Harsh as a cry of terror in their quietness

Invisible Man
by Ralph Ellison

I have been meaning to read this for years, and especially so since I added it to two of my reading lists: Classics Club and the Luke Cake Reading List. I finally bought a copy after seeing the Gordon Parks photography project of the same name in Berlin last year (Parks and Ellison worked together on the project for LIFE magazine), which was a really moving experience.

The novel is also moving, but equally brutal and shocking. It opens and closes (aside from the slightly abstract, essayistic prologue and epilogue) with its most shocking scenes. The un-named narrator starts out as a successful scholar whose family can’t afford to send him to college. His one chance is to impress the local rotary club – i.e. powerful rich white men. At the club he finds himself in a group of black young men who are stripped to their underwear and forced to fight each other while blindfolded. Afterward they are made to scrabble on the floor for their pay. It’s upsetting, humiliating, dehumanising, and the outcome is that the narrator is given a scholarship to a black-only college. It seems that his life is set.

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Maybe if I keep trying, I really won’t feel anything

Lies We Tell Ourselves
by Robin Talley

When this book was chosen by my book group I was worried it would be a tough read due to the subject matter. But it turned out, the problem I had was with the narrators’ tone and voice.

That’s not to say the subject matter isn’t tough, but I was reading this at the same time as dipping in and out of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and by comparison, well, it shows that Talley’s book is intended for a young adult audience.

It’s 1959 and some school districts in Virginia are holding out against integration. Sarah is one of 10 black pupils who were specially chosen to attend the white-only Jefferson High School after years of court battles. No-one at Jefferson wants them there and more than that, they don’t understand why the black students would want to come to their school.

“I wipe the tears away and stare at my reflection until my face smooths out and my eyes go empty.

This is how they have to see me. If they know I feel things, they’ll only try to make me feel worse.

Maybe if I keep trying, I really won’t feel anything.”

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Free speech is unthinkable

Burmese Days
by George Orwell

I’m always nervous of contemporary books about colonialism but I figured I’d be in safe hands with Orwell. Like A Passage to India, the major theme is the racism inherent to colonialism, but Orwell does a better job than Forster of clearly separating his characters’ racism from his own opinions on the subject.

The first character we meet is U Po Kyin, a middle-ranking Burmese official who has plotted and bribed his way to where he is and continues to plot his way further up. The next step in his plan is to destroy the reputation of Dr Veraswami, the local doctor. The biggest hurdle he faces is that the doctor is friends with Mr Flory – a white British man, in a country where the ruling British are unassailable.

For the most part the rest of the novel follows Flory as he tries to keep a grip on his awkward position in society. They’re in a small town in northern Burma and the Europeans-only Clubhouse has just eight members, most of whom are, like Flory, timber merchants who spend most of their time in the jungle. Aside from Flory they keep themselves apart from the native population and refer to them with racial epithets that are shocking to modern ears, and I suspect even at the time would have been frowned on “back home”. Flory makes clear by his friendship with the doctor that he doesn’t agree with the prevailing opinion, but he rarely opens his mouth to object when racist things are said.

“[Flory said,] ‘I don’t want the Burmans to drive us out of the country. God forbid! I’m here to make money, like everyone else. All I object to is the slimy white man’s burden humbug. The pukka sahib pose. It’s so boring. Even those bloody fools at the Club might be better company if we weren’t all of us living a lie the whole time.’
‘But, my dear friend, what lie are you living?’
‘Why, of course, the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of to rob them. I suppose it’s a natural enough lie. But it corrupts us, it corrupts us in ways you can’t imagine. There’s an everlasting sense of being a sneak and a liar that torments us and drives us to justify ourselves night and day. It’s at the bottom of half our beastliness to the natives.’ ”

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I still find “Negro” a word of wonders, glorious and terrible

Negroland: a Memoir
by Margo Jefferson

This is an unusual memoir. It’s heavily stylised, experimental even, but it’s also rather scholarly in its approach to the historical context of Jefferson’s own life.

Margo Jefferson was born in 1947 and raised in a well-to-do black family in Chicago, part of a black elite society with its own specific rules, norms and challenges. And this is what she documents. It’s an unusual subject for a memoir, and in keeping with that, often doesn’t feel like a memoir at all. Jefferson doesn’t bare her soul, or reveal any shocking family secrets. She doesn’t even stick to first person, slipping in and out of referring to herself in the third person.

