James Baldwin, “Go Tell It On The Mountain”

Having only read If Beale Street Could Talk, I’ve been eager to get to more of Baldwin’s work for a long time, and was excited to pull Go Tell It On The Mountain off the shelf. And while I have to admit that while I found Beale Street a bit more riveting of a narrative, the thematic complexity of Go Tell It On The Mountain is unmatched.

One could spend hours and hours unpacking the racial, gendered, and religious power dynamics that play out between characters in this novel – it’s the kind of book that makes you want a class or a reading group to discuss it with, the kind that prompts me to look up podcasts and articles that analyze it.

And the fact that this is a semi-autobiographical novel makes it even more troubling, painful, and powerful. The fact that it was Baldwin’s first novel makes it even more impressive.

Finally, I want to mention that although, as I’ve mentioned earlier, this wasn’t quite as spell-binding as Beale Street (I found it a little slow at times), I also want to mention that this narrative develops in a way that is really unexpected and yet, realistic. With Go Tell It On The Mountain, Baldwin once again uses his craft to offer an insightful perspective of race, religion, gender, sexuality, and class in America.

Get the book through a local or independent publisher, HERE.

The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

I’ve known the name Holden Caulfield – known him to be the protagonist and unreliable narrative of The Catcher in the Ryefor years and years. It’s one of the books that my professors in college would reference without hesitance, sure that everyone had read at some point.

Only somehow, I hadn’t. Until now (and I’ll add here that my husband was so shocked I hadn’t read this classic that he went out and got it for me).

Within the first few pages, I realized how many assumptions I had already formed about this book. And in fact, the ways that the novel actually ruptures those assumptions is precisely what made it so interesting to me. (and boy, was it interesting). So, for this book review, I wanted to call out my own assumptions and the ways that J.D Salinger ruptures them.

First, I knew Holden Caulfield to be considered an “unreliable narrator” but I never guessed that he would be so aware his own capricious nature. But in fact, he’s very self-aware. He says himself that he’s a liar, and that his mood can change suddenly. But because he himself acknowledges his inability control these changes, the reader finds themselves sympathizing with Holden, rather than blaming or resenting him.

Second, I expected a story about a young man, but what Holden Caulfield really offers us is the story of a generation. The truth is, not a whole lot happens in the plot of this narrative. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say that it’s not always clear what Holden is looking for, what he needs, or what he wants. But I think that’s the point: he doesn’t know, and perhaps many of his generation didn’t know. Amidst the abundance that characterized America post WW2, Holden’s outlook and mindset seems to directly challenge the notions of the American dream as perpetuated by Hollywood and the general society.

Finally, I expected this “great American classic” to employ the formal, dated language that we (too often) associate with classics. But there is none of that here. In fact, I would argue that Salinger breaks every “rule” we’ve ever been taught in our English classes about what makes “good writing.” Holden’s language is extremely repetitive, often crass or low-brow, and sometimes downright ridiculous. And yet, that same language feels authentic and familiar in a way that (it seems) a piece of “classic literature” rarely is. I can only imagine that, especially for young readers, this would be incredibly illuminating in terms of what “good writing” is, and what a “good story” embodies.

Through Holden’s story and voice, Salinger showed readers that, in fact, the American novel didn’t have to look or sound like anything we’d seen before. And maybe, just maybe, it could even look and sound like us.

The Memorable Mrs. Dalloway

I’ve been meaning to read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway for ages, and I seem to recall starting several times before putting it down a few pages in. So I was very surprised to see my handwriting in the margins throughout my copy of the book. Apparently, I had read it cover to cover, and apparently, it was all over my head in those days – judging from the notes themselves (high school me wrote down a lot of “huh?” and “umm?”), and also from the fact that I didn’t remember much about the book at all.

So as I went through this time, I had two questions in mind. First, was this book really, in fact, as memorable as a “classic” is supposed to be? And (secondly) if so, why didn’t I remember it?

And I definitely got both answers.

What this book as memorable as a “classic” is supposed to be? Yes. A resounding yes. In particular, I thought it was memorable for two main reasons. First, this book is amazing because it was clearly so ahead of its time in it’s depiction of certain subject matter, like the disturbing depiction of PTSD and negligent practices used to treat it, or the dynamics of class relations in a post-WWI society.

Secondly, I’ll never forget the fresh, modernist style employed in Woolf’s writing. I’ve heard her compared to James Joyce for her use of stream-of-consciousness, but I think that Woolf doesn’t go quite as far as Joyce, and for me it was easier to follow. Mrs. Dalloway, specifically, has a cinematic quality that I haven’t encountered in a novel before (one minute, you’re behind the camera, following a character through the park, then you pass another character on the sidewalk and turn the camera to follow them… until gradually you have an idea of all the characters, all the critical places, the ways their lives intersect). And Woolf’s fantastic style leads me to my second question.

So then, why didn’t I remember it? Well, quite simply, this is not an easy read. It was over my teenage reading level (if its being compared to Joyce, you know it’s not a piece of cake to read). Following this narrative takes a lot more focus and effort than most contemporary best-sellers, and even more than other classics written in the same era. But also, as I mentioned before, Woolf takes on some very heavy and complex themes in this book (e.g. PTSD, class, love, death, time, etc.) and she does it with extreme subtly – there are no grandiose speeches that clarify character perspectives, there are no overt demonstrations of character transformation. The reader has to read closely to pick up on these themes and Woolf’s messages related to each.

All in all, this is a lovely piece of literature and it’s no wonder to me now why it is considered by so many to be an essential work within the Western literary cannon. The last thing I’ll say is that I was inspired to read this book after learning of the A.A. Knopf publishing house’s #howhaveinotreadthis book club. In February, Mrs. Dalloway was their book club pick, and the month’s book club host was Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours (my next read!), and you can still find the book club discussion on youtube!

Buy the books (Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours).
#HowHaveINotReadThis Book Club discussion of Mrs. Dalloway.

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