MLK Day & the Most Important Book of 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2015), $24

James Baldwin, Collected Essays (edited by Toni Morrison, Library of America, 1998), $35

Coates

The King family lost a husband and father with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His body was stolen, but he lives on in his writings and teachings. We honor his life and pursuit of justice today.

A half-century after the Civil Rights Movement, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a letter to his teenage son explaining the state of race relations in America. The letter was published as Between the World and Me and won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. As Toni Morrison says on the dust jacket, it is “required reading.” It is the most important book of year.

Coates references James Baldwin only twice in the book, but his format resembles The Fire Next Time (1963)—a letter to Baldwin’s nephew—and many insights are Baldwin-inspired, updated for the 21st century context of dash cams, private prisons, and the “new Jim Crow” (see Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindedness, 2010).

Coates believes that a race-based society grows from historical power imbalances rooted in fear and control of the body. With clarity of language and brutal honesty, Coates shares personal stories to show how living in black skin renders life in America to be a struggle against disembodiment. He concludes a story about his father’s anger: “This was a war for the possession of his body and that would be the war of his whole life.”

Coates reads and writes in search of meaning and understanding. He discusses many authors and poets such that, in a sense, Between the World and Me is a literary treatise on race relations in American culture. Coates discusses the “narrative” of America that perpetuates our looking away. He calls this narrative “the Dream,” the idea that success in America derives from hard work instead of traditional power imbalances. Coates loved The Dukes of Hazzard growing up and offers the TV show as an example of how pop culture helps us look away from injustice and believe in “the Dream.”

“Historians conjured the Dream. Hollywood fortified the Dream. The Dream was gilded by novels and adventure stories.”

Pat Conroy seems to acknowledge Coates’s point by calling Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1936) a “singular, canonical moment in Southern mythmaking” (see Conroy, My Reading Life, 2010). For Baldwin, a belief in the myth of human inequality “protects moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality.” In 1955, Baldwin wrote in Notes of a Native Son (1955) about history’s influence on the present:

“Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious, and the white man prefers to keep the black man at a certain human remove because it is easier for him thus to preserve his simplicity and avoid being called to account for crimes committed by his forefathers, or his neighbors…. Every legend, moreover, contains its residuum of truth, and the root function of language is to control the universe by describing it.”

Like Baldwin, Coates blames our lingering history—not individuals—for racial injustices today. “This is the import of the history all around us, though very few people like to think about it.” Coates explains to his son:

“The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from the police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight…. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.”

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates teaches his son about history, language, inequality, and opportunity. He reminds American readers that we can no longer look away.

“It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods.”

Let’s not forget our collective history as Americans. Let’s remember the good and the bad of how we arrived here. Let’s remember that Dr. King wrote to white clergymen in Birmingham from a narrow jail cell about the “interrelatedness of all communities and states,” proclaiming “[i]njustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (see King, Why We Can’t Wait, 1964). Today, let’s thank Coates for the reminder. Tomorrow, let’s not dare look away.

-Alex B. Johnson, Faulkner House Books

A Customer

Some years ago, just before closing, an attractive young woman came into the store and asked if she might browse for a while. She was casually dressed: frayed cut off jeans, a tee shirt, and thong sandals. I didn’t recall her being in the store before, so I explained how the books were organized and moved to the hallway. The shop is small and I did not want her to feel watched. Within a few minutes she selected a book and paid with cash. We exchanged customary pleasantries. She left, I locked up.

The next day, she returned with the actor Nicolas Cage, who had been in the store several times. Almost immediately, the two of them gathered a dozen or so recordings of famous writers reading their work. I mentioned to Cage before they left that his companion was here yesterday. “I know,” he replied, “she insisted on returning; she loves your bookstore. Let me introduce you to Patricia Arquette.”

-Joe DeSalvo, owner, Faulkner House Books

Louisiana Live Oak Trees

Two remarkable poems celebrate Louisiana’s moss-laden live oak trees. The first, “I Saw in Louisiana a Live Oak Growing,” Walt Whitman wrote. He and his younger brother, Jeff, came to New Orleans in February 1848 to work for a newspaper, the New Orleans Crescent, as a journalist and Jeff as a copy boy. They left before the end of the year because of their opposition to slavery.

The other poem, “Bearded Oaks,” Robert Penn Warren composed a century later. He too lived in Louisiana and taught for many years at Louisiana State University. Warren is the only writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for both poetry–Promises, in 1957–and for his classic novel–All The King’s Men, in 1946.

-Joe DeSalvo, owner, Faulkner House Books

 

I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing
By Walt Whitman

I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from
       the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering
       joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me
       think of myself,
But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves
       standing alone there without its friend near,
       for I knew I could not,
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of
       leaves upon it, and twined around it a little
       moss,
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight
       in my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear
       friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of
       them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me
       think of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens
       there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat
       space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend
       a lover near,
I know very well I could not.

