If Beale Street Could Talk

51iwxnuoqil-_sy344_bo1204203200_Is there anything that makes a book heavier than the ideas, emotions, and notions we attach to them before we’ve even cracked the spine? Once again, my overly enthusiastic attitude has led me to a sharper pang of disappointment with James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk.

In it, Tish (inexplicably short for Clementine) and Fonny (really Alonzo) are young, black, and deeply in love in 1970s-era New York. But Tish and Fonny are also in deep, deep trouble. Fonny’s been accused of rape and thrown in jail with his chances of getting out growing slimmer by the hour. Their wedding dreams dashed, Tish is dealing with an unexpected pregnancy at the same time. Now as Fonny faces a lifetime away from the love of his life,  Tish faces raising a baby alone.

Learning about Tish and Fonny’s New York is to learn about a New York that gets too often forgotten. A crueler New York. So forget the Hotel Chelsea and Patti Smith and forget Manhattan and forget Love Story. That’s not the New York you’ll find here.

Tish’s hatred of the city comes from a different place entirely:

“I swear that New York must be the ugliest and the dirtiest city in the world. It must have the ugliest buildings and the nastiest people. It’s got to have the worst cops. If any place is worse, it’s got to be so close to hell that you can smell the people frying. And, come to think of it, that’s exactly the smell of New York in the summertime.”

As we watch the city and its laws pummel the young lovers, it’s hard to see it any other way. It’s not the 1940s, it’s the 70s and things are supposed to be better, but Baldwin wants us to see just how slow the change has come.

It was a refreshing (and sorely needed) perspective to get—a kind of necessary slap in the face.

But the novel isn’t some dour tome full of nothing but the most brutal and unflinching realities. Tish and Fonny’s love is intoxicating. Baldwin captures the feeling of young love completely. There are passages you can’t help but smile at as you read. It’s hard (if not impossible) not to be invested in their futures. You want them to be together; you want them to succeed, to overcome, to triumph.

Unfortunately, every now and then I’d stumble upon a note of sexism in a passage that would give me pause. So much so, that I had to do a little digging once I was done to see if I was alone in my concern (I wasn’t).

But each time this happened, I was surprised for some reason. I’d find myself thinking, “Excuse me, but what are you doing here? Who invited you?”

As the story progresses, it soon becomes abundantly clear who the real center of the story is. Stacia L. Brown said it best in her piece for Gawker, “It’s clear that Tish, despite being the sole narrator, is not Baldwin’s main objective. He cares far more for what Tish is willing to sacrifice or endure for Fonny.”

And she does, over and over and over again. All while the novel draws your attention to Fonny—will he be released? Can the charges be dropped? Will he see his baby born?

These questions just seem to matter more to Baldwin than what Tish will do, how she’ll survive, how she feels. They matter more than whether Tish can be anything except a mother and a lover.

She’s characterized as naive, and in desperate need of Fonny’s chauvanistic protection. It couldn’t help but leave a slightly sour taste in my mouth.

“Tish ain’t got no sense at all, man—she trusts everybody. She walk down the street, swinging that little behind of hers, and she’s surprised, man, when some cat tries to jump her. She don’t see what I see.”

To put it ineloquently: gross.

It was hard not to be disappointed. It didn’t stop my enjoyment, though. Baldwin was using this highly specific scenario to explore so much about family, African-American families in particular. To show a loving, caring relationship. The strength of the black community. To applaud it in light of white society’s attempts to snuff them out.

I wonder, though, if I would have enjoyed Beale Street more without the weight of my own expectations? I’m not sure how to get them under control, to be honest. Excitement over a book is so exhilarating and lovely. It’s just difficult when you’re eventually confronted with something that’s not in any way explicitly bad—just disappointing.

That said, I’m still looking forward to reading more of Baldwin, but I’ll know to temper my expectations. Not because Baldwin’s not capable of exceeding them, but because I’ll take a happy surprise over frustration any day.

Advertisements

Sula

Sula, Sula, Sula.

Oh, Sula.

My heart ached reading Toni Morrison’s second novel.

