Review 1839: #1954 Club! Go Tell It on the Mountain

Reading Go Tell It on the Mountain checked off some boxes for me. Not only does it qualify for the 1954 Club, but it is on my Classics Club list. In addition, it’s been a long time since I’ve read anything by Baldwin.

Fourteen-year-old John Grimes is in rebellion. His stepfather, Gabriel, is a deacon in a Black Pentacostal church. Gabriel is a man who believes himself bound for heaven, but John sees his faults. He is self-righteous and treats John harshly while he is kinder to his own scapegrace son. He is cruel to John’s mother, Elizabeth, because she had John out of wedlock. He has other faults that John doesn’t know about but Gabriel’s sister Florence does. John sees his hypocrisy and that of the “saints,” as the novel calls the church faithful, and stands aloof from the frenzied religious services.

The novel is divided into three sections. The first explores John’s frame of mind. The second is divided into thirds, which explore the thoughts of Florence, Gabriel, and Elizabeth. Finally, in the third section, John is forced to confront his feelings in a service at church.

This novel is powerful, and its language is masterful. As I am an atheist, it’s hard for me to conceive of the characters’ mindset, in which everything is about the acceptance or rejection of God and all others are sinners. I thought it was interesting to explore this world, but I found especially the last, hallucinogenic section, and the resolution of John’s dilemma, to be a bit too much.

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Review 1822: Shuggie Bain

Shuggie Bain lives the first five or six years of his life in his grandparents’ flat in Glasgow with parents and older sister Catherine and brother Leek. The family is poor but respectable. His father Shug is a taxi driver, and his mother and grandmother keep a neat house. Shuggie’s mother Agnes is beautiful and always immaculately made up.

Shug is a horrible womanizer, though, and from jealousy Agnes hounds him by making calls to his dispatcher. Then Shug decides they should move to get a fresh start. What he describes as an outdoor paradise turns out to be a tiny shack next to a mine in a neighborhood built for miners’ families. But the mine is all but closed. It isn’t until the family unloads their possessions that they realize Shug’s aren’t among them. He has taken Agnes and her children out into the country to dump them.

Agnes descends into alcoholism, and as his older siblings grow old enough to leave, Shuggie is left trying to hide money for food, trying to keep Agnes’s drinking buddies out of the house, trying to get her to eat. All the while, he has a growing realization that he’s not like other boys. He likes pretty things and colors and is attracted to boys.

This novel is a moving and empathetic portrait of working-class Glasgow in the 1980’s, when there is not much hope for many people. It’s also a convincing depiction of the effects of alcoholism. It is absolutely gripping and heartbreaking. It was the winner of the 2020 Booker Prize, and it deserves it.

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Review 1814: Temptation

From before his birth in a Hungarian village in 1912, Béla is unwanted. His mother, away working in Budapest, pays Rozi to care for him. But when his mother can’t pay, Rozi doesn’t feed him. So, at age seven, he begins stealing to feed himself.

Rozi also makes him work instead of going to school, that is until he, thirsting for knowledge, goes to the schoolteacher. At school, he begins finding success, until an incident results in him being shipped off to Budapest to live with his mother.

Béla must forget about schooling in Budapest, because his mother has found him a job in a fancy hotel. Unfortunately, as an apprentice he is not paid, and he and his mother are barely scraping by, scrambling to pay rent and eating seldom.

At work, Béla meets Elamér, who begins instructing him in Socialism. Although the Democratic Socialist party is legal, the right-wing government behaves as if it is not. Then Béla is distracted by his infatuation with Her Excellency, a beautiful member of the nobility who uses the boys in the hotel for sex.

Within a background of a country sliding toward chaos and Fascism, we follow Béla in his enthralling journey toward political self-awareness. This picaresque novel is vital and exciting. What a great story!

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Review 1712: Pippa Passes

I have been reading the Indian novels of Rumer Godden, so I’m not quite sure how Pippa Passes got in there. It was published in the 1990’s and is set mostly in Venice. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the Browning poem except by its being about a young, innocent girl. It does relate, however, to many of Godden’s novels that have a theme of the loss of innocence.

Pippa Fane is a 17-year-old ballet dancer who is new to the corps de ballet of an up-and-coming company from the English Midlands. The company is getting ready to tour Italy, and Pippa, as the newest member, doesn’t expect to be invited to come, but she is, at the insistence of Angharad Fullerton, the ballet mistress. Pippa’s friend, Juliette, warns her to beware of Angharad, but since the mistress has only been kind to Pippa, she pays no attention.

