Another Country

The Penguin Classic cover features red cut-outs of figures layered over a neutral background.
Penguin Classic edition

by Ben H.

“Beneath them Rufus walked, one of the fallen – for the weight of this city was murderous” 

James Baldwin

Another Country is a novel that’s more like a play or a poem. Short descriptions set scenes like flashes of light, and dialogue propels us through the story. James Baldwin is brilliant and empathetic; his depiction of humanity is beautiful. Passages that make you weep are followed immediately by passages that make you laugh. Dark episodes in the cold rain follow erotic passages in warm apartments. Baldwin’s relentless prose attack zigs and zags at the reader, and he never lets up. He pulls the threads of the tangled ball of relationships at the center of the novel tighter and tighter. Another Country is addictive and almost unbearably tense. 

Baldwin explores race, gender, sexuality, religion, art, and life in America in the 1950s through the interactions of a group of memorable characters. First, we meet Rufus Scott, a black jazz drummer, stumbling out of a movie theater in New York, disheveled and desperate. His experience as a black man in America is really the central pillar of the story. His wretched love/hate relationship with Leona, a white woman from the south, ruins both of their lives and sets a grim tone for a serious book. Vivaldo, a white man, is arguably the main character. Vivaldo is a struggling writer and Rufus’ best friend. Vivaldo is everywhere. He felt to me like a stand-in for James Baldwin himself.

France offers the reader a brief respite from the grimness of New York. We first meet Eric and his boyfriend Yves on a French beach. The passages set abroad are lovely and warm, while the scenes in New York are often brutal and freezing or unforgiving and sizzling. Baldwin’s depiction of France juxtaposed with that of America neatly illustrates the way Baldwin, a gay black man, felt in France versus the way he felt in the United States.

The many protagonists provide a narrative richness I really loved. Besides Rufus and Vivaldo, Cass (maybe my favorite character), Ida (Rufus’s sister and an incredible character), and Eric (in his own way the heartbeat of the book) are the other main players in this story of relationships and race. The New York Times compared Another Country to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and I think it’s a great comparison. Baldwin also brings the furious pace of a sax solo to his poetic novel. If you want to know what it’s like to read Another Country, listen to “Countdown” off of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps.

Another Country really does have a momentous heft to it. Baldwin, like an alchemical wordsmith, achieved something magical with everyday material. On the surface, it’s just the story of a few overlapping relationships during the 50s. But by the time you turn the last page, it feels like you’re holding something vital in your hands. I really do believe that books like this can change the way people view and treat one another.

If you’ve already read Another Country, visit HCLS and see if we have a Baldwin that you haven’t yet read (or if we can recommend something similar). If you haven’t read Another Country, you have money in the bank. You can’t go wrong with Mr. Baldwin.

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

Wolf in White Van

The book cover has the title in turquoise blue against a white background, the letters forming a labyrinthine maze.

By Ben H.

When I was a child, my mind wandered a lot, and most often it would wander to the dark places, as though drawn there by instinct 

Sean Phillips

I am a huge fan of John Darnielle, the author of Wolf in White Van. He records music as The Mountain Goats and released two stellar albums in 2020. New albums aside, the album that matches best with Wolf in White Van is 2012’s Transcendental Youth; more on that later. 

More pertinent to this review, John Darnielle is an accomplished novelist and a 2020 judge for the National Book Awards. His 2014 novel Wolf in White Van, also available from HCLS as an eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive, is what this review is really all about. 

Wolf in White Van is kind of a tragic novel filled with darkness, piercing insights, humor, and a lot of unanswered or unanswerable questions. Is Sean Phillips, the protagonist of the book, the titular wolf? That is the question that I kept asking myself after I finished reading it.  

Present-day Sean lives alone. A traumatic event in his past left him disfigured and dependent on daily visits from a nurse. He is self-employed as the creator and manager of a pen and paper role-playing game called Trace Italian. Young Sean hatched the idea for a role-playing survival game that participants play through the mail during his long stay in the hospital recovering from the event.

Players pay Sean to explore his vision of a post-apocalyptic future where they chase the rumor of a safe haven called Trace Italian. Monthly or weekly they send him their moves and he tells them what happens next and gives them options for their next move. Two of Sean’s most dedicated players recently suffered a tragic accident because of decisions they made inspired by his game, and he faces the real-life consequences of their actions.

