Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘social justice’

Z is for Zorba the Greek

Like several books on this A to Z list, I read Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis while in college, though it wasn’t for a class. A bunch of friends were reading the book (I think some for a college course,) and I read it so I could participate in the exciting conversations. This was during the early 1970’s. When you’re young, in college, in love (or you wish/think you are,) maybe a bit inebriated (sometimes, only sometimes,) out of your parents’ house (finally,) full of vigor, fueled with passion, inspired by the radical and classic ideas that have made the world spin, and free to experiment (‘cause, you know, you’re out of your parents’ house,) Zorba is the most exciting background music you can imagine. It remains one of the most iconic books of all time, but today’s college kids might be rallied by some other title. (Would love you to tell me.)

Zorba the man is as much a swashbuckling figure as Captain Jack Sparrow (though I find Zorba fully dimensional and Sparrow a brittle prop for outlandish makeup.) And that’s what we talked about, sitting on the floor of someone’s apartment (none of us had furniture, but we had energy) and arguing about what the book meant to us and how or if we should emulate Zorba’s attitude about life. Such zest the man had, and knowing Kazantzakis had based his character on a true-life friend made the book that much more appealing. Because frankly, despite our youthful dreams and noble ambitions, none of us had yet made anything of our lives, and we felt like the world was passing us by without hearing our squeaks and pitches. But we all had tests the next day and papers due at the end of the week. Young women or young men, we wanted to be like Zorba, grabbing life by the fistful, singing, dancing, drinking (and having sex) till we dropped, obligations be damned.

The story is narrated by a younger man, a reserved scholar out to mine for lignite on Crete in 1915 or so. Zorba hires on to be the manager, cook, and occasional musician. We never learn the name of the narrator. While many have suggested it is Kazantzakis himself, I think he represents the staid, unheralded Everyman, the backbone of society who works hard to pay the bills and feed the kids. Boring perhaps but dependable. Except that this narrator is so aloof about life that there’s no family at all, just a man who reads, thinks, contemplates religion and philosophy (the Buddhist void,) and decides to manage a lignite mine in order to promote the right of the workers. The polar opposite of Zorba who dances, drinks, labors, sings, ruts like a bull, and advises against getting close to the miners. And submerges his past with flamboyant braggadocio or the plaintive strings of his santuri.

Adventure after adventure, Zorba and the narrator engage in this partnership with each other and with the citizens of Crete. What the narrator cannot learn from his books, he learns from Zorba, often an antagonistic view. At the end is the inevitable: the deaths of the most charismatic people. Only the music endures.

Zorba was the perfect model for students in the seventies. We were the free love generation, the ones who protested the Vietnam War. We argued the value of everything, and we sampled drugs (some kids) the way you might try appetizers. Seen through the lens of my friends, Zorba’s lifestyle was the zenith of exuberance. Yet all of us were students, most working our way through college, many actively and frequently protesting the war. Deciding my life was my responsibility, that my choices had to be my own, I’d already left home. I realized it was egregiously unjust to draft boys not old enough to vote, most of them too poor to be excused for service by attending college. (Young men like the one I would shortly begin a relationship with, eventually to marry.) So I gave up a semester of college to campaign to pass the twenty-sixth amendment which lowered the voting age to eighteen, giving the youngest draftees a chance to vote.

At a time when eating twice a day was all I could afford, it was not insignificant to give up that semester, extending my work at minimum wage jobs and delaying my graduation. I lived full throttle the way Zorba did, the way many of my friends did, but we were also like the young and idealistic narrator. We studied hard, we worked for social justice and democracy, we weighed options, we believed in peace, and we protested for the common man, for civil rights, and for ideals of conscience.

Charismatic, mesmerizing, towering, magnetic, alluring, tragic, life lived fully and in the moment. Or life lived with poetry on one’s tongue, cerebral and distant, the scholar in the ivory tower. The ancient conundrum, the great paradox: individual versus community, instinct versus intellect.

Ah, youth. Ah, Zorba the Greek.

I look forward to learning about your favorite Z fiction books.

 

One other book that was a serious contender for Z:

The Zigzag Kid by David Grossman

 

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Simon and Schuster

 

K is for To Kill a Mockingbird

images

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the most read and most beloved books ever, though it garners criticism as well. Certainly it’s on the very top of my book list of personal favorites. I read it in about 1965 or ’66, then reread it immediately, again a few years later when I was in college, and during my two sons’ high school years so we could discuss the book. I’ve read it twice since, each time discovering something wondrous, gaining more insight, and always moved by the story.

It’s told from the point of view of Scout, the very young daughter of a small town 1950’s Southern lawyer. You don’t have to know much about American bus routes to grasp that it concerns racial prejudice, social inequality, and a legal-political tradition that safe-harbors injustice. It’s also about family dynamics and the social clumsiness of children who discover that the adult world is dirtier than theirs. It presents a criminal case where a black man is found guilty for a white man’s crimes. You have to be living inside your vacuum cleaner not to know that the characters were sketched from people Lee knew in the Alabama hamlet where she grew up, especially that Dill, Scout and Jem’s childhood friend, stands in for Truman Capote.

