Thoughts on Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin (#CCSpin #19)

And the darkness of John’s sin was like the darkness of the church on Saturday evenings; like the silence of the church when he was there alone, sweeping, and running water into the great bucket, and overturning chairs, long before the saints arrived. It was like his thoughts as he moved about the tabernacle in which his life had been spent; the tabernacle that he hated, yet loved and feared.

510dFZyJmyL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_I feel like I got way with something by reading Go Tell It on the Mountain for the latest Classics Club Spin. We were supposed to be reading one of the longer books on our lists, but I only put ten “big books” on mine, and the spin result happened to be Baldwin’s 1953 first novel. The one I borrowed from the library clocked in at 291 pages. Oh well. Those big books are still waiting for me.

This is a challenging books to write about. It’s a family story and a coming of age story. Goodreads says it’s semi-autobiographical and my copy’s jacket flap quotes Baldwin himself as saying, “Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” I’ve now read three of Baldwin’s books, and I’ve seen the exquisite documentary about him, I Am Not your Negro, but I do want to read a biography about him or at least do some more research into this life.

Not only is this book challenging to describe but it was challenging to read as well, because I felt so bad for the main character, the young teenager John. His family lives in 1930’s era New York City, and his cold and critical father Gabriel is an associate pastor of a very Evangelical type of church. His world seems pretty sheltered and restricted, and you can feel John wanting to break free and explore the variety of experience that New York offers.

He stood on the crest of the hill, hands clasped beneath his chin, looking down. Then he, John, felt like a giant who might crumble this city with his anger; he felt like a tyrant who might crush this city beneath his heel; he felt like a long-awaited conqueror at whose feet flowers would be strewn, and before whom multitudes cried, Hosanna! He would be, of all, the mightiest, the most beloved, the Lord’s anointed; and he would live in this shining city which his ancestors had seen with longing from far way. For it was his; the inhabitants of the city had told him it was his; he had but to run down, crying, and the would take him to their hearts and show him wonders his eyes had never seen. 

Gabriel and John do not get along, and we come to find out that John is Gabriel’s wife Elizabeth’s son by another man. Gabriel becomes a bit more humanized and sympathetic as we delve into flashbacks of his story, and we come to understand in flashbacks how and why Elizabeth married him as well. The last section of the book is John’s feverish, nightmarish religious experience (salvation? conversion?) with an ambiguous ending.

Did I enjoy this book? Enjoy is not exactly the word – it was a surprisingly page-turning read. Some parts were more engaging than others, especially the back stories of John’s aunt Florence and mother Elizabeth. But I gave it four stars because of the beauty and precision of the language and the challenging spiritual imagery.

Time was indifferent, like snow and ice; but the heart, crazed wanderer in the driving waste, carried the curse forever.

Have you read this? If you’ve read Baldwin before, what is your favorite of his books? Are you interested in seeing the new film If Beale Street Could Talk (based on Baldwin’s 1974 novel?)

 

 

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Classics Club Spin #19 Result!

I’m very late with my CC Spin result post, but better late than never. I’m excited to say that the number selected was #1, which made my book James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain. Here’s what Goodreads tells us about this classic novel:510dFZyJmyL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_

Go Tell It On The Mountain, first published in 1953, is Baldwin’s first major work, a semi-autobiographical novel that has established itself as an American classic. With lyrical precision, psychological directness, resonating symbolic power, and a rage that is at once unrelenting and compassionate, Baldwin chronicles a fourteen-year-old boy’s discovery of the terms of his identity as the stepson of the minister of a storefront Pentecostal church in Harlem one Saturday in March of 1935. Baldwin’s rendering of his protagonist’s spiritual, sexual, and moral struggle of self-invention opened new possibilities in the American language and in the way Americans understand themselves.

I’ve been eager to read more of Baldwin since I have read and LOVED The Fire Next Time and Giovanni’s Room. The library copy I ordered from another branch is only 291 pages, so it’s not a “chunkster” (as we were prodded to try from the Classics Club moderators) –  I feel like I got away with something, tee hee! I’m going to have to get to 9781101907610those really big books sometime, though, in the next four years.

Have you read this? Have you read any other of Baldwin’s novels or nonfiction? Have you seen the phenomenal film about him I Am Not Your Negro? (If you haven’t, you really should!)

Classics Club Spin #19

Hello friends. I hope those of you who have been celebrating Thanksgiving have had a great few days. I’m delighted to write that it’s time for another Classics Club Spin! Here are the “rules:”

  • Go to your blog.
  • Pick twenty CHUNKSTER books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club List.
  • Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog before Tuesday 27th November.
  • We’ll announce a number from 1-20.
  • Read that book by 31st January 2019.

