Book review – “If Beale Street Could Talk” by James Baldwin

A few weeks ago I blogged about the 2019 Oscars and identified If Beale Street Could Talk as one of the few literary connections amongst this year’s crop of nominees. It was in fact nominated in the Best Adapted Screenplay category but lost out to Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman on the night. The book is widely considered to be a classic of 20th century African-American writing.

It is a love story and concerns the relationship between 19 year-old Tish and her 22 year-old lover Fonny, whose baby she is expecting. The couple grew up in Harlem, but Fonny has ambitions of becoming a sculptor and the couple plan to move to Greenwich Village to be among other artists. The story of their love is told mainly through flashbacks, however, as, when the novel opens, Fonny is in jail awaiting trial for rape, having been accused and then identified in a line-up by the Peurto Rican victim.

if beale street could talk imgThe time span of the novel is the duration of Tish’s pregnancy, during which time the couple’s two families set about trying to free Fonny, liaising with his lawyer and pulling together all the money they can to pay Fonny’s legal costs. The lion’s share of this task falls to Tish’s family, who see it as their duty to support their daughter and the father of their grandchild. Fonny’s family, on the other hand is divided; his mother and sisters are deeply confused, ambivalent and disturbed by events effectively disown him. Fonny’s father does engage, supported by Tish’s father, but it is clear he is not really strong enough to cope with the pressure. It falls to Tish’s family to take charge and her mother, Sharon even goes to Peurto Rico, to where the raped woman has fled, to appeal to her to change her testimony, the suspicion being that Fonny was simply served up to her by corrupt police officers. As Tish’s pregnancy progresses, so we follow the legal machinations, the financial pressures faced by all concerned, the effect of prison on Fonny, the artistic soul tortured by his incarceration, and the toll that events take on both families.

It is a tragic story in many ways – no spoiler intended, but events don’t really resolve in the course of the novel – but has also been described as ultimately uplifting because it shows the power of love, not just between a man and a woman, but also within the community and within the family (notwithstanding the dysfunctional nature of Fonny’s family, although the inference here is that his mother’s religious fervour lies at the root of this).  I have not seen the film so I’m not sure how it handles the open nature of the ending.

The other main theme of the novel is, of course, the black experience, and Baldwin was a key figure in mid-20th century civil rights activism in New York. He counted Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, Marlon Brando, Josephine Baker, Allen Ginsberg and Miles Davis among his many high-profile friends. It is clear that Fonny has simply been set-up to take the blame for the rape – the woman identified her attacker only as black, and in the line-up that was assembled, Fonny was the only black man present. The cops are clearly out to get him, and any other black man. The judicial system, the penal system and the social and financial system are all stacked against Fonny, against them all, a reflection of how Baldwin saw society at the time.

Although I enjoyed the book, I didn’t find it a particularly easy read. The writing felt a little spiky, uncontrolled (the type that a determined editor might address!), but on the other hand it is spontaneous and vernacular, heart-felt and real. I found the timings difficult to follow at times and the supporting characters not as well-developed as I would have liked. It helps, however, when you understand more about Baldwin and his life. Firstly, he was an essayist, poet, playwright and activist as much as he was a novelist, if not more so, and whilst I do not know his other work, I can see that way of thinking in this novel. I think there are also significant influences from Baldwin’s personal life experience which feature strongly – his relationship with his father (actually his step-father), his sexuality, his struggle to express his art in his youth, growing up as he did in the tough neighbourhood of Harlem, and his religious ambivalence.

This is an intriguing and important book, even though it wasn’t always the easiest read. The love story is powerful and moving and it has certainly made me keen to see the film and to read more of Baldwin’s work, particularly his essays and his semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain.

Recommended.

Have you read the book or seen the film? What did you think?

