The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

I believe this is the first book labelled as “Young Adult” I have ever read – when I was a kid, when I was a young adult, now.  It’s not that when I was younger I read lots of “grownup” books – it’s more that I didn’t read.  It’s also not that I have anything against them now, it just hadn’t happened yet.  40 seems like as a good year as any to break that streak.

I read this because two of my classes wanted to read it.  Actually, two of my classes wanted to re-read it.  A good number of them read it when they were freshmen.  Which is interesting in itself – when given a choice among books to read in this unit (since it’s a unit about Native American literature, our Book Distribution Center owns three titles, two by Serman Alexie, so not really much of a choice), they picked this.  Some teachers react with cynicism – like the kids are just trying to get out of work.  I see it differently: this is a text they are comfortable with, one they are willing to learn more from.  And since the kid I spend the most time with right now is 3, I know that “re-reading” is sort of the point.  I have literally read Green Eggs and Ham nearly one hundred times.  Sam doesn’t like it any less time #47 that #1 – in fact, he probably likes it much more now.  And to be more “grownup” again, when I go to church, it’s not like I tune out during the Bible readings because they come back every few years.  Again, in a different way, that’s sort of the point.

Usually when I read books because someone else wants me to, I experience it as a huge burden.  That didn’t happen here.  For the first few pages, I felt that tug, Continue reading

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The Intuitionist

Sometime last year I read The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s speculative historical fictional piece which asks what if that railroad were a railroad, and underground?  That premise opened up into a very present-regarding look at how people and social structures work (or don’t) under oppressive conditions.  It also had a sense of the uncanny about it – that though the premise was absurd its descriptions felt visceral and real.

So I thought I’d read something else by Whitehead, and found The Intuitionist.  If you tore the cover off of this book, and I read it in some kind of blind taste-test situation, I am quite sure I would have insisted that the first 50 pages had been written by David Foster Wallace.   Continue reading

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The Handmaid’s Tale

This was one of those books I ended up reading because is has recently been made into a movie (actually TV show).  But I’ve done this before – decided to read something because other people were watching it (then I usually don’t see the movie/show) .  I remember reading Sense and Sensibility for the first time when the Emma Thompson movie came out.  I also read this because a friend of mine and I have this book group (a book group of two, but a book group nonetheless).  This is also definitely one of those “should have read” kind of books, considering how often it comes up, and that it’s more than 30 years old.

The first thing I want to say was my friend’s idea, not mine, but he’s absolutely right: this is a book in which the actual events are fictional, but in which almost  everything included, save for a couple of awkward physical details, has happened in some place or time, just not all together.   Continue reading

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Autumn – Karl Ove Knausgaard

For some reason, Volume 6 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle has been delayed until next year.  Having read and enjoyed the first five (I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with them – they’re good, I like reading them, I look forward to the final volume), I turned to Autumn not knowing what to expect.  It’s still in the first-person, and that person is still apparently Karl Ove himself, still talking about the family and friends he’s written about in My Struggle.  

The biggest difference is that rather than the extended, digressive and time-hopping Proustian personal saga of those volumes, we have here their seeming opposite: 2-3 page prose poems about various mundane subjects like “bottles” and “cans,” or more affecting ones, like “eyes” or “death.”

Now the “prose poem” is a suspect genre itself, a slippery middle stance memorably satirized by David Foster Wallace.  And there is some that is worthy of that satire here – the pattern itself does wear thin sometimes as we move from totally quotidian, exacting description of, say, a stick of gum, and then moving onward to a final, overreaching generalization about life and finitude.  There is actually a moment where anyone who lived through the late 90’s will wonder if American Beauty is actually being quoted directly when Knausgaard writes these words:

One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen was a plastic bag adrift in the water beyond a jetty on an island far out at sea (18).

In American Beauty this moment was clever because it allowed us to chuckle just a little at the naive teenage idealism of its speaker, but what can we do with it here?   Continue reading

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Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Though more than 1.3 billion people live in China, I am embarrassed to say that Do Not Say We Have Nothing is one of three books I’ve read that have any sustained connection to that country.  The other two are The Joy Luck Club and The Hundred Secret Senses, both by Amy Tan.  And I’m not 100% I read those all the way through.

All of which is to say that when I started to read Do Not Say We Have Nothing, I had some trouble acquainting myself with simple things, like naming conventions and geography.  The book does present itself as a puzzle, at least initially, so I don’t think my confusion was all attributable to my ignorance about China.  The book is coiled up, its time sequence spiraling rather than progressing linearly, and so initially, characters are presented in a confusing jumble that over time comes into focus.  Though I usually pride myself on not needing help, I did spend some time flipping to the family tree in the front.

