Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a RequiemDeath of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem by Arthur Miller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The saddest thing one can do is to spend his or her life in a job that is completely counter to the makeup of his existence. Sometimes we may not recognize what we’re bound to do until after life has begun and the responsibilities and reaping of what’s been sowed comes into play and we’re left with dismissing the would’ves and should’ves and simply surviving because that long gone side is now a pipe dream.

So – here we have, the Loman family: Willy and his sons, Biff and Happy, along with wife Linda, in the “Death of a Salesman”, surviving in such a study. Written for the stage in approximately six weeks by Arthur Miller in 1949, it examines adapting, ageism, sexism, and those pipe dreams.

Willy Loman’s father was remembered by him as one larger than life and as was his brother, Ben, now deceased. He figured he was made to follow in their footsteps selling snake oil like the best of ’em and being likable in the process. Of this sales career, he in turn, expected his sons to follow suit, regardless of whether or not it FIT them. FIT – see, that’s the optimum word. Willy was not really a salesman. It was a career he THOUGHT he could do because he saw others succeed at it. Talking big in the field became a role he had to play each day and it was tiresome. Sure, the job was the way of bringing in big commissions, big checks, but all at the expense of soul selling as he eventually realized with the added price of losing his own psyche. Willy was not in his element.

His son, Biff, had fought against him tooth and nail over the years, knowing sales – not even office work – wasn’t for him. Give the younger man the great outdoors, a farm, animals, anything but a damned suit to work under, big pearly teeth of fake smiles thrown into his view each day, and Biff was happy, settled, at peace. But – being a peace was not the general state of life that he was expected to have. His father wanted him toiling against the grain, selling himself and his products for livelihood and the hopes of big money. So, in order to appease his father, Biff gave it consideration ONCE again.

Willy was struggling financially and mentally. The commissions were drying up. Debts were mounting as well as his ego. His friends and neighbors knew he was now out of touch, even tired. One offered him a job and he wouldn’t take it, he just wanted the loan – and with lofty promises as well as the disdain he had for himself for being in such a position, he assured his neighbor he’d pay him back . Willy by this time is in deep conversations with his late brother, Ben. Willy was ready to go. This life didn’t turn out the way he’d hoped and he was ready for it to end. He didn’t realize he had options. Doing anything other than what he’d shown off as a consummate salesman to his family, friends, and coworkers would reveal him as a failure – in his own eyes. His bravado was his downfall.

There was also a secret held between Willy and Biff that was pretty bad, but the depth of going against the grain was a bigger part of the story than that seedy little aside.

Now see, Willy was happy working with his hands. He fixed up the house, he built additions to the house, he added a new ceiling in the living room. BUT, he was going house to house, business to business, selling things. Somehow making a living using the God-given talents he had in carpentry wasn’t something HE saw possible… everyone else saw it though, just when it mattered no more.

Nothing got to me more in this play than this little exchange about Willy between Biff, their neighbor Charley, and Linda… nothing:

Biff: There were a lot of nice days. When he’d come home from a trip; or on Sundays, making the stoop; finishing the cellar; putting on the new porch; when he built the extra bathroom; and put up the garage. You know something, Charley, there’s more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made.

Charley: Yeah. He was a happy man with a batch of cement.

Linda: He was so wonderful with his hands.

Biff: He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong.

*[Then Happy chimes in pissed – ] Don’t say that! [he says to Biff.]

Biff [comes back with this]: He never knew who he was.

I think he did know. He was a salesman, as Charley later pointed out, and salesman have to dream, just like everyone else. The bigger dream, however, was the American Dream. Not just Willy meeting his expectations and aspirations, but having others see that he did. The Appearances. Little did he know others saw more of him than he saw of himself. He didn’t realize he’d had the extra talents to be happy in his professional life as well as his personal life. The death occurred before he died.

*my parentheticals

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

barnesThe Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This was a powerful, yet emotive story about Tony who thought, for over sixty years, he’d been going along in life pretty much without a care in the world. One day, one unexpected piece of mail forces him to reflect on the section of his life he thought he’d left alone.

A significant aspect of Tony’s story is when he realized how much his kneejerk adolescent response to the matter was and how he maturely registered some of his responsiblity to the matter, yet to me it remains questionable. Based upon his account, who would have known? But it was delicate information enough not to question and that’s maturity. Life can really sort various things out for you.

The theme was memory. Our deduction of what we see in life at the time vs. what we wish to take as the mere fact of what really happened. Perhaps I can’t state it as eloquently as his friend Adrian, but that was the point. This story was Tony’s entire take on his life. Completely by accident, an actually stunning opportunity was presented. I was marveled by his reflection.