In it, I saw shades of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye (a personal favorite) and the melodrama of Douglas Sirk. Centered around the lives of two little girls in 1930s Ohio, Sula explores the power of friendship, betrayal, and perception. Upstanding, obedient Nel and wild child Sula have the kind of friendship that seems to only exist between children. They are inseparable. They complete each other. They are a force. And soon, they are bonded even more closely by a terrible secret.

Not content to stay in their aptly named home, The Bottom, grownup Sula makes a break for it as soon as she can. When she finally returns, Nel is married with kids of her own and their happy reunion is marred by a betrayal that threatens to end their friendship forever.

Having read Beloved and The Bluest Eye in high school, I almost wonder if Sula might be the better introduction to Toni Morrison. Less epic than Beloved, quicker than The Bluest Eye, I could see how Sula would be more palatable. But then as soon as I think that, I remember the weight of it and feel baffled that any high schooler reads any Morrison at all.

She’s one of those rare authors who just feels prolific in everything she creates. Sula is a short book, but in just 174 pages, Morrison is talking about all of America and the black experience and what it means to be a woman and the very nature of good and evil. I am bowled over by her scope.

I was easily sucked in by her beautiful writing, too. The beauty just brought the whole world alive for me, even with the smallest details, like:

“When Eva spoke at last it was with two voices. Like two people were talking at the same time, saying the same thing, one a fraction of a second behind the other.”

or:

“Then summer came. A summer limp with the weight of blossomed things. . . . And the boys. The beautiful, beautiful boys who dotted the landscape like jewels, split the air with their shouts in the field, and thickened the river with their shining wet backs. Even their footsteps left a smell of smoke behind.”

But what struck me the most wasn’t any one phrase or passage, but a thought.

It occurred to me midway through the book how essential race is to any piece of realistic fiction about African Americans. I know, I know—not exactly earth shattering stuff. But in that thought, I was hit by another and I think it was the first time I really understood the privilege I have. A book that reflects my experience has the luxury of ignoring race if it wants to. Morrison doesn’t have that luxury. For a book to attempt to reflect her experiences but to leave out race would be to cut out a part of her. It’s one of those forces with the power to shape everything. And while I know this, I don’t think it had ever completely sunk in before.

With that, I already had my first concrete sign of my experiment doing its job. Hearing different voices had me not just thinking, but opening up my mind to something I thought I already knew.

Though I wouldn’t put it on the same level as Beloved, Sula was too quick and too satisfying not to recommend. It had me looking forward to reading the entire rest of her bibliography. Whether it’s your first Morrison or your fifth, it’s worth it.

Persuasion

Does everyone introduced to Jane Austen invariably compare everything she writes back to Pride and Prejudice? I’m sure some don’t, but the task felt impossible to me. Austen’s last book, Persuasion was only the second of her works I’d ever read (after P&P of course). While I certainly enjoyed it, it must be said that our heroine Anne Elliot is no Elizabeth Bennett. Our hero Frederick Wentworth no Mr. Darcy.

When Anne was 19, she fell in love with a dashing young naval officer, Frederick Wentworth. Frederick proposes and Anne happily accepts until she breaks the news to her status-obsessed family who disapprove of Wentworth’s low rank. Heartbroken, Anne ends the relationship and when the novel picks up, it’s eight years later and Anne’s still single and fast approaching 19th-century spinsterhood. Her feelings for Wentworth stay buried deep until news comes that he’s back in town and she’s forced to confront him along with her old feelings.

Themes of persuasion (obviously) and repression run throughout the book, as do examinations of class and social constructs, but the same can be said of most of Austen’s work. I’m perhaps selling her a little short here, but these just weren’t the most interesting angles for me.

I was freely carried away by the story the same way I am when watching a romantic comedy–where I become enraptured in the tale and the question isn’t if our couple will be together, but simply when. That’s where my enjoyment came from. With every turn of the page, I knew I was just a little bit closer to the payoff, to the love story’s triumphant conclusion.