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The Reading Challenge for March: “Perfume” by Patrick Suskind

This month’s theme for my Facebook Reading Challenge is a European novel. I confess that I did have the “B-word” in mind when I set the theme, feeling the need to assert that there is more that unites us than divides us, to paraphrase the late Jo Cox. The B-word has at this stage, however, become synonymous with something altogether more sinister – something very worrying is happening to our concepts of democracy, statehood, nationality, political representation and society. No-one really knows where we are or where we’re going.

Photo 11-03-2019, 13 52 18
My thirty year-old copy of Perfume

However, that does not change my belief that we would all do well to push our personal horizons from time to time, literary and otherwise, and engaging with books originally written in other languages is one way of doing that, even if you have to read them in translation. So, the book I have chosen for this month, Perfume by Patrick Suskind, is an absolute classic, and one that I consider to be one of my all-time favourites.

Perfume was first published in 1985 in German, and then in English in 1987. This was also my first year at University, studying English, and I spent those three years reading continuously. Sounds great (it was!) but by the end of it I could hardly even lift a book! Perfume was one of the first books I read after my hiatus, and I was completely blown-away. The novel is set in 18th century Paris and concerns a perfumier Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, his talent for and obsession with all things olfactory, and his descent into a murderous lifestyle – the sub-title of the book is “the story of a murderer”.

I am excited to be reading the book again, although slightly apprehensive – what if I don’t love it as much as I did before? Context matters, so it will be an interesting experience either way.

If you would like to read the book and join the conversation, do pop over to the Facebook page. 

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Book review – “Birdcage Walk” by Helen Dunmore

It has come to my notice in the last couple of years that I really enjoy historical fiction, yet if you’d asked me that ten years ago I might have been quite sniffy about it, thinking of it as a more poular rather than literary genre. Perhaps it’s because the book I have been birthing over the last year or so (almost ready to send out, yay!) is largely historical, so I’ve grown acutely aware of the additional challenges of research, of picturing a scene in my mind’s eye that doesn’t include all the day to day contemporary things we take for granted, as well as trying to create an authentic narrative voice, even getting the language right. It’s also something more basic than that though – many historical novels have really touched something quite deep in me. I’m thinking Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus, Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway, even Agatha Christie. And many of the books that I think of as my all-time favourites are also historical  – Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever, Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety and Andrea Levy’s Small Island all look back as a way of making sense of the now. History can teach us a great deal.

Birdcage Walk imgA dear friend gave me Helen Dunmore’s final novel, published posthumously, Birdcage Walk, for my birthday last year and I have only just got around to reading it. I had read some quite mixed reactions, some feeling it wasn’t her best or that it had not been as well edited as it might have been, which is understandable. I am not familiar with Dunmore’s other novels so don’t have a view on how it compares. It meant I approached it with some trepidation, however.

The novel is set in 1792 in Bristol, with the aftermath of the French Revolution playing out across the Channel, and its effects beginning to be felt in England. The central character Lizzie is married to a builder John Diner Tredevant, known as Diner, who has invested heavily (financially and emotionally) in the construction of a grand terrace in the city. The couple’s future depends on the success of the project, but political unrest has created economic uncertainty and the half-built, never-to-be-completed terrace is a motif for the couple’s relationship. As financial pressure builds, stress begins to expose the fragile foundation of Diner’s personality, cracks are revealed in their marriage and questions begin to arise about the mysterious circumstances of Diner’s first wife who died suddenly in France.

Lizzie comes from a more middle-class intellectual background; her mother is a Radical writer and supporter of the insurgency against the monarchy in France, as is Lizzie’s stepfather Augustus. They were not fully in support of Lizzie’s marriage, and it is hinted that they feared Diner was her intellectual inferior, and that she would not thrive with him, as well as being of a different mind to them politically. It seems that Lizzie married him because he represented a solidity and security that she never had growing up; she clearly holds Augustus in some contempt at times, his intellectual pursuit seems ineffectual to her. When Lizzie’s mother dies in childbirth, becoming pregnant at a dangerously late stage in her life, everything in Lizzie’s world begins to break down.

