Recently I asked Faye about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m on a writer’s residency in Key West, Florida right now, very generously provided by the Key West Literary Society—many thanks to them! It’s marvelous here, powder-blue skies and skittering lizards on the gravel in the yard. So I have plenty of time to read, and to write, and here’s what I’m poring over.Learn more about the book and author at Lyndsay Faye's website.
The non-fiction book I’m devouring with great interest is A Force for Change: Beatrice Morrow Cannady and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Oregon, 1912-1936. Few people know about this, but the Jim Crow situation in Oregon during that time period was terrible, and the Ku Klux Klan was extremely active there especially from 1921-1925. Burning crosses, hooded parades, the works. Cannady’s legacy is somehow skipped when we talk about civil rights leaders. But she was the publisher of The Advocate, out of Portland, which was the largest African American newspaper in the state, and she used the paper as not only a way to keep the black community informed but as a pulpit from which to preach justice, tolerance, and desegregation. During this period, she introduced a fledgling African American studies class into an overwhelmingly white system, protested repeated runs of the inflammatory film The Birth of a Nation, and organized interracial teas so that blacks and whites could get to know each other as neighbors. She said in a speech, “That she may serve well, the Negro woman must first learn to believe in herself and her race—ridding herself always of any false notions of racial or self-inferiority. We must admit that this is often hard to do, hampered as she is by her sex in what we sometimes term a man’s world, and by her race in a white man’s world. But it can be done…The time demands real women.”
I’m also reading Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos. Reading it makes me wonder how on earth I never encountered this author previously, because in retrospect that makes no sense. He’s a standout from the Lost Generation, a disenfranchised illegitimate son with socialist ideals who translated those struggles into both fiction and art. Manhattan Transfer has everything I want from a certain kind of novel. It’s lyrical, raw, accessible, poetic, and gritty all at once. He uses some stream-of-consciousness techniques that were experimental at the time, in 1925, and the vignettes he delivers from the perspective of the laboring class in New York are something spectacular. “At the corner of Rivington the old man with the hempen beard who sleeps where nobody knows is putting out his picklestand. Tubs of gherkins, pimentos, melonrind, piccalilli give out twining vines and cold tendrils of dank pepperyfragrance that grow like a marshgarden out of the musky bedsmells and the rancid clangor of the cobbled awakening street.” That kind of passage is so outrageously wonderful because not only can you see, hear, smell, and taste everything, but you care about the old man with the hempen beard, because he sleeps where nobody knows. It’s breathtaking.
Finally, there has to be a mystery someplace in this bag, and when I arrived I found a Raymond Chandler collection on the bookshelf. Now, I adore Chandler, but I’ve only read his novels. This, it turns out, was a massive error. The Simple Art of Murder is a collection of eight of his short stories that were published in magazines like Black Mask and Dime Detective. They’re absolutely glorious, as I had no doubt whatsoever they would be, pure Chandler heaven, with their choppy, elegant sentences and their weathered, ironic detectives and their brittle, red-blooded women. I’m so delighted that somebody left it in here in the little library. But my favorite so far is “I’ll Be Waiting.” It begins as a simple scene in which the resident hotel detective on watch is irritated because a mysterious guest is using the radio room, and it devolves into intrigue, furtive messages, a damsel in distress, a subtle but tragic family drama, confrontation at gunpoint, escape, and of course murder, all in under twenty pages. I don’t know how the man did it, it’s maddening. I’ll leave you with one of his infuriatingly perfect word pictures. “He sat relaxed, a short, pale, paunchy, middle-aged man with long, delicate fingers clasped on the elk’s tooth on his watch chain; the long delicate fingers of a sleight-of-hand artist, fingers with shiny, molded nails and tapering joints, fingers a little spatulate at the ends. Handsome fingers.”
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