There is a lot of background information provided about the formation of America’s black elite, which at first felt a little excessive and/or dry until I realised how recent it all was, and in fact most of the people she refers to turn out to be family friends. There is also a lot about physical appearance – how people with different types of hair handled it, how nuances of skin colour and facial shape could affect your place in society. Usually I could not be less interested in hair and make-up, but of course its relevance to this story is rather different. Because even though Jefferson was and is rich, educated and well-connected, she and her friends and family cannot get away from the fact that they are black and therefore different.

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The true India slid by unnoticed

passage to indiaA Passage to India
by E M Forster

This is the second time I’ve tried reading this book and I almost didn’t finish it again, but this time I was near the end when I got a little bored. For the most part I found it gripping and beautifully written, if a little troubling when it comes to race and politics.

The thing is, it’s a story about how problematic colonialism can be; effectively it’s about racism, and yet it itself reads as racist. It was written in the 1920s so that wouldn’t normally be a surprise, but when Forster has taken race as a central theme you’d think he’d have the self-awareness to avoid his own racist remarks. Unless they’re all intended ironically, which is a possibility, but in that case the point being made is just as obscured as if it were not ironic.

“She continued: ‘What a terrible river! What a wonderful river!’ and sighed. The radiance was already altering, whether through shifting of the moon or of the sand; soon the bright sheaf would be gone, and a circlet, itself to alter, be burnished upon the streaming void. The women discussed whether they would wait for the change or not, while the silence broke into patches of unquietness.”

The story centres around Dr Aziz, a young Indian doctor in British-run Chandrapore (a fictional city in north-east India). He is well liked by everyone and has a large circle of close friends from different religions, different backgrounds. So it is doubly surprising when he is accused of assault by newly arrived Englishwoman Adela Quested.

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A small cicatrice had been made on the memory

Heart of the Matter

The Heart of the Matter
by Graham Greene

I read this as part of Greene for Gran, a challenge run by Simon of Savidge Reads in honour of his recently departed grandmother, as Greene was her favourite author. Strictly the challenge was intended to run just for August but I got a bit behind. Sorry, Simon! Anyway, on to the book…

Initially the narrative switches between two characters in a West African country – a policeman called Scobie and an accountant called Wilson – but it gradually becomes clear that Scobie is our hero, with Wilson merely a player in his story. They are both Brits, serving time in a British colony that is at war (I wasn’t entirely clear if this was a civil war, a war with a neighbouring country, or the tail end of the Second World War).

“A vulture flapped and shifted on the iron roof and Wilson looked at Scobie…He couldn’t tell that this was one of those occasions a man never forgets: a small cicatrice had been made on the memory, a wound that would ache whenever certain things combined – the taste of gin at midday, the smell of flowers under a balcony, the clang of corrugated iron, an ugly bird flopping from perch to perch.”

Scobie doesn’t love his wife Louise, indeed they have been growing apart for years, but he does love this un-named country he has been living in for 15 years and he feels a strong sense of duty to look after Louise, who suffers from insecurity and depression, and he would do anything to protect her. Except lie. Because Scobie is so honest it’s painful. The book opens with him being denied a promotion because everyone is suspicious of him, or at least uneasy about him, because his level of honesty just cannot be believed.

“There was no reason to call…yet it was his habit to cry her name, a habit he had formed in the early days of anxiety and love…When he called her name he was crying like Canute against a tide – the tide of her melancholy and disappointment.”

Wilson, on the other hand, is clearly a liar from the start. He goes to great lengths to hide his love of poetry, but it is just that love that leads him to Louise, with whom he falls hopelessly in love. She’s simply amused by him, and that would be that were it not for an unfortunate combination of circumstances. Wilson is far from being a mere accountant. And Scobie is gradually getting tangled up with some shady Syrian businessmen and then, at the least expected moment, he meets another woman.

“He told himself: Be careful. This isn’t a climate for emotion. It’s a climate for meanness, malice, snobbery, but anything like hate or love drives a man off his head.”

Scobie is so tortured it’s almost ridiculous. His Catholicism plays an increasingly large role, highlighting how the average person can commit all kinds of sins and then renounce them at mass, while Scobie wrings his hands at the very idea. To be honest, I found Scobie deeply frustrating but he still got my empathy and I really did care about the outcome for him.

“The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human being – it is a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue. In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths. He involved himself in what he always knew was a vain struggle to retain the lies.”

One other thing that frustrated me about this book was the undercurrent of racism. It was written in the 1940s so I know it’s unfair to hold it to today’s standards but it’s still pretty shocking to read the language used about the native people, or indeed all non-Brits. Not just the “n” word, but the way the occupiers talk to them in condescending language that’s even simpler than the natives’ pidgin English. The way the Brits all have a house boy whom they call “boy”, whether that servant is 10 or 50 years old. The way not one of the natives gets to be a fleshed out character (though at least one of the Syrians is humanised a bit; in fact he’s a very interesting man).

