The thing about saying you think a race war is coming or this group or that group wants to start a race war is the sheer ignorance of people not knowing there has been a race war in this country for four hundred years already and if you are not white you already know it and have been fighting it all your life because you don’t find any other choice. The comfortable white folks like me talking about a race war are admitting to a blindness that should be impossible to comprehend except that for us it is just everyday. We long ago learned not to see the effect of our ideas of our superiority on our own minds. We can stare at a lynched body and see justice and hold a community picnic at its feet. We can watch a white policeman kneel on the neck of a black man and see a thug being brought to discipline by the rule of law. For us justice is us. Along with anyone we can co-opt to act like us, to believe us, to join us. Justice is whatever we need it to be in order to maintain a system in which we are always the cream that rises to the top. The great peace we imagine we are about to interrupt in order to fight a war among the races is a peace only we were ever meant to enjoy. What we are really seeing is that finally, after all these centuries, we white people are losing the race war and we are going to have to kill a lot of folks in order to turn the tide. Only we are not so sure we can win even then. Because the tide has already turned. Because remember that blindness. We still have it. We still can’t see the real world. So many enemies out there now. Turns out there are just too many. Somebody has been whispering in our ear about us and we are confused about what’s true and what’s not. Crazy what kind of savior you can believe in when you can’t really believe anything you see or hear or read or what you learned in books or school or what your preacher tells you. Just crazy.
Prisons by Mary Lee Settle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was a good companion read to Morrison’s A Mercy, from the same era of history, on the opposite side of the ocean, and with a different form of narrative. The voice of John Church tells the story, moving back and forth in time from childhood to his days in the parliamentarian army during the English civil war. Settle’s writing is sure-handed and exact, and shares with Morrison the economy of its approach. The story is not drowned in historical detail but rather shapes itself precisely as if it were the memory of Church, sometimes focused on moments that expand into a tactile tapestry and other times pulling back to look at passages of time, avoiding the monotony of the army experience, for instance, when, as he says, most of the service was waiting and next-most was marching. But the book is not one in which a reader loses himself to a sense of the other world; the reading here is colder than that, though the story itself is very deeply felt. My sense of the other characters in the book was in general that they were objects that the writer picked up and put down; useful but not rich. The character of John’s aunt, who is also the mother of his illegitimate child, and of Thankful Perkins, his best friend, were the most complex of the portraits. But this is not psychological fiction. This is something equally rich but less engaging to the emotions. The background is full of vivid still-life depictions of characters seen for a moment, then gone. There is a satisfying and somewhat sardonic motif of a woman who is cooking a goose at the same time that she betrays John and Thankful from their hiding place; they eat the cooked goose when they are imprisoned; and later their own goose is cooked when they are shot as traitors by Cromwell. Settle looks on this novel as an examination of the origins of American ideas of freedom, liberty, and conscience, and it is satisfying as that. An eerie counterpoint to the week before the inauguration of Joe Biden. The voice of the novel is spiced with archaisms, but not overly so; the dialog made me giggle a bit, but it’s superior to that in her book O Beulah Land, which I am reading now. She is a really distinctive and powerful writer who knows her business.
The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
My first impressions of this novel were that the writing had a stiff, unpracticed quality at the sentence level, and that the method of the narrative was abrupt. The first section of the book, about an interaction between the protagonist and a man who wants her to describe objects he purloined from the possessions of a dead woman, felt pushed in terms of the dialog. Conversations played out in a flatfooted way. But the episode was based on an intriguing idea. In the subsequent sections of the book many of the problems I saw in the writing went away, the author becoming more practiced and losing herself in the writing. The final episode was a gem, and I would have wished it were the entire novel, expanded on and left to do the work of exploring the shifting self on its own – but that’s me trying to write someone else’s novel. What the writer has done is strong work in her own manner and on her terms. But I cannot overcome the feeling that the episodes stand too separate from one another and do not act with one another as well as they could, and that harms the novel. The activities of the first section of the book vanish completely and never arise again. The presence of her lover (soon former lover) Stephen does cross over sections of the book but without much effect. And the final section of the book contains all the other episodes within its scope but still stands separate from them. This can be read as commentary on the function of the self, but it can also be read as weakness in structure. Nevertheless, I admired the last part of the book enough that I am glad to have encountered this book.
