‘Tis the Season to be Bookish #1
Of course, all seasons are bookish, don’t you think?
It’s been a great reading year for me. I’ve read 127 books so far (I expect to finish a couple more before the year is out).
For the next little while I want to share with you the books I enjoyed most. I’ll share five at a time. As most of you know, I don’t read only the newest books on the shelves. I like to find delicious books from all time periods, so my lists are a bit, um, eclectic. Hope you find something that will please you.
I present them in the order I read them.
TRISTANA by Benito Perez Galdos, Translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Introduction by Jeremy Treglown (NYRB Classics Original).
I can do no better than this NPR review, by Juan Vidal:
History and literature are fraught with men of insatiable appetites, who use their gifts of seduction to charm their way into many a bedroom: Casanova, Lord Byron, Don Juan, the list goes on. In Tristana, Benito Pérez Galdós’ masterful 1892 novel — newly reissued by NYRB Classics in a translation by Margaret Jull Costa — we meet a man of Byronic decadence: Don Lope, an aging lover whose sexual conquests know no bounds. He’s a man of contradictory ideals, who’s developed a complex and manufactured morality that lets him prey on the unfortunate while still maintaining a sense of himself as a gentleman. Poetry and philosophy at its crux, the novel is a bold and telling illustration of 19th century Spain.The Tristana of the title is a beautiful orphan whose family debts have been paid by the dubiously gallant Don Lope. Before long, he falls for her, and applies, as he puts it, “the law of love.” Three times Tristana’s age, the old wretch takes her captive and makes her his property; Tristana, not knowing any better, puts up with it.
Eventually, though, she comes to her senses, and in her intimate conversations with the house maid Saturna, Tristana begins to voice her desire to be free, to be the property of no man. Perhaps she’ll write, paint, learn other languages. In her mind, the possibilities are truly endless — and when she meets the young, strapping painter Horacio, everything changes. Having never been so taken aback by anyone, she pleads with Saturna to steer her right: “Advise me, guide me. I don’t know about these things.” Tristana and Horacio, enamored of one another, soon begin exchanging letters and meeting for walks.
Don Lope suspects that Tristana is seeing someone, which she denies profusely. When — after much interrogation — she finally comes clean concerning her relationship with Horacio, their lives take on a new rhythm. But then Tristana falls gravely ill, the prospect of happiness becomes more of an illusion, and desperate choices must be made.
Pérez Galdós has long been revered as one of the greatest European novelists, and Tristana leaves us with little doubt as to why. His treatment of Don Lope is a testament to his overwhelming ability as an architect of characters: While he establishes early on that the old predator operates out of a fairly illogical moral center, he doesn’t neglect Don Lope’s innate sense of charity and altruism — a certain goodness that makes it more difficult to dismiss the man completely. Pérez Galdós leaves it up to the reader to decide just what to make of Don Lope and his predilections. Is he an entirely bad person? Are any of us righteous enough to judge him?
Even more interesting is the way Pérez Galdós writes about women, with veiled rants about their mistreatment that border on modern feminism. His description of Tristana’s mental enslavement is stunning, making much of the sheer wrongness without getting preachy. Though not overtly political, Pérez Galdós offers a glimpse at the limitations placed on women in an era when opportunities were scarce and the injustices were plenty.
Told in sophisticated yet enveloping prose, Tristana is a treasure that should not be overlooked. Pérez Galdós barely breaks a sweat as he weaves a tale of intelligence and emotional richness comparable to the works of Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert. And while the pace of the story is expertly controlled, there is an urgency to each sentence, paragraph, page. At its heart, it’s about how we should hurry up and become who we are. Or else.
THE TRUE DECEIVER by Tove Jansson, Translation by Thomas Teal, Introduction by Ali Smith. (NYRBooks)
A remarkable book, deceptively simple, elegant and profound.
Deception—the lies we tell ourselves and the lies we tell others—is the subject of this, Tove Jansson’s most unnerving and unpredictable novel. Here Jansson takes a darker look at the subjects that animate the best of her work, from her sensitive tale of island life, The Summer Book, to her famous Moomin stories: solitude and community, art and life, love and hate.
