The best book about Vietnam and its impact on American society. The terrifying thing is that it feels even more immediate now than it did when it was...moreThe best book about Vietnam and its impact on American society. The terrifying thing is that it feels even more immediate now than it did when it was published in 1998. Then, Vea was unsparing in his vision of how the nation's refusal to honestly confront Vietnam was playing out in the lives of veterans and on the streets of our cities (in this case primarily the Bay Area, where Vea works as a defense lawyer specializing in major crimes--the book's worth it simply for protagonist Jesse Passadoble's explanation of why he defends people about whom he's not in the least deluded). Jesse's reflection the fact that America had expected to win in Vietnam without sacrifice that went beyond the troops is even more obvious in relation to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the 1990s, even more in the 2010s, the price of our evasions continues to be paid, consciously by the vets and their loved ones, evasively by the rest of the society is.
Beyond that, Gods Go Begging is simply a great novel. Writing in a style that juxtaposes lyricism with harsh realities Vea weaves together the stories of three hills: the ghetto wasteland of Potrero Hill in SF; a hill near the Laotian border in Vietnam; and a hill in Mexico where the fascinating spiritual drama of the "padre," a chaplain who abandoned his post in Vietnam and then works through his destiny, begins. The center of Vea's aesthetic and moral vision is in the sentence, repeated several times in several languages, "everything turns on jazz." Vea fiercely resists the notion that we're simply stuck with our fate, a theme he plays out around a white supremacist accused of child abuse (itself a central theme); a young black man on trial for murder; the young men in Vietnam--most of them black, Latin, Indian, immigrant, Southern or poor; and Jesse himself.
I've re-read this book more than a half dozen times and I'll continue doing so as long as I have the strength to turn pages.(less)
"Let us think with sentences that contradict one another, speaking out loud in sounds that aren't sounds and colours that aren't colours. Let us affir...more"Let us think with sentences that contradict one another, speaking out loud in sounds that aren't sounds and colours that aren't colours. Let us affirm--and grasp, which would be impossible--that we are conscious of not being conscious, and that we are not what we are. Let us explain all this by way of a hidden, paradoxical meaning that things have in their divine, reverse-side dimension, and let us not believe too much in the explanation so that we won't have to give it up..."
There's nothing quite like The Book of Disquiet, by far my favorite work by Fernando Pessoa, the (highly) idiosyncratic Portuguese modernist, best known for the creation of an array of "heteronyms"--alter egos with highly variable styles and sensibilities to whom he attributed the majority of his poetry. The Book of Disquiet occupies a strange place in this strange canon. While there's a literary persona present--the Lisbon office worker Bernardo Soares--this feels much less like a psycho-aesthetic game than Pessoa's other work. Pessoa said Soares was less a heteronym than an alter ego who resembled him in almost every way. I didn't really bother to think about the distance, reading the book as a sort of Montagne-style autobiography of consciousness. Composed of 481 fragments which Pessoa wrote over a span of more than twenty years and stored in a set of envelopes, the "book" assembled by translator Richard Zenith is (as Zenith takes pains to emphasize) one of an infinite number of ways of putting the fragments together. In a real sense, the order doesn't matter. What we have is a portrait of a mind engaging its own processing of the world. Like Montagne, Pessoa doesn't claim any particular authority or insight; he's interested in the flows and rhythms of consciousness and he writes about them beautifully. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of passages which stuck in my mind: "Were I asked to discuss the social causes responsible for my woul'd condition, I would speechlessly poin to a mirror, a clothes hanger, and a pen." (Which follows a beautiful set of meditations on each.)
There's a temptation to triangulate The Book of Disquiet to give a sense of what it's like. A bit of Beckett, a bit of Wallace Stevens, lots of Montaigne. But the point is that Pessoa is absolutely, uniquely and memorably himself.
I read Just Above My Head the week it came out--I'd just moved to Mississippi and was in a major transition in my life. I've read it often sense, and...moreI read Just Above My Head the week it came out--I'd just moved to Mississippi and was in a major transition in my life. I've read it often sense, and thought of it very often. Re-reading it thirty-five years later in very different geographical, social, political, psychological and political contexts, it remains as powerful as it was the first time. It's nice to see the large number of five star ratings on Goodreads since the critics, both at the time and now, have never given it the recognition it deserves. Much of that's the result of Baldwin's radically *black* and musical and morally uncompromising style. You can't reduce it to a formal masterpiece (as you can with Go Tell It On the Mountain) or a political statement (like some managed to do with The Fire Next Time or Another Country). Just Above My Head demands that we look seriously in our mirrors and at the many disasters visited upon the world with our active or passive acquiescence. I've been teaching it in a mixed Afro-American Studies/English class and the primary response from the (absolutely first-rate) group of students has been "wow, this feels absolutely contemporary." Amen.