Something I found curious about this novel is the way that it’s divided up so much. There are three “books”, divided into parts, divided into chapters, divided into numbered sections. It’s almost like an academic textbook except that the numbers always start again at 1. There’s something oddly disconcerting about turning to page 218 and it saying “chapter 2”.

But all the frustrations and oddities aside, this is a beautifully written book that really closely examines the human heart and how people can misunderstand so horribly what each other thinks or feels. The ending is heart breaking and made me almost want to throw the book down except that the language kept me spellbound.

“He felt no jealousy, only the dreariness of a man who tries to write an important letter on a damp sheet and finds the characters blur.”

So thank you Simon for the prompt to read more Greene. I’ll certainly come back to him again. And he wrote a lot of stuff, so there’s plenty to come back to!

First published 1948 by William Heinemann.

Source: Part of a set of beautiful Penguin books I bought several years back, can’t remember where from.

Challenges: This counts toward the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge.

Don’t be so tough early in the morning

To Have and Have Not
by Ernest Hemingway

I have been slowly working my way through a box set of Hemingway. At times completely brilliant, at others it was overblown, racist and inconsistent in style. I can see why it divides people.

The main character is Harry Morgan, a poor man who lives in the Florida Keys with his wife and daughters and, at the start of the book, makes a living in Cuba taking tourists out sea fishing in his boat. But with the depression starting to bite, a rich tourist doesn’t pay a large bill and Harry is forced to accept one of the more questionable business deals he repeatedly gets offered, marking the beginning of his slow decline into crime.

The structure is a little odd, switching between points of view, introducing detailed minor characters who sometimes have a role in the main story but often don’t. The tone and style is initially a lot like Raymond Chandler and it retains a touch of that throughout, though it does get both more real and more political.

“You know how it is there early in the morning in Havana with the bums still asleep against the walls of the buildings, before even the ice wagons come by with ice for the bars?…
‘Listen,’ I told him. ‘Don’t be so tough early in the morning. I’m sure you’ve cut plenty people’s throats. I haven’t even had my coffee yet.’
‘So you’re sure I’ve cut people’s throats?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘And I don’t give a damn. Can’t you do business without getting angry?’ “

There are some nasty characters in this book and Harry certainly isn’t blameless in his descent. He makes some bad choices, but he also has bad luck thrust upon him. The switches in point of view can be very revealing. For instance, Harry is genuinely in love and lust with his wife still but when another character describes her it’s a very unflattering picture that is painted, with a total lack of understanding for how the Morgans’ relationship might work.

Which is a theme, actually – assumptions about other people being proved wrong when the narrative switches to their perspective. There are some surprisingly modern touches, such as the smug misogynist painted as a fool. But Harry’s racism certainly isn’t modern. I can’t remember the last time I read the n*** word so many times in one sitting and it bothered me, but it wasn’t just casual terminology. Harry talks about various coloured people in demeaning stereotypes, painting them as less than human, and no amount of historical leniency can make me okay with that.

Hemingway does show some real knowledge of boating and fishing, with detailed descriptions of bringing a boat in to harbour or chasing down a marlin. Neither is my thing at all but even those sections kept me engrossed, which suggests they were written pretty well.

I’ll continue reading through my Hemingway box set but so far The Old Man and the Sea is still the high point for me.

First published 1937 by Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Source: Secondhand, I think from a book swap.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

He doesn’t have the sense of a billy goat

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
by Fannie Flagg

This was a book club pick and I thought somehow that it would be light and fluffy and girly, possibly because that’s how I remember the film (though on rewatching the film this week I discovered it’s not really those things either). It’s certainly an easy, enjoyable read, but it covers a lot of issues without labouring the point and has some very interesting things to say.

In the 1980s middle-aged Alabama housewife Evelyn Couch is visiting a nursing home and gets talking to a resident there, Mrs Ninny Threadgoode. Ninny is old and a little forgetful but also charming and immediately launches into stories about her early life in a small town called Whistle Stop. At the heart of these stories are Idgie and Ruth, the two women who ran the Whistle Stop Cafe from 1929 until it closed. However, inbetween there are snippets about other characters from the town and their lives, all told with a wonderful sense of humour.

“This skinny little man, so black he was a deep royal blue, had caused a lot of trouble for the opposite sex. One gal drank a can of floor wax and topped it off with a cup of Clorox, trying to separate herself from the same world he was in. When she survived, claiming that the liquids had ruined her complexion for life, he became continually uneasy after dark, because she had snuck up behind him more than once and cracked him in the head with a purseful of rocks.”