If you stretched out that coil and rearranged the events (which would, of course, vitiate the effect of reading the book) what you’d see before you would be, in some ways, a conventional family-cultural saga like War and Peace, stretching from the 1948 civil war, through the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and Tienanmen Square massacre.  It is narrated by the daughter of one of the principal characters, whose family has since immigrated to Canada.  The title is an ironic invocation of a line from a Communist Party song, and hovers ambiguously over the book’s pages, playing with meaning in suggestive but unresolved layers. Continue reading

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James Baldwin – Going to Meet the Man and Some Mid-60’s Essays

“The American situation is very peculiar and it may be without precedent in the world. No curtain under heaven is heavier than that curtain of guilt and lies behind which white Americans hide” (James Baldwin, “White Man’s Guilt”)

One of my earliest James Baldwin reading experiences was “Sonny’s Blues,” a short story that forms the centerpiece of Going to Meet the Man, a collection of eight short stories Baldwin wrote between 1948 and 1965.  Since work starts up again for me next week, this will be the last installment for a while.  It’s also a natural stopping point as it finishes off the first of the 2-volume Library of America fiction collection of Baldwin’s work.

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James Baldwin – The Fire Next Time

The words of “My Dungeon Shook” ring in my ears almost every single day.  Somehow the centerpiece of that ringing is a simple imperative sentence about 3/4 of the way through the final, two-page paragraph:

You, don’t be afraid.

That paragraph, itself, lays out almost every needed inch of the conceptual and emotional terrain needed to make critically informed arguments about race, but does so without a single footnote or 50-cent word.  The sentences are long, but not so as to be confusing or abstract, but instead, they’re the long sentences people really speak in, when they’re not trying to do the things their high school English teachers taught them.

They are also the words, if I recall correctly, with which Michelle Alexander chooses to end The New Jim Crow.   Considering just how chocked full of statistics and policy details that book is, it’s a stunning decision on her part, but if you’re read both, it makes perfect sense.  Baldwin is well aware of every one of those policies (or their 1960’s equivalents) – his writing is very clearly informed by them, though it does not inform its readers about them, sticking in emotional and personal registers to accomplish something similar.

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James Baldwin – Another Country

Another Country is James Baldwin’s third novel, and is is quite a bit longer than Baldwin’s first two, maybe even longer than both of them combined.  It’s interesting to me that it basically covers a lot of the same ground that his essays of the time do, but does so in the language of fiction.  The reason that’s interesting to me is that other authors I’ve dealt with, when they wrote fiction, and when they wrote essays, the two seemed more divergent, like they were just wearing two different hats.  Somehow Baldwin has really found two ways to come at the same themes, in a way that allows one very naturally to supplement the other.

Here’s one of my favorite paragraphs:

And the summer came, the New York summer, which is like no summer anywhere.  The heat and the noise began their destruction of nerves and sanity and private lives and love affairs.  The air was full of baseball scores and bad news and treacly songs; and the streets and the bars were full of hostile people, made more hostile by the heat.  It was not possible in this city, as it had been for Eric in Paris, to take a long and peaceful walk at any hour of the day or night, dropping in for a drink at a bistro or flopping oneself down at a sidewalk cafe–the half-dozen grim parodies of sidewalk cafes to be found in New York were not made for flopping.  It was a city without oases, run entirely, insofar, at least, as human perception could tell, for money; and its citizens seemed to have lost entirely any sense of their right to renew themselves. Anyone who, in New York, attempted to cling to this right, lived in New York in exile–in exile from the life around him; and this, paradoxically, had the effect of placing him in perpetual danger of being forever banished from any real sense of himself.

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James Baldwin – Nobody Knows My Name (and some other essays from the early 60’s)

The greatest takeaway for me from Nobody Knows Your Name is “Fifth Avanue, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem.”  In this essay Baldwin explores the phenomenology of police violence – again, if you don’t care what I have to say, at least read these words of Baldwin’s for yourself [next I’ll be reading Another Country, Baldwin’s 1962 novel]:

Similarly, the only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive. None of commissioner Kennedy’s policemen, even with the best will in the world, have any way of understanding the lives led by the people they swagger about in two’s and three’s controlling. Their very presence is an insult, and it would be, even if they spent their entire day feeding gumdrops to children. They represent the force of the white world, and that world’s real intentions are, simply, for that world’s criminal profit and ease, to keep the black man corralled up here, in his place…

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James Baldwin – Giovanni’s Room

I was really surprised when I figured out that David, the protagonist of Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, was white.  The novel never says so directly, but he is described a handful of times as “blonde.”  In fact, as far as I could tell, all of the principal characters are white, with the possible exception of the briefly mentioned “Joey,” David’s first same-sex partner, who is described as being “darker” than David.  But if David is blonde, who knows?  And obviously race is a social construct and a novel is fiction, but it still feels like placing the other characters into the category of “white” is the correct call.

This is often labelled Baldwin’s “homosexual novel,” which is a strange, outdated-feeling label but one that gets used a lot – it’a also the label given to EM Forster’s Maurice, which I read last year in a course about Forster and Woolf, and which covers some similar ground (though it’s 50 years earlier, and it’s set almost entirely in the English countryside).  It tells the story of David, an American in Paris, and his brief relationship with Giovanni who, we learn in the opening pages, has been sentenced to death for a crime we don’t really learn about until the very end (I won’t spoil it for you).

It was interesting to me that the issue of race came up so fleetingly in this book, especially since it has come up on virtually every single page of everything else I’ve ever read that Baldwin wrote.  That said, just because Baldwin isn’t talking about race doesn’t mean we can’t see him doing similar things in his exploration of masculinity and sexuality as we find it in Giovanni’s Room.

[Next I’ll read the next volume of essays – Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961), along with some other essays from this period] Continue reading

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