Saturday, March 24, 2018

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (published 1937) is book two in my 2018 Back To the Classics Challenge - Choose A Classic From the 20th Century. It's a moving, beautifully written story centering on Janie Crawford, an African American woman in her early forties living in Florida during the early 1900's.  I wanted to quote so many passages in this book.  Hopefully the one's I have chosen will give people a sense of why the praise for this novel is so well deserved and thank you Brianna for lending me your copy.

When Their Eyes Were Watching God begins Janie Crawford is returning to her hometown in Eatonville.  Janie left Eatonville, FL about a year prior to join her lover Tea Cake in the Everglades.  The neighbors in Eatonville were shocked.  Janie running off with a younger man so soon after her husband died?  As Janie walks by, worn out, but with her head held high, the neighbors speculate about why Janie is back and what happened to Tea Cake.  Why isn't he with Janie.  Did he take her money and  run?  One of Janie's neighbors, her good friend Phoeby Watkins, confronts the gossipers:

"You mean you mad 'cause she didn't stop and tell us all her business.  Anyhow, what you ever know her to do so bad as y'all make out?  The worst thing Ah ever knowed her to do was taking a few years off a her age and dat ain't never harmed nobody.  Y'all makes me tired.  De way you talkin' you'd think de folks in dis town didn't do nothin' in de bed 'cept praise de Lawd.  You have to 'scuse me, 'cause Ah'm bound to go take her some supper".  

The rest of Their Eyes Were Watching God is Janie telling her friend Phoeby her story not only what happened to Tea Cake but her entire life story.  Being raised by her grandmother in West Florida.  Janie having an epiphany at sixteen about how for her, the only marriage worth having is a marriage of love, a marriage of soulmates.  But Janie's grandmother who grew up in slavery and faced hard times steers Janie at age sixteen into a marriage with a well off, much older man so Janie can have security.  It doesn't work out and a few years later Janie meets Joe Starks, a handsome go getter who has great plans for the future.  Janie runs off with Joe who will become her second husband.

Joe and Janie move to Eatonville where Joe becomes Mayor.  At first everything is fine but Joe Starks reveals himself to be controlling and jealous.  Janie is faithful to Joe for the 20 years they are together but it becomes a loveless marriage, two strangers living in the same house, barely speaking.  When Joe dies, Janie finally feels free to do whatever she likes and then she meets Tea Cake.

Tea Cake is charming and he makes Janie laugh.  He's ten years younger than Janie but they have a true bond.  There is a touching vulnerability about Tea Cake and though he is certainly not perfect, the author, Zora Neale Hurston, does an excellent job in letting us see why Janie would love Tea Cake so much.  But tragedy looms for Janie and Tea Cake and in the midst of her sadness and fear, Janie thinks about God:

She looked hard at the sky for a long time.  Somewhere up there beyond blue ether's bosom sat He.  Was He noticing what was going on around here?  He must be because He knew everything.   Did He mean to do this thing to Tea Cake and her?  ... Maybe it was some big tease and when He saw it had gone far enough He'd give her a sign.  She looked hard for something up there to move for a sign.  A star in tne daytime, maybe, or the sun to shout, or even a mutter of thunder.  Her arms went up a desparate supplication for a minute.  It wasn't exactly pleading, it was asking questions.  The sky stayed hard looking and quiet so she went inside the house".  

At the end of the novel Janie tells Phoeby that if she wishes she can tell Janie's story to the curious neighbors but Janie doubts they'll understand about her and Tea Cake and the love they had for each other:

"Ah know all dem sitters-and-talkers gointuh worry they guts into fiddle strings till dey find out whut we been talkin' 'bout.  Dat's all right, Phoeby, tell 'em.  Dey gointuh make 'miration cause mah love didn't work lak they love.  If tney ever had any.  Then you must tell 'em that love ain't somethin lak uh grindstone dat's de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch.  Love is lak de sea.  It's a movin' thing, but still and all, it takes it's shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore".  

