Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Imperium in Imperio, by Sutton Griggs (1893) -- an obscure hidden gem of a novel

Modern Library Classics, 2003
originally published 1899
177 pp


With only a few exceptions, I've been very lucky in my reading choices this year, and I count myself beyond fortunate to have discovered this book, Imperium in Imperio, which was published in 1899.  The author, Sutton E. Griggs, was the pastor at a Baptist church, but he was also very active in promoting and working toward a goal of racial equality.  In 1914, he began to organize a number of different groups including the National Welfare League and the National Religious and Civic Institute for the Baptists of Houston. The man had no fear -- evidently, in 1927, he spoke out publicly in Houston advocating that "the black race should enjoy the same rights and privileges as other American citizens." Griggs also was a part of the Niagara Movement established by W.E.B. DuBois in 1905, a civil rights organization which preceded the NAACP and one whose success was hindered by people like Booker T. Washington, who refused to support it or to give it air time in the Black media of the day. Becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of change, Griggs took to writing to espouse his cause and Imperium in Imperio is his first novel. Four more would followbut it was this first effort that eventually led to Griggs' reputation as a Black nationalist. And considering when this book was published, it has so much relevance to our modern world that it's time to bring this author out of obscurity and into the light.

While I won't go heavily into plot here, the story follows two men who grew up in the same small Virginia town.  Both were highly intelligent as children, even though they came from two different worlds: Bernard is the privileged son of a lighter-skinned black woman, while Belton comes from an impoverished background where his mom supports her children by doing laundry for white people.   Belton's mother saw great things in her son, and she was wise enough to realize that a good education would be vital to his future.  Eventually Bernard, whose father has secretly provided every advantage, goes off to Harvard.  Belton, whose college career was funded by a local newspaper editor,  makes his way to Nashville to Stowe University, a black school supported by white philanthropists in the North. Upon graduating, both settle into their respective careers: Bernard to Virginia and politics where he hopes to make inroads into taming white bigotry, and  Belton to Richmond to teach "in one of the colored schools" there.  Sadly, his time there was cut short; he moves on to another short-lived job as a stamping clerk in the post office.  When that job is taken from him, he is stuck:
"The white people would not employ him..., and the colored people did not have any enterprises in which they could employ him."
As the author notes,
"If a man of education among the colored people did such manual labor, he was looked upon as an eternal disgrace to the race. He was looked upon as throwing his education away and lowering its value in the eyes of the children who were to come after him." 
 It wasn't just Belton, though -- as more African-American men were graduating from college, they slowly came to realize that "there was no employment for them." While this situation produced an "army of malcontents and insurrection breeders," Belton decides not to join them, opting instead to take a recently-opened position as president of an African-American college in Louisiana.  However, he discovers what lies in store for black people who refuse to submit to a certain racist vigilante group there and undergoes a horrific experience that lands him in jail. It takes Bernard's political pull to get him out, but Belton has had enough. What follows in this novel continues this story, as the back cover notes, leading to the moment when the two meet up again and are
"driven to join a radical movement dedicated to the creation of an all-black nation in Texas."
That's about as much as I'm willing to say about his novel. While it's possible to read this just for story, its brilliance is that it  works under the surface on so many levels, providing much food for thought, as well as a  large number of topics prompting me to further research for reading.

Sutton E. Griggs, from

 While as one might imagine, a certain amount of melodrama comes into this story (I mean, come on -- it did have to sell and people love a good melodrama),  it is such a great novel that it really deserves to be more widely read by anyone interested in American literature, in African-American literature, or in Black history.  I think this is most certainly a milestone work, but while different, it's certainly not the first black political novel or the first novel advocating black nationalism as a number of people claim.  There is an earlier, probably even more overlooked book called  Blake, or the Huts of America written by Martin R. Delany in 1861/1862 that should also be appreciated for its author's understanding of "the realization of the intensity and persistence of white racism," and for the actions taken by the characters in that novel.  I just never know which book I open is hiding that unknown, obscure hidden gem -- along with Blake, I've  found it in Imperium in Imperio.  It is important, it is powerful, and it is beyond relevant in our own time.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

Harper Collins, 2015
278 pp


Go Set a Watchman is my book group's last read until September, or it would probably still be sitting on my shelf unread. I was one of those "oh my god an undiscovered novel by Harper Lee" people who got it the day it came out.  It's my practice not to read actual reviews of a book before I read the book, but it was really tough to not get that this book caused no end of controversy upon its publication.  I mean, when people are taking their books back and stores are actually offering refunds, I take notice.  I also took notice when I started hearing people complain that the Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird wouldn't espouse the same sort of racist, paternalistic and frankly horrific views that he does in Go Set a Watchman.  Then, of course, there's the big scandal over provenance ... but quite frankly, I wasn't really that curious about these things enough to want to make me pull the book off my shelves and actually read it right away.  Other books came along, and life, and well frankly I sort of forgot the book was there until I was scanning shelves to put together a book-group reading list for 2016.

After reading it, it occurred to me that the same people who were so upset over the change in Atticus Finch between To Kill A Mockingbird and this novel are facing the same issue that Jean Louise (aka Scout) faces toward her father here. As so well stated by Jean Louise's Uncle Jack, there are icons being broken in this story, which is one thing I think many of the readers just couldn't handle, hence the returns of this book and the many, many people who said they wouldn't be reading this because they couldn't bear for their hero to turn out to be different than he was in To Kill A Mockingbird. It's sort of ironic in a way that the very disillusionment facing Jean Louise transfers over to some of the reading public as well.  I have to admit that while I was reading I didn't think about the whole Atticus Finch controversy and all of the other issues associated with this book, because I didn't want to be influenced.   So when I say that I wasn't in love with this book, I can honestly say that it has absolutely nothing to do with any of that, and I'm not going to talk about any of that here.   My issue with this novel is that it is, for the most part, a big mess of a book. I have to side with the people who argue that rather than this book appearing as a sequel, this is instead a draft, an unfinished work, and I have to full-on disagree with the dust-jacket blurb that calls this book a novel of "... effortless precision."

Don't get me wrong -- I do think there are some really good moments in this book where Harper Lee's brilliance as an author shines through. For example, one thing done very well here is how she sets up Jean Louise's dilemma -- here's a girl who has strong ties to the south and to her family, yet finds herself at odds with both in terms of how she views the issue of racial equality.  That is definitely a very tough situation to be in, and we feel it. While her anxiety is a bit overdone (okay, overwrought)  at times, it does come through loud and clear.

My unhappiness with this book really is in how it's written. Aside from some not-credible dialogue and characters that feel sort of half finished, my biggest issue here seems to be  a major tendency of the author to meander, to go off point and to interrupt the momentum at critical junctures.  It is really all over the map, giving this novel a sort of disjointed feel, making me wish the story would please get back on track in several spots.  For example,  it takes until page 101, where Jean Louise discovers a racist pamphlet called The Black Plague near her father's chair, for us to get into the heart of this novel.  This discovery is followed by Jean Louise secretly following her father and Hank to the courthouse, where, from her place in the balcony she hears the main speaker who as it happens, is a racist who travels all over to spread his gospel of hate.  Worse for her though is the fact that she sees "Men of substance and character, responsible men, good men..." sitting there, seemingly taking in what this "man who spewed filth from his mouth..." is saying, and comes to the conclusion that Atticus and the people she's known all her life  have "failed her."  So now we're at the heart of this story but then what happens? Pretty much right away, from page 125 straight through page 140 we go back in time to Jean Louise's childhood to sixth grade where where Scout gets kissed by a boy, gets her period, thinks she's pregnant, and Calpurnia sets her straight. Momentum lost.  When we finally get back from this interlude, Jean Louise visits her Uncle Jack and we're in for a long series of pages where Uncle Jack babbles on, giving Jean Louise "some kind of elaborate runaround,"  trying to explain things while not really saying much at all.  But wait, there's more: while Jack leaves Jean Louise wondering what the heck just happened there, another flashback appears, another nineteen full pages of memories about the time Jean Louise lost her falsies at a school dance.

Perhaps the flashbacks were used to illustrate Uncle Jack's idea that
"'s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are."
or maybe they speak to Jean Louise's ties to place, family and friends, but at the same time they pop up at exactly the wrong times in the narrative, sort of negating any momentum gained from a previous scene.   At one point both Jean Louise asks "What's this got to do with the price of eggs in China?,"  which could easily sum up my feelings about including the long flashbacks.

If I consider the brilliance of  To Kill a Mockingbird, it's definitely difficult to justify how a novel filled with this many flaws is the polished, finished work of the same author, which is why I don't really believe it's a sequel at all, although it was presented to readers as such.  I have to agree with this article which states
"Lee handed in the manuscript of Watchman in 1957; her editor, Tay Hohoff, described it as ”more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel,” guiding a wholesale revision of the novel into Mockingbird, which was published in 1960. It’s not clear that Lee, now 89 and ailing,  ever intended to publish Watchman as a separate book."
I also agree with the author of this article from The New Republic
"For once, none of those flaws in the novel can be blamed on the author:   She was learning how to write when she composed Watchman, and wasn’t able to ready this draft for publication. In the two and a half years it took her to turn this mess into To Kill a Mockingbird, she evolved beautifully as a stylist and storyteller, helped along by an astute editor. " 

I'm just an ordinary Joe kind of reader person, not skilled at all in literary stuff, but I do know that skilled, artful  writing in most cases should take precedence over plot. Here I didn't really find that to be the case.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Girls, by Emma Cline

Random House, 2016
355 pp


"Was it strange that people loved these creatures that could harm them?"

Let's just get this out of the way  -- anyone expecting a redo of the Charlie Manson family story won't find it here, although there are  certainly a number of striking parallels. No, at its heart, this book is much more a teenage girl's coming of age story as well as an examination of just how easy it can be for disaffected, immature, and vulnerable adolescent girls to become victims of others who offer them what they're lacking, and who are then ready and willing to take advantage of them, usually at great cost.

Now in middle age, Evie Boyd lives a secluded life taking live-in aide jobs when they come up.  As the novel opens, she is in between jobs and staying at a friend's Northern California vacation home where the nearby beach is unpopular, rarely seeing anyone.  One night, though, she hears what she thinks are intruders in the house, and ready for her fate, decides she'll wait it out in her room. That is the plan, until she hears "the girl."  As it turns out, the people in the house are the owner's son Julian and a very young girl named Sasha; it doesn't take  Evie long to realize that theirs is a relationship very much dominated by Julian.  As she notes,
"Poor Sasha. Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get. The treacled pop songs, the dresses described in the catalogs with words like 'sunset' and 'Paris.' Then the dreams are taken away with such violent force; the hand wrenching the buttons of the jeans, nobody looking at the man shouting at his girlfriend on the bus."
What she feels for Sasha is sorrow, but more importantly, she sees in her something of herself as a young teen.The story that follows is revealed retrospectively by middle-aged Evie, looking back on her own  fourteenth year in the summer of 1969.  It begins with something extraordinary happening in Evie's life, the day she first sees a group of girls making their way through a park to take food out of a dumpster.   She's entranced by how they
"were dear to one another, the girls, that they'd passed into a familial contract -- that they were sure of what they were together." 
That was Evie's first sight of Suzanne, and Evie is immediately captivated.  At home, Evie's parents are divorced, her mom is working to find herself, taking up all manner of therapies, classes, styles, and men. Dad has a new, younger wife; Evie and her best friend are on the outs and Evie is left alone to try to make sense of herself and her dull, sheltered middle-class existence. She wants more than anything to be accepted, to belong, and the fact that she understands Suzanne as " a part of a we" is something Evie envies.  It isn't long until Evie is taken to "the ranch" where the girls live.  There she is welcomed warmly by the leader of this group, Russell Hadrick, who sadly, Evie fails to recognize as the predator he really is, taken in by his charisma, his chord-striking teachings, and especially his personal attention to her.  And while there are some things that give Evie pause, she is too into her newly-found freedom, her happiness at belonging,  and her love for/devotion to Suzanne to recognize them as warning signs to be heeded.

Considering that I normally cannot stand coming-of-age, adolescent-centered stories, I have to give the author a lot of credit here. I was caught up in this book, but quite honestly I think it is because of a) the bold move the author makes with the Manson-like cult setting where Evie first gets to spread her wings and, b) even more importantly,  because of the author's incredible writing talent. I was blown away knowing that this was her first novel.   I marked and mulled over  a huge number of  passages that were, for lack of a better word, simply dazzling.  But  to me,  if you remove the cult setting, you  are really in very familiar territory here -- the teenage girl who feels alone, isolated and who senses she's being constantly being judged by  and measured against others,  the mom who is too busy with her own life to pay attention, the ineffective dad with his younger wife, the desire to overcome limits and taste a measure of true freedom when given the chance, etc. -- and actually, that's the thing that kept me from enjoying this book as much as I might have otherwise. On the other hand, this just may be THE big summer blockbuster once word gets out, and it's already getting great reader reviews everywhere you turn. I liked it, didn't love it. I also wouldn't be surprised if there's a movie.

 Okay, now that that's out of the way, for anyone wanting a genuine review rather than just my own casual-reader reaction, here is a link to the New Yorker's review by James Wood, who I want to be someday when I grow up and learn to properly read and write.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Azazeel, by Youssef Ziedan -- read this book!

Atlantic Books, 2013
originally published 2009
translated by Jonathan Wright
212 pp


"Don't confuse matters, my son, for those are people of power, not people of faith, people of profane cruelty, not of divine love." --131

In a 2010 interview, author Youssef Ziedan notes that his book
" is an invitation to reject religious intolerance, the claim that violent acts in society are done in the name of [God], and to reject those who have made themselves the congress of God on earth."  
He certainly doesn't need to convince me because I've thought this way for as long as I can remember.   I've also always thoroughly believed the next thing the author says in that same interview, which is that
"Religious violence is not linked to a particular religion -- it is linked to people who have specific secular interests and use religion to achieve these interests."
Indeed, this idea comes through very clearly in this book, which is one I very much enjoyed after a bit of a shaky start and one I can recommend most highly. Given what's happening in our world today, it  is a timely read, and  I hope it becomes more widely available in the US since only used copies are available, and those are mainly offered from the UK.

Before starting the novel, it is probably advisable to read the translator's notes at the back of the book, which I should have done but did not.  It seems that this book caused no small bit of controversy after its publication; Bishop Cyril is a "revered figure in the Coptic tradition," and evidently a number of Coptic commentators charged the author with misrepresenting him.  Ziedan's  response:  "the history of the period is part of his own heritage as an Egyptian, not the exclusive purview of the Coptic hierarchy."  The translator also notes that  English-language readers "can certainly ignore these controversies," and
"enjoy the work for its narrative power, for its evocation of a neglected period that was formative in the evolution of Christianity, and for its sympathetic portrayal of the humble monk Hypa's struggles with doubt and with the temptations of the world."
And that is precisely what should happen as people read this book,  although personally, now I'm really interested in this controversy so I'll probably read more about it.

 Ziedan begins this tale with a first-person narrative revealing that the story that the reader is about to experience had been found in 1997 during an archaeological excavation of ruins to the northwest of the city of Aleppo, in Syria; more specifically, a set of scrolls containing this account were found along the "last stage along the famous Silk Road,"  ranging from Asia to the Mediterranean; the road also linked the two cities of Aleppo and Antioch.  They tell the story of anonymous monk who had given himself the  name of Hypa, and who, in the year 431 AD, had undergone a self-imposed forty-day period of seclusion in the monastery where he currently lives.  It is an uneasy time in the Christian world -- as Hypa notes, 431 was an "unfortunate year, in which the venerable bishop Nestorius was excommunicated and burnt to death."

  [sidebar: if anyone is all interested in the conflict between Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople and Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, a brief but intense examination of the Christological debate is available here.]

While I'm not going to go too much into plot here, the story (aka this novel)  handed to us by the anonymous translator of Hypa's chronicle interweaves Hypa's personal account of his journeys, both spiritual and physical, his doubts and "constant uncertainty," along  with the known history of the early Catholic church of this period.  Hypa writes his narrative urged on by the titular Azazeel, who is best known as the tempter causing Adam and Eve to be exiled forever from the  Garden of Eden; he is also, as Hypa comes to understand in a feverish delirium, an inner alter ego, "another me." Hypa's story takes him from childhood, where he first became a victim of Christian intolerance toward nonbelievers, into Alexandria to medical school.   It is also in Alexandria under the auspices of  Bishop (called Pope there) Cyril, who lives by the words of Christ
"Think not I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword,"
 that Hypa hears his fellow Christians proposing the most brutal and inhumane treatment of Jews and other non-Christians in their zeal to "cleanse the land of the Lord."  However, there is one particularly horrific event that not only leads to Hypa leaving Alexandria never to return,  but also to question his faith.    From Alexandria he wanders through the Sinai desert, making his way into Jerusalem, where he meets Nestorius; from there he makes his way to the monastery from which he is writing the account of "everything which has happened in my life."   It is also a novel that just begs the question of how  heresy can exist when truth/orthodoxy seems to be an elusive concept, and thus we go back to my opening quotations from the interview with the author.

To be very honest, I got to about page 112 or so and really wasn't getting much out of this novel. However, I turned back to all of the blurb raves about it at the beginning of the book and decided I must have missed something, so I started it completely over again. First, though, I spent some time doing some research on early Christian history, theological debates etc., to make myself familiar with the Cyril/Nestorius issues as well as Arian and other heresies before returning, this time much more confident. It's not necessary, really,  but it's just a personal thing -- I want to know what I'm reading, especially since I was not too familiar with the theological issues at stake here.  My point is that it seems to start out slowly but it does pick up, so for Pete's sake, don't apply that silly 50-page rule here, or the best parts of this novel will be lost. I can certainly and without hesitation recommend this book.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

no, I'm not dead ... just frazzled

Last night in a conversation with someone re upcoming books, I was reminded I haven't been keeping up with things here.  Guilty as charged.  For the last two months it's been insane Jane time here at casa mia; away from home, sick, company, away from home, more company, and vacation.  Not that I haven't been reading, because I have, but I still have books from way back in March that I haven't posted about!  Not laziness, no; just a case of needing time to breathe.

 I recently finished Nabokov's Despair (a wonderful book, by the way, and I'll post about it soon), which was focused on one of the most narcissistic/solipsistic characters ever in the history of my reading career. In that book, the main character Hermann decides that he has met his double/doppelganger, and he devises  some pretty nefarious plans built around the poor, unsuspecting guy. He also has one of the creepiest worldviews ever encapsulated in a novel, but more later on that (and hopefully shortly). After finishing it, I found myself fascinated with literary doppelgangers, so added to my already lengthy, never-ending tbr pile are the following:

  1. The Poor Clare, by Elizabeth Gaskell
  2. Aiding and Abetting, by Muriel Spark
  3. The Double, by Dostoevsky
  4. The Devil's Elixirs, by ETA Hoffman and
  5. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, by James Hogg
So no, I'm not dead but just trying to keep my head above water book- and otherwise. Don't worry, Lisa!