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E is for Ellison

Inspired by Stuck in a Book, I am continuing this occasional series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The latest is Ralph Ellison.

How many books do I have by Ellison?
Two: his masterpiece, the novel Invisible Man, and his essay collection Shadow and Act. I also once owned his second, posthumously-published but nowhere-near-completed novel, Juneteenth, but found it so unsatisfying that I got rid of it.

How many of these have I read?
Of the Ellison that I currently own, I've only read Invisible Man. I've also read Juneteenth (see above) and his story collection Flying Home and Other Stories (checked out from the library). I bought Shadow and Act only recently, and will read it by the end of this year.

How did I start reading Ellison?
I think I first read Ellison's short story "The King of the Bingo Game" in a literature class during college. Or maybe I didn't read it in that class, but it was in the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction that was the textbook for the class, and I read the story sometime afterward. It's a truly great story that I re-read recently. I might even record a reading of it for the blog. Fortunately, that story eventually lead me to Invisible Man.

General impressions...
Invisible Man is simply brilliant, and one of the greatest works of American literature. Besides the impeccable prose, vivid scenes (oh, the Battle Royale! the Golden Day!), exciting plot and deep philosophical ideas, the novel gains much of its power from its timeless relevance. Although Ellison writes about the 1940s, its events could still happen today; in fact, the narrator's eulogy for Brother Tod Clifton could have easily been used this year to honor George Floyd or Jacob Blake. I've read the book five or six times since acquiring it during the late 1980s; it's a long, densely-written book that demands a slow, careful reading. But the brilliance of Invisible Man made Juneteenth utterly disappointing for me. Ellison spent something like forty years writing and re-writing the latter, and obviously never quite got it the way he wanted it. The thousand-plus page manuscript he left behind at his death must have been an unruly mess (the unedited manuscript has also been published, as Three Days Before the Shooting), which his literary executor had only minimal success at stitching together into an only occasionally coherent novel.

If you've never read Ellison, you should start with...
Invisible Man. Obviously.

If I had to get rid of one Ellison book, it would be...
Actually, I already did - Juneteenth.

Other "E" candidates:
Andrew Ervin, Jeffrey Eugenides.

September 28, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Terrified as the mindless are terrified.”

A previously unknown interview of James Baldwin, in which he relates a Black voter registration drive in Selma, Alabama, in 1963.

They sounded like parrots. It was the only phrase they ever used: “Move along—you’re blocking the sidewalk.” And also, I must say, when I finally looked into their faces, they were terrified. With their guns and their helmets. And terrified in a very strange way. Terrified as the mindless are terrified. Because the only way they could react to any pressure was a rock or bullet or gun. They don’t have any other defenses at all! This is the police force the Southern oligarchy has used and created to protect their interests.

Terrified, because the officers, and the white establishment of the American South, knew their position was illegitimate and could not be morally defended.

September 27, 2020 in Books, Current Affairs, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

D is for Dybek

Inspired by Stuck In a Book, I am continuing this occasional series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The latest is Stuart Dybek.

How many books do I have by Dybek?
Four, all of them short story collections: The Coast of Chicago, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, I Sailed with Magellan, and Paper Lantern: Love Stories. 

How many of these have I read?
All of them. The only Dybek books I haven't read (none of which I own) are the story collection Ecstatic Cahoots, and the poetry collections Streets in Their Own Ink and Brass Knuckles.

How did I start reading Dybek?
Being a Chicagoan, I've always heard a lot of praise for Dybek, starting back in the 1990s. I was browsing the shelves at a Barbara's Bookstore somewhere in the city during the early 1990s and came across The Coast of Chicago, bought it, and was grabbed right away by "Mozart in Winter", a sadly beautiful story about the brief bond that develops between a young boy and his emotionally distant grandfather as they listen together to a neighbor in the next apartment who is practicing Mozart sonatas on the piano.

