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).

Jacqueline Woodson: Brown Girl Dreaming and Another Brooklyn

Reviews by Kristen B.

Brown Girl Dreaming may be one of the most beautifully poignant books I’ve ever had the privilege to read. This autobiographical text told in verse relates Woodson’s childhood memories of both Brooklyn, NY and her grandparents’ home in rural South Carolina. I loved the glow of fireflies appearing in the summer dusk, and my heart ached with the understanding that her brother had been lead poisoned by paint in an old tenement. This lovely volume brings us the complete open-hearted bewilderment of a child learning about her world. Dirt driveways and city asphalt combine into a mesmerizing memoir that, while it might be labelled for teens and children, brings truth to all its readers (also available as an eBook and eAudiobook). Woodson received a 2020 MacArthur Fellows Grant.

Woodson continues the coming-of-age theme in her novel, Another Brooklyn. In some ways, I read this as the grown-up version of Brown Girl Dreaming even though its more novel and less memoir. August is returning to Brooklyn for a funeral, and as she travels she can’t help but remember her childhood – the lives of the four fast friends growing up in the 1970s in Brooklyn. The storytelling is still lyrical, if not exactly in verse. The vignettes of the girls’ lives gave me both the feeling of being a young teen again, with all those emotions and upsets, as well as a glimpse of the bigger, national picture that was unfolding around them. Like in the previous book, you get the family nostalgia for an unkind South as well as the hard edges of the northern city. The author does not pull any punches as the girls get older, the problems get thornier, and the solutions ever more doubtful. (also available as an eAudiobook).

These are dreaming books, a little beautiful and a little disturbing, with a haze of remembering to them. But they carry truth, and truth can be hard to hear. Both of these books live on my keeper shelves, and I revisit them periodically. I hope you love them, too.

Kristen B. has worked for HCLS for more than 15 years, and currently hosts the Books on Tap discussion group at Hysteria Brewing Company. She loves reading, Orioles baseball, and baking.