Their Eyes Were Watching God is not a very long book.  Some have said they found the dialect a little hard to follow but I had no problem.  And as I hope the above passages I've quoted prove, this is a novel packed with beautiful poetic imagery and profound things to say about love, God, relations between men and women, black people and white people and the meaning of life in general.  It's therefore shocking that this novel was out of print for decades and the author Zora Neale Hurston having died in 1960, buried in an unmarked grave.  Thanks to the writer Alice Walker in the 1970's Their Eyes Were Watching God was rescued from obsurity and today it is available everywhere, taught in high school and colleges and internationally acknowledged as a classic of 20th century literature.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

The accomplished journalist and bestselling author Walter Isaacson has a fascination with genius.  How do the brilliant minds throughout history differ from the rest of us?  What might they have in common with each other?  Walter Isaacson has written biographies of Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs partly to address these questions.  The subject of his latest biography is Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo daVinci (1452 - 1519) was the ultimate Rennaissance man not only because he lived during the Italian Rennassance era but because his interests crossed all boundaries. da Vinci is most famous for painting two of the greatest masterpieces in history, the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper but Leonardo, as Isaacson tells us, was also fascinated by science and engineering:

"With a passion that was both playful and obsessive, he pursued innovative studies of anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, flying machines, optics, botany, geology water flows and weaponry ... His scientific explorations informed his art.  As he aged, he pursued his scientific inquiries not just to serve his art but out of a joyful instinct to fathom the profound beauties of creation".

Walter Isaacson has done an excellent job researching and writing about da Vinci's life and work.  A good portion of the book provides us with an analysis of da Vinci's paintings and his science and engineering experiments.  da Vinci spent years for example studying birds and sketching out plans in his notebooks for flying machines.  He had plans for diverting rivers, building cities, creating musical instruments, ideas for pagents and plays.  He participated in dissections in hospitals which enhanced the real life quality of his paintings.  Also because of da Vinci's dissections he is credited with a major scientific breakthrough, how the aortic valve of the heart works, a discovery that scientists today still marvel at.  We also have Leonardo da Vinci's legendary notebooks, 7,200 pages of which still survive.  He took his notebooks wherever he went, jotting down and drawing ideas, observations, everything he was curious about.

Walter Isaacson tells us about Leonardo's personal life, He was born out of wedlock which is important because had da Vinci's parents married he would have been expected to go into the notary business like generations of da Vinci men before him.  But because of his out of wedlock status he was barred from the notary profession and free to pursue whatever career he liked.  At age fourteen DaVinci secured an apprenticeship and began working for Andrea del Verrocchio, an artist and engineer, who ran an excellent art school in Florence.  Leonardo da Vinci was gay and at age 38 he met his lifelong companion Salai who he loved but their relationship could be stormy.   da Vinci was good natured, generous with his friends and he was well liked by many but he could also exasperate his patrons because he had trouble finishing paintings.  As to da Vinci's spititual side he had a belief in the beauty and oneness of nature and was a  lifelong vegetarian because he didn't think animals should be killed for food.

His great painting of course is the Mona Lisa.  Who was the Mona Lisa?  Her name was Lisa del Giocondo, the 24 year old wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy silk merchant who commissioned Leonardo early in his career to paint a portrait of his wife Lisa.  Leonardo sensed something in the painting because he never gave it to Frances del Giocondo and instead kept it for himself and continued to work on it throughout his life.

I am glad I read Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson and I would heartily recommend this book to those interested in art history, science, innovation, the Italian Rennassance or anyone wanting to know more about one of the greatest minds that ever lived.  The illustrations of Leonardo's paintings and sketches throughout this biography are wonderful to look at as well and though none of us can hope to equal da Vinci's genius, it wouldn't hurt to carry around our own notebooks in our travels and write down all the interesting things we observe.