Pippa is enchanted at first sight of Venice and disappointed that Angharad expects the girls in the corps to do nothing but work and rest. When the other girls try to get her to go out the first night, she argues that Angharad told them to stay in and is left behind and taunted as Angharad’s pet. But instead, Angharad and the other company leaders take her out when they find she’s been abandoned.

Pippa’s star is beginning to rise with the company, but she has also met a gondolier named Niccolo who fascinates her. The company gives her a solo part after another dancer is injured, and at the same time Niccolo wants her to sing with his band.

I wasn’t as interested in this novel as I have been in the others by Godden that I have been reading. For one thing, it seems absurdly outdated for the 90’s, as Niccolo and his band make a splash dressed like gondoliers and singing such songs as “Santa Lucia” and “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story. Yet, there’s no indication that the novel is set earlier. Also, although the information about the workings of the ballet company is interesting, I don’t think it was necessary to include pages describing the action of The Tales of Hoffman. And for the 1990’s, Pippa seems far too naïve about the intentions of both Angharad and Niccolo, and some readers may understand the novel as slightly homophobic. It’s possible that the novel was written many years earlier, but then there should have been some indication that it was set, say, in the 1950’s, if it was.

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Review 1654: The Panopticon

Best of Ten!
Anais Hendricks, 15, arrives at the Panopticon, an old prison designed so that someone can see the inmates at all times, which is now being used as a home for juveniles. The police believe she beat an officer and put her in a coma, but she was so high that she can’t remember what she was doing.

Anais has been in the system since birth, and the system has failed her on every front. Although at first she seems to be hard and criminal, she is a feisty girl, and most of her offenses have been a defense of someone else or an act of protest against an injustice. Her trouble with the law began when Theresa, her adoptive mother, was murdered. Anais now believes she is part of an experiment that wants her to fail.

At the Panopticon, Anais makes some friends and gets a better social worker in Angus, but she still ends up in trouble. Soon, the police tell her that one more offense will result in her being transferred to detention.

In Anais, Fagan has created an unforgettable character. The novel is full of bad language, but it is fluent and lively, and makes a riveting story. I read this book for my James Tait Black project.

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Review 1650: The River

Harriet and her family live along the river in a town in India. Harriet is dismayed at the changes in her sister Bea, who is becoming a young lady and is no longer fun to play with. Her brother Bogey spends his time looking at insects and animals in the garden. Victoria is just a baby. Harriet spends some time each day writing in her book that she keeps hidden away, and she also is fascinated by her parents’ guest, Captain John, who was injured in WWI. Captain John, however, likes Bea best.

This little novel has a plot, but it is mostly atmospheric and descriptive, of the garden and house, of life on the river. I was just a short way in when I realized that I had seen the movie based on it by Jean Renoir. I said, “If there’s a snake, I’ve seen this.” There was a snake.

The semi-autobiographical novel is about Harriet waking up from childhood and complete self-involvement and learning to become a writer. It is beautiful and touching.

My Virago Modern Classics version also included two short stories, “Red Doe,” about Ibrahim, a bakriwar nomad who is on the way to another encampment to claim a wife, and “The Little Black Ram,” about Jassouf, a bad boy who is tamed by being give a black ram to care for.

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Review 1628: My Brilliant Career

My Brilliant Career is the very singular story of the life of an Australian teenage girl in the bush in 1901. It isn’t so much singular in its plot as in the personality of Sybilla, the main character.

Sybilla’s childhood was spent in comfort, as her father was a prosperous horse breeder. However, well before this novel starts, her father decided his talents were wasted, so he sold his property and began a career selling livestock. He was unsuccessful, and he drank heavily in entertaining prospective clients. When the novel opens, the family is struggling to run a dairy with their father drinking away the money he makes selling butter.

Sybilla at 15 is admittedly a difficult person. Her mother never gives her a kind word, and her mother and brother twit her about her lack of good looks. She angrily resents their life of endless labor for no good result. In fact, she is ambitious to become more but doesn’t know how to go about it. She is an unusual mixture of self-confidence and self-hatred and is angry and rebellious.

Sybilla’s mother becomes so angry with her that she arranges for her to go live with her grandmother farther into the bush. There, Sybilla blossoms under the kind treatment of her grandmother, her uncle, and her Aunt Helen. Her aunt helps her look more attractive, but she never gets over believing she is ugly. Romance even seems to be on the horizon.