We follow him in his quest for understanding and it unfolds so beautifully among dry, sardonic wit within Barnes’ lushious language. Tony is real. His adolescence is even understandable, so is his overall lifetime analysis.

Life’s not always pretty. We can paint it so, but this piece reminds us that the glaze doesn’t always remain.

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Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

SongofSolomonA keen and insightful story. Song of Solomon is about personal and familial acceptance. It spans the life of Macon “Milkman” Dead; actually from just moments prior to his birth. Those events somehow foreshadowed the unrest he would always feel and Morrison takes us with him through his journey of self-discovery.

Seems that everyone told Milkman why he existed, but he knew their versions weren’t correct.

Woven primarily through the tale of his father and his father’s sister, Milkman struggled to find his place. His father was a wealthy man who controlled his family financially and mentally. He even controlled the neighborhood as he seemed to have owned just about every property in town. Though Milkman wanted for very little fiscally, he craved to get away from that house he was raised in and lived in as a man with his parents, the widening sea between he and his best friend, the neighborhood he’d been looking at day in and day out for so many years. Oddly enough, it was his father’s greed that sent Milkman on an odyssey that unravelled generations of doors and wound up satisfying him in ways he never imagined.

All Milkman wanted was knowledge of a world outside of his line of sight. He’d always wanted to fly; something he realized in the womb and sought throughout his days. He knew if he didn’t give his wings a try, he’d never learn what he was capable of accomplishing or even giving.

Beautifully, metaphorically written. Sad at times and uplifting in others. I loved the way Morrison brought it all together… I really did.

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977. 5 of 5 stars. 

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The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

The Sound and the FuryThe Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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(originally published in my now-defunct blog, “Tonya Rice – Writer”: 11/22/2011)

After all this time, I finally got to one of Faulkner’s books. I thrive returning to the classics which seem to be wordy to many, but I find that they grasp the beauty and elegance of the language, which renews my own love and appreciation for our literature. It inspires me to become a better writer. This story is one of the most lyrical pieces of prose.

Written in 1929, The Sound and The Fury tackles all of the taboo elements that can lurk in the shadows of a family. Not just any American family, but a once-proud and affluent Southern family. Classic Southern literature. Pride remained a culture of post-Civil War society for many years and anything that had the potential to upset it warranted a phenomenal tale, just as Faulkner revealed. Distressing concerns from incest to the mentally challenged family member exposed to the world and anything imaginable in between held court for the Compson family.

Told in various points of view, the first is from the mentally-challenged Benjy, who is given the opportunity to communicate as effectively as possible with the reader. Next is from Quentin, who remains haunted and tormented by his past and narrates his tale with the underlying belief that time only exists when a clock stops. So he lives his days with a busted watch that continues to tick, reminding him and us that he simply can’t and won’t escape his haunts. He’s stuck in his time. In the third section, Faulkner allowed Jason to just pretty much spit at us as he glared through life. He was a pissed-off (and rightly so) soul, who, through his thoughts astounded me. He was pained, did not hide it and took everyone in his presence with him down his hell. Rapidly – on any given moment. The point of view from Dilsey, the family’s black servant, was told in third-person in the last section. Though a lifelong part of the household, she maintained a level of distance. Not so much as out of respect for the family, but simply because she had enough challenges of her own than to take on the unnecessary personal mental effects of the Compsons for whom she helped to care. I found her story revealed with unexpected compassion.

When I got to Dilsey’s section and I got to finally “see” a character that I was only told about and had “talk” to me, I gasped. At that moment, I felt that strength of Faulkner’s writing. I had to sit it down and take it in for a while. It was just that mesmerizing.

Nevertheless, they were a sad and tragic bunch, driven so by the torment of themselves.

It took several (almost the first 60 for me) pages to get through Faulkner’s renowned symbolism and stream of consciousness to finally understand all that was happening. This piece had all of the unmentionable drama one could have only imagined back then to see in print – at least all in one place, save for it all to happen with one family.

I’ve got several of his other works on my to-read list.

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As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

faulknerAs I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I just love the way Faulkner uses his words. They give me the feeling of rolling down a hill and back up again, only to know you’re going to roll down again, quickly. The momentum of his prose is faster than the movements of his characters – setting tension, pity (in their cases), and interest in their next moments.

As I read this story, set in depression-era South, I could not help but think of the painstaking trouble the Bunchen family took to get Addie to her final resting place, and how Anse for the life of me couldn’t do anything, it seemed, to give her peace in life. He frustrated me to no end with his continuous, loathing moments of self-pity. However, he had me boggle-eyed at the end of the tale, and I was even left to figure that the family’s lot and outlook may have eventually improved because of him.