 

Bearded Oaks
By Robert Penn Warren
The oaks, how subtle and marine!
Bearded, and all the layered light
Above them swims; and thus the scene,
Recessed, awaits the positive night.

So, waiting, we in the grass now lie
Beneath the languorous tread of light;
The grassed, kelp-like, satisfy
The nameless motions of the air.

Upon the floor of light, and time,
Unmurmuring, of polyp made,
We rest; we are, as light withdraws,
Twin atolls on a shelf of shade.

Ages to our construction went,
Dim architecture, hour by hour;
And violence, forgot now, lent
The present stillness all its power.

The storm of noon above us rolled,
Of light the fury, furious gold,
The long drag troubling us, the depth:
Unrocked is dark, unrippling, still.

Passion and slaughter, ruth, decay
Descended, whispered grain by grain,
Silted down swaying streams, to lay
Foundation for our voicelessness.

All our debate is voiceless here,
As all our rage is rage of stone;
If hopeless hope, fearless is fear,
And history is thus undone.

(Our feet once wrought the hollow street
With echo when the lamps were dead
All windows; once our headlight glare
Disturbed the doe that, leaping fled.)

The caged hearts make iron stroke,
I do not love you now the less,
Or less that all that light once gave
The graduate dark should now revoke

So little time we live in Time,
And we learn all so painfully,
That we may spare this hour’s term
To practice for Eternity.

The Funniest Book of 2015: The World’s Largest Man by Harrison Scott Key

This Thanksgiving, I gave thanks for a growing family, good friends, and The World’s Largest Man: A Memoir (HarperCollins, 2015) by Harrison Scott Key.

The World’s Largest Man is the funniest book I’ve ever read. Also, it’s the only book that I’ve read almost entirely aloud, my wife and I only pausing to let uncontrollable laughter subside before reading the passage over again.
HSK World's Largest Man

Harrison Scott Key, The World’s Largest Man: A Memoir. HarperCollins, 2015. Signed, $26.99.

Key’s humor and creative nonfiction has appeared in The Best American Travel Writing, Image, McSweeney’s, The New York Times, Outside, Reader’s Digest, and Salon. He is an editor at Oxford American where he writes a column entitled, “Big Chief Tablet”—a reference to Ignatius J. Reilly’s notes in A Confederacy of Dunces.

This first book pulls up a chair for Key at the table of Southern humor, a supper club still led by the prolific author and speaker, Roy Blount, Jr. The World’s Largest Man is a book-length love letter to his complicated and imposing, yet caring, father. It’s a collection of personal stories from childhood in rural Mississippi to adulthood in Savannah, all sewn together with threads of evolving relationships between Key and his parents and, in the later chapters, Key’s wife and daughters. However, there is nothing that I can say to enhance Key’s voice, so below is a sampling of what he brings to the table.

Key joined us in October for the 2015 Words & Music conference and signed a case of his books. Come buy one, and laugh as you read it aloud to your family over the holidays.

The first chapter begins with a context for storytelling:

They say the South is full of storytellers, but I am unconvinced. It seems more accurate to say that it is full of people who are very, very tired. At least this was my childhood experience is Mississippi, where there was very little to do but shoot things or get them pregnant. After a full day of killing and fornicating, it was only natural that everyone grew weary. So we sat around. Some would sit and nap, others would sit and drink. Frequently, there was drinking and then napping. The pious would read their Bibles, while their children would find a shady spot to know one another biblically, or perhaps give birth to a child from a previous knowing. Eventually, though, all the sitting led to talking, which supposedly led to all the stories, or at least the beginnings of stories.

In my family, we were unable to finish any. Until now.

His answer to the question, “What’s Mississippi really like?”

I can tell what they really want to ask is, What was it like to grow up around crazy people who believe that whatever can’t be shot should be baptized? But they are afraid to ask, because they are not yet sure if I am one of those people.

I am.

Kind of.

Not really.

Sometimes.

I do believe in the power of Jesus and rifles, but to keep things interesting, I also believe in the power of NPR and the scientific method. It is not easy explaining all this to educated people at cocktail parties, so instead I tell them that it was basically just like Faulkner described it, meaning that my state is too impoverished to afford punctuation, that I have seen children go without a comma for years, that I’ve seen some families save their whole lives for a semicolon.

While deer hunting with his brother, Bird:

I did what my brother said and climbed down, because while he may have lacked the ability to conjugate verbs, he would’ve known how to kill those verbs if they had been running through the forest. He was sixteen now, and he’d already killed his first, and his second, and third. Actually there was no telling how many he he’d killed. He obeyed so few hunting laws, largely as a result of his believing that he had Native American blood, which he believed absolved him from all state and federal hunting and drug statutes.