Young Sean is an enigma. Friends and family demand logic, reason, motivation, and rational explanations for his eccentric behavior, but he can’t provide his family with the answers they seek. The reader follows young Sean through episodes that inexorably move him toward the trauma that will change his life.

The novel has a fuzzy quality. The jumps from the present to episodes in the past keep the reader off-balance. The alternate reality of Sean’s role-playing game adds to the uneasy feeling of the novel. Some chapters jump into Trace Italian and describe how players navigate the harsh realities of Sean’s created world. I don’t want to give away the twists and turns, so I’ll stop.

The novel is the story of Sean, Sean’s family and friends, and the people playing Sean’s game. It is also filled with nostalgia. John Darnielle is a collector. He collects memories and feelings. That feeling you got when you watched static on the TV late at night in a kind of trance? John Darnielle remembers it and writes about it. That weird C-movie you watched on Saturday afternoon when you were a kid and no one else remembers ever existing? He remembers it. In fact, he has a VHS copy around here somewhere. 

I don’t think Sean is a wolf in a white van. I mentioned earlier that Transcendental Youth might be the best album to pair with this book, and I think that is because of a certain thematic cohesion. On the first track, a track named after the late Amy Winehouse, John Darnielle sings:

Let people call you crazy for the choices that you make 
Climb limits past the limits, jump in front of trains all day
And stay alive
Just stay alive

Wolf in White Van is full of people making choices that are A: hard to understand for everyone else, and B: dangerous or harmful. Darnielle doesn’t celebrate harmful choices, but he does explore life around those choices. Darnielle writes episodes of levity, kitsch, and nostalgia, but overall this is a book filled with more questions than answers and leaves the reader with the feeling that there might not be answers to some questions.

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

Project Literacy

Three adults dressed in black graduation caps and gowns prepare to move their tassles. A Latina woman gazes directly into camera, standing next to a White woman and an older Black man.
Project Literacy Graduation 2018 held at HCLS Miller Branch.

by Ben H.

I work at HCLS Project Literacy. Project Literacy provides Howard County residents from around the globe with the opportunity to practice the thing that they all have in common: English.  

Project Literacy unites people. 

My average workday might involve teaching an English conversation class, managing our program data, helping organize new classes, brainstorming with our awesome staff, (writing a book review for the library’s underrated blog), and sending hundreds of emails.  

Conversation classes always include a lot of laughs, serious talk about cultural differences (especially at the workplace), vocabulary review, and a ton of learning and sharing. 

Tracking, entering, and analyzing data isn’t as bad as it sounds. Now that we work from home, I can enter data with my music of choice and my 15-month-old daughter tottering and warbling behind me. I’ve worked at Project Literacy for four years as the assistant manager and manager of information systems. 

I love it. 

You might cynically think, “he has to write that because this is a library blog,” but you should just trust me when I say I love my job (I am under no duress as I sit here on my couch).  

What does Project Literacy do?  

For starters, we offer one-on-one tutorial sessions for anyone interested in learning English, studying for citizenship, or studying for a high school diploma. We’ve offered tutorial sessions for more than 30 years. During the past 20 years, we’ve used funding from grants to expand our programing. 

Project Literacy now offers four semesters of classes each year. With 30+ classes to choose from, there is something for every step of your English-learning journey. Beginning level ESL classes might focus on numbers, days of the week, or common phrases. While advanced ESL offerings include classes on essay writing, pronunciation, literature, and work communication skills. 

As of this fiscal year, Project Literacy is now a proud home of the National External Diploma Program (NEDP). Through the NEDP, clients who have not received a U.S. high school diploma can earn one. It is a self-paced program that someone can do almost entirely online. We help them study for the entrance tests and coach them through the modules.  

Career Pathways for Skilled Immigrants is another grant-funded program that Project Literacy has recently developed. It exists to help skilled immigrants obtain employment in their field of expertise. The program is highly individualized and tailored to fit each participant’s needs.  

Project Literacy has a core of about 20-30 paid teachers and staff. In a normal year, Project Literacy is lucky enough to have about 40-50 volunteers, but the pandemic significantly reduced our volunteer base. We look forward to welcoming our volunteers back when things return to something like normal. 

350-450 students pass through our doors every year. We currently have around 40 students in our NEDP program, 40 students in our skilled immigrant program, and about 220 in our ESL program. Participants come from the United States and about 50 other countries.  

Every person has a unique story, and it is my great privilege to assist them in one phase of their journey. 