And at that level it all sounds a bit twee. But this book covers racist violence, domestic abuse, homosexuality, prostitution, extreme poverty and death, which is some pretty dark stuff for a story that’s so nice and chirpy on the surface. I know some at book group felt that this meant none of the themes were really explored, but were just thrown in there, and certainly the only subjects really talked about are female empowerment and death.

But then one of the running themes in this book is not talking about important things. Idgie and Ruth are a couple, which you would think was a big no-no in a small southern US town in the 1930s, but the whole town seems to know and just accept the situation. I wondered if this was because they all consider Idgie an honorary man. She certainly not only joins in with but often takes lead in hunting, fishing, gambling, drinking and the other manly pursuits of the town. But she’s far from being the only strong woman in town.

“Cleo, Idgie’s brother, was concerned…
‘Idgie, I’m telling you, you don’t need to feed every [hobo] that shows up at your door. You’ve got a business to run here. Julian…says he thinks you’d let Ruth and the baby go without to feed those bums.’
…’What does Julian know? He’d starve to death himself if Opal didn’t have the beauty shop. What are you listening to him for? He doesn’t have the sense of a billy goat.’
Cleo couldn’t disagree with her on that point.”

Each chapter takes a different source or viewpoint, so there’s Evelyn’s daily life, Ninny’s reminiscences, the Whistle Stop newsletter and other newspaper articles, and occasionally a plain old omniscient narrator. There’s also lots of jumping back and forth in time, which was confusing at first because there seemed to be sections that were unrelated, but by the end it all ties together. And also, in the end there is no single character who knows everything that the reader does, which I quite liked.

Generally, I found what could have been a heavy-handed moral tale a much more subtle look at life in the southern US. The one unsubtle message was about strong women. Really, it’s Evelyn’s story, and she is discovering through Ninny’s stories how unhappy she is with her life, downtrodden and ignored by her husband.

“After the boy at the supermarket had called her those names, Evelyn Couch had felt violated. Raped by words. Stripped of everything. She had…always been terrified of displeasing men…She had spent her life tiptoeing around them like someone lifting her skirt stepping through a cow pasture.”

As someone at book club pointed out, at the novel’s heart is the power of storytelling. Ninny’s stories have to be good for us to believe they would have such a profound effect on Evelyn. And it is all a rollicking good yarn, with a running theme of tall tales.

I seem to be saying this of every other book at the moment, but I think I would get a lot out of re-reading this.

First published 1987 by Random House.

Voices

The Help
by Kathryn Stockett

Audiobook narrated by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer and Cassandra Campbell

A few weeks ago the Guardian offered readers this audiobook as a free download via Audible. Well, I couldn’t say no to that, could I? This book was even on my wishlist. Perfect.

This is the first audiobook I’ve listened to in years and it’s a very different experience from reading, so I still can’t say for sure whether I would have enjoyed reading this book. Probably, but I can’t be certain. However, I loved the audiobook. It’s a gripping story, with lots of wonderful characters and the narrators did a fantastic job of bringing it to life. Really, this felt more like a radio play than a read, but it was more immersive and captivating than any radio play I can remember.

The story is narrated by three characters, plus there is one chapter told in third person, and those are the four voice actors. Each narrates their own chapters in full, putting on different voices for the different people they talk about, so you hear some characters voiced three or even four different ways. It sounds confusing but it isn’t really.

The story is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. White women throw themselves into the busy schedule of society events, setting up their unmarried friends with suitable partners and having babies, while their coloured maids raise those babies, clean their houses and cook their meals. No-one questions this state of things or tries to change it, even while the rest of the USA is discovering civil rights, but beneath the surface, tensions are high between the communities. Nasty things happen to anyone who steps out of line, and the line is narrow.

Narrator number one is Aibileen, maid to Elizabeth Leefolt, a vacuous woman whose eagerness to please centre of society and “League” president Hilly Holbrook makes her an increasingly difficult and even dangerous employer. Narrator number two is Minnie, another maid, who near the start of the book is fired by Hilly Holbrook on behalf of her aged mother and must find another job while Hilly is spreading lies all over town about her. Narrator number three is Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, an old schoolfriend of Elizabeth and Hilly and the only one to make it through college – the others left to get married. She is a slightly awkward woman, convinced by her mother’s constant sniping that she is too tall, too plain and too lacking in taste to ever attract a man. So instead she lives with her parents and sticks to her routine of League events and tennis at the country club, keen to be a part of it all.