“Cherokee didn’t need no fucking hunting license,” he’d say.

What was the Trail of Tears like, I wanted to ask. Had that been hard, watching all his people die of the measles? But also, I wanted to believe. It was a story our grandmother had told us about being descended from a Cherokee chieftain, a version of the same fairy tale told to most poor whites and blacks across the South, a way of making us feel better about genocide and gambling. I’d heard that such blood could earn me a college scholarship, which I believed was my passage out of this alien land, while Bird used this story to explain his preternatural desire to learn things about animals by smelling their feces.”

As for hunting, Key prefers the grocery store:

Borden’s was our ice cream, and it came in a bucket the size of an above ground pool. How could hunting deer ever compare to hunting vanilla ice cream, which is generally docile and will let you pour syrup on it without running away?

His father’s beliefs:

My father believed a lot of crazy things: that men with earrings were queer, that the pope got to pick the Notre Dame football coach, that we couldn’t possibly have made all those expensive calls on the telephone bill. He would sit in his recliner and review the bill like some Old Testament scholar with a gift for high blood pressure….

Pop especially hated the Boy Scouts….

His only real belief about urban design was that houses should be far enough apart to let a man stand in his own front yard and relieve himself in relative privacy….

In my father’s house, having indoor pets was always a sign of moral decay, assumed to be clear evidence of mental illness and possibly drug addiction. If you wanted to get an animal into his house, you had to tell my father that you intended to eat it.

About learning to be a husband and a father:

If there is anything I learned out in the country, it was that the things that can kill you make you alive, and that you are never more alive than when you are getting beaten by your father because your mother thought you were dead.

And while to the casual observer I may not have turned out much like my father, I came to see in the first years of my marriage that I have proudly carried on this tradition of scoffing at women who are concerned for my safety, as I did with the woman I would marry….

Once we were married, she became even more like my mother, which I made sure not to tell her….

What I didn’t say was, I had very important reasons for throwing my child into the ceiling fan, and those reasons were that I wanted to see what would happen. This was my responsibility, as a man, to endanger the people I love in the service of knowledge that seems important at the time.

She asked me to stop it and all sorts of other silly things, such as to not let the baby stand on the counter and to keep the fireworks away from their faces and to lock the doors.

Lock the doors! Ridiculous!

-Alex B. Johnson, Faulkner House Books

Glowing with Memory and Meaning: Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk

h is for hawk

Helen MacDonald. H is for Hawk. Grove Press, 2014. 26.00.

All summer long a family of Mississippi Kites nested in a centuries-old Live Oak tree sprawling over shotgun houses across the corner of Octavia and Chestnut Streets. I noticed these sleek, soot-colored raptors soaring above me in the windy sky on Mother’s Day—never beating a wing—only slightly tilting their tails for direction. According to an Audubon Society field guide, adult Kites weigh about ten ounces spread across a three-foot wingspan. These silent hunters feed mostly on cicadas and flying insects, but also eat small rodents and birds.

Walking the dog this summer was much more interesting than usual because I was reading Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk (Grove Press, 2014), a tripartite story about the author’s love for her recently deceased father, for birds and nature, and for literature. MacDonald is a poet, historian, naturalist, and falconer. H Is for Hawk—a New York Times bestseller and winner of the UK’s Samuel Johnson Prize and Costa Book of the Year—displays her varied talents because it is not a simply a “birder” book. Rather, its many layers are inspirational for anyone familiar with grief and loss, or anyone ready for a change in life.

MacDonald is struggling to say goodbye to her father, a photographer, who taught her to find the memorable aspects of life’s otherwise mundane moments, and to savor them.

Now that Dad was gone I was starting to see how mortality was bound up in things like that cold, arc-lit sky. How the world is full of signs and wonders that come, and go, and if you are lucky you might see them. Once, twice. Perhaps never again.

MacDonald describes the prehistoric reality that birds of prey are beautiful killers. She meets nature—in all its wildness—with her own emotions, blending the acts of training a Goshawk with the process of exorcising grief and depression:

They were things of death and difficulty: spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths that lived and killed in woodland thickets. Falcons were the raptors I loved: sharp-winged, bullet-heavy birds with dark eyes and an extraordinary ease in the air. I rejoiced in their aerial verve, their friendliness, their breathtaking stoops from a thousand feet, wind tearing through their wings with the sound of ripping canvas.

MacDonald considers her Goshawk killing to eat while illuminating her acceptance of death:

How hearts do stop. A rabbit prostrate in a pile of leaves, clutched in eight gripping talons, the hawk mantling her wings over it, tail spread, eyes burning, nape-feathers raised in a tense and feral crouch…. The borders between life and death are somewhere in the taking of their meal…. Hunting makes you animal, but the death of an animal makes you human.

