Friday, September 7, 2007

A Tale of Two Books

I hate it when I'm too busy reading to post to my blog. Does that mean I'm addicted to both reading and blogging?? Right now I'm juggling a few books, having just finished and returned Stephen Carter's New England White while being smack dab in the middle of my book discussion book for this month, The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers. Both authors speak of the African American experience over the 20th century, Carter from the position of exclusive membership in an elite, powerful club of African American movers and shakers, and Powers through the eyes of a biracial couple who brave tremendous scorn with grace and aplomb, raising their children through the turbulent '50's and '60's.

Carter is a glorious writer, his books exhibit elements of all that's best in historical fiction, with a hefty dose of suspense and relationship problems thrown in, topped off with codes and anagrams a la The DaVinci Code. A prolific writer of non-fiction, Carter is a distinguished professor of Law at Yale, whose two fiction books are just what the doctor ordered; big, fat, literary and convoluted. In a Waspy college town, thirty years ago, a young lady was murdered, an investigation was stonewalled and an innocent black man was framed for the crime. I've finished the book and I'm still not sure "who done it."

Fast forward to present day as Lemaster Carlyle, president of a university (NOT Yale the author assures us) and his wife Julia, wend their way home from a faculty function in their Cadillac Escalade (the author seems to consider this vehicle a status symbol and I can only hope he's being facetious) and come upon the dead body of Julia's former lover, Kellan Zant. It seems that Kellan has been investigating this past murder and has enlisted the help of the Carlyles' daughter Vanessa, a history buff with brains and curiosity. Like red ants disturbed in their nest, the unsavory facts this duo uncovers crawl through town, affecting characters from the upper echelons of the university system to the powerless ones on the "other side of the tracks."

One thing I don't quite get about Carter, and I found this in both his new book and the previous best seller The Emperor of Ocean Park, is the underlying impression of an angry man dwelling too much on the barriers to race relations in our country, not to mention the prejudices abounding within the membership of the "darker nation."(his term, not mine.) I've read interviews with Mr. Carter ( ) that belie this feeling I have, so perhaps I'm being overly sensitive. It certainly wouldn't be the first time!

On the other hand, Richard Powers' characters and we readers, have every justification for being deeply angry at the historical evidence of our country's slow, with a capital "S," progress in enacting civil rights legislation that brought African-Americans into full participation in United States citizenry. In 1939 Delia Daley and David Strom travel from very different paths to Washington, DC. Their common goal, to listen to Marian Anderson's concert being held at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial because the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow the Negro songstress to sing in their hallowed Constitution Hall. Do you remember learning this in school? I sure don't! Thank God for fiction writers who so deftly weave the true history of our nation throughout their fictitious tales.

David, a displaced Jew with no living family, and Delia, an upper class African-American woman from a large, educated family make a mistake in judgment that day. They fall in love, believing that they can rise above the pain of discrimination, sheltering their three future children from the evil effects of prejudice through the strength of their love. But love alone cannot prepare Jonah, Joseph and Ruth for what they find when they at last break out into a world where a young man named Emmet Till is bludgeoned to death for speaking to a white woman, Martin Luther King, Jr. is gunned down on a hotel balcony for having a dream, and cities across the country smolder with the flames of dissent. The Time of Our Singing is a powerful book written by a man reviewers refer to as "the finest writer of his generation who has never been heard of." But we all know John Grisham, don't we? What a sad commentary!


Infobabe said...

I am constantly amazed by fiction authors who do vast research into things I never heard about, especially when it is shameful history. I always wonder, "is this true" and then go do my own quick reseach. How the authors know to find these subjects in first place is incredible.

Sallyb said...

I know what you mean - no wonder we aren't all writers of great fiction. It's hard work!
Beth just led a book discussion of The Madonnas of Leningrad and I understand the author's knowledge of The Hermitage was just about photographic! It's on my "to read" list along with about 100 others!