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).

Reading Ursula K. Le Guin

The cover of "The Left Hand of Darkness" depicts a lunar-like surface with two opposite-facing profiles carved out of rock, against a dark sky.

By Eric L.

I read a lot of great authors, but that’s because I read great books! As we have been celebrating Women’s History Month, and HCLS has recommended a cornucopia of great material about and by women, I’d like to recommend the amazing Ursula K. Le Guin. 

Le Guin made a name for herself in the male-dominated world of sci-fi and fantasy half a century ago, and she wrote a great book about gender fluidity way before many others broached the topic. Le Guin said she recognized the ability to tell complex tales through the work of genre writer Philip K. Dick. Later, she openly criticized the way he wrote some female characters. Dick agreed, they became friends, and he thanked Le Guin for her influence on his subsequent works. I’d contend that in itself amounts to progress! 

A great starting point for Ursula K. Le Guin is watching Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin on Kanopy. It provides a great introduction to the writer and her work. The interviews with the witty and charming Le Guin are terrific, as are the conversations with Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman and others about her influence on their writing and the genre. Gaiman astutely points out that the Harry Potter series owes a great deal to Le Guin’s Earthsea series.  

As I alluded to before, her most famous work The Left Hand of Darkness (also available in eBook and eAudiobook format) is a groundbreaking work, not just for the sci-fi/fantasy genre, but also for challenging our conceptions pf western masculinity and of western masculinity and femininity in a clever and subtle way. The protagonist, an envoy to the planet nicknamed Winter, struggles to understand a gender-neutral people using the social constructs of his own culture. Left Hand centers political intrigue and a forced epic journey across an icy planet while giving glimpses at the envoy’s gradual enlightenment. The drama and action of an arduous journey mirrors the personal journey of the protagonist and the relationships he builds.  

The Left Hand of Darkness is worth borrowing just to read Le Guin’s amazing introduction concerning science fiction and writing in general. Over the years, she has taken criticism for using the pronoun “he” for the gender-neutral characters in the book. To which she replied that just because the book was finished, it didn’t mean she was finished learning. I like this sort of thinking, the idea that we can all grow more and move forward. 

The cover for The Dispossessed depicts a man standing on a barren wasteland, looking towards another purple-toned planet with the sun peeking over its edge from behind, and a red-orange sky.

Le Guin’s other popular work The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia may be the perfect book for now, as the story of two opposing political views on how best to organize a society – collectivism versus individualism. The book examines power and extremes, and interrogates the best way for a society to temper those impulses. 

The protagonist Shevek (all names are computer generated) is a scientist from the anarchist commune-like planet, Anarres. Against the wishes of many of his people, he takes the opportunity to collaborate with the scientists of A-lo, on the planet Urras. The latter is a more individualistic, capitalist society. Shevek is attracted to the opportunity to further pursue his work, as he has begun to suspect that his society has some faults. Le Guin uses the protagonist’s perspective and experience to compare the two societies. The chapters alternate between Shevek’s youth and adulthood on Anarres and his present situation in A-lo. I thought this a clever technique, in a sort of nuanced compare and contrast story, but perhaps that’s just my conflicted mind? 

I believe Le Guin’s biases are evident, perhaps intentionally, but the book offers a provocative look at entrenched beliefs. The two societies are located on different planets and only know each other via their society’s own information (sometimes called propaganda), very similar to the way each of us arrives at our perspectives, beliefs, and, yes, biases. Le Guin cleverly has each society colloquially reduce the other to one-word epithets; the “propertarians” and “anarchists.” It’s certainly easier to believe we understand each other when we reduce ourselves to singular adjectives. 

This would be a great book to have people with opposing viewpoints read and discuss. The fact that Le Guin’s father was an anthropologist is evident in her work. Lastly, I’m inclined to conclude that Ursula K. Le Guin believes any thoughtful ideology should begin with a deeper understanding of each other and the forces that create fear and hate. 

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.