39. Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin

Year Published: 1953
Pages: 263
First Sentence: Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.
Rating: 1/3 (don't bother)

Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin | Two Hectobooks

Review:
Go Tell It On the Mountain marks the first time in my life that I've ever picked up on gay subtext in a book before it was explicitly pointed out to me, which I'm going to take as a sign that I'm getting better at this sort of thing. On the other hand, the book's content completely baffled me otherwise, so I'm not sure that's actually the case.

James Baldwin's first novel is a semi-autobiographical story about a black boy named John, growing up in Harlem in the 1930s. The bulk of the book takes place in church, as well as in reminiscences from John's aunt, stepfather, and mother. His stepfather is an abusive hypocrite, his mother is trapped in a marriage with him because she didn't want her bastard son to grow up without a father. John is a very smart, sensitive boy, who has feelings about other boys and also struggles with religion and his feelings about his family. The book is mostly just a snapshot of John's life, occurring prior to his conversion experience.

Following so close on the heels of The Heart of Matter, I couldn't help comparing John's religious experience in this book—I'm not sure exactly which flavour of Christianity this is, maybe Southern Baptist—with my own experience of Catholicism, and let me tell you, the contrast is sharp. Aside from some of the wilder mystics, Catholicism is about 95% stodgy ceremony and ritualism. The religion John and his family are practising in this book is ecstatic and free-flowing. John is waiting for a conversion experience to be "saved," whereas Catholics are baptized soon after birth.

Baldwin is tremendously good at getting into his characters' heads: each of them has a clear point of view. That's part of how I got so lost. There's no clear perspective on any of this, and I like it when books tell me what their opinions are, even if I'm not about to agree with those opinions. Thanks to skimming Baldwin's Wikipedia page, I think part of this problem comes from the fact that Baldwin himself was quite ambivalent on the topic of religion and whether it's a force for good or evil in the world, and in the lives of black Americans especially.

There are some really affecting passages in this book, especially those dealing with black men's experiences with racism in both the North and South. However, there are also copious amounts of bible stuff and religious imagery, and that got tedious, so it resulted in a lower rating.

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Her eyes told him that she thought he was a fool; but that, even had she loved him ever so desperately, it would have been beneath her to argue about his decision—a large part of her simplicity consisted in determining not to want what she could not have with ease.
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What I'm Reading: The House With a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs

This is my second Classics Club review! This time we're looking at a children's classic. -M.R.

I've lamented before how few children's classics I actually read during my childhood, and John Bellairs' 1973 novel, The House With a Clock in Its Walls is the kind of thing I'm talking about. This book has been on my radar for a while, and has a reputation for being spooky and great. I moved it up on my list of books to read when I found out that there's a movie adaptation being released this year.

(Warning that the trailer below reveals quite a few plot points.)



So, what's the actual book about and what did I think about it?

It's 1948 and Lewis Barnavelt is ten years old. He is a bit chubby, a bit nerdy, and a bit Catholic. At the very beginning of the book, his parents have died suddenly in a car accident, and he's en route to live with his bachelor Uncle Jonathan in New Zebedee, Michigan.
... his Uncle Jonathan, whom he had never met in his life. Of course, Lewis had heard a few things about Uncle Jonathan, like that he smoked and drank and played poker. These were not such bad things in a Catholic family, but Lewis had two maiden aunts who were Baptists, and they had warned him about Jonathan. He hoped that the warnings would turn out to be unnecessary.
What Lewis's aunts haven't warned him about is that Jonathan is a wizard/warlock/magician, living in a huge house with a more or less persistent ticking noise. Jonathan also has a friend, Mrs. Zimmermann, who loves the colour purple with the fire of a thousand suns, and who's an even better magic user than Jonathan.

The book bounces between delightful scenes of domestic warmth between these three characters, Jonathan demonstrating his magic, Lewis' struggles to fit in as a chubby, nerdy kid, and then occasional forays into the plot, which concerns that ticking and the evil wizard Isaac Izard who used to own Jonathan's house.

I couldn't stop thinking of what good care these adults were taking with a small boy who's just lost everything he knows, even though the book doesn't explicitly get into that at all. Jonathan is never cold toward Lewis or resentful of his presence, and both Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmermann show Lewis a lot of affection and make him feel secure. That made me really happy, because I feel like a book like this would typically be a lot more cruel to Lewis.

Which isn't to say that everything is rosy, either. Lewis pals around with a boy named Tarby for a while. Tarby is a popular boy but gets stuck with Lewis thanks to a broken arm. He's kind of a jerk to Lewis, which Lewis does his best to ignore because he's just so happy to have a friend. It was kind of hard to read at times!

I think if I'd read this book twenty or more years ago, as an actual child, I would've absolutely loved it. I could've related to Lewis's social awkwardness (let's be real, I still sort of do!), and the spooky scary stuff would've been right up my alley. As it is, I'm an adult reader who prefers things to be more thoroughly developed. I'm not sure if anyone is writing these short novels for kids anymore, if they're all huge and epic, but I found the brevity of this refreshing. There's no magic "system" here, it's just magic, which I also appreciated.

Basically, this is a great classic for a young reader, but may not suit more mature tastes.

Current Distractions, July 2018 Edition

July treated me pretty well. I had a chance to go camping for the first time in years, and I've generally been enjoying this summer a lot. It's hard to believe that we're basically entering the last nice month of the year now. (Note: this is applicable mainly to my Saskatchewan readers, of course. Also thanks to global warming, Septembers are often quite mild now, too. Oops.)

I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that I'm rushing to finish this post considering that that's very typical of me. But I'm going to try to really put in some effort here. I'm also just going to throw out a random aside that part of what I've been trying to achieve when I've been stuck inside on the occasional evening that's way too hot, is to speed up my posting schedule again. I'll let you know if that's successful at all.

Second aside: I have gotten distracted so many times while writing this.. Here's hoping August is better?

Watching

Ant-Man and The Wasp
This was good! It wasn't one of the better entries in the MCU, but it was fun to watch. The first instalment was a bit better.

Jessica Jones season 2
Again, not quite as good as the first instalment (in this case, a whole season of tv), but I liked a lot of this. I feel like it's almost convinced me to watch the four (ugh) other Marvel shows on Netflix, but I'm not sure.

Babylon Berlin
Still! It's so much fun, but I'm watching it a little slower because reading subtitles gets a little tiring sometimes. If you want something different, I highly recommend this. It's like 1920s detective noir but in Weimar republic Germany. If that doesn't pique your interest immediately this probably isn't for you.

Star Trek TNG
I've officially made it to season 6!

Swimming
Last month I'd been lazy and this month I.. kind of have again? I've now swum a cumulative 50km for the year, but my trendline is extremely flat.

Listening
I'm thinking I need to write a "podcasts I love" post. In fact I've been thinking about it for a long time. I'm officially adding it to my drafts, and I'll aim to get around to it eventually.