I can see why some regard the novel as somehow ‘incomplete’ – some of the characters are not fully drawn, Diner, for example. For me, his behaviour was not entirely coherent and I did not fully ‘get’ what drew him and Lizzie together, they seem so un-alike, and this is slightly problematic as the entire plot turns on the dynamics of their relationship. A quote from the Daily Mail on the jacket describes it as a “psychological thriller”, but that’s not quite how it felt to me. If anything, it’s more a book about character than plot.

Like the book I am working on, it is also about a journey of discovery, of uncovering the past and of the fleeting part we all play in history and how individual stories are so easily lost.

Whether or not Birdcage Walk is Dunmore’s best (if I could write this well, I’d be happy!) it has made me want to explore her other work as I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Recommended reading.

How do you feel Birdcage Walk compares with Dunmore’s other novels?

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Book review – “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred D Taylor

I chose this book as February’s choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge 2019. The theme for the month was a YA novel. First published in 1976, this rather pre-dates the emergence of the YA genre, so it does not fit quite so comfortably. However, it is a classic and, in my view, essential teenage reading. My edition is published by Puffin and the narrator and main character is a child, but make, no mistake, the themes here are mature and heavyweight.

Roll of Thunder imgRoll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is the first of three novels by Mildred D Taylor about the Logan family, black farmers in Mississippi, set in the 1930s. They are poor, but they own their own small piece of land, Grandfather Logan having bought it in the 1880s from local landowner Harlan Granger, much to the chagrin of some of the white locals who still cannot accept the social changes giving black people greater autonomy and rights. Grandfather Logan is now dead and the central character, Cassie, lives on the farm with her parents, her grandmother and three brothers. Despite owning 400 acres, the family still struggles to make ends meet, which is why Cassie’s father works away much of the year, on the railroad construction, and her mother works as a teacher at the local (black) school. All the family contributes to the running of the farm and the income it generates.

The scene is set beautifully, mainly through the four children and in particular, Cassie’s narration. The children have the same worldview of any kids their age, but even at their young age they have a strong awareness of their low status compared to their white counterparts, for example, in the way most of the local white children treat them and how the white kid’s school seems so much better resourced (they even have a bus, while the Logan children have to walk several miles every day). The unfairness is not lost on the children and sometimes they express their sense of injustice in ways that worry the adults, who know that for their own safety they must just keep their heads down and accept the reality. The early chapters set all these conditions in place and the readers is aware of the underlying tensions in the community that might erupt at the slightest provocation.

And that provocation soon comes along. Little Man, the youngest of the Logan children and a very fastidious boy, rejects a book given out to him in class because it is shabby. The books, cast-off by the white’s school as too damaged to use any longer, have been bestowed upon the black children and they are expected to be grateful. Little Man’s rejection of the damaged book is considered an affront too far, even by his teacher (it is interesting how most of the black adults in the book have been rendered completely docile by conditioning and by the threat of retribution if they speak out). For appearance’s sake, the children’s mother has to mete out Little Man’s severe punishment (being beaten), even though it pains her to do so. She decides to cover all of the children’s books, to make them appear fresher, but when this is spotted by the local (white) inspector, it has severe consequences for her too.

A series of other events set off a cascade of problems for the Logan family. For example, when the owner of the local store, upon which they all depend, appears to be treating his black customers unfairly, Cassie’s parents try to set up an arrangement whereby they make collective bulk purchases from a store charging better prices in a neighbouring town and the Logans transport the goods on their wagon. This riles the white community (black people have no right to make such a stand and resist the control being exercised over them) and the family is threatened.

Events take increasingly grave turns and the threat of violence, even death and financial ruin are never very far away. As you would expect from a novel for this age group, crisis is averted when a disaster at the end manages to bring the community back together in the most unexpected way. However, the novel does not shy away from suggesting that a terrible confrontational denouement is merely averted and not truly eliminated. It is happy for now, not happy ever after, as we know from the civil rights history of the USA. By the end of the novel, one thing is for sure and that is that nine year-old Cassie will never see the world in quite the same way again. Events have forced her out of her naïve belief in fairness and into an awareness that life, for her ilk at least, is definitely not fair.

