I did not notice until just now that three of the four books I finished this week dealt with race. This was pure serendipity, one of those happy accidents that occurs when you read as much as I do. Of the three, Jane Harris’s Sugar Money seemed the least successful to me: I was hoping for something plotty and complicated, like Harris’s previous novel Gillespie and I. Sugar Money is the story of two brothers sent to Granada, where they were raised, to rescue several dozen slaves. It is a straightforward adventure tale for the most part, given additional weight and emotion by the relationship between the two brothers and by the brutality of slavery. It isn’t a bad book; in particular, I thought the character of Lucien, the younger of the two brothers and the narrator was well-developed and realistic, although sometimes his voice sounded a bit off to me. (Was I influenced by my knowledge that the author is a white woman?) But it wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be. That’s probably not fair to Harris, who did not swear out an affidavit guaranteeing me the sort of book I wanted, but I was left unsatisfied.
The New Negro, a biography of Alain Locke by Jeffrey C. Stewart was pretty much exactly what I expected it to be, if quite a bit longer than anticipated. It was a reading chosen for Black History Month, and then it stretched far into March. On the one hand, I had not heard of Locke before I read this book and I learned a ton about him; on the other, 873 pages of small print is a really long time to spend with someone you’ve never heard of previously, even if you should have.
Locke, it turns out, was a prominent African-American philosopher who worked in the first half of the twentieth century. He focused on aesthetics and culture and influenced people like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Stewart writes, “Locke’s New Negro advanced a new paradigm — that one was both assimilated and non-assimilated, culturally American, but psychologically Block; and thus, what that meant was that one was thoroughly modern in a complex way.”
Locke was gay and his personal life was messy and unsatisfying — in this he reminded me a bit of Edward Lear’s life as depicted by Jenny Uglow in her recent biography. The two men were very different (although I suspect they might have enjoyed each other’s company) but alike in their frustration that they could not have full personal lives in that era.
Heads of the Colored People, a story collection by Nafissa Thompson-Spires, was another disappointment, albeit a slight one. I love short stories, but most of these did not quite work for me — I felt that Thompson-Spires was working a little too hard to come up with a twist or a clever ending. The standouts, for me, were “Belles Lettres” (I do love a good epistolary story), “This Todd” (a story about a woman with a very specific romantic type), and the title story “Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology.”
I wasn’t really crazy about the story “Suicide, Watch,” but it did have a great first paragraph:
Jilly took her head out of the oven mainly because it was hot and the gas did not work independently of the pilot light. Stupid new technology. And preferring her head whole and her new auburn sew-in weave unsinged, and having no chloroform in the house, she conceded that she would not go out like a poet.
There was a lot here that I didn’t love, but I like the author’s somewhat askew perspective on life and I will happily pick up her next book.
Finally, Nicholas Nickleby. I think I have read this immense novel four or five times now. The first time I read it I was so young I was actually worried that Madeline Bray would have to marry Arthur Gride. (Spoiler alert: Edith Wharton would have made her, but Dickens doesn’t.)
I cannot think of a book in all the literasphere that puts me in a better mood than Nicholas Nickleby. It is not by any means Dickens’s best work; it probably isn’t even in the top tier. Madeline Bray, the love interest, barely exists; she may be the least interesting character in all of Dickens’s oeuvre. (Madeline is such a nonentity that I would suspect Dickens of parodying popular romantic tropes, except that’s not really how Dickens rolls.) But on the other hand, for my money Nicholas Nickleby is the funniest of Dickens’s novels, and it certainly has a good heart. I could do without the chapter near the end of the book where Kate and Nicholas congratulate each other on their high-mindedness, but I will never not enjoy Wackford Squeers getting the beating he so richly deserves, and the Mantalinis and the Infant Phenomenon still make me giggle even though I really should be above such things.