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.

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The Wandering Falcon

11297377This review for Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon might easily be the most difficult one I’ve ever had to write. It’s months later, and I still cannot for the life of me wrap my mind around this book or how I feel about it.

Let’s start with a few simple facts:

  1. Originally penned as a collection of short stories depicting nomadic life of tribes in the deserts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Ahmad later wove them together to create a novel.
  2. The writing is sharp, clear, and direct and infused with a religious undercurrent that gave the whole thing a Biblical feel.
  3. I hated it. And I feel guilty about hating it.

To be brutally honest, I just didn’t enjoy the experience of reading this book. I have never liked the sort of sparse, formal language Ahmad employs. It seemed obvious that these stories were never originally intended to be a novel and I have never really enjoyed reading a short story collection in one fell swoop. On top of that, I felt like I had no frame of reference to understand what Ahmad wanted to share with me through these stories.

While I absolutely felt like I was learning something about a culture I knew nothing about, I also couldn’t figure out some of the grander themes of the book. I didn’t know what Ahmad wanted me to get out of this journey. By the final page, I felt completely baffled. The book was over and it was as if I had no idea what had just happened.

Worst of all, since this book is such a perfect storm of aspects and styles I dislike in any writing, I have no idea how much of my failure to understand this book is the author’s and how much is my own. Though I try my best, I can’t help but be less engaged in a book I’m not enjoying.

I wanted to like The Wandering Falcon, I really did.

It actually started out so strongly, that I was shocked at the way my attitude changed. Vibrant descriptions either faded away or I was so un-engrossed with the story that I stopped noticing them.

I don’t know if this is a cop out—I suspect it might be. But I honestly think that my own ignorance prevents me from giving this book an accurate review. The question haunting me is whether its fair to judge a book so harshly when the real issue might be my own limited perspective?

Unlike The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which didn’t necessarily enthrall me, but whose writing was phenomenal, I had nothing to cling to in The Wandering Falcon.

It’s a short read, so if your interest is piqued there won’t be any real time lost if you give it a try. I just can’t bring myself to make a suggestion either way.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

From 2008 until 2010, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was ubiquitous. It was the book in every bag at the airport, on every lap on the train, and eternally checked out at the library. The Pulitzer it earned that year probably didn’t help if you were hoping for its buzz to die down.

Junot Díaz’s book was taking the world by storm, which should have meant I had a lot of expectations going in, but it didn’t. I can’t remember what made me first decide I wanted to read it—probably the Pulitzer if anything.

The story ended up being more than I could have ever anticipated. The story of a lonely nerd, strained family ties, love and sex, and the violent history of the Dominican Republic all rolled into one neat package.

Poor Oscar, our titular hero, is fat, awkward, and way too into Dungeons and Dragons for his own good. Worse yet, he’s Dominican—meaning he can’t quite fit into the model of the white nerd and he definitely can’t compete with the machismo so prevalent in depictions of Dominican masculinity. He’s adrift, unable to connect fully with either side, and not even the omniscient voice that narrates his story can seem to make sense of him at times.

Which brings me to the first thing I absolutely loved about this introduction to Díaz’s writing: the language. There’s a show I occasionally listen to called Snap Judgment and its tagline is “storytelling with a beat.” Every sentence I read, that phrase ran through my mind.

Oscar Wao is positively lyrical. Some passages seem as at home on the page as they would on the stage of a slam poetry night. Take this description of Oscar’s mother:

“Before there was an American Story, before Paterson spread before Oscar and Lola like a dream, or the trumpets from the Island of our eviction had even sounded, there was their mother, Hypatía Belicia Cabral: a girl so tall your leg bones ached just looking at her so dark it was as if the Creatrix had, in her making, blinked who, like her yet-to-be-born daughter, would come to exhibit a particularly Jersey malaise—the inextinguishable longing for elsewhere.”

The rhythm that runs through it pulses like a heartbeat and it’s absolutely intoxicating. It wasn’t hard to understand the love for this book.

There was something else, too—an even simpler facet: Díaz writes in Spanish regularly throughout the book and not once does he ever bother to translate it for the reader. I could not have been happier with this decision.

In stark contrast to Midnight in Mexico which constantly translated its Spanish passages creating cumbersome and unwieldy paragraphs, Díaz trusts us. He’s banking on his audience either knowing Spanish, or being smart enough to look it up for themselves.