At the start of the book Elizabeth and Skeeter seem quite similar – nice enough, thrown by Hilly’s nasty comments about black people but pretty clueless about the world really. But a combination of things make their paths diverge. Skeeter is intelligent while Elizabeth is dumb, but Elizabeth is a central member of society by being married and a mother, while Skeeter, by being single and resisting attempts to change that, is held at arms’ length from society. When Skeeter pitches article ideas to a New York publisher and touches on civil rights, she is only raising the topics she thinks the publisher wants to hear about. But then she starts to look around her and find out what is actually going on, and is shocked into taking sides.

The three narrators are warm, funny, wonderful characters – at least, once they get to have their own say they are. But there’s also a large cast of further characters running the whole gamut from scheming and vindictive, complacent and therefore complicit, genuinely good but afraid to stand out from the crowd, and many others inbetween. There’s a violent husband, a loving husband, an absent husband. There’s white outsiders besides Skeeter. All are fully fleshed out and real (though that may be due to good acting as much as good writing).

I thought I knew the facts about civil rights, about the divisions and the violence and the politics, but this book brought to life what it must have really been like, the genuine life-threatening danger of being different, just 50 years ago in a so-called civilised country. It’s terrifying but it’s also wonderful to see how brave people could be, had to be, in the face of awfulness. And yet, in spite of the huge, dark issues, this is a warm, uplifting book.

When I first downloaded the audiobook I didn’t know how I would find time to listen to over 17 hours of it. That’s a lot of time. But I downloaded the Audible app so I could listen on my phone and it has been my companion for two weeks – walking to work, doing housework, taking the train – all to the soundtrack of Mississippi accents drawing me into a world that I was genuinely sad to leave behind.

The film rights were snapped up pretty quickly and I believe The Help (film) has already been released in the US, while in the UK we have to wait until October. I’m intrigued but so much will have to be cut. Hmm.

Book first published 2009.

UPDATE: There has been some controversy surrounding this book and a great discussion has started over on Amy Reads and Wolfs Howl, who are also running a related reading project. Very illuminating.

Justifiable anger

An Image of Africa
by Chinua Achebe

This is actually two essays by the great Nigerian author: “An image of Africa: racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, and “The trouble with Nigeria”. Which are some pretty heavy topics, so it’s possibly best that they total less than 100 pages between them!

The first essay is fascinating, though I would no doubt get more from it had I actually read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But then the major reason Achebe came to write this essay is that Heart of Darkness is so widely read and studied that the grotesque myths and caricatures it perpetuates cannot easily be erased from the public consciousness, so perhaps by not reading it myself I’m helping just a little bit?

As the title suggests, Achebe argues that Heart of Darkness is hideously, unforgivably racist. From subtle linguistic differences between descriptions of black and white to outright lies told about African natives, Achebe’s argument seems hard to counter. I found it interesting that he calls Conrad a “great stylist of modern fiction”, which is perhaps akin to saying he ought to have known better. He speaks of Conrad’s fixation with blackness and the word “nigger” but mostly he is concerned with the way the book questions “the very humanity of black people”. Which is a grievous accusation indeed, and certainly I can see why Achebe might feel such anger toward the book.

Achebe doesn’t just look to the book itself but also to modern scholars’ writing about it. Not one of them, he says, has dealt with the subject of racism in Heart of Darkness, which suggests that all those scholars considered racism to be entirely normal and/or acceptable. The possible damage of continuing to teach such a text widely is that such attitudes will continue to be normalised, that the image of Africa as the dark, prehistoric continent will be perpetuated and therefore racism continue.

Reading the second essay is to some extent dependent on having some knowledge of Nigeria and in particular the Nigeria of 1983, when the essay was written. Achebe speaks largely about corruption and rule-breaking in his home country. Though he lambasts his fellow Nigerians, occasionally lapsing into caricature and generalisation, he always comes back to how the country’s leaders have made the situation what it is. He balances out the generalisations with specific examples of men or occasions that highlight his points. Politicians Azikiwe and Owolowo come under particular fire, but I was more interested to hear brief mention of a name entirely new to me, Aminu Kano, who Achebe compares to Mahatma Gandhi and calls a “saint and revolutionary”. I am immensely curious what is behind these words of admiration and am off right now to ask the internet what the story is.

“An image of Africa” was originally given as a lecture at the University of Massachussetts, Amherst, February 1975; later published in the Massachussetts Review 1977.
“The trouble with Nigeria” first published by Fourth Dimension Publishing 1983.
This selection published 2010 by Penguin Books in the “Great Ideas” series.