Snow has been falling on the village all winter long. It covers windows and piles up in front of doors. The sun rises late and sets early, and even during the day there is little to do but trade tales. This year everybody’s talking about Katri Kling and Anna Aemelin.
Katri is a yellow-eyed outcast who lives with her simpleminded brother and a dog she refuses to name. She has no use for the white lies that smooth social intercourse, and she can see straight to the core of any problem. Anna, an elderly children’s book illustrator, appears to be Katri’s opposite: a respected member of the village, if an aloof one. Anna lives in a large empty house, venturing out in the spring to paint exquisitely detailed forest scenes. But Anna has something Katri wants, and to get it Katri will take control of Anna’s life and livelihood.
By the time spring arrives, the two women are caught in a conflict of ideals that threatens to strip them of their most cherished illusions.
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK by James Baldwin.
This devastating books should be required reading for every human on the planet.
In this honest and stunning novel, James Baldwin has given America a moving story of love in the face of injustice. Told through the eyes of Tish, a nineteen-year-old girl, in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin’s story mixes the sweet and the sad. Tish and Fonny have pledged to get married, but Fonny is falsely accused of a terrible crime and imprisoned. Their families set out to clear his name, and as they face an uncertain future, the young lovers experience a kaleidoscope of emotions-affection, despair, and hope. In a love story that evokes the blues, where passion and sadness are inevitably intertwined, Baldwin has created two characters so alive and profoundly realized that they are unforgettably ingrained in the American psyche.
BROTHER by David Chariandy.
This book is everything the back cover copy says it is:
Michael and Francis are coming of age one sweltering summer in the Park, a housing complex outside of Toronto, learning to stomach the careless prejudices and low expectations that confront them as young men of black and brown ancestry. While their Trinidadian single mother works double, sometimes triple shifts so her boys might fulfill the elusive promise of their adopted home, Francis helps the days pass by inventing games and challenges, bringing Michael to his crew’s barbershop hangout, and leading escapes into the cool air of the Rouge Valley, a scar of green wilderness where they are free to imagine better lives for themselves.
Propelled by the beats and styles of hip hop, Francis dreams of a future in music. Michael’s dreams are of Aisha, the smartest girl in their high school whose own eyes are firmly set on a life elsewhere. But the bright hopes of all three are violently, irrevocably thwarted by a tragic shooting, and the police crackdown and suffocating suspicion that follows.
Honest and insightful in its portrayal of kinship, community, and lives cut short, David Chariandy’s Brother is an emotional tour de force that marks the arrival of a stunning new literary voice.
SOLITARY by Albert Woodfox.
This extraordinary memoir of a man who spent four decades in solitary confinement will, I suspect, change the way you see the world, and your ability to live well in it, regardless of circumstances. This review by Dwight Garner sums it up:
“Albert Woodfox grew up poor in New Orleans’s Treme neighborhood. He didn’t know his father. His mother, who could not read or write, sometimes prostituted herself to keep food on the table for Albert and his siblings.
He turned to crime young. For a while his misdeeds were on the mild side, the sort of antics that Chuck Berry referred to in his autobiography as “hubcap ripping and parked-car creeping, dime-store clipping and window peeping.”
They got more serious. By the time he was in his teens, he was breaking into houses and convenience stores. He stole cars, mugged people, joined a gang and got a heroin habit. He once broke out of prison and, on his way home, appropriated a cement mixer, roaring away at 10 miles per hour. He was caught because he left his wallet on the dashboard.
Woodfox spends the first sections of his uncommonly powerful memoir, “Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement. My Story of Transformation and Hope,” objectively detailing his young life of crime. This is not easy reading. What life did not give him, he was determined to take.
“I robbed people, scared them, threatened them, intimidated them,” he writes. “I stole from people who had almost nothing. My people. Black people. I broke into their homes and took possessions they worked hard for; took their wallets out of their pockets. I beat people up. I was a chauvinist pig.”
The first time he was sent to Angola — the notorious maximum-security prison farm in Louisiana, named after the plantation that once occupied its land — he got a tattoo from another inmate: Charles Neville, the musician. That was an eight-month stretch.