One of the most unusual characters is the shy recluse, Boo Radley. His reasons for hiding from the public appear strange if not bizarre, and augur Harper Lee’s adult voluntary social seclusion. Something from Boo’s past keeps him captive. The something in Lee’s life was the dizzying adulation of the world thrust upon her at publication of the book. The excessive stir  caused Lee to refuse to write or publish another book in her lifetime or to talk about Mockingbird. She’d done the celebrity thing and found it too painful to forget or repeat.

Which brings me to the tale of Go Set a Watchman, the book miraculously found by Lee’s trustee – after Lee’s protective sister, Alice, died, and when Lee herself was aged, frail, ill, blind, deaf, and may have been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Miracle of all miracles, the trustee found the secreted manuscript just as the very private Harper Lee was eager to seek new publicity and earn millions. Wonder of wonders, wasn’t it?

If you’ve managed to keep away from all things front page breaking news for the past ten years, you may not know about the background of the Watchman. It wasn’t a newly written manuscript that Lee wanted to publish – it was the original first draft of Mockingbird as presented to her original editor, Tay Hohoff. Hohoff knew the story as first written was not ready for publication but saw in its ragged genesis a gemstone ready for polish. With Hohoff’s assistance, Lee rewrote the first draft, (took a long time) and after several new title tries, settled on the memorable To Kill a Mockingbird.

Two things must be considered. The first is an admonition for the writer-in-waiting: your book, my book, is not ready, it’s not done, and when attentive people offer advice: put your ego in the shoebox, listen well, take notes, make appropriate changes, and get the job done. Just as Lee did. She might not have anticipated the painful glare of the limelight, but she was a willing rewriter. So am I. So should you be.

Second thing for me is this. I will not read Go Set a Watchman. Clearly Lee did not want the early draft, rejected by Hohoff as amateur and unsuitable in places, to be read by anyone else. It was a work in progress; the finished work as published was the one intended for the public eyes. Lippencott, the initial publisher, made plenty on Mockingbird. It’s interesting for writers to read another writer’s early attempts and to compare a finished product with a draft. But only if the writer is willing.

If the finished book promoted ideas of honor and compassion, I find it shameful and craven to read the early iteration, and I don’t believe for a moment that Lee authorized its publication. New trustee and cohort misappropriated Lee’s manuscript when she was too feeble to advocate for herself. Trustee, cohort, and publisher chose to capitalize on Lee’s name and stature in order to roll their bottom line into the big black column. I won’t help boost their bucks.

We will never really know if To Kill a Mockingbird set back Harper Lee’s literary career by stifling her ability to write another story, or if she really so dreaded all the public slathering that she couldn’t bear to tempt it again. I’ve long been disappointed not to be able to read another of her books, and if I can’t really understand her decision, (try to make me stop writing, just try) I surely respect it. I believe in social justice, equality, and opportunity for all people, and this book shows how a few citizens of a little town in Alabama stood up for what was right, even in the midst of threats and violence. I am still standing for same.

My favorite line from the book is the entire book. If you’ve never read it, go read it. If you haven’t read it in a while, go read it again.

To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize and has not been out of print since its publication in 1960. It was selected by American Librarians as the best novel of the twentieth century, is required reading in Great Britain and Canada as in most American high schools, and has been translated into more than forty languages. Don’t read it for all that adulation. Read it because it mirrors the tragic renewal of the same narrow, bigoted mind set of the last century blossoming in all it ugly bullying in this one as well. Read it because few other books will touch you as deeply and permanently.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for K:

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite K fiction books.

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Harper Collins

 

The Inevitable Triumvirate

Death, taxes, change, the inevitable triumvirate. They make us shudder but we cannot escape them, nor the adages about them. They are linked uncomfortably, wedging between the people we love, the things we’re trying to do, the places we want to go. The stories I write now are different from what I wrote half a lifetime ago, but my sense of what’s worthy was impressed on me before I finished high school and have changed little the decades since.

Words and stories engaged me from a very young age. I wasn’t one of those precocious scholars who learned to read at two or three but certainly by the time I was six, stories had become my other, better world. I read them, I wrote them, they enriched me, they saved me. I could recite several from memory and make up others on the spot. None were complete without a crayon sketch. There I was, seven, nine, twelve-years-old, writer, illustrator, and occasional prize winner. My parents paid the taxes to keep a middle class home, a middle class life. As a child, I could ignore discussions of taxes and pursue my childish dreams.

Change ricocheted through my life. Born in Philly, I’ve lived in New Jersey, Hawaii (twice,) Alabama, Michigan, Colorado, and California. The prejudice I witnessed in New Jersey against Blacks was different from that which snared me in Hawaii against Haoles, in Alabama against Jews, in Michigan against the poor, in California against Mexicans. It shaped my perspective about social justice. Hatred, blame, and name calling were lobbed with Eastern accents, Pidgin English, a Southern drawl. Landscapes changed from mountainous splendor to tropical beauty but prejudice was ugly everywhere. It taught me that people should be fair and kind, learn to speak another language, be sympathetic to those who are other. My ideas about justice showed up in my earliest stories, infusing my voice even if they weren’t part of the plot.

stock-illustration-20639294-home-moving-car-and-trailer-relocating-house

(more…)