Friday, March 18, 2016

Harper Lee's first/last novel

I just read Go Set a Watchman, the lost/found first/last best/worst novel by Harper Lee, who died last month at 89. I hadn't partaken in the national fever to read it when it was published in July 2015, but last week I came across it in the library and decided to borrow it. Now that I've finished it, I have no huge deep meaningful pronouncements to make...but I guess that's sort of the point, sort of why I bother commenting here at all.

The novel's back story, as I recall from all the publication-date publicity, is that it was actually Lee's first. That when she submitted it, her editor said Watchman's most resonant passages were the flashbacks to Jean Louise's childhood as Scout, and suggested she write a new book telling the Scout story. She took the advice. She wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, won the Pulitzer Prize and many more awards down through the years during which she never wrote (or at least never published) another book, and finally, the year before her death, agreed to let her first work be published. Watchman received mixed reviews. Some found it lacking the artistic finesse of Mockingbird and wished it had been left in a drawer. Others admired Watchman's head-on tackling of the burning issues of 1950s small-town Alabama, that is, the Klan, White Citizens' Councils, the civil-rights struggle. Many were shocked at what had become of their beloved Gregory-Peck-inflected Atticus Finch, here aligning directly with the forces of racist reaction.

Me, I think Go Set a Watchman is purely of a piece with To Kill a Mockingbird. Well written, with a smooth conversational flow, it is a work of utter liberalism. By which I mean this: both are novels focused on the issue of racism yet in which the only Black characters are barely present and definitely not fully dimensional people, novels in which everything is seen through the filter of a white Southern sensibility with same as our hero/protagonist. Novels in which moderation is presented as the finest, best position as opposed to the extremism of both sides--and yes, in Watchman, the virtuous Atticus's view, for one, is that the NAACP is way too radical, equated with, for example, the KKK. Oy vey.

Indeed, in Watchman, Lee has Atticus say truly reprehensible things--bizarre things, really, like his rather benign and wholly inaccurate characterization of the history of the Klan--and she has his daughter, an adult Jean Louise who now lives in New York and is on her annual visit home, grope her way through an agonized disillusionment with him. If Lee had taken this further, if the book had followed through with real, honest grappling with the vital questions, if Jean Louise had actually made the break she threatens, and above all if there were any Black characters directly engaging, it would have accomplished something beyond liberalism. As it is, there are indeed some passages where Jean Louise argues--with her friend, father and uncle--and denounces them, and is horrified with which side they appear to be on. But then. It's all laid to rest in a rather hasty, clunkily constructed, condescending (and violent--her wonderful uncle has to slap her hard, nearly knocking her out, to bring her round to reason, and well he's just torn up about it but it had to be done!) denouement in which she (and the reader) is made to see that all this hullaballoo, all her ranting and raving, was a sort of immature extremism through which she had to wade as a necessary coming of age in order to step ashore on the other side, the other side being a quintessentially liberal coming to terms with the realities of home, the prime reality being the need for a slow sober approach to social change.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Catching up on some good books

In the long lag during which this blog lay dormant, I did of course read lots of books. Some of which I would have written about here had I been writing about books here. I didn't because I wasn't...but I do want to at least list a few of the books I read recently and do recommend. Check them out:

How to Be Both by Ali Smith
The Residue Years by Mitchell S. Jackson
H Is for Hawk
by Helen MacDonald
Driving the King by Ravi Howard
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera
The Blue Between Sky and Water by Susan Abulhawa
The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
Jam on the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett
Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald
Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Andria Nacina Cole's terrific story is a Ploughshares Solo and you should read it

Two weeks ago, Andria Nacina Cole's story "Men Be Either Or, But Never Enough" was published as a Ploughshares Solo by Ploughshares literary magazine. I read it the day it came out, as soon as I got home from work that evening, and it affected me the way truly fine literature tends to: I couldn't function for the rest of the night, just sat with the thoughts and feelings it provoked. I urge you to head to Amazon or Ploughshares and cough up the measly $1.99 to buy this story. I guarantee it'll leave you wanting to read more of this writer's work, as indeed I'm eager for her to get a book deal and publish the collection I know will blow us all away. Maybe there's a novel in the works too? Hey a girl can dream.

So here's the thing about "Men be either or." There's good writing and there's great writing. Good writing is a pleasure, great writing is precious. There are stories that make you think, something I value highly. And there are stories that make you feel, also a fine accomplishment. What we have here is that rarest combination: great writing in the service of a story that makes you both think and feel. This is true art. The craft that makes the art -- the way Ms. Cole wields words, and the careful plotting with which she lays out the story so that it unfurls, unfolds upon itself, opening up layer by layer, guiding the reader deeper into the heart of it, the pain of it -- well, the craft is breathtaking. I also have to say that IMO it takes a special writerly skill to present a child's POV in a way that somehow manages an authentic voice yet still stays in the realm of adult writing.

Cole has a masterly hand with language, and not only in fiction. When you have some time, because, as with her fiction, her poetry demands intellectual and emotional attention so don't read it unless you can spend some time with it, you should also read her poem published in The Feminist Wire in 2013 "How To Forgive Abortion When You Are the Aborter." I must confess I'd put off reading this because, well, the title had me worried I wouldn't like it, my kneejerk reaction to the title being hey there's nothing to forgive. I should have had more faith in this sister who I well know is a fierce proponent of all things woman. And indeed this poem says it all, fiercely.

I am personally indebted to Andria Nacina Cole going back almost 10 years now. In the summer of 2006 she organized a women writers' conference in D.C. Called Flanked--the idea being that women would be at each others' sides, have each others' backs--it was an amazing experience. Not only was it all women, it was majority women of color, and the conference's whole orientation was toward supporting and empowering writers who would rarely find such support from the literary establishment. It was a privilege to take part in Flanked and I'm so glad my application was accepted. Now here's the crazy thing about it: Flanked was funded by Andria Nacina Cole, who'd won a Maryland state writing prize and used the prize money not for herself but to put on a conference to build up other women writers. Who ever heard of such a thing? At Flanked I met the very fine young writer Gimbiya Kettering, who's now been published in lots of tony literary journals and has a couple of novels in the works; Gimbiya and I became good friends and have kept up with each other's lives literary (reading and critiquing each other's work, writing each other recommendation letters and so on) and otherwise since then. So I got a smart, sharp, supportive friend out of Cole's selfless gift of Flanked. And in the years since Flanked I've gotten a chance to sort of get to know, well not really, not in person, but a little at least, virtually, online, at least, or at least to follow, admiringly from afar, Andria herself. Who always has something interesting to say, and whose writing I always look forward to.

This is a writer to watch. I have no doubt we'll see more great things from her.