In addition to the groups of books I highlighted on Tuesday, I wanted to honor the nine individual books that I read in 2017.
These were books that left an impression on me because of their insights and artistry, and I would gladly recommend them to anyone.
The listing of each book contains a somewhat meat excerpt from my review. If you’d like the full review, just click on the title.
Fifty years ago, William Walker, a veteran muralist, proposed to a group of other black artists and photographers that they collaborate to produce a mural on the side of a two-story tavern in the impoverished South Side neighborhood of Grand Crossing.
After three weeks of labor at the building on the southeast corner of 43rd Street and Langley Avenue, the 20-foot-by-60-foot work of art, featuring dozens of African-American heroes, was completed on August 24, 1967. It was called the Wall of Respect, and it was dedicated several times over the next weeks.
Sometime later, Walker came to the wall and saw a young man sitting on the sidewalk with his back resting on the art work. “How are you doing, brother?” Walker asked.
“I’m getting my strength,” the man said.
This story is told twice in The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago, edited by Abdul Alkalimat, Romi Crawford, and Rebecca Zorach, and it provides an insight into what the outdoor mural, created with direct community input, meant to African-Americans in the neighborhood, in Chicago and across the nation.
The work of art, the first of its kind, sparked a community mural movement that resulted in the creation of hundreds of wall paintings in the U.S. within five years and has mushroomed over the decades to include neighborhoods of all sorts in cities large and small.
The Wall of Respect, beautifully designed and abundantly illustrated, is a book long overdue for an often overlooked milestone in American art and culture.
Rebecca Solnit’s 2005 A Field Guide to Getting Lost is a celebration of much that is disdained and feared by mainstream American society:
Does that list give you nightmares? Then, A Field Guide to Getting Lost is not for you.
Solnit looks deeply into how various people and peoples have faced all of these seemingly negative aspects of existence and how she has faced them in her own history. And she finds in them the deepest life. The deep place where life is richest, fullest.
It has to do with a recognition that, first, none of these is avoidable, and that, second, each is the yin to a yang of some seemingly positive aspect of human existence. For instance, you can’t have heartbreak without having had love. You die because you’ve been alive. Darkness is part of the texture of light.
Her third recognition is that these aren’t negative at all.
Fast Falls the Night, the sixth of Julia Keller’s series of novels set in fictional Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, is, like the others, a mystery. Its puzzle is solved in a sharp and scary twist in its final three pages. In fact, there are several abrupt and unsettling turns in the last chapter or so.
But, as with the other books, the plot here is secondary to larger concerns that Keller has — questions of hope and despair, and of right and wrong.
Consider this scene early in the book. Shirley Dolan has come to an unfamiliar minister to talk about two secrets she is holding close to her heart. When she tries to light a cigarette in the careworn study, the pastor tells her that smoking isn’t permitted.
The pack went back into her purse. She dropped the purse on the floor, using her heel to wedge it under her chair. To keep it out of the way. Out of her reach. So that she didn’t forget and go for a cigarette all over again. It had been that kind of day. That kind of week. The kind when you forget things. Screw up. Repeat mistakes.
Hell. It had been that kind of life….
She was fifty-five-years-old. She had a bony butt and a pleated face and stringy yellow-gray hair that fled down her back. She was, in other words, as old and used-up as the décor in this office.
Notice how closely observed this is — how Shirley’s foot nudges the purse under the chair — and how closely felt it is, too. Keller lets Shirley’s inner monologue tell the story of a day….a week…a life of screw-ups and mistakes.
It’s an honest take-no-prisoners self-appraisal: Shirley knows — and accepts — that she has “a bony butt” and “a pleated face” and is “old and used up.” She doesn’t particularly like who she has become, but she doesn’t run from that woman. She doesn’t pretend. Face to face with these and other hard facts, Shirley doesn’t despair.
Like Shirley, Fast Falls the Night stands face to face with hard facts, but doesn’t despair.
Nikolai Metutsov was an important guy in the Kremlin. He was an aide to Party Secretary Yuri Adropov (who later ruled the Soviet Union as General Secretary), and he was responsible for overseeing relations with non-European socialist nations.
In early 1964, Metutsov was in Cuba to figure out just whose side Ernesto “Che” Guevara was on. At the time, there was a savage tug-of-war between the Soviets and the Chinese over who would have priority in international Communism. Metutsov’s job was to get Che, one of the three top Cuban leaders, to toe Moscow’s line. The problem, though, as the Russian explained decades later to Jon Lee Anderson, was that he was “falling in love” with Che.