At the opposite end of Anse’s spectrum was Cash, who seemed to be the one who had the potential to get away and make a better life for himself, but didn’t. They slowed him down. Then there was Jewel, who fought within himself and against everything around him, to no avail, to be something outside of the family. Darl, who seemed to be the sensible one, was the one who surprisingly lost it. Hell, what they were up against was maddening. Dewey Dell had gotten herself in a fix; we were led to guess what happened to her after the story. Vardaman provided the level of symbolism that weaved the images of his mother to the situation that surrounded them in ways that only a child could do and Faulkner pulled it off beautifully. The editor’s text reveals that Faulkner did very little work to the first draft of this work. Just as well, since the stream-of-consciousness technique, his typical writing process, guided the characters and I could really feel their personalities and I learned who they were. I believe that had he made changes to much of it, the atmosphere that drove the story would have perhaps altered it a great deal.

This tragic piece gripped me from the beginning. Told from the eyes of every family member, neighbors, and even Addie, Faulkner revealed a sad, determined, maternal-loving family at a mental war with their father’s wishes, nature, and at times the emotions of one frustrated brother. Each had their own troubles, shared in their individual chapters, which came together in a powerful tale.

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The Wife: A Novel by Meg Wolitzer

The Wife: A NovelThe Wife: A Novel by Meg Wolitzer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I must admit that at one point I figured out what had happened to piss off Joan Castleman, the narrator, enough for her to leave her award-winning novelist husband, Joe. It’s what kept my nose in the book – to simply find out if I was right. Whether or not I was right didn’t matter too much (even though I was sadly correct); Wolitzer’s writing is so entertaining.

Joan was simply tired and I understood her ground and desire to leave him. I did expect somewhat of a different ending. It felt like a cop-out, a rush to end. In short, it sucked. Yet, it didn’t take away my enjoyment of having read the entire story.

Spanning from the 1940s to present in and among the chauvinistic publishing circles of New York, Wolitzer put me in mind of reading contemporary Rona Jaffe, Mary McCarthy and just a tad of Jacqueline Susann. I felt the tweed and smelled the cigarettes hovering over the literary rage.

Joan was in quite a position. An eye-opening one, full of more than enough sacrifice. Given the era, I understood.

I really loved Wolitzer’s biting wit. Joan’s sardonic air was fitting. She was talking to me, explaining her marriage to me and for the past few days, I only wanted to see what she had to tell me.

Adding the rest of Wolitzer’s books to my list…

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Afeni Shakur: Evolution of a Revolutionary by Jasmine Guy

Afeni Shakur: Evolution of a RevolutionaryAfeni Shakur: Evolution of a Revolutionary by Jasmine Guy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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When I got to the last paragraph of this book, I wept. Even though I was moved many times by Afeni’s wisdom, I didn’t expect my own tears.

Just as Jasmine Guy, who wrote this with her, felt a strong rush of gratitude, so did I – to both of them for the chance to read about her life in her words. Afeni Shakur grew up in North Carolina and in her late teens moved to New York with family. She was already a strong-willed, highly intelligent young girl and her intellectual wherewithal up there only got stronger. She found a cause to channel her energy and ambitions with the Black Power movement. The outcome was a deeper lesson in human relationships across the board regarding friendships, the justice system and family.

From her Black Panther days to reclaim her name to the “One-Time Story” (because she wasn’t going to talk about it again) to losing her son and on to what she calls her “Redemption” and the life she’s rebuilt for herself, her daughter and grandchildren, I too, “Thank you for falling in front of [Jasmine] and for getting back up.” (p.209)

This book was also a staunch reminder to me that this woman lost Tupac, her son, first – well before the music industry and his fans. Through him, she grew up. They were close and he is clearly still with her.

Before reading this, I only knew of Afeni as Tupac’s mother; here she lets us know she’s that and much more. Jasmine seems to have wanted us in the room with them as they spoke and I loved that. I’ve always been a fan of Jasmine, so it was natural that I pulled this from the shelf to read and I’m honored to have had the chance.

Afeni is a dynamic and wise woman, compelled to share her wisdom – gained from her childhood experiences to her time with the Black Panthers and to raising Tupac and his sister – with the rest of us through Jasmine. Of her trials, Afeni learned from each and every one. It was brutally honest and I felt close to both of them. It took Afeni some time to even her course, which she’s seemed to have done as she takes life a bit slower now in her home down South. However, with this book, she gave her life and experiences back to Jasmine (as she later notes) and to me – to all of us – who read about it as a testimonial of gratitude and extra chances. Highly recommended read.

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