I found this novel really gripping. I loved the characters, the dialogue with and between the children felt very authentic and the writing flows beautifully. It is a packed novel for its 220 pages, dealing with some important issues that will help to illustrate the African-American experience during a dark period in America’s history.

Highly recommended.

If you have read this book, either recently or when you were younger, I would love to hear your thoughts.

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Audiobook review: “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” by Elena Ferrante

I’ve just finished listening to this, the third book from Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. There are four volumes in total and I’ve chosen to listen to all of them on audio, mainly because I love the languid narration by Hilary Huber; she has really brought the characters alive for me and has managed to execute distinctly both the male and the female characters, something which I think is rare in an audiobook.

This is an extraordinary series and if you have not come across them yet (if you’re interested in books you will have been hard-pressed to avoid them since they were published to great acclaim between 2012 and 2015) I would definitely urge you to seek them out. As with the first two volumes, it has taken me some time to get through this book, mainly because I listen to it in 10-15 minute snatches on walks to the shops, etc. My enjoyment is none the worse for that, however; I would say in fact that it has added to my appreciation since this series is truly an epic saga than a set of novels, so broad is the sweep of time that they cover, so the long duration of my listening has given me a strong feeling for that.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay imgThis third book picks up precisely where volume two left off, at a small book launch for Elena’s first book, a mildly sexual novel which has caused a stir, and where she is being questioned in a patronising way by an obnoxious critic. A familiar face from Naples walks into the room – Nino Sarratore – and Elena’s confidence is restored. Nino has been a friend since childhood, and there is a complicated triangular relationship between him, Elena and Lila, the main but elusive protagonist of all the books. Elena has been in love with Nino since they were young, but this has not been reciprocated. Like Elena, Nino proved to be a successful student, despite the disadvantages of background and upbringing, and would go on to achieve great things academically, though both know that neither is as brilliant as their mutual friend Lila, with whom Nino was once in a relationship, but who would never reach the academic heights of the other two.

In this volume we follow Elena’s blossoming career as a writer, her marriage to a young Professor, Pietro Airota, and therefore, finally, Elena’s apparent full admission to the bourgeois intellectual circles she has always craved. At the same time, Lila’s life is taking a very different turn – she has left her abusive husband, the vulgar shopkeeper Stefano Carracci, had a child, and leads a modest life. At times, Lila’s life seems extremely harsh, particularly the period when she is working for Bruno Saccavo at the sausage factory, exploited by him and disliked and abused by some of her fellow workers. As Elena’s fortunes are rising, so Lila’s seem to be at their lowest ebb.

As life events ebb, however, so must they also flow, and things reverse. After a period of ill-health, Lila finally manages to claw her way back when she gets a job working for IBM, alongside Enzo Scanno, where she quickly becomes indispensable and starts earning a high salary (the contrast here is that she has achieved this off her own bat, whereas for Elena, despite her academic achievements, her prosperity is largely due to her marriage). At the same time, Elena’s career as a writer stalls, coinciding with the births of her two daughters. She resents her husband for his lack of participation in the household, while she is deeply frustrated by the mediocrity of her daily life, and having to take a back seat while he focuses on his academic career.

The pace of the book becomes quite intense at the end as events spiral towards an inevitable conclusion, which I don’t want to spoil. The writing in this, as in the other two books in the series, is remarkable, and the acute observation of character detail is fascinating and deeply engaging. The dialogue is also some of the most authentic I have ever read. The books have been translated by Ann Goldstein who also deserves praise for her very fine work here.

I am looking forward to the fourth and final book in the series, and highly recommend these novels. Do start with the first one, My Brilliant Friend, and whilst the audio is fantastic, I have also found it useful to have a hard copy to hand to remind myself of the very wide cast of characters.