Um, did they say “CHUNKSTER?” Gulp. When I looked at my list I noticed that I do have quite a few chunksters I haven’t even touched yet. Because I’m a wimp, my spin list is half 500+ page tomes, half “fun size” literary masterpieces (bigger books in bold type.)

  1. Go Tell it on the Mountain – James Baldwin
  2. Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë
  3. The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov
  4. A Study in Scarlet – Arthur Conan Doyle
  5. My Cousin Rachel – Daphne du Maurier
  6. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
  7. The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
  8. Adam Bede – George Eliot
  9. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
  10. North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell
  11. Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
  12. The Thin Man – Dashiell Hammett
  13. The Blue Castle – L.M. Montgomery
  14. Less Than Angels – Barbara Pym
  15. Ceremony – Leslie Marmon Silko
  16. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
  17. The Warden – Anthony Trollope
  18. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
  19. The Island of Dr. Moreau – H.G. Wells
  20. Native Son – Richard Wright

What from my list have you read? I’ll post the result next week.

West With The Night by Beryl Markham (Classics Club Spin #18)

81yAt9aNOELI feel almost guilty not liking Beryl Markham’s West With The Night more. Almost all of the Goodreads reviews on the first page are glowing 4 and 5-star reviews and many blogger friends recommended it highly. I had high hopes for this memoir published in 1942, but it took me a week to get only halfway through its 300 pages. I then had to put it down for another week and read something else that held my attention more (a mystery novel – are you surprised?) When I picked it up again I felt refreshed and I was able to finish it in a day. I guess this is what you’d call a real mixed bag?

What I Liked:

The writing. Mostly. The middle section about horse racing nearly killed me. But everything else was good. The writing has a very cinematic, romantic quality to it.

As the (impala/zebra/wildebeest) herd moved it became a carpet of rust-brown and grey and dull red. It was not like a herd of cattle or of sheep, because it was wild, and it carried with it the stamp of wilderness and the freedom of a land still more a possession of Nature than of men. To see ten thousand animals untamed and not branded with the symbols of human commerce is like scaling an unconquered mountain for the first time, or like finding a forest without roads or footpaths, or the blemish of an axe. You know then what you had always been told – that the world once lives and grew without adding machines and newsprint and brick-walled streets and the tyranny of clocks.

Markham led a most unconventional life especially for the time. She was born in England but raised by her father in Kenya (her mother left the family when Markham was little.) Markham hunted and tracked and camped and essentially was given the run of the place. There’s a riveting story of helping birth a foal when she was a teenager. She was a licensed racehorse trainer at the age of 18. She then learned to fly an airplane and in 1936 became the first woman to fly over the Atlantic Ocean non-stop, solo, from east to west. beryl-markham

Being alone in an aeroplane for even so short a time as a night and a day, irrevocably alone, with nothing to observe but your instruments and your own  hands in semi-darkness, nothing to contemplate but the size of your small courage, nothing to wonder about but the belief, faces, and the hopes rooted in your mind – such an experience can be as startling as the first awareness of a stranger walking by your side at night. You are the stranger.

What I Didn’t Like:

I wanted more. I wanted to know Ms. Markham better – I felt there was a cool reserve coming off of her, as if there was a barrier between she and I. As polished as the writing was it felt distant. I knew her feelings about maps and planes and horses and the Kenyan men who worked for her father and treated her with the utmost respect but I didn’t get her feelings about her father or any of her lovers or what it felt like not to have a mother growing up. I didn’t get any hint of what it was like as a woman in a society made almost totally of men. This memoir contained many stories about her adventures and not much about her inner life at all.

Also, Book Three, about the racehorses…I just wish I had skipped that section. I’d read one or two pages and fall asleep. It took me a week to drum up the desire to pick the book back up. And I’m glad I did, because it got better. Although the elephant hunting chapters were tough to read from a modern-day perspective. And then there’s that whole colonizer’s perspective of the different ethnic groups of Kenyans. On the whole she is more respectful than not, but some of her thoughts on the inherent characteristics of certain tribes made me uncomfortable. I realize this was written a long time ago, so I take that into account.

23995231Still, I am glad that I read this. I certainly would like to know more about Ms. Markham and would possibly read a biography on her in the future. I also want to read the historical fiction version of her life by Paula McLain called Circling the Sun. As Markham was involved in a love triangle with Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) I would like to read Out of Africa. There is a lot here still to discover and this memoir only made me more curious.

Rebecca (Bookish Beck) was kind enough to ask me if I wanted to do a buddy read for this book, and I discovered that it’s a tricky thing to do. People read at different paces and you don’t want to spoil anything. Plus I’m so darn moody with my reading. But I thank her for reading this with me – we checked in on Twitter and it was neat to know that someone across the ocean was also reading this classic memoir. I would still recommend this book if you are the sort of reader who enjoys stories of adventure or if you’re interested in early 20th century Kenya. Markham’s descriptions of the natural world and flying are especially compelling and well drawn. Just don’t expect too much personal reflection or emotion.

