Wade in the Water, by Tracy K. Smith

Review:

Wade in the Water - Tracy K. Smith

U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water is her most recent collection and the first I’ve read. I think it makes an excellent introduction to her work and wouldn’t be a bad place to start if you’re new to contemporary poetry. She does not intimidate, nor does her language obfuscate.

The two middle sections engaged me most. The first mines the Civil War era past and makes use of erasure and historical and primary sources in a way that both gives the suffering of African Americans at the time specificity and voice while absolutely illuminating continued injustices in the present. The second also makes poetry out of found materials to focus on contemporary issues such as the environment and racist violence. However, the poems don’t attack; they feel like they come from a place of hope.

A book I’m sure I’ll come back to soon, after I read her other collections, of course. 🙂

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Wade in the Water, by Tracy K. Smith

Another Country, by James Baldwin

Review:

Another Country - James Baldwin

“So what can we really do for each other except–just love each other and be each other’s witness?”

When I finished Another Country, it brought tears to my eyes. There’s so much suffering exquisitely depicted alongside glimmers of love and beauty, such whole, flawed characters. Like the recently read The Fire Next Time, a nonfiction work by Baldwin, it might have been written today. Again, this is both a compliment to Baldwin’s art and his powers of observation but also a lament that so little has changed, particularly regarding race but also gender and sexuality.

Nothing is easy about this book except its gorgeous, lucid prose. It’s not afraid of the dark things in people, the mistakes we make, and what holds us back. I felt deeply for these characters, but the book doesn’t give in to despair, which, at the end, is what made me cry in relief.

I was surprised to be reminded of Virginia Woolf as I read. There are passages where a character’s inability to express “it” or oneself or story are noted. There’s a suicide. There’s also something about the way both Baldwin and Woolf capture fine states of emotion or the way our feelings and attitude can change so quickly, from seemingly small things. And, when we learn Cass’s real name is Clarissa (her husband is Richard), I knew I wasn’t crazy to make these connections!

The book is a landmark queer text, and Baldwin clearly knows how to write sex, the act itself–between men and women and between two men–and desire. Its queerness affected its reception at the time; I’m sure many would prefer Baldwin stick exclusively to race and racism. The quote above is spoken by Vivaldo to Eric, and it is a beautiful and simple idea even as the story proves it may be impossible to live by.

However, Baldwin does privilege love between men and the homosocial above all. Nearly all the central male characters are queer or explore their sexuality with one another; at the very least, platonic love between them is a source of comfort and hope. This is not the case with the women. Women’s sexuality and power emasculate or cannot be known. There appears to be no escape or solution for women and their pain and oppression, whether white or black. If there is one flaw or problematic issue in this book, in my mind it’s that. The love and act of witnessing in the quote seem to be for men only.

 

 

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Another Country, by James Baldwin

The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin

Review:

The Fire Next Time - James Baldwin

There they (police officers) stood, in twos and threes and fours, in their Cub Scout uniforms and with their Cub Scout faces, totally unprepared, as is the way with American he-men, for anything that could not be settled with a club or a fist or a gun.

Terrible how much this text is still relevant, might have been written today. This would not have surprised Baldwin–he acknowledges more than once that things may never change in America–though I imagine it might have saddened him.

The Fire Next Time contains two separate nonfiction pieces, one a letter to Baldwin’s nephew, the sort of message or discussion African Americans have with their younger family members that white people don’t. The second is an elegant “Letter from a Region in My Mind” that explores the author’s coming to (and leaving) religion as a way to discuss race and racism in America. It is, ostensibly, a solution, though perhaps an impossible one.

I couldn’t possibly capture Baldwin’s argument in a brief synopsis, nor do I want to. His prose is beautiful and crystal clear, unflinching yet humane. He’s my favorite kind of arguer, one who acknowledges from where other points of view are coming while advocating for his own position. It’s been too long since I first read him, and I won’t make that mistake again.

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The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin

Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition, by Paul Watson

Review:

Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition - Paul Watson

This is the first book I’ve read that focuses on the multitude of searches conducted to find the lost Franklin expedition rather than on the expedition itself, though of course early chapters offer context. As a fellow obsessive, it’s worth asking why this lost expedition to find the Northwest Passage has generated so much interest and so many searches over the years. It certainly wasn’t the only lost voyage.

One answer is Franklin’s wife, Jane, whose tenacity and devotion was the force behind many of the search efforts. What I didn’t know, and this book details, is that Lady Franklin was an explorer and adventuress in her own right. She’d have gone on a voyage to the Arctic herself if she hadn’t been prevented. Her efforts extended to seances and mediums, popular at the time in Britain; a few turned out to be uncannily accurate.

However, one of the clearest explanations why it took so long to find the two ships (both recently discovered at the bottom of the Arctic in 2014 and 2016) is that Inuit witnesses were ignored or misunderstood (in fact, Charles Dickens penned an incredibly racist rant once it was revealed via the Inuit that some men of the expedition resorted to cannibalism). Another strength of this book is that it gives these figures and their culture their due. However, I was put off a few times by Watson’s language, which could go heavy on the “magical native” trope (at one point there’s a “mystical glint” in an Inuit’s eye).