Have you read Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels – how do you rate them?

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Book review – “The Overstory” by Richard Powers

According to my Goodreads account, I started this book on 4 December. It was the final book I tackled on last year’s Man Booker Shortlist. I have only just finished it. It has taken me well over six weeks. I have read a couple of other books alongside it, mainly because it is currently only available in hardback and at 502 pages it does not slip readily into the handbag. It is also a book that demands to be read slowly, almost at the pace of a tree growing, so it requires something of an investment. If you are put off already, read on, because I must balance that by saying that it is a quite extraordinary book and every hour I have spent with it has been time well spent. It is not a book that rewards being read a few pages at a time, it is best approached with an hour or so in hand.

the overstory img

It is hard to know where to begin to describe it so I will give you the New York Times quote from inside the dustjacket:

“A monumental novel about reimagining our place in the living world.”

After reading it you cannot help but feel that the human race is bent on a suicidal mission, that we will take most of nature down with us and that our tenure as a species on this earth has been wild and reckless and over in the blink of an eye (in evolutionary terms). We’re on the way out I’m afraid. The author’s framework for exploring this is the life of trees. The number and range of trees on the planet was once phenomenal, and humans have systematically destroyed most of them, in the pursuit of so-called ‘progress’, grazing land and space for short-term cash crops, a grossly selfish and short-sighted error of judgement:

“We’re cashing in on a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling.” (p386)

This is the essential powerful message of the book and his method of telling it is also extraordinary. The first part ‘Roots’ is made up of individual chapters about nine individuals, their background, how they came to be at whatever stage of life they are at and, for some, how their families came to be in America. For each individual, trees represent some significant event in their lives. For example, Douglas Pavlicek served in Vietnam and after his plane was hit, he parachuted out and his landing in a banyan tree saved his life.

The second part of the book ‘Trunk’ is the most substantial and details how each of the individuals lives proceed. For example, Neelay, badly paralysed after a childhood fall from a tree becomes a powerful computer games entrepreneur when he invents an extraordinary virtual world. Patricia, an introverted sight and hearing impaired young girl, whose father invested in her a love of nature, becomes an academic but her book about the secret language of trees is derided and she retreats to a reclusive life as a ranger. Many years later, others will agree with her and her thesis becomes fashionable and influential. Olivia, who almost died in part one, becomes an activist, and hooks up with Nicholas, who lost his entire family in part one after they were accidentally poisoned with gas in the family home. The two of them occupy a giant redwood tree in forest threatened by loggers for many months, though ultimately their protest proves futile (this is a metaphor). Many of the characters’ lives intersect, while others remain firmly parallel, for example Dorothy and her quadriplegic husband Ray; it is not clear until close to the end how their story is relevant.

The third part of the book ‘Crown’ is a coming together of all these separate stories, the logical conclusion to the each of the individuals’ stories and the fourth part ‘Seeds’ is about the legacy they leave behind. The end is anti-climactic in some ways, but I think that is the point; for all our ego and self-importance, the mark that humans will leave is pretty insignificant in the long-term. We will simply destroy ourselves. As the book progresses the pace also picks up, as does the switching between the individuals and their stories and the sense is created of humans accelerating towards their decline.

It is hard to do justice to the book in a short review. It is a book which merits deep reading. It is a remarkable concept and remarkable in execution and the writing is sublime, possibly the finest prose I have read in years. In some ways it has left me profoundly depressed about the direction the world is going on – it would be easy to focus on the events of recent years for examples of this but the reality is we have been crafting our own demise for decades, since the Industrial Revolution. Despite all the evidence, we continue to press on with our self-destruction, although there are a few people out there trying desperately to make their voices heard, the author being one of them – I’ve heard him a few times on the radio making the case for paying attention. The non-depressing thing about the book is the realisation that human beings are actually just a miniscule episode in the natural history of this particular planet, and it will prevail, with or without us. This is the ‘overstory’, the picture that is much bigger than us. In this respect our arrogance, particularly that of some of our world leaders, is really rather laughable. What is fascinating is the why, what drives us humans to behave the way we do, and this book sets about trying to explore that.

