Tuesday, July 19, 2011

To Sir, With Love (1959)

Ricardo Braithwaite is a bright, educated black man, but after his service in the RAF, he can't find work due to the color of his skin and is forced to take an appointment teaching unruly "children" in a working-class neighborhood. "To Sir with Love" is an autobiographical description of this man's first year in London's East End school Greenslade.

Braithwaite's primary message is that a black man is no different than a white man, that his color is only skin deep and does not determine his character or ability. "Sir" expects his students to present themselves well, and insists on clean clothes, polished shoes, proper manners, and good speech. Braithwaite teaches his "children" how to think and express themselves with control and confidence.

It's a quick read, but the language isn't simplified to allow for it. Braithwaite is intelligent, as is evidenced by his writing, and his thinking is good, but his emotions are clinical and he seems a little too self important. The female students, Pamela Dare, in particular, are infatuated with him. Characters comment on how good looking he is and neighborhood mothers give him special treatment. Unintentionally, Braithwaite presents himself as superior to his charges and their families. He has an "us versus them" attitude and the division isn't based on color or on heirarcy within the school system, but instead on social class.

The most interesting part of this novel, however, is Braithwaite's assessment of racism and how Americans are open and vocal about their differences whereas the British are closed, hiding behind the pretense that they treat all men equally, yet in truth they resist fair treatment and behave badly in the process.

To Sir, with Love is one of the first inner-city inspirational teacher novels. Blackboard Jungle, published in 1954, is credited with being the first. Braithwaite currently serves as a university writer in resident right here in Washington, D.C.

To find on amazon: To Sir with Love

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Peyton Place (1956)

Well, I hardly even know what to say about this book ...

I included "Peyton Place" on my list of books to read because I've been aware of the title since early childhood and research tells me the novel was a huge scandalous success with 60,000 copies sold during the first 10 days of publication. What, I asked myself, could cause such a stir in 1956?

Well, the book deals with everything: puberty, sex, menopause, infidelity, spousal abuse, murder, jealousy, incest, rape, mental illness, suicide, and even, surprisingly for the 1950s, alcoholism. The general conclusion I reach is that Grace Metalious believes most people are motivated by their base desires and character defects. Unfortunately, there's very little happiness lurking in the small miserable lives of Peyton Place. I'll take away Selena's strength to survive, her love for Joey, Matt Swain's honor and sacrifice, but will try my best to forget all of the rest, especially Norman's creepy mother.

To find on amazon: Peyton Place

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Eric and I were walking from the marina to the shopping center for groceries earlier this week, and came across this sign. What a great relationship this dad and daughter must have. :-)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955)

Tom, his wife Betsy, and their three kids live in the Connecticut suburbs. Tom commutes to work in Manhattan. They hate their average house, need a new car, and constantly worry about how they are going to make ends meet. Tom works for a foundation but accepts a new position with the United Broadcast Corporation in order to make more money. Out of fear, he begins to play corporate games, telling others what he thinks they want to hear and trying to judge people's positions so he can mimic them. As time goes on, the problems begin to mount, both personal and financial. The couple no longer feel pleasure and the harder they work at their perceived goals toward happiness, the more dissatisfied they become with their lives. It isn't until Tom becomes honest with himself, his boss, and his wife that they find the contentment they seek.

To a lesser degree, the story is also about mental illness, the discomfort people feel discussing it, and the lack of understanding people have about it. Tom is charged with running a campaign to promote an awareness about mental illness yet he suffers from PTSD and doesn't recognize his condition. He wonders how he can be rewarded for having killed seventeen men in the war yet potentially ostracized for having fathered a child during the same time period.

In the same vein, Tom's boss works non-stop from morning until late at night in spite of the toll it has on his health and the damage it does to his family relations. Tom tries to perform at the same level but eventually decides he'd rather work a standard 9 to 5 job and spend more time with his family.

Many of the issues Sloan Wilson presents in "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" are ones we still wrestle with today: debt, overwork, consumerism, dissatisfaction, and a lack of honesty to self.

To find on amazon: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958)

"Breakfast at Tiffany's" is a 20th-century novella that follows a small group of people living in New York City during the early 1940s. None of the characters have immediate family or regular jobs, and for that reason live as they wish on the edge of society. Holly Golightly, the story's protagonist, is described as being a free spirit, one who sets her own course depending on whim and circumstance. She has smoked marijuana, drinks often and sometimes early, and wants to see the world. She likes to shock her friends and feels no remorse when she steals another woman's lover in order to advance her own pleasure in Cuba and the Keys. Holly is a complex character, well written and multi-faceted, and I like her in spite of her many moral shortcomings.

Throughout Breakfast at Tiffany's, Holly is alone and without family. She has a brother but he's away in the army and was left behind when Holly escaped Texas. Holly has been on the run since at least age 14 and her background is a mystery. According to Doc, the girl's parents died of tuberculosis when she was young but he has nothing to support this story. Holly paints the most idealistic childhood possible, mentioning summers swimming and pretty parties but her account is thought to be untrue. At no time does she mention her parents and never does she seem to miss them.

Holly is unreliable. She lies to protect and support herself. She tells guests at a party that Mag has a venereal disease when she wants to transfer male attention away from her friend and back to herself. In conversations with the narrator, she calls Mag a prostitute and Rusty a homosexual but neither claim is substantiated. Mag is actually quite shy about sex and Rusty is never shown to be interested in men.

Many readers assume Holly is a prostitute but Truman Capote has insisted in interviews that she's not. Instead, Holly is a companion to older, generally unattractive men with money. She accepts cash gifts, leading her escort to believe she will sleep with them, and then, as often as not, refuses their advances.

Holly suffers from depression, the "mean reds," and it's possible she was sexually abused as a child. Married at 14, Holly is 18 and claims to have had eleven lovers in between. She believes that any sexual activity prior to age 13 should not be included in her list of partners. If Holly speaks the truth, her promiscuity and inability to love others tends to support it.

Capote suggests Holly might have been different given the opportunity. At one point, she is in a relationship, happily making dinner and preparing for motherhood. She is practically the perfect 1950s housewife but subsequent problems with the law make it impossible for Holly's Brazilian lover to continue with their affair. She is destined to live an unconventional life.

Holly takes her failure bravely. She is resilient and continues to thrive, precariously, on the edge of society. At the story's conclusion, she leaves for Rio, writes from Argentina, and fifteen years later is thought to be in Africa where she continues to infatuate men with her charm and fragility.

To find on amazon: Breakfast at Tiffany's

Friday, July 1, 2011

Literature in the 1950s

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg

Giant by Edna Ferber
East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin

Blackboard Jungle by Evan Hunter
Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan
Unto a Good Land by Vilhelm Moberg

Night of the Letter by Dorothy Eden
I am Gabriella! by Anne Maybury
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson

Death is a Red Rose by Dorothy Eden
Hannah Fowler* by Janice Holt Giles
Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz
Peyton Place by Grace Metalious

On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Palace of Desire by Naguib Mahfouz
Sugar Street by Naguib Mahfouz

Listen to Danger by Dorothy Eden
Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote
Moderato Cantabile by Marquerite Duras
The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
A Summer Place by Sloan Wilson

To Sir, with Love by E. R. Braithwaite