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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

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