A Mercy by Toni Morrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
One of those moments in reading in which I remember why I fell in love with books in the first place. It’s been a while since I read Toni Morrison. This novel is short, intense, almost perfect. I read it just after finishing Juneteenth and the contrast is remarkable. The narrative moves in the most surefooted way from one time to another, from one character to another, with an effortless, masterly air. If you think an historical novel must be big, overblown with detail, you should find this slim volume and allow it to teach you. Morrison displays a certainty about the period, which is complex, messy, full of strangeness, our history but not one we discuss very often. A few decades after European colonization brings forced labor of all kinds to bear on the transformation of the American landscape, a Dutch farmer takes a wife, buys an Indian slave, is given a wild girl, and receives a young black girl as payment for a debt. There is a momentary resemblance to Beloved in the choice of a slave mother to give away her daughter in order to protect her – the book jacket copy makes mention of this – but this book stands perfectly on its own. This is a microcosm of women who, for a while, create their own world, with the Dutch husband at the center (because he has to be), with everyone taking a role, finding something of peace for a space. Nothing sentimental about this accident. They simply find a moment in which they can breathe before more disaster overtakes them again, the death of the Dutchman, the illness of his wife. Somewhere in all that the book begins, but its weaving back in time makes the journey rich with small repetitions, repeated moments, events viewed through different eyes. It cannot end happily. We feel this as a decision of the author. That is the only artificial tone I found. But the hard world consumes them, and that’s right, one understands it; this was that kind of era. This is a magical book and I am grateful to have encountered it.
It’s difficult to discuss this book, given that I was so enthralled by Invisible Man. I had heard that Ellison struggled for many years with a second novel and bought this some years back when it was published, but then heard that it was very uneven in quality and so it languished in my reading pile for a long time. I am glad that I did finally read it but wonder how Ellison would feel about its publication. He could certainly have allowed its release in his lifetime if he wished. But he didn’t. The book has episodes that make the reading worthwhile – the birth of Bliss, the Juneteenth episode, the Sister Georgia chapter. In terms of its parts this is very fine work. But there is a static quality to the whole, brought about by its design as a discourse between Hickman and Bliss/Sunraider. Whatever energy the narrative gathers is nullified by the static moment of the present, when Hickman watches over the Senator in the hospital, and when they talk about the past, about history, about all the ideas that concern them. It is easy to assert that Ellison never brought this fragment of his second novel into clarity – easy because that is what decades of gossip about him have said – but there is something missing in this book. Or perhaps there was something so transcendent and present about Invisible Man that one can’t help wishing this second book was more like that first one.
Apple: Skin to the Core by Eric Gansworth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
To call this book heartbreaking is in some ways to miss the point of it, for this is the story of a family that endured in spite of utter poverty and misery of a kind that is unjust and inexcusable. Eric Gansworth grew up as an enrolled member of the Onondaga people who grew up in the Tuscarora Nation in New York, an outsider who did not quite fit even among the other people of his country. The memoir is unlike other memoirs I have read, written in a verse that is free and approachable, a beautiful achievement of the language in which it is the moment that is distilled more so than the writing, which breathes with freedom and rings with clarity. What I mean by this is that the poetry in which the story is told is readable quickly, though it has its depths, and the result is something between a standard narrative of sentences and the beauty of rhythmic verse. He writes narrative verse with grace and acuity. The story itself is achingly clear, beginning in his early years and marching forward in beautiful moments to his adulthood. He tells the story of the birth of the Gansworth name, the struggle to keep the old family house from collapsing, the fight for warmth and food. The promise and loss of an electric blanket. The need to be Batman. There are so many deeply felt episodes in this book, and each of them holds a fine, clear light. I have rarely read anything so moving, and have never a read a book like this one, which is singular in form and execution. He is a remarkable writer and this is one of the best books I’ve read in a while.
There are only a few days in life, speaking relatively, when one places a book for publication, no matter how prolific one might be. Also there are the long winters to consider. There is a December in which one’s whole family succumbs to the pandemic after having avoided it for a long series of severe months. And there is age, retirement, which, if one is honest, was easy to underestimate, especially in a year in which the world was reeling from sickness, change, realization of past sins and disasters, and one’s own life, one’s own head space, felt unimportant unless it was contemplating the great problems of all mankind. This is all sounding very British. It was a hard year in life, in other words, and a long time since I had felt like a writer, other than through sheer force of will. The daily act of setting words in a line, line after line. This is necessary, of course, because there are periods when a person must persevere through force of will alone. But, being older now, and no longer having the fact of teaching to give my life a shape and to reinforce my idea of myself as a writer, which was one of the purposes teaching served. There is no finish to that sentence that feels necessary. Being older now, that’s the point. Other factors that I won’t go into except to say that publishers are fickle by their nature and publishing undergoes one revolution after another and this was a year when anyone could smell the fear in publishing at large. A lot of good things happened. Some better justice was understood. The fact of racism came to the fore in ways that, let’s face it, were entirely foreseeable and right and everything shook itself into new alignments and such. At times of revolution it is reasonable to fear you might the be one who falls by the wayside. (And those other factors now that I won’t go into, but be mindful, there are those.) The books you have written, the sweat and blood of it, hearing that they are not the thing anymore, that they are out of another era, that time has passed you by. Then dawns that morning. That it comes so close to Christmas is the best gift. Answered prayer. Someone rings, you hear the sound of it and know you ought to answer, and there is that dear voice of your agent that has given you bad news often enough these past years. But this time there is the sweetness of yes. The new editor has loved what I did. I have survived to publish another book. Never mind about the details right now. All that despair of old age and irrelevance flows out of the head. This book that I have loved for such a long time will be a physical thing. The winter suddenly becomes more friendly. After all, my family has faced the pandemic and survived, and there’s Christmas almost here. I am still working. So the doubt can step away from me for a while. And I publish a book again.