General impressions...
Dybek's stories are wistful and warm-hearted, even as he's describing the gritty Southwest Side neighborhood where he grew up. I was lucky enough to meet Dybek at a talk he did last year at the Cliff Dwellers Club with historian Dominic Pacyga, on the subject of Polish Chicago. I brought my hardcover copy of The Coast of Chicago for him to sign, and only just beforehand discovered that it was a first edition - so now, without intentionally setting out to do so, I now own a signed first edition of Dybek's best book. And as much as I love Dybek's stories, I wish he'd try his hand at a novel. When I first read I Sailed with Magellan, I remember thinking that I'd love to read an entire novel built around Lefty, the trumpet-playing uncle of Dybek's fictional alter ego, Perry Katzek. I don't think I mentioned this to Dybek when I met him; I actually hope I didn't. Too many short story writers, even great ones like Dybek, already have to endure the "So, when are you going to write a novel?" question, without me piling on.

If you've never read Dybek, you should start with...
The Coast of Chicago, and "Mozart in Winter" in particular.

If I had to get rid of one Dybek book, it would be...
I don't really want to get rid of any of them, but if pressed, I guess I would let Childhood and Other Neighborhoods go. Though I enjoyed the book, I really don't remember much about it. The Coast of Chicago and I Sailed With Magellan are very vivid in my mind, and just seem more essential to me.

Other "D" candidates:
Roald Dahl, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle.

September 15, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Summer of Classics...and beyond...

This year's Summer of Classics - classic Black American literature, mostly fiction - has morphed into a most-of-the-year project.

I didn't really have a plan for this summer's reading, but after George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis in May, I was drawn to Richard Wright's Eight Men: Short Stories, which I've had on my shelf for several years without ever getting around to it. Part of my hesitation was due to my second reading of Native Son, which had left me pretty underwhelmed. Ultimately, I found Eight Men to be an uneven collection (both gems and duds), but it turned out to be the inspiration for my summer - and beyond - of reading.

Next it was re-readings of James Baldwin's debut novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain, and Wright's book-length essay 12 Million Black Voices. Both good reads, though admittedly a stopgap to hold me over until a shipment of new books could arrive from Open Books: Passing by Nella Larsen, If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, and The Wedding by Dorothy West. Quick thoughts on each:

Passing: Seemed like more of a sociological study than fiction. Interesting ideas, but I don't think it worked as a novel.

If He Hollers Let Him Go: A thrilling, visceral story of a young Black defense industry worker in Los Angeles during World War II. Kind of noir, kind of proletarian fiction. Himes went on to become a successful crime novelist, and you can definitely see elements of that genre in this, his debut novel.

A Raisin in the Sun: A brilliant depiction of working-class Black family life, with all of its (not quite soaring) dreams and bitter realities. Probably the first important stage play written by a Black author.

The Wedding: Dorothy West was the last survivor of the Harlem Renaissance, but despite living to the advanced age of 91, she published only two novels: The Living Is Easy (1948) and The Wedding (1995). I opted for the latter, since the description suggested it was a tighter narrative than the former, but even at that, I found the book to be a multi-generational family sprawl that was almost all backstory. Trouble is, although that backstory could have been a great buildup to the current-day climax, the conclusion was a real letdown (plot spoiler: the wedding promised by the title was never actually depicted!) and included an eye-rolling scene of melodramatic tragedy.

All four books were relatively short, and after I had finished them it was still mid-August, so I gladly dove back into Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, for the fifth or sixth time. (I first read it during my early twenties; the inside cover of my copy has the stamp of the long-defunct The Book Rack, in Fox River Grove.) I'm thoroughly enjoying the book all over again, though I must sheepishly admit that I had forgotten many of the scenes, and I honestly don't remember how it all ends - which I guess might be like reading it for the first time, all over again.

But Invisible Man is both long and densely-written, and the reading hasn't gone briskly, so now I'm well into September with another week or two needed to finish the book. So I'm going to extend my summer through the end of the year, and read nothing but Black literature for the rest of 2020. I already have another Open Books purchase lined up, with novels by Sam Selvon (The Lonely Londoners), Caryl Phillips (Across the River) and Teju Cole (Every Day Is For the Thief) plus, once again, Ralph Ellison (the essay collection Shadow and Act). Maybe work some Zora Neale Hurston in there, too. I definitely haven’t read enough of her. 

September 10, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)