Make no mistake, this was no gay flirtation. Metutsov was falling in love with the man who was seen by Socialists around the world, including those in the Soviet Union, as the perfect image, the personification, of a revolutionary.
“He had very beautiful eyes. Magnificent eyes, so deep, so generous, so honest, a stare that was so honest that somehow, one could not help but feel it…and he spoke very well; he became inwardly excited, and his speech was like that, with all this impetus, as if the words were squeezing you.”
Heading back to Moscow, Metutsov knew that, as he put it, Che was tainted by Maoism and Trotskyism. But, as he later explained:
“I had the impression that he knew that his portrait already hung on history’s walls, the history of the national liberation movement.”
For twenty-one days in 1959, John Howard Griffin, a white journalist and novelist from Texas, moved through the Deep South as black man.
Under a doctor’s care, he took drugs to darken his skin, he laid under a sun lamp and he used dye on the most visible parts of his body: his face, arms and legs.
From November 8 through November 28, he spent his days and nights as a black man in Louisiana (New Orleans), Mississippi (Hattiesburg and Biloxi), Alabama (Mobile and Montgomery) and Georgia (Atlanta).
Then, for 16 days, he moved back and forth between the black and white worlds, finding ways to tinker with his coloring so that he could pass for white or pass for black as he needed. On December 14, a little more than five weeks after he’d started, he resumed his white identity a final time.
I felt strangely sad to leave the world of the Negro after having shared it so long — almost as though I were fleeing my share of his pain and heartache.
Griffin started his experiment in New Orleans, and, initially, he thought that the city’s whites were nicer to blacks than he’d expected. That feeling, however, didn’t last long.
After a week of wearying rejection, the newness had worn off. My first, vague favorable impression that it was not as bad as I had thought it would be came from courtesies of the whites toward the Negro in New Orleans. But this was superficial. All the courtesies in the world do not cover up the one vital and massive discourtesy — that the Negro is treated not even as a second-class citizen, but as a tenth-class one.
His day-to-day living is a reminder of his inferior status. He does not become calloused to these things — the polite rebuffs when he seeks better employment; hearing himself referred to as a nigger, coon, jigaboo; having to bypass available rest-room facilities or eating facilities to find one specified for him. I do not speak here only from my personal reaction, but from seeing it happen in others, and from seeing their reactions.
In May, 1864, during the Battle of the Wilderness, when Ulysses S. Grant was new in command of the Northern troops facing the Rebels of Robert E. Lee, an irate General Charles Griffin stormed into Union headquarters. Griffin complained loudly that he’d pushed back the Confederates but, getting no support, had had to retreat. Condemning by name several officers including his immediate superior, he then stomped away again.
Grant, sitting nearby, whittling and smoking, growled to General George Meade, his top aide, “Who is this Gen. Gregg? You ought to arrest him.”
Meade came over, and, noticing that Grant’s uniform coat was unbuttoned, began buttoning it up “as if he were a little boy,” an aide remembered, while also saying calmly, “It’s Griffin, not Gregg, and it’s only his way of talking.”
There is something so homey and so human about this scene which says so much about Grant and Meade and their close working relationship, focused entirely on beating the Rebels. Meade, the victor at Gettysburg, was the commander of the Army of the Potomac, and he could have sulked and moaned when, just a short time earlier, he’d been superseded by Grant. Instead, for the good of the war effort, he’d set aside his personal feelings. Grant, meanwhile, gave his full attention to winning the war, even to the point of leaving his uniform a bit disheveled and even to the point of letting Meade treat him like, well, a little brother.
When Stephen W. Sears relates this scene in Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac, it is particularly refreshing. For hundreds of pages up to this point, his story of the top leaders of the main Union army, charged with protecting Washington, D.C., and prosecuting the war against the main Rebel forces, has been about arrogance, ineptitude, ambition, favoritism, pomposity, politicking, moral cowardice and flirtations with treason.
Much of this stink arises out of that tin general, the “Little Napoleon,” George B. McClellan, a man for whom the word “blowhard” was invented, and his coterie of toadies.