She tore open the plastic pouch with the long cotton swab and said, when they did this to me they had to hold me down, let me tell you, I mean they were two people holding down my hands, I said lord help me, I don’t want that. But you’re going to be brave, I know. So I decided I was going to. She waved the swab around a little and said, Oh, me, I hate to do this to people, knowing how it feels. You know what’s going to happen, don’t you? And I said I did. Watching the swab. My mother was there, not to hold my hand but because we were both getting the test at the same time. So which one of you wants to go first? I wanted to volunteer but Mother said she would go. To show me how easy it was, she said. Though later she told me she did not want to watch me get that stick shoved into my nostrils and then have to go through it herself. So the nurse did the test on my mother. I refused to watch. She said to Mother, you’re doing good. Not like me, I’m telling you what. I couldn’t stand it. Burns, don’t it? But it won’t be like that for long. And now, she said, it’s your turn, and looked at me, and opened another pack. You want your mama to hold your hand? Well, she can’t, even if you do. Because she might have the Covid and same with you. Tilt your head back, now. All right here we go. And the long stick just went deeper and deeper and she wrung it around with a good deal of enthusiasm, and my body felt the surprise. Nerves that had never been called on to respond to that kind of touch. Then she pulled it out and put it into my other nostril and I breathed out the way I had been told to do and she said, Look how good you are sitting still like this. They had to hold me down. I told you that, didn’t I? But she was smiling. Then it was done. Mother and I picked up our paperwork and walked out to the car. A poor lady was sitting in the middle of the parking lot crying, propped up by two health care workers at her back, two children crying in front of her, all of them waiting for an ambulance to help them lift her back into her wheelchair and take her inside. It had the look of a scene that ought to be private, but there we were in a parking lot. Mother and I hurried into the car and tried to get out of the way of the emergency medical technicians. We went home. My test was positive. Naturally.
A Tale of Flowering Fortunes: Annals of Japanese Aristocratic Life in the Heian Period by William H. McCullough
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I read about this book when trying to learn more about The Tale of Genji and again when reading books about Japanese history. The descriptions of the tale, its importance as an evolution in history, and the description of its idiosyncrasies, were intriguing enough that I found a copy and read it. At first I thought I had made a mistake; it is a manuscript that’s mostly of interest to scholars and to serious students of the period and of early Japanese writing. But the fact that it was written by a woman, a courtier, and a contemporary of Murasaki Shikibu made it more interesting and the reading of it was pleasurable. (The authorship is a subject of much discussion, of course; but the manuscript itself presents a first person point of view of a contemporary of the Fujiwara constellation of families and connections.) As a companion to Genji, it is illuminating, being a blend of the luxurious, stately activities described in the novel and the history of the Fujiwara family’s dominance over the offices of emperor and empress. I am familiar enough with the period that I could see behind the action to the power politics that are submerged in the writing, the infighting between the branches of the family, and the all-important series of marriages, births, and liaisons that made up life in the capital. Nevertheless it was disconcerting to read in the footnotes the various places where the author made up incidents and cited incorrect dates. In one passage she borrowed to the point of plagiarism from Murasaki Shikibu’s diary. The notes within the body of the text and appended to the volumes are the richest part of the reading, full of detail about the imperial calendar and the elaborate ceremonies that drove its life.
Katori Hall Plays One: Hoodoo Love; Hurt Village; The Mountaintop; Saturday Night/Sunday Morning by Katori Hall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Katori Hall’s plays are marked by such fierce honesty and incandescent writing that they stand head and shoulders above most other plays that I have read, and her voice is among the truest of any I have encountered. The Mountaintop is a study of the last evening of Martin Luther King’s life, a metaphysical journey into his final hours, a flight of fantasy that captures the reality of the moment moreso than could any literal rendering of events. The closing pages of the play take such risks and reap intense rewards. Hoodoo Love, her first play, is an enviable debut that points toward the appearance of a special writer, nothing ordinary about her. But Hurt Village is the most spectacular of the pieces, a study of a poor community in Memphis in which every day is a battle to the death among the residents, who are desperate in all their circumstances. The characters are hard to bear and the play terrified my students when I assigned it for their reading. Hall is better known now as the author of Pussy Valley, but these early plays are a clear indicator that there is no part of human life she cannot face head on.