(This is the 6th book I’ve read from my Classics Club list.)

Classics Club Spin Result and 20 Books of Summer Check-In

So the big Classics Club spin number is… drumroll… number 9! Which means I’ll be reading Beryl Markham’s 1942 memoir West With the Night. Here’s a summary I found on Amazon:81yAt9aNOEL

Beryl Markham’s West with the Night is a true classic, a book that deserves the same acclaim and readership as the work of her contemporaries Ernest Hemingway, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and Isak Dinesen.
If the first responsibility of a memoirist is to lead a life worth writing about, Markham succeeded beyond all measure. Born Beryl Clutterbuck in the middle of England, she and her father moved to Kenya when she was a girl, and she grew up with a zebra for a pet; horses for friends; baboons, lions, and gazelles for neighbors. She made money by scouting elephants from a tiny plane. And she would spend most of the rest of her life in East Africa as an adventurer, a racehorse trainer, and an aviatrix―she became the first person to fly nonstop from Europe to America, the first woman to fly solo east to west across the Atlantic. Hers was indisputably a life full of adventure and beauty.
And then there is the writing. When Hemingway read Markham’s book, he wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins: “She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer . . . [She] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers . . . It is really a bloody wonderful book.”

I decided I wanted to read her memoir after I read Megan Mayhew Bergman’s short story about her in Almost Famous Women called “A High-Grade Bitch Sits Down For Lunch.” If you haven’t read that collection, by the way, please do so, it’s awesome!

In other news, I thought I’d take stock of my 20 Books of Summer experience so far. I’ve read fifteen of the twenty so far – YAY! It’s a new personal record for the three summers I’ve attempted this challenge. I consider it a total success at this point, even if I don’t read any others. I’m in the middle of George Saunders’s short story collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and I definitely will read my July Book Group book (we meet week after next to discuss, and I like to wait as close as possible to the discussion to read the book so it’s nice and fresh in my mind.) It’s The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, a graphic memoir about the author’s experience escaping Vietnam in the 1970s and trying to adapt to their new life in America. So that is at least 17/20.51UDKhEnEXL

I’ve only reviewed nine of the 15 I’ve read, so I’m quite a bit behind. I just can’t seem to make myself sit down and do these reviews in a timely fashion. I’m not sure what’s up with that. And the longer they go, the less I want to do it. I see some more five-sentence reviews in my near future! But I will do a full post on Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin because it was BRILLIANT and also a Classics Club pick  -which is also true for Shirley Jackson’s The Bird’s Nest (good but not brilliant.)

How are you doing with 20 Books of Summer? If you’re a member of The Classics Club are you happy with your book number 9? Have you read any of the books I’ve mentioned above?

 

Classics Club Spin #18!

It’s Spin time! I joined The Classics Club (now under new leadership) earlier this year and got the word yesterday that it’s time for another Spin (my second.) What’s a #CCSpin? Well, basically you choose 20 books from your original list and then on Spin Day the Classics Club leaders choose a number from 1-20. Whichever number is drawn is the classic book you read and write about next!

So here are my 20, pretty much chosen randomly (I did put some chunksters in there to mix it up:)

  1. Fahrenheit 451 – Bradbury
  2. Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon – Austen
  3. Jane Eyre – Brontë (re-read)
  4. The Woman in White – Collins
  5. A Study in Scarlet – Conan Doyle
  6. The Thin Man – Hammett
  7. The Count of Monte Cristo – Dumas
  8. The Lottery and Other Stories – Jackson
  9. West With the Night – Markham
  10. 1984 – Orwell
  11. Less Than Angels – Pym
  12. Anna Karenina- Tolstoy
  13. Crossing to Safety – Stegner
  14. Native Son – Wright
  15. Ceremony – Silko
  16. Stoner – Williams
  17. Island of Dr. Moreau – Wells
  18. Brideshead Revisited – Waugh
  19. Beloved – Morrison (re-read)
  20. The Gowk Storm – Morrison

If you’re in the Classics Club, good luck with your spin! I hope you all get the number you want. (Totally statistically impossible, but you know.) 🙂

Have you read any of these? Have any thoughts?

Classics Club Spin #17: The Long-Winded Lady: Notes From the New Yorker by Maeve Brennan #ccspin

Sometimes I think that inside New York there is a Wooden Horse struggling desperately to get out, but more often these days I think of New York as the capsized city. Half-capsized, anyway, with the inhabitants hanging on, most of them still able to laugh as they cling to the island that is their life’s predicament.