In a diary he’s been keeping, a 40-year-old husband and father of three writes about winning $10,000 with a lottery ticket, and, since he expects these jottings to be read years and years down the line, he adds:
Note to future generations: Happiness is possible. And when happy, so much better than opposite, i.e., sad. Hopefully you know! I knew, but forgot. Got used to being slightly sad! Slightly sad, due to stress, due to worry vis-à-vis limitations. But now, wow, no: happy!”
This paragraph comes almost exactly halfway through George Saunders’ 2013 collection of ten short stories Tenth of December.
And, by this point, the reader knows that happiness is all but impossible in the universe that Saunders describes — a universe of chain-stores with names such as YourItalianKitchen, of jobs so boring and meaningless they’re filled with dread and difficult to stomach, of good being equated with affluence, of economic winners living plastic lives, of everyone else scrambling to avoid falling further and further behind, of near-constant daydreaming about something happy that might happen if fingers are kept crossed.
A universe in which female refugees from the Third World, known as SGs, are hooked up, brain to brain, through a microline and installed, hung on some structure, in ornamental arrangements AS LAWN DECORATIONS!
I’m sorry. I shouldn’t shout like that.
But, in these ten stories, Saunders has extrapolated much about the present “slightly sad” American culture into the very near future, and it’s downright horrific in its bland inhumanity. Not just to these SGs — that’s short for “Semplica girls,” Semplica being the name of the scientist who developed the technology — but every character in this collection is degraded by the society and the culture and his or her own blindnesses.
This is a book about people caught in a profound and insidious spiritual cancer and unwilling to face the aridness of their lives, the emptiness, the bile of their existence.
The Ninth Hour is a jagged, unsettling novel which tells the stories of two families as far back as the Civil War and as far forward as the present day, all in 247 pages.
McDermott keeps the reader off balance. In the action of the novel, Jim, the suicide, and Sister St. Saviour turn out to be minor characters. There is no central figure, but large roles are played by Sally and Annie and several nuns who are Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor of the Congregation of Mary Before the Cross — Sister Lucy, Sister Illuminata and Sister Jeanne.
There are also the unnamed children of Sally, middle-aged and older, who form what might be called a Greek chorus narrating the novel. They don’t let themselves appear very often on the pages of “The Ninth Hour,” just here and there, such as “Sister Jeanne told us…” and “our young grandfather,” Jim, and “our mother [who] had once more taken to her shaded room to sleep off what [the sisters] called her melancholy,” Sally.
Adultery and murder are committed in “The Ninth Hour,” but the most disconcerting aspect of this disconcerting novel is the presence of the nuns, chaste women devoting their lives to the poor. Sally’s future mother-in-law “loved the nuns — adored them, she said — but she also harbored in her heart the belief that any woman who chose to spend a celibate life toiling for strangers was, by necessity, ‘a little peculiar.’ ”
It’s been thirty-one years since Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale, and it has continued to resonate. In 1990, the novel was adapted into a movie of the same name with a screenplay by Harold Pinter and starring Natasha Richardson as Offred. In 2000, an opera, composed by the Danish composer Poul Ruders with a libretto by Paul Bentley, based on Atwood’s book and using the same name, premiered in Copenhagen. An ongoing television series called The Handmaid’s Tale began streaming on Hulu in April, 2017. To date, six episodes have aired, and the series has been renewed for a second season.
The Handmaid’s Tale is more than a science-fiction/speculative novel, and its purposes are more than literary. It is Atwood’s call to arms to women — and like-thinking men — to fight against the erosion of rights that can happen in an American society in which women remain underpaid and less powerful than men.
Amid the relentlessly depressing details of the life of Offred and the other people in her world, there is a glimpse of what used to be. It is the saddest moment in the book.
Offred gets to see a Vogue magazine from the 1970s, and the photos of the models are a jagged, ragged, sharp contrast to the world as she now knows it.
There they were again, the images of my childhood: bold, striding, confident, their arms flung out as if to claim space, their legs apart, feet planted firmly on the earth. There was something Renaissance about the pose, but it was princes I thought of, not coiffed and ringleted maidens.
Those candid eyes, shadowed with make-up, yes, but like the eyes of cats, fixed for the pounce. No quailing, no clinging there, not in those capes and rough tweeds, those boots that came up to the knee. Pirates, these women, with their ladylike briefcases for the loot and their horsey acquisitive teeth.
It was a world she had lost. A world she never thought could be lost.
Patrick T. Reardon