Though I really loved Anna Burns’ Milkman and felt it was a worthy winner of the Man Booker, I am also rather desperate for a serious realisation of the impact we are having on the world around us, and feel that greater publicity for this book could at least have contributed something to that debate.

One thing is for sure, I will never look at trees the same way again.

Highly recommended, your patience will be rewarded.

If you have read The Overstory, do you agree with my take on it?

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Book review: “The Children Act” by Ian McEwan

I haven’t read that many books by Ian McEwan – about four I think, not as many as I would like. Each time I read one, I am so overwhelmed by the quality of the work, the writing, the ideas behind each novel, that I wonder why on earth I haven’t read every single thing he’s written, especially as most of them aren’t terribly long. I’ve just finished The Children Act which was my book club’s choice for January. I read it in just a couple of days; the story was not only utterly compelling, but the prose was a joy. McEwan’s easy brilliance just draws you in and I found it hard to put down – one of those books you just have to pick up while you wait for the kettle to boil, just to enjoy the next couple of paragraphs. I felt similarly about On Chesil Beach which I read in 2017, but I’d go so far as to say this book is even better.

The central character is Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in the Family law division. She is considered brilliant at her job. She deals with both high-profile celebrity divorces, as well as complex and difficult cases. Not just difficult, but the kinds of cases that most of us would find virtually impossible to adjudicate, such as one particularly challenging case we are told about of two conjoined twin babies. Left together, both would eventually die, but separation would mean doctors could save the stronger of the two, but with the certain and immediate death of the weaker one. In essence, killing one baby to save the other. Fiona reaches conclusions on these kinds of impossible moral dilemmas.

Fiona is 60 and married to Jack, an academic. They have no children, but plenty of nieces, nephews and god-children. They seem settled in their comfortable, affluent, London life until, on the eve of a difficult case, Jack announces that he is finding their marriage sexually unsatisfying and would like to go and have a final fling while he still has it in him. Fiona is horrified and they argue bitterly. The evening ends with Jack leaving the flat, to go off to the young woman he plans to have an affair with, Fiona presumes.

The case over which Fiona is about to preside is an urgent one and she must immediately switch off from her marital crisis in order to focus on her work, where she feels in control.

“No denying the relief at being delivered onto the neutral ground, the treeless heath, of other people’s problems.”

The case on which she is being asked to rule concerns Adam Henry, a teenager, three months short of his 18th birthday, who has leukaemia. His proposed treatment involves a combination of drugs which will also require him to receive a blood transfusion, but, as a Jehovah’s Witness, his parents object to this course of action, and so, it is reported, does Adam. The hospital wants to proceed with the remaining treatment and the transfusion, and to do so immediately in order to save his life, and wishes the Court to rule that, as a child, he can be forced to have it (if he were an adult he would have the right to refuse treatment). Fiona hears the evidence from all sides and decides that before reaching her decision she will visit Adam. The visit affects Fiona deeply, more than she will realise.

It is tense reading as we wait to find out what Fiona will decide. No spoiler here, I won’t tell you her conclusion. Suffice to say that her decision has repercussions, which are primarily about her going through a kind of breakdown, of all that she has believed and taken for granted up to now, and this affects also how she responds then to Jack and the situation of their marriage.

This is both a touching and deeply affecting novel about one woman’s internal struggles and about human relationships in general and the nature of marital love in particular. And at the end we are invited, in a way, to judge Fiona, the Judge. McEwan has some brilliant turns of phrase which left me breathless with admiration and his economical style of writing makes him highly accessible and exciting to read.

I loved this book and recommend it highly.

Which McEwan shall I read next? What is your personal favourite? 

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