Project Literacy is an international community of learners and full of very cool people. Emma Ostendorp is one of the coolest. She is the program administrator and responsible for making Project Literacy the thriving community it is. She’s also a great boss (still under no duress).  

If I’ve convinced you to become a part of Project Literacy, fantastic! 

Project Literacy always needs volunteers and always wants students. If you would like to become either, please email prolit@hclibrary.org.  

Thank you for your time.  

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

Convenience Store Woman

A teal blue cover features a plastic fish full of a dark liquid, with a red stopper. All text is on a slight diagonal.

“And so, believing that I had to be cured, I grew into adulthood.”  

-Keiko 

Keiko, the protagonist of Convenience Store Woman, is pretty wild. Author Sayaka Murata created a wonderfully singular protagonist with piercing and sometimes bizarre insights into life. Have you ever thought that the best way to break up a fight is to knock both combatants out with a shovel? Keiko has. Have you then proceeded to knock them both out? Keiko has. Hence, the wildness.

Keiko experiences life differently than the other characters in Convenience Store Woman and that leads to trouble for her. The things that her family and friends want for her, she does not want for herself. All Keiko really wants is to work at the convenience store. As she ages, she faces increasing pressure to quit her job at the convenience store and do something normal for a woman her age.

This book is ostensibly about the conflict between an individual and society, but it is also a love story between a woman and a convenience store. Keiko and the convenience store are star-crossed lovers, just trying to stay together. On her first day as a convenience store worker, she feels that she has finally found a niche: “At that moment, for the first time ever, I felt I’d become a part in the machine of society. I’ve been reborn, I thought. That day I actually became a normal cog in society.” The tragic irony of Keiko’s story is that society doesn’t consider her choices acceptable even though she makes them in order to fit into society.

But back to the love story part. It’s basically Romeo and Juliet without dead bodies or one-off Queen Mab* references.

Keiko’s challenge, in this love story, is to escape society’s expectations. To that end, she cultivates a fake relationship that allows her to continue her romance with the convenience store. I won’t spoil it, but her fake relationship doesn’t exactly end like Daphne and Simon’s faux courtship in Bridgerton. 

Sayaka Murata’s awesome book about the experience of living a life that others can’t understand is full of quirky humor and serious questions about economics and culture. The writing is zippy and fun. The minor characters are memorable, and the convenience store is described in amazing detail. If you’ve ever worked a job that overlaps in any way with a convenience store, you’ll recognize Keiko’s feelings and concerns. Feeling that you are not positioned well for the impending lunch rush will be familiar to anyone who has worked in food service. Noticing that the display is not optimized to showcase seasonal specials will be a familiar feeling to anyone who has ever worked in retail.

I would recommend Convenience Store Woman to anyone who has ever been frustrated by societal expectations. I would recommend it to anyone working a “dead end” job. I would recommend it to anyone. (also as an eAudiobook via Libby/OverDrive)

Murata’s books are slowly getting translated into English, so keep your eyes peeled for future titles. If you know Japanese, you can read them all right now. As an interesting final note, Murata worked at a convenience store for years, including during the writing of Convenience Store Woman!

*Act I, Scene 4

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

Revolution or Counter-Revolution?

Black and white print of slave revolt with a man wielding a sword and disarray around a table.

“Above all, he was flabbergasted by their constant prating about liberty while continuing the enslavement of tens of thousands” 
Gerald Horne (writing about Samuel Johnson’s feelings about the colonists) 

If you’ve ever wanted more information on the events leading up to the American Revolutionary War, Gerald Horne’s got you covered. His 2014 book, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, will help you fill some of those gaps.  

Horne argues that the strongest driver of the revolutionary war was the African slave trade. He further claims that the American Revolution was not, in fact, a progressive victory for the good guys, but rather a regressive counter-revolution to the constant revolutions of the rapidly growing number of enslaved Africans on the continent and in the Caribbean. Through a mountain of primary source material, Horne documents the macro- and micro-events in the mainland colonies, Jamaica, and Barbados in the years leading up to 1776. 

In my opinion, Horne’s only flaw is his love of outrageously long and convoluted sentences. Horne is clearly of the Miltonian school of prose and sometimes seems to be attempting unmatched feats of sentence length: 

Perhaps, rather than seeing these men as having novel conceptions of allegiance to London or even as ungrateful hypocrites, it might be better to see them as ‘premature’ U.S. patriots; that is, economic logic was impelling them like a swift river current toward secession; while London was seeking to restrain their business dealings driven by the luscious bounty of African enslavement, Paris and Madrid had burst the dam and were more than willing to encourage settlers’ shady bargains, and, thus, these mainland men chose not to fight this trend but embrace it, along with the pretty profits it delivered (160).

