps I could enter more fully into the book?

I’m not sure.  There were a few passages that I did find moving and interesting.  I’m thinking of the sad story of Miss Matty passing up marriage to Mr. Holbrook and a part wherein Mrs. Brown details her desperate flight from India to save her only remaining child.  And of course the faithfulness and generosity of Miss Matty’s friends to help her when she loses all her money is endearing, but overall, I cannot recommend this book.

I am sorry for the poor book review.

For those of you, however, who enjoy watching some of these books played out on television, I can recommend the 2007 version of Cranford, starring Judi Dench.  I remember watching it a few years ago and being entertained by it, but I warn you, it doesn’t follow the book very closely.