In 1969, when he was 22, Woodfox was sentenced to 50 years for armed robbery. With good behavior he expected to be released in half that time.
In various prisons he’d met members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. They gave him books to read and a historical sense of his people and his past. He learned about the racial iniquities (all-white juries and police forces, for starters) of the American justice system.
By the time he got back to Angola, he writes, “I was a black man with a long prison sentence ahead of me. Inside, however, everything had changed. I had morals, principles and values I never had before.” He adds: “I would never be a criminal again.”
But on April 17, 1972, a white prison guard named Brent Miller was killed at Angola. Woodfox and another member of the Panthers were accused of the murder, despite an utter lack of evidence. A sham trial commenced, and they were found guilty and sentenced to life in solitary.
For a crime he did not commit, Woodfox would spend more than four decades in solitary confinement: 23 hours a day in a 6-by-9-foot cell. He recounts consistently brutal treatment by guards, rats and vermin, deadly heat and no way out of solitary for good behavior. His memoir is the story of how he survived.
The “legacy of slavery” was everywhere at Angola, Woodfox writes. When he arrived it was segregated. White prisoners mostly worked indoors while the black prisoners worked the fields, often cutting sugar cane under the supervision of guards with shotguns.
The prison had a rape culture. The day new inmates arrived was called “fresh fish day,” and sexual predators lined up to view the goods. “If you were raped at Angola, or what was called ‘turned out,’ your life in prison was virtually over,” he writes.
Woodfox was tough enough to protect himself. He later began to shield other men from rape on principle, often taking beatings in the process.The heart of “Solitary” is Woodfox’s decision to “take my pain and turn it into compassion, and not hate.” He read legal books and began to win lawsuits over cruel and unusual punishment. His memoir is strewn with words from others he read while in prison — Nelson Mandela, James Baldwin, Frantz Fanon, Frederick Douglass.
He taught men to read. He organized umpteen hunger strikes. He made a difference in many men’s lives.
“Solitary” is a profound book about friendship. Along with Robert King and Herman Wallace, Woodfox became known as part of the “Angola 3.” These men were mostly kept separated from one another, but managed to remain in contact. “I didn’t know how so much loyalty and devotion could exist between three men,” Woodfox writes.
Slowly, word of their decades in solitary began to leak out. This story has many heroes, men and women who worked to bring the men’s story to the public and to demonstrate their innocence in the murder of the prison guard. Some of them are lawyers.
Others are those like the late Anita Roddick, the founder of The Body Shop, an early supporter of the Angola 3 who devoted a great deal of time and money to their cause. The prisoners were the subject of a documentary, “In the Land of the Free” (2010), and Amnesty International published a report on them in 2011.
This story, which Woodfox has written with Leslie George, is told simply but not tersely. If it sometimes induces claustrophobia, well, it’s meant to. Very often the painful details, and the author’s own humanity in the face of them, start to make your chest feel too small. Only occasionally, when recounting the details of Woodfox’s many appeals and retrials and attempts at retrials, does this memoir perhaps necessarily step into the weeds.
In 2007, a Louisiana judge wrote that, by 1999, “these plaintiffs had been in extended lockdown more than anyone in Angola’s history, and more than any other living prisoner in the entire United States.”
Wallace had terminal liver cancer and died in 2013, days after he was released from prison when a judge ruled that his original indictment in the killing of the guard had been unconstitutional. King was released from prison in 2001. Woodfox remained behind bars until 2016.
“We knew that we were not locked up in a cell 23 hours a day because of what we did,” he writes. “We were there because of who we were.”
Woodfox reminds us, in “Solitary,” of the tens of thousands of men, women and children in solitary confinement in the United States. This is torture of a modern variety.
If the ending of this book does not leave you with tears pooling down in your clavicles, you are a stronger person than I am. More lasting is Woodfox’s conviction that the American justice system is in dire need of reform.
He doesn’t quote Dostoyevsky, but I will: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
I hope this introduces you to a couple of books you might not have heard of, and that you will enjoy them as much as I did…. more to come. Stay tuned.
[…] books I read and loved this year. The fourth and final post. You can pursue the other selections here and here and […]