One of the half dozen books that have been most important to me over the years, largely because it refuses to let me slip into complacency.
On a more literary level, Just Above My Head is a recapitulation of the central themes of Baldwin's career: the confrontations with the church and the South from Go Tell It On the Mountain; the complications of shame and guilt and freedom embedded in sexuality (in Baldwin's case homosexuality) from Giovanni's room; the musical quest of "Sonny's Blues"; the civil rights politics of "Blues For Mister Charlie"; the shadow of death and sexual violence in Another Country; the burden of fame from Tell Me How Long The Train's Been Gone; the emerging awareness of black women's particular situation in IF Beale Street Could Talk." It's Baldwin looking back at himself, his world, his changing sense of what art can do.(less)
Great great novel. Many of the original reviewers recognized its power but saw it as a falling off from the technical polish of Baldwin's earlier nove...moreGreat great novel. Many of the original reviewers recognized its power but saw it as a falling off from the technical polish of Baldwin's earlier novels, especially Go Tell It On the Mountain. That's a bit like comparing the Coltrane of A Love Supreme with the Coltrane who played with Miles on Kind of Blue. Simply different, though not disconnected. Baldwin's writing for his life in the maelstrom of the Civil Rights Movement, knowing he's moving into a public sphere that wouldn't hesitate to kill him--in the decade of Malcolm and Martin and Bobby Kennedy and for that matter George Wallace--that wasn't a metaphor. Another Country unfolds under the shadow of Rufus Scott, and slams a set of characters--straight, gay, black, white, American, French--up against one another as they explore and evade what it means to love in the belly of the beast.
Not a damn thing has changed on any important level. The fact that this isn't a part of the American canon says more about America than the book.(less)
Additional comment following my 9,234th reading. What struck me this time through, in the wake of Trayvon Martin and Ferguson (and countless other case...moreAdditional comment following my 9,234th reading. What struck me this time through, in the wake of Trayvon Martin and Ferguson (and countless other cases that didn't make the news) is that Baldwin's warning is at least as immediate today as it was just before the Rodney King riots. I can see no reason to believe we're not on the verge of another explosion, the only difference (and in some ways the LA riot wasn't different) being that the bitterness and rage that were centered in the black community in the early 1960s have spread and deepened. And the music still tells more truth than the politicians, academics or newscasters.
Original review, 2013: This is my 9,233rd reading of The Fire Next Time--okay, that may be a slight exaggeration--but it remains one of the absolutely necessary books in my intellectual, ethical, psychological, spiritual and political thinking. Baldwin's writing with a controlled passion that's very rare and every sentence is perfectly crafted. The three part structure follows a subtle Du Boisean dialectic--from white supremacy through the black nationalist antithesis to the stunning synthesis of the final pages, which posit a desperate hope for community that transcends the categories of American life. When I taught it this morning, my freshmen and women made connections with the situations of the homeless and the realities of the school districts they've come out of, at least as segregated give or take token presence and much more cut off for poor students than they were when Baldwin wrote in 1962.
Now, as at almost every moment since I first read it in the late 60s, The Fire Next Time reads like a prophecy of the fate we're bringing down on our heads if we don't learn how to tell the truth and learn to connect.(less)
This was my fourth or fifth reading of Refuge and it remains one of the two dozen or so books that means most to me. It weaves together place--a part...moreThis was my fourth or fifth reading of Refuge and it remains one of the two dozen or so books that means most to me. It weaves together place--a part of the American West different than mine, but recognizable--spirit, science, and s sharp feminist sensibility that's uncompromising but not ideological. (No, Mormon feminism is not an oxymoron, though I'm sure that many Mormons would consider Williams' insistence that the Motherbody is as important as the Godhead heretical.