In movies, all the great rom-com’s share one essential quality: charisma. The two leads have chemistry and a spark together, as well as their own individual charm. When there’s no spark and when the performances fall flat, so does the story, no matter how well it’s written. In a way, this ended up being my main issue with Persuasion.

When Anne represses her true feelings she does so willingly as an act of self-preservation so there’s none of Elizabeth’s firey wit. Instead, Anne is prim, introspective, and even has a bit of a hang-dog mentality that kept her from endearing herself to me in quite the same way Elizabeth did. I still felt for her and was wholeheartedly on her side, but it was harder to see anything of myself in her.

Similarly, Wentworth lacked Darcy’s air of mystery. His intentions and emotions were still hard to read, but this ended up frustrating me more than intriguing me. I wouldn’t call him a poor love interest by any means, but something was missing for him to really make an impression on me.

Ultimately, Persuasion is more of Jane Austen doing what Jane Austen does best: lambasting British society while telling a love story. But it didn’t stick with me the way Pride and Prejudice did and I didn’t encounter the same joy while reading it. I originally read the book a couple months ago and my memory is already hazy. I recall enjoying it, but not to what extent. Because of that, I don’t know if I can honestly recommend it as it didn’t make much of an impression on me.

I don’t mean to overstate my love of Pride and Prejudice either, though. I liked the book quite a bit, and it marked the first time I reread something I hated in high school only to end up completely changing my mind about it. But I wouldn’t put either of these books on any kind of favorites list.

I’m still eager to try reading more of Austen’s work, but only time will tell if any of it is capable of having a more profound impact on me.

Persuasion is a solid read and worth the time, but I wouldn’t bother bumping it to the top of your To Read list any time soon.

Grapes of Wrath

Grapes of Wrath

Grapes of Wrath turned 75 this year. I remembered seeing a blurb on NPR’s website announcing that their book club would be trying to read it before its 75th birthday on April 14, and I contemplated trying to keep pace well enough to meet that goal with them. Unfortunately, I was still wrapping up The Secret History and knew that Grapes of Wrath just wasn’t the sort of book I could get through while juggling another novel. If I was going to read it, I’d have to do it on my own.

I’m not sure, exactly, how it slipped through the cracks of my literary education, but it remained off reading lists in high school and through all of college and more or less off my radar of interest until very recently.

It’s part of the canon. It’s a Pulitzer prize winner. It’s penned by a Nobel laureate. If that can’t help push a book onto your “to read” list, nothing can.

I think what surprised me the most about Wrath was just how much I loved it. And I loved it. The alternating chapters foreshadowing the miseries to come for the Joad family, the way it simultaneously reminded you that you were reading just one story out of many as well the story of many.

The only other book to really speak to me on the same level when it comes to understanding this part of American history is the significantly less famous Waiting for Nothing by Tom Kromer. In a way, it’s the perfect companion piece to Grapes of Wrath. While Wrath takes you through the Dust Bowl and the California migration, Waiting for Nothing shows you the cities and the flop houses and the lonely men riding the rails with nowhere to go.

But back to Steinbeck.

His language feels both sparse and rich, simplistic and complicated, and maybe it’s those nuances that made it such a slow, but satisfying read. Unlike East of Eden, which seemed to emotionally gut-punch me with every turn, Wrath was a more physically enjoyable read as well. For some reason with East of Eden the themes of love and death just really wrecked me to the point that I think that book took me four months to read. I loved it deeply in the end, but still. It was rough. Grapes of Wrath wasn’t so unsettling, but at the same time I think I loved it more.

What resonated the most strongly with me were Steinbeck’s chapters discussing the way a bank is more than a man. I think in this post-recession, post-bank-bailout world it’d be hard for those chapters not to resonate.

“The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”

You can see it in that one quote. The staying power of Grapes of Wrath is strong. It’s getting to the heart of something and that something really, truly does feel deeply American to me. It’s hard for me to put exactly what that is into words, though.

This is what I can say:

It’s been 80-some years since the Dust Bowl and the Depression and 75 years since the first publication of Grapes of Wrath and the book exists as an echo reminding us not just of where we’ve been, but where we are.