Even after more than twenty-five years the long-winded lady cannot think of herself as a “real” New Yorker. If she has a title, it is one held by many others, that of a traveler in residence. As a traveler she is interested in what she sees, but she is not very curious, not even inquisitive. She is not a sightseer, never an explorer… She is drawn to what she recognizes, or half-recognizes, and these forty-seven pieces are the record of forty-seven moments of recognition.

51auvQaKFML._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_My first Classics Club Spin (I joined back in February) was a mixed bag. The late Irish-born writer Maeve Brennan intrigues me, so I am glad that I read her collection of essays about living in New York City in the 1950’s and 1960’s, The Long Winded Lady: Notes From the New Yorker. These were originally published as pieces in the magazine for which she worked for more than 30 years as as staff writer. I found the experience of reading the collection in a few weeks’ time to be challenging, despite its short length. I tried to space them out by reading one or two a day at the most, but they still started to blend together for me. Many of them are set in restaurants, observations of the people eating and drinking and the staff. Many of them are about buildings being torn down in favor of “progress.” There is a palpable sense of transience about the collection as a whole, of a city in flux, a time of great social change. Most of the essays are indeed about small moments between two people, whether between people Brennan observes or between Brennan and someone else.

Brennan is a talented observer and chronicler of human foibles and quirks. She has a way with words. In one piece I liked, “Balzac’s Favorite Food,” she writes of peacefully browsing a book shop, just starting to read about something that Balzac would mix into sardines that he mashed on bread, when she was interrupted by a group of obnoxious interlopers.

…I took off my glasses to get a look at them. Cruelty and Stupidity and Bad Noise – there were three of them, a man and a woman and another, but I did not see the third, who was hidden behind the tall spindle bookcase they were all looking at and making merry over. They called out names and titles, and made a lot of feeble puns, ruining the place for everybody, and I paid for the books I had under my arm, and left. I walked over to Le Steak de Paris and asked for sardines and plain bread, but when I began to mash the sardines, I couldn’t remember what it was that Balzac used to mix them with. It didn’t matter. Sardines with plain bread are very good. I said to myself that there was no use thinking about the hyenas in the bookshop. Their capacity for arousing violence will arouse somebody who is violent one of these days.

She decides she will go back to the bookshop that night, find the book, and before the night is through she will know precisely how Balzac’s favorite food tastes.

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121 Charles St.

Another essay I liked, one that sent me off the Google to do some research, is “The Farmhouse That Moved Downtown.” And old farmhouse, really old, like 200 years old, was about to be torn down for a nursing home, so the then owners decided to save it and move it by truck to the Village! (It still stands today, as far as I can tell, and you can read about it here and here if you like. Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon and other children’s books, once lived there!)

It was a very tiny house – much smaller than I had expected. That must have been a very small farmer who built it. It was sitting up high on a sturdy cage or raft, of heavy wooden beams, on a wedge-shaped, weedy lot, with the old brick warehouses towering over it like burly nursemaids. It was a crooked little house – askew on its perch but crooked anyway – and it looked as plain and as insubstantial as a child’s chalk drawing, but it was a real house, with a real door, and a flat roof with a chimney sticking out of it.

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Image from The Guardian

 

But by far my favorite essay was “I Wish For A Little Street Music” (1968) which starts out bemoaning the humdrum and depressing state of the people along Broadway. (“I thought to myself: All these people are sheep, and I am a sheep.”) But then she spies a middle-aged father and teenage son reunion that tugs at the heart strings (and me me absolutely BAWL, I might add!)

The father stared admiringly up at his son, hearing every word, and you could see that what he longed for was to have the chance, just once again, to pick his child up and walk a few steps with him in his arms. And it would have taken very little to cause that boy to embrace his father and whirl him around in the air. What a funny trick Time had played on those two – or was it a trick of Light that made the son so big while the father remained the size he had been? It was as thought some cameraman had enlarged a picture of the child and left the father life-size. 

…Maybe they went to the Howard Johnson’s at Forty-sixth Street. That is a nice place, especially if you get near the window, so that you can look out at the crowd passing and see that at a little distance there are no sheep on Broadway.

So while I did enjoy the essays, and some of them very much, overall I felt relieved when I finished the collection. This is probably more to do with the time constraints of having to get this read and written about by the end of April for The Classics Club than flaws in the material itself. If I’d spread this collection out for a few months instead of weeks I may have ended up giving it a higher rating. So I hope that if you are at all interested in essays about New York City, if you want a glimpse into what it may have been like (for a professional white woman) in the 1950’s and 1960’s, if you are a fan of Brennan’s fiction, then please do give this one a try. There is much here to admire.