Throughout the book, she parallels T.H. White’s The Goshawk—and often his Arthurian novels, adapted into Disney’s The Sword in the Stone—as a modern balance to her experience training a Goshawk. White’s abusive youth and life as a closeted gay man led him to write about desolation, hunting, and the desire for freedom. To contextualize her modern falconry stories, MacDonald offers a cultural history of falconry to show these raptors’ permanence in our world. Hawks “conjure history,” for example:

For thousands of years hawks like her have been caught and trapped and brought into people’s houses. But unlike other animals that have lived in such close proximity to man, they have never been domesticated. It’s made them a powerful symbol of wildness in myriad cultures, and a symbol, too, of things that need to be tamed…. The birds we fly today are identical to those of five thousand years ago. Civilizations rise and fall, but the hawks stay the same…. History collapses when you hold a hawk…

Her story motivated me to keep watching my Mississippi Kite neighbors soaring overhead. I would follow the Kites around the block, watching them float, turn, and dive each morning and evening until mid-September when they migrated from the neighborhood for warmer weather. MacDonald explains how learning about our environment helps us learn about ourselves:

What happened over the years of my expeditions as a child was a slow transformation of my landscape over time into what naturalists call a local patch, glowing with memory and meaning.

Since finishing H Is for Hawk, I have noticed more amazing birds in my New Orleans “local patch”: Bald Eagles, Osprey, Cooper’s Hawks, Quaker Parrots, Red-Bellied Woodpeckers, Painted Buntings, and more. The often-mundane task of walking the dog now glows with memory and meaning. I have Helen MacDonald to thank for that, and I cannot forget H Is for Hawk—I can only recommend it.

– Alex B. Johnson, Faulkner House Books

A Literary Coincidence

Eighteenth century literary scholars have always been a bit baffled by the similarities between Dr. Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas and Voltaire’s Candide. Both are short philosophical novels; both were published in 1759, and neither author knew what the other was writing. Both Voltaire and Johnson were publishing, in different forms, views long held and often expressed. Both books were composed hastily; Candide in less than four weeks and Rasselas in seven evenings. Johnson claimed he wrote his novel to pay his mother’s funeral expenses. Johnson was 50 years old, Voltaire 65.

With Candide, Voltaire was responding to the philosophy of optimism, i.e. everything that happens is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Although it may not always seem so, Voltaire’s novel is hilariously funny, mostly because Candide remains obdurately optimistic despite the catastrophes constantly overwhelming him.

In Rasselas, Johnson explores various notions of happiness, its evanescence, and the preponderance of discontent, both in Prince Rasselas’ ‘happy valley,’ where his every whim is indulged, and in the outside world, to which the Prince escaped in an effort to satisfy the insatiable hunger of his imagination.

 

-Joe DeSalvo, Owner, Faulkner House Books

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven

station 11 faulkner house books

Station Eleven. Emily St. John Mandel. Vintage.

When I recommend this book to customers, they are often wary when I describe it as a work of science fiction. Somehow, sci fi has become a dirty word among a certain literary set, signifying socially awkward middle schoolers and Star Trek conventions. I want to join a growing group of readers in making a case for sci fi as an essential literary genre, and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is a perfect example.

A 2015 National Book Award finalist and a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, this novel is undeniably literary in its scope. Mandel tells the story of the Georgia Flu, a deadly pandemic that wipes out 99.9% of the human population. The setting shifts among the weeks just before the pandemic, the days after, the years before, and twenty years afterwards. The tale follows Kristen, who was a child when the illness struck, and is now, twenty years later, a member of a traveling symphony, whose slogan, “Survival is insufficient,” comes from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. One of Kristen’s only memories of the time before the plague is from a production of King Lear, in which she was a child actor alongside the movie star Arthur Leander.

Leander, who is long-dead by the time of the novel’s present moment, links together a cast of unexpected characters who play roles of varying significance to the post-apocalyptic world: his best friend; his son; an ex-paparazzo; two ex-wives, one an actress, another an illustrator; and, of course, Kristen. As the story unfolds, the connections are revealed, while at the same time we learn more about the scope of this new world. Here, there is no electricity; no readily available medicine; no cities. People live in settlements, devoting their lives to the necessities of survival.

The traveling symphony is a light in this darkness, bringing performances of Shakespeare to inhabitants of the settlements, giving them a brief respite in the form of great art. This book, though post-apocalyptic, reminds the reader of the beauty and persevering spirit of humanity. Station Eleven gets at a fundamental truth of the human condition: the indomitable will not only to survive, but to thrive. This novel brings to mind a quote from Bertolt Brecht:

In the dark times,
will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.

-Jade Hurter, Faulkner House Books