Personally, I never needed to. My grasp of Spanish was juuust strong enough to, when paired with context clues, carry me through. This is what I’d wanted out of Corchado’s book. But I digress.

Love for this book aside, I just didn’t have that experience myself. I loved the writing and found the story interesting and I learned more about the Dominican Republic than I ever expected to know. But I wasn’t excited to pick it up. I didn’t have that emotional connection to the characters that so defines the books I love.

It was difficult to put my finger on why this was the case. The concept of fuku, which receives a lot of attention, never really hooked me, and I found myself considerably less engrossed in the flashback chapters dealing with Oscar’s mother and the origins of the family curse. But I’m not really willing to make the commitment and say that those scenes didn’t work.

Díaz’s writing is just too good.

When I try to understand why I couldn’t get excited about Oscar Wao, I wonder if it’s just more of a man’s story, a story that just speaks to something specific within men that just didn’t capture with me. The thing near the core of Oscar’s story, about what it means to be a man in this world, I don’t know why it didn’t reach me.

Yes, we get glimpses of what life is like for his sister and we learn a great deal about his mother, but I still read those passages as if I were only casually passing by.

What did work for me—the references to nerd culture, the longing, the in-your-face vivacity of the narrator, the in-depth exploration of the Dominican Republic’s history—made this well worth while. It’s not a favorite, but it’s not one I could pass up recommending, either.

Americanah

I often like what I read. I’m a lady of discerning taste, and I tend to gravitate toward what I know I’ll like.

I rarely fall in love with what I read. My love is reserved only for the words that move me most, the stories that wrap themselves around my heart. But I think it might only be just once so far that I can say a book changed me.

Americanah is that book. I read it and it was like I’d been shaken awake. It didn’t just change my perceptions, it changed my understanding of what I thought I knew.

The 2013 novel follows the relationship between two Nigerian teens, Ifemelu and Obinze, as they graduate secondary school, go on to college, and finally, look to leave Nigeria for better prospects. When Ifemelu gets a chance to move to America, Obinze encourages her to go, promising to follow soon after. However, as the weeks turn to months, Ifemelu drifts farther and farther away from Obinze, enveloped in America’s strangeness, promises, and failures until it seems she can never be who she once was.

When the book opens, Ifemelu is no longer a girl, but a grown woman that’s been living in America for 13 years. Most of the novel is framed as her reflections of growing up, punctuated intermittently by the present day as well as Obinze’s own recollections. I liked this structure and the way it alternately reminded me both of how far Ifemelu had yet to go and how far she’d come.

And as much as the book purports to be about both Ifemelu and Obinze, it’s truly Ifemelu’s story. Her chapters far outnumber Obinze’s, and I love it for this, too. It reminded me of how disappointed I was that Revolutionary Road didn’t have more chapters from April’s point of view.

Even more importantly, as much as any brief synopsis might make you think this is a love story, trust me when I say it is not. It’s an immigrant story and an African story and an American story. It’s about race, class, and culture and the way all those things collide in the stew of this country. It’s the deepest exploration of the American dream as a beautiful, tempting lie.

Adichie’s writing was constantly making me re-evaluate my ideas about this country and what it means to be black in it.

In one of Ifemelu’s blogs entries she writes:

“Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.”

In another section she discusses the hierarchy of color (not race), bluntly stating that in America, dark is bad, light is good, and that’s it. Through Ifemelu’s observations, Adichie pulls no punches:

“The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”

These were the moments that rocked me. I already agreed with these ideas, but it was almost as if I never really understood them—not completely—until Adichie laid them out. Even an idea as simple as the immigrant coming to America for opportunity. In our collective consciousness, the immigrant is always fleeing from a nightmare, desperate for a better life, on the verge of dying unless they run.

We never hear the stories we do in Americanah where people like Obinze and Ifemelu are simply middle-class kids looking for options:

“Alexa and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for for choice and certainty.”

It’s such a simple idea, but it’s so easy to never consider it. It’s so easy to ignore the reality of the immigrant story when we can lazily fall back on whatever we think we know, not having lived it ourselves.

Americanah told me the story I needed to hear instead of what I expected to hear. I will be forever grateful to it. Who knows how often I’ll find a book that genuinely makes me feel like I’ve become a slightly better, more aware person.

This one is required reading, you guys.
This one is for the canon.