The core of Refuge is an ecological vision that encompasses nature, family, religion--we need all of the different approaches and angles of vision to apprehend the complexities of experience. No spoiler, but make sure you keep reading to the end, including the "epilog." I'm going to stop chattering and simply say that this is a book everyone should read.(less)
If you want a sense of the intellectual and cultural chaos of the late 1960s, this is as good a place to start as any. Like Leaflets, The Will to Chan...moreIf you want a sense of the intellectual and cultural chaos of the late 1960s, this is as good a place to start as any. Like Leaflets, The Will to Change shows Adrienne Rich in a moment of tumultuous transition, grappling with the cross-currents of the late 1960s, doing her damndest to imagine a new world into being. She'd obviously been watching and was highly influenced by Godard's films and, like Godard, she was committed to breaking her own perception down as close to basics as possible (see "Images for Godard," "Pierrot le Fou," and the long closing poem "Shooting Script.") Issues of sex and gender, while present, are less central than in either Leaflets or her next volume, the feminist classic Diving Into the Wreck. Rather, there's a sense of living in the midst of a sick civilization dominated by money and hypocrisy, one which dehumanizes everyone. She's determined to change, whatever the cost. Within the next few years, the direction of that change would become clearer. (less)
Fierce, honest, and as necessary today as it was in 1968. Paying ironic homage to Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Rich declared artistic, political and psy...moreFierce, honest, and as necessary today as it was in 1968. Paying ironic homage to Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Rich declared artistic, political and psychological independence from the traditions that had shaped her early life and work. Like Godard, Baldwin, Bob Dylan and Gary Snyder, she's determined to see the world clear, to reject the cant and evasions of the moment. You can see Rich moving towards the lesbian-feminist commitments of Diving Into the Wreck in poems like "Orion", but the heart of this book is the sequence of ghazals, a form she adapted from the Urdu poet Ghalib. The form is designed to end-run rational structure and allow meanings to emerge from the juxtaposition of couplets. No one's ever handled it better in English. I hadn't reread the book in a long time--probably since I was writing my book on Rich's early and mid-career--but what struck me most deeply is that the (as yet incomplete) success of feminism and the even more ambiguous success of the movements for racial justice have done nothing to diminish the fundamental fact that human life and awareness are under seige from forces that see people as products, consumers rather than possessors of consciousness and (a word Rich wouldn't use) soul. She's stayed vital, now into her 80s, but nothing she's written means more to me than this book and its immediate successor The Will to Change, which is next up on my lsit. (less)
Still the best book of poetry to come out of the Vietnam War. Komunyakaa takes the experiences of his personae at an angle, crafting images to reflect...moreStill the best book of poetry to come out of the Vietnam War. Komunyakaa takes the experiences of his personae at an angle, crafting images to reflect the various confrontations, deflections, evasions, blues memories that cycle in and out of focus. The collection's structured to move the reader from the middle of the jungle to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the stunning final poem, "Facing It." Each of the voices is so convincing it's tempting to read the collection as autobiographical, but that's true only in the loosest imaginable way. Komunyakaa had written powerful poetry and he's still writing it, but for me Dien Cai Dau remains the high point of a career that's earned him a place in the top rank of American poets, including Whitman, Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost [insert your favorites here].(less)
Funny, strange, and an even more precise mirror of reality, or what passes for it, than it was in 1966. The pop culture references--movies, TV, pop so...moreFunny, strange, and an even more precise mirror of reality, or what passes for it, than it was in 1966. The pop culture references--movies, TV, pop songs, acid--are mid-60s, as is the literary culture obsessed with variant texts and the type of close attention to detail that's pretty much vanished from grad programs in the age of theoretical esoterica. But Pynchon's obsession with the way power controls the routes of communication, and the difficulty of imagining alternative networks that don't seem flat out crazy, resonates powerfully in our time of surveillance. I love his vision of a matrix of loosely connected undergrounds and share his concern that they may be evidence of craziness, paranoia. Chapter 5 could be a rewrite of Lear on the heath, but Oedipa's out there on her own. As always, there are absolutely beautiful passages, esoteric side trips (like the great scene organizes around the notion of entropy and the real/unreal Maxwell's Demon), zany character names that could have influenced R. Crumb, goofy song lyrics, and unforgettable moments like protagonist Oedipa Maas' husband Mucho's vision of all humanity united by repeating the phrase "rich chocolatey goodness"--okay, he's been on acid for weeks, but it was, after all, the Sixties.
The most accessible of Pynchon's early novels and the only one before Inherent Vice I'd recommend by someone who doesn't already share his obsessions. (less)