Nestled within that labyrinthine sentence is the heart of the book: colonists were driven to war with England by the economic logic of slavery. The book is well-researched, well-argued, and compelling. In many cases, Horne uses the colonists’ own words to illustrate how the immense wealth they could accumulate from the enslavement of Africans drove them to madness. Horne writes, “Africans, in short, were a major antagonist, but mainlanders were reluctant to curb the seemingly ceaseless flow of Africans who were arriving, which was raising searching questions in London about their judgment, if not their sanity” (154). In my opinion, this book provides crucial historical context and should be required reading. 

Ben’s suggested pairings: 

Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Gates deals with the same theme of powerful men doing whatever they can to keep unjust systems in place.  (also available as an ebook and eaudiobook)

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates touches on many of the same themes as Horne. The sections on the “invention of racecraft” will be particularly interesting to readers of Horne’s work.  (also available as ebook and eaudiobook)

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi. Kendi’s book provides the reader with suggestions for how to move forward. (also available as ebook and eaudiobook)

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon

Photo of Kim Gordon in a subway, with duotone wash in red.

By Ben H.

“it’s hard to write about a love story with a broken heart” – Kim Gordon 

Girl in a Band is a breakup memoir and it’s a good one.  

It is also much more than a breakup memoir. It is a pretty killer Künstlerroman* (Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter is a good comparison); a brilliant memoir of place(s) (like Joan Didion’s “White Album” essay), and a behind the music for music nerds (I don’t have a good comp, but I need to keep the parallelism going). Kim Gordon was the eponymous “girl in a band” with Sonic Youth, a band that made loud noisy rock records. She was married to her bandmate, Thurston Moore, for 29 years until she learned of him having an affair. Neither the couple nor the band survived the affair. My review isn’t necessarily for the Sonic Youth fans out there, because they’ve probably already read this and devoured the middle section where Gordon highlights her favorite tracks and gives them biographical context; my review is for the people who need another reason to read a memoir about a girl in a band. 

Gordon writes beautifully about the places she’s lived. From her childhood in L.A. to her adulthood in New York to her motherhood in Massachusetts, Gordon excels at remembering tiny details and writing gorgeous descriptions of the distinct phases of her life. L.A. is a maze to be escaped and returned to; New York is chaotic and fertile like an overgrown garden; and Massachusetts is suffocating, domestic, and tense.

Gordon’s L.A. is a Janus-faced landscape of “rustic hillsides filled with twisted oak trees, scruffy and steep, with lighter-than-light California sunshine filtering through the tangles,” and flat neighborhoods of “freshly mowed green lawns camouflaging dry desert-scape…everything orderly but with its own kind of unease.” The places Gordon writes about become characters through her tapestry of vivid vignettes. For me, she does her best writing about places. If you still aren’t convinced, the vintage photographs Gordon uses for each chapter, like the one of her standing with her arms around Iggy Pop and Nick Cave, are reason enough to read this book. 

When I think of Sonic Youth, I don’t necessarily think of the awesome sheets of sound they made as a band. I think of the husky and wild vocals of Gordon. Her delivery is one of a kind. She drones. She growls. She talks. She screams. She sings. As an author, she might not possess the same kind of singular voice, but she knows how to tell a story and set a scene. At the risk of sounding adolescent, she is also very cool. Speaking of cool, Gordon references William Gibson’s thriller Pattern Recognition – she named a song after it. His cool-hunting protagonist Cayce Pollard is totally cut from the same cloth as Kim Gordon. Listen to any of the tracks off Gordon’s solo album, No Home Record, and tell me she isn’t very cool.

I won’t review the details of her relationship with Thurston Moore, but I think she does a marvelous job writing about the arc of their relationship. The passages describing them falling in love are lovely. The passages describing Thurston’s increasingly erratic behavior in Massachusetts are heartbreaking.

Kim Gordon, band aside, has led a fascinating life. My wife recommended this book to me and now I’m recommending it to you. Take a trip back in time to when CDs were the only way to listen to music and request Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation while you’re at it! 

*artist’s book about growing into maturity

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).