I appreciated that in addition to citing those who traveled to the Arctic or gave information on the expedition’s fate, Watson also highlights those whose inventions and pioneering aided in searches. He also unequivocally connects climate change with the discoveries of the ships; ironically, after many lives lost searching for it in the past, a Northwest Passage is now feasible due to the melting of Arctic ice. Canada, Russia, and the United States, along with Britain, were heavily invested in these expeditions and their recovery because a passage would be so lucrative. So…there’s the bright side?

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Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition, by Paul Watson

White Tears, by Hari Kunzru

Review:

White Tears - Hari Kunzru

It was difficult to read the first half or so of this book because the protagonist (Seth) and his best (and only) friend (Carter) are aggravatingly ignorant of their appropriation of black culture. They’re even more offensive for thinking they’re woke or genuine in their fetishistic consumption of the rarest blues, at least in Carter’s case. Seth is less than sympathetic in his own distinct way; he’s such a follower that he barely has a personality of his own. As little as I could bear the privileged Carter, Seth is consequently even harder for me to care about given that he follows Carter like a puppy. I don’t know what to make of the fact that both have or have had mental health issues. And I don’t know what to make of Seth’s thing for Carter’s sister.

I patiently waited for these guys to get some sort of comeuppance. When it came, it was a whirlwind of genres, a mishmash of past and present, a blurring of identities. Formally, stylistically, this novel took off, grabbing me by the collar. It was hard to put down. I hadn’t known what to expect at the beginning, which is a gift for a reader. I do think at times the cues or signals were overdone; we could have been better trusted to follow the shifts in time and perspective. But what a ride.

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White Tears, by Hari Kunzru

The Discreet Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa, trans. Edith Grossman

Review:

The Discreet Hero: A Novel - Mario Vargas Llosa, Edith Grossman

This book put me in a bind: while I found the story and characters engaging, fun, even, there are aspects that offended me. As I read, I would wonder: “Is this attitude or behavior endorsed by the author, or just described by him in depicting this place and these personalities?” By the end, I decided that there are definite ideologies at work here, including the beliefs that when it comes to family, blood is all; that the younger generation is responsible for squandering the hard work of their parents’; and the conservative viewpoint that if one only works hard enough, one can be successful. Other troubling attitudes that are questioned by characters but nevertheless feel condoned by the narrative: blaming victims of rape or sexual coercion; treating women as objects; racism; masculine pride as more important than the lives of loved ones.

After I finished the book, I read several reviews as I tried to work out my opinion of it. These mention that Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature but that this may not be his best work; that he used to be a social progressive but became a conservative who ran for president of Peru; that some characters appear in other books of his; that some elements are based on real events and his own life.

The book is divided between two alternating and converging narratives with separate protagonists, both fitting the “discreet hero” label of the title. The stories take place in two different areas of Peru, one Lima, one provincial, and their plots appear to have no connection. When they link up, it’s very satisfying, even though the connection is quite minor. Each plot has elements of a mystery-thriller that propel the story; I found it hard to put down. The characters are often charming and easy to root for (until they’re not). In story one, a man who worked his way up from nothing and owns a transport company is anonymously threatened unless he pays for protection; he refuses. In story two, a man on the verge of retirement and a long-awaited trip with his wife and son finds his life upheaved when his wealthy boss decides to marry his servant to punish his errant sons; at the same time, the protagonist’s teenaged son is being approached by a mysterious stranger who may or may not be real, the devil, an angel, or just the kid fucking with his parents (this last mystery is left ambiguous).

Other elements I enjoyed included the relationship between the second protagonist and his wife, his feelings about art’s role in life, the police sergeant from the first story, and learning about Peruvian life across two settings.

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The Discreet Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa, trans. Edith Grossman

Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

Review:

Lovecraft Country: A Novel - Matt Ruff

Another book with a fantastic premise and strong start that doesn’t quite live up to its potential. The novel establishes 1954, post-Korean War, Jim Crow America as Lovecraftian horror for its African American characters.

Each chapter/section explores the point of view of a member of the (extended) Turner family and their dealings with some batshit white people who are wizards of a sort. I’ve seen some readers refer to the book as a collection of short stories rather than a novel, but the stories are too closely connected narratively and chronologically. The upside of the structure is that each member of the family has a moment in the spotlight, a chance to illustrate how living in this time as a black person has shaped the extent to which they can pursue their dreams. The downside is that you may prefer some characters’ perspectives than others and feel as if you don’t get to know any one character enough. Though the chapters are connected, the novel can also feel disjointed.

Another plus is the black SF fans in the book whose love of the genre is complicated by its persistent racism (Lovecraft himself wrote racist material). It is a sort of sweet revenge to put these characters in charge and watch them respond to and take control of the very forces being used to make them tools.

(This bit is a tad spoilery, but I’ve kept it as vague as possible). I struggled with one chapter in which the protagonist is able, through magic, to transform physically into a white person. Predictably, she is treated radically different, even in a northern city like Chicago, where much of the novel is set. However, I feel this chapter plays into the notion that all black people secretly want to be white. It also illustrates something we already know: that white people in America are privileged. The white characters are the ones who need to get woke.

Mostly this book made me think about how little has changed in some respects. A few characters in the novel work on something called The Safe Negro Travel Guide whose purpose is to help black people know where safe(r) spaces in the country are while traveling (or conversely, where to steer clear of absolutely). The guide is based on a real thing, The Negro Motorist Green Book. Jim Crow may be over, but as events in the past decades indicate, it is still less safe for a black person to travel or simply be in this country.

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Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff