Review: Dhalgren

Dahlgren by Samuel Delany

Title: Dhalgren
Author: Samuel R. Delany
Published: 2010
ISBN-13: 9780375706684
Publisher: Vintage Books
Publishers’ BlurbBellona is a city at the dead center of the United States. Something has happened there … The population has fled. Madmen and criminals wander the streets. Strange portents appear in the cloud-covered sky. Into this disaster zone comes a young man—poet, lover, and adventurer—known only as the Kid.

Tackling questions of race, gender, and sexuality, Dhalgren is a literary marvel and groundbreaking work of American magical realism.

Dhalgren is supposed to be one of Delany’s classics. He got praise for being post-(something). 400 pages in, I gave up because the sex is just too much. The section I was reading was nothing but graphic sex for almost 40 pages.

I knew going in I wouldn’t understand a lot of what was happening because it was experimental, and I think reading Kerouac prepared me for that.

So yeah, I hit the DNF wall. I don’t want to wade through all that just to see what’s on the other side.

New to the Stacks: 2021

The Roman Way by Edith Hamilton – read (No Review)
Fantastic Americana by Josh Rountree
Mindhunter by Mark Olshaker & John E. Douglas – read (no review)
Mythology by Edith Hamilton – read (no review)
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany – DNF (review)
The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov
Babel-17/Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany
Parable Of The Talents by Octavia Butler
Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
NOVA by Samuel R. Delany
Tales of Neveryon by Samuel R. Delany
The Jewels Of Aptor by Samuel R. Delany – read (No Review)

Review: Bound to Last – 30 Writers and Their Most Cherished Book

Bound to Last – 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book edited by Sean Manning

Title: Bound to Last – 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book
Author: edited by Sean Manning
Published: 2010
ISBN-13:9780306819216
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Publishers’ Blurb: In Bound to Last,an amazing array of authors comes to the passionate defense of the printed book with spirited, never-before-published essays celebrating the hardcover or paperback they hold most dear — not necessarily because of its contents, but because of its significance as a one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable object. Whether focusing on the circumstances behind how a particular book was acquired, or how it has become forever “bound up” with a specific person, time, or place, each piece collected here confirms–poignantly, delightfully, irrefutably–that every book tells a story far beyond the one found within its pages.

Not too long ago, in a pre-pandemic life, an excited writer came to me with an idea to write a book.  It would have to do with asking a large number of writers in sf/f what they were reading and how it might be informing their process.  It was meant to be a long term project so we built in room for churn.  Since this writer was a full-time writer, I knew the research and analysis would fall to me.  My exuberance spilled onto a Google spreadsheet code named Project Algorithmic Despotism – a  bleak nod to the part algorithms play in the world, from buying books to getting routes as a gig driver.

The writer called my spreadsheet, “shiny.”  And we plotted and planned what needed to be done.  Several months later I asked if, not when, we would still be working on this book.  The pandemic by then had closed the world and it just felt impossible we would be doing anything with it until things normalized.  Devastatingly, the writer’s response was, “Remind me what book?”  That they couldn’t even remember the pitch or the work we had already done shut me down nearly completely.  For over a year, I didn’t read or write.  What was the use?

But while still in the thrall of this project, I came across Bound to Last and thought it might give me some perspective and ideas about our own project.  And to be completely honest, it was Ray Bradbury’s name on the cover which sealed the transaction.

The world is not post-pandemic yet as the Delta Variant makes its way through the willfully unvaccinated, putting us in danger again.  In the process of jettisoning people from my life, including the reliably unreliable writer, I found my energy to read and write again.

30 authors, most of whom I’d never heard of, and 30 books, most of which I’d never heard of either.  Their stories are of an unexpected book whose impact remains with them as  it shapes their lives.

For Rabih Alameddine, whose The Hakawati I adore, the book was Harold Robbin’s The Carpetbaggers, one in common during our indiscriminate reading adolescences.   Our love for Robbins probably lasted about the same time, about a year.  Where I put it back on the shelf (library or otherwise, I don’t remember), Alamaddine kept his, until war swept through Lebanon and he was shipped off to  boarding school in England.  By then, his tastes in literature had changed, Robbins no longer a part of Alamaddine’s narrowing taste in literature.

It is the memory of that book which brings others to the fore.  He and his mother sitting in easy chairs at opposite ends of the room reading.  The Carpetbaggers holds a powerful place in Alamaddine’s heart.  Memories of a lifetime of reading and an awareness of how he changed and evolved both as reader and as writer.

Upon his return to the bombed and charred childhood home, he finds his copy of the book.  The one book not even the looters and thieves could bring themselves to steal.  “I don’t know.  I thought it was too dirty or something, I never saw it again.”

Then, at a dinner party, a friend brings a copy meant as a gag gift because Almaddine burst into tears when he received it.  That copy remains on his shelves.  A reminder of his childhood and all the memories wrapped up in becoming the writer, and reader, he is now.

While The Carpetbaggers was not something I would have figured Rabih Almaddine for, The New Professional Chef, Fifth Edition is exactly what I would have picked for Michael Ruhlman, whose books about the life and work of a chef I devoured.  My housemate at the time became a devoted Food TV watcher and brought these gorgeous books into our home.  Mostly I watched Anthony Bourdain with him, having little to no interest in learning to cook.  Somehow, Bourdain’s friendship with Ruhlman influenced me to read the books.

For Ruhlman, the Fifth Edition, is the one which resonates the most.  It came at a time when he pitched the idea of going to the Culinary Institute of America and learning to cook so he could write about becoming a chef.  Waiting for an answer, he read The New Professional Chef, as gibberish.  It made no sense to him.

Now, there’s a Ninth Edition.  But it is the Fifth which reminds Ruhlman of where he started both as chef and writer about food, and where he is now, a highly acclaimed author who writes about food.

Such is the powerful memories of books, which lead us down the path of compare and contrast, looking to understand who we are now and why that particular book remains stuck in our minds.

Review: The Fire Next Time

The Fire Next Time

Title: The Fire Next Time
Author: James Baldwin
Published: 1963
ISBN-13: 9780679744726
Publisher: Vintage Internationall
Twitter: @penguinrandom

Publisher’s Blurb:  With clarity, conviction, and passion, James Baldwin delivers a dire warning of the effects of racism that remains urgent nearly sixty years after its original publication. 

In the first of two essays, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” Baldwin offers kind and unflinching counsel on what it means to be Black in the United States and explains the twisted logic of American racism. 

In “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” Baldwin recounts his spiritual journey into the church after a religious crisis at the age of fourteen, and then back out of it again, as well as his meeting with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Throughout, Baldwin urges us to confront the oppressive institutions of race, religion, and nationhood itself, and insists that shared resilience among both Black and white people is the only way forward. As much as it is a reckoning with America’s racist past, The Fire Next Time is also a clarion call to care, courage, and love, and a candle to light the way.

“You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.”

In the cover photo of James Baldwin on my edition of The Fire Next Time, he looks concerned.  Worried even.  Almost hopeless.  I wouldn’t blame him, being a black man in America is horrible.  Both Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates taught me that.  Their words paint a picture of near hopelessness for racial issues in America.

Recently, a friend asked what I got out of reading fiction.  It was an intellectual meeting of the minds.  He reads predominately science, I read mostly SF/F.  And while what I have read by Baldwin and Coates (Between the World and Me) are personal essays, my answer applies.  The stories I read show me what it’s like to be someone different from who I am.  Coates, Toni Morrison (Beloved, Jazz, Sula), and now Baldwin, show a glimpse of what it’s like to be black in America.  They help me try to understand.

Those are stories I could never hear by asking someone to tell me. I’m a white woman with white privilege.  How do I get to know someone well enough they trust me with their story?  How do I learn to relate to it?  Reading provides access to an otherwise closed world..

The book The Fire Next Time is comprised of two essays.  “My Dungeon Shook,” a letter to his nephew about being a black man in America and “Down at the Cross,” about Baldwin’s experience with organized religion and where it led him..

Baldwin’s letter to his nephew pulls no punches.  It cannot be overstated, this country was founded on racism, works like these are important for understanding what that means.  (Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of America tells the real history of America’s racist and sexist founding.  It is a hard read to get through.)

My notes are littered with quotes from “The Fire Next Time,” each brutal and deeply honest.  It’s hard to write without just letting Baldwin hold the floor.  While he reminds his nephew, James, “… most of mankind is not all of mankind,”  he also says, “You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being.” Is there a more merciless way to make sure someone (a family member, no less) understands what it is like to be a black male in America?

As it was in 1963 when this essay was published, 100 years after Emancipation, so it is now nearly 60 years later.  “The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you.”  Everyone’s life is dictated by what white men say, this cuts across all forms of prejudice.  But being black and male in America is its own special hell-dimension.  Imagine having to warn your children about how to behave while around white people.  Imagine having to prep them to go to school, the grocery store, and learn how to drive.  Because the people they meet cannot be trusted to behave in a sane and safe way.  Further, imagine having to warn your children that you’ve done nothing wrong but be born with a darker skin tone.  It’s completely unfathomable to me.

Whoever debases others is debasing himself.”

“Down at the Cross” continues this theme but turns to a more tightly focused story about Baldwin’s experience with organized religion, both as an adolescent preacher and his adulthood meeting with Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam.  The conclusions Baldwin reaches are the same millions have reached, religion is filled with hypocrisy and offers little hope for a truly better life on this plane.  No one knows about any other rewards elsewhere.

“…but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be ‘accepted’ by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, that blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet.”  How many times have I read about people going along just to get along?  Keeping our heads low and not drawing attention to ourselves is how we hope to avoid bullying.  Anyone ever bullied knows anything is fodder for today’s smack down.  Nothing we do will ever appease our bullies.  Nothing an African-American can do will appease the racists around them.  There is no “passing.”  Their skin color is a reminder of the shame white supremacists feel and refuse to deal with.

Two quotes about Baldwin’s adolescent relationship with his father stand out.  (1) “The fear that I heard in my father’s voice, for example, when he realized that I really believed I could do anything a white boy could do, and had every intention of proving it was not all like the fear I heard when one of us was ill or had fallen down the stairs or strayed too far from the house.” and (2) “My father slammed across the face with his great palm, and in the moment everything flooded back – all the hatred and all the fear, and the depth of a merciless resolve to kill my father rather than allow my father to kill me – and I knew that all those sermons and tears and all that repentance and rejoicing had changed nothing.”

Baldwin’s need to outdo his father is the motivation for staying and thriving in the church.  Adolescence is a complex time to begin with, and Baldwin’s adolescence as a black teenager in Harlem is especially fraught.  His parents hold him to strict Christian standards but he is surrounded by evidence that God is for white people.  He learned all the tricks of the ministerial trade and was popular among Harlem congregations.

After a visit from a Jewish schoolmate, which brought into focus the hypocrisies of Christianity, in all its forms.  His father asks, “Is he Christian?” and Baldwin’s response “No, he’s Jewish … and a better Christian than you” leads to physical abuse.  It is at this point Baldwin realizes, “And the blood of the Lamb had not cleansed me in any way whatever.  I was just as black as I had been the day that I was born.”  Being other than white and male is transgressive and while religion teaches about the rewards in heaven, their God is a heavy taskmaster.  Shortly afterward, he left his popular ministry.

Years later, Baldwin is invited to have dinner with Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam in Chicago.  The richness of the home Baldwin is invited to, and the private car which later drops him off in another part of the city are well commented on.  Riches for those who oppress others in the name of “love.”

Here the comparison of the Nation’s version of Islam with the Christianity Baldwin knows so well points out the same hypocrisies.  It is not the tenets of the Middle Eastern prophet, the Jesus figure, who professed love and turning the other cheek,  The man to whom the Beatitudes are attributed, who was murdered by his own people to satisfy a vague promise of “justice.”  Neither of these religions are about love, but about power over others in order to bring order that can only be satisfied if non-members are oppressed.  Elijah Muhammed preached that all white people were the devil, and that Black Christians hadn’t yet found their way to his tenets of Islam (not the tenets of Muhammad, the Prophet who brought Allah into being.)

“People always seem to band together in accordance to a principle that has nothing to do with love, a principle that releases them from personal responsibility.”

Baldwin’s eloquence and passion are framed in the all-consuming topic of being black – that is to say, descended from slavery.  How else can a black writer think and write about what affects his attitudes most?

“I am called Baldwin because I was either sold by my African tribe or kidnapped out of into the hands of a white Christian named Baldwin, who forced me to kneel at the foot of the cross.  I am, then, both visibly and legally the descendant of slave in a white Protestant country, and this is what it means to be an American Negro, this is who he is – a kidnapped pagan, who was sold like and animal and treated like one, who was once defined by the American Constitution as ‘three-fifths’ of a man, and who, according to the Dred Scott decision, had no rights that white man was bound to respect.”

It has been 400 years since the first slave ship landed in what would become the United States of America.  At the time of The Fire Next Time’s publication, a mere hundred years had passed since Emancipation.  At no time has there ever been a respite for black Americans.  In 2021, race is still a big issue.  Historians will no doubt write about this period, pointing out that politics made it easier and acceptable for what once could only be muttered behind white hoods now to be expressed in the open.  Implicit bias has become a hot topic at work places.  George Floyd’s killer got 22.5 years,  a white cop has been held accountable for his murderous actions.

I read these authors and these books so I can learn to be better, and try to overcome the biases I have unwittingly taken on.  Further, I read so I can understand better what bigotry has wrought on society.  I search for the ability to love as Baldwin himself wrote, “I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”

New to the Stacks: 2021

The Art Of Dale Chihuly by Burgard, Tim
How to Change Your Mind by Pollan, Michael
Out front the following sea by Angstman, Leah
Asimov’s Guide To The Bible by Asimov, Isaac
The Alien Stars by Pratt, Tim – reading
Villains by Necessity by Woods, Sara
In Your Eyes by Derus, Richard M.
The Girl Wakes by Lau, Carmen
Remapping Wonderland by Various
Footnote 1 by Various – read
Footnote 2 by Various
Binti: The Complete Trilogy by Okorafor, Nnedi
Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium by Herrin, Judith
The Four Agreements by Ruiz, Don Miguel – read
God in the Qur’an by Miles, Jack
The book of delights by Ross, Gay
Coyote Songs by Iglesias, Gabino
Devil in a Blue Dress by Mosley, Walter
A Rage in Harlem by Himes, Chester
Zero Saints by Iglesias, Gabino – read
Forging the Franchise: The Political Origins of the Women’s Vote by Teele, Dawn Langan
Book Of Revelation by Beal, Timothy – read
The Miraculous Flying House of Loreto by Velez, Karin