I thought that the view this novel gives of Australian frontier life is really interesting, and I was particularly struck by the amount of traffic going by the grandmother’s house and the number of homeless, wandering men. However, I was unsatisfied with this novel, and to explain why, I have to include spoilers, so be warned.

A feminist interpretation of this novel might be that the heroine chooses to write a novel instead of getting married, but that would be ignoring Sybilla’s difficult personality. Continually, she seems to bite off her nose to spite her face, and in the case of marriage, really declines out of a sense of inferiority rather than anything else. She decides not to marry Harold and stays in a life she hates because she can’t believe he loves her and she thinks she is not good enough for him. I find that really frustrating. It’s not that I wanted a romantic ending so much as it bothered me how she never really sees herself or is able to get past being told how worthless she is by her mother.

I read this for my Classics Club list.

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Review 1480: This Side of Paradise

I have a high opinion of The Great Gatsby, but I haven’t read any other Fitzgerald that I can remember. So, when I was making up my current Classics Club list, I put This Side of Paradise on it.

It isn’t a good choice for me, though. I have so far disliked almost every book about privileged males’ schooldays, especially when the boys think they are sophisticated (the exception being the beginning of Brideshead Revisited). The nostalgic tone they frequently take about boys behaving badly is especially grating. I don’t think This Side of Paradise is supposed to be nostalgic, but it is definitely smug.

The main character, Amory Blaine, is described as an egoist. He spends most of his time putting people into snobby little categories and working the system to be successful in school. Successful, of course, means socially, not intellectually.

It’s not too much of a stretch to think that Amory is Fitzgerald himself, only richer and with a childhood spent in Europe.

I would like to think that Amory evolves in the book, but my understanding is he doesn’t, much. I stuck it out for nearly half the book but didn’t find anything in it to interest me, so I stopped.

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Review 1334: Jamrach’s Menagerie

Cover for Jamrach's MenagerieBest Book!
Jaffy Brown and his mother are eking out an existence in the slums of 19th century London when, as a very young boy, he meets a tiger coming down the street. Not knowing enough to fear it, he walks up to pet it and it picks him up in its mouth. The tiger is an escapee from the animal importer, Mr. Charles Jamrach, that has fortunately just been fed, so Jaffy isn’t harmed. Jamrach gives him a job taking care of his animals, and his fortunes materially improve.

Jaffy befriends two twins, Ishbel and Tim. As he gets older, he learns to love Ishbel, although she is alternately affectionate and aloof. With Tim, he develops more of a love/hate relationship.

When Jaffy is 15, Jamrach decides to send an expedition to the East Indies to look for a reported dragon. He picks Tim to go with Dan Rymer on the expedition, but Jaffy signs as a sailor. He has always felt an affinity for sailors and the sea. They set off on their voyage.

Jamrach’s Menagerie is a terrific novel. It is simply a good story that pins you to the page. It is imaginative, evocative, and the writing is gorgeous. I read this for my Booker Prize project, and I loved it.

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Day 1161: A Little Life

Cover for A Little LifeBest of Five!
For me, anyway, it often happens that a novel gets a lot of hype, with reviewers raving about it, and when I finally read it, it is unable to live up to its reputation. Such is not the case, however, with Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I found it to be thoroughly absorbing, all 800+ pages of it.

It begins with four young men who all roomed together in college—Willem, Jude, J.B., and Malcolm. The novel, which covers roughly thirty years, begins when they are all struggling to make their way in New York City. Willem and Jude still share a tiny apartment while Willem works as a waiter and auditions for acting parts, and Jude works as a lawyer for the district attorney’s office. Malcolm is poorly paid and given boring work in the office of a prestigious architectural firm, and J.B. is working on his art.

In at first a very subtle way, though, the novel centers around Jude. For some time, Jude remains a mysterious presence in the novel. He was severely injured when he was young, but he never speaks of that incident or any other in his past. But Jude’s life, we eventually find, is ruled by his past, during which he was repeatedly abused.

Since college, Jude believes that he has been pretending to be a different person than he is, and that if his friends found out who he really is, they would leave him. He is full of self-hatred.

This novel is extremely powerful and deals with some heavy issues. But it is beautifully and empathetically written. It makes us love some of the characters, and the others seem fully realized. I may not have read it if it hadn’t been on my Booker Prize project list, but I’m glad I did.

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