I noticed most of my reviews of the James Baldwin books I’ve read started with “I’d been meaning to read this…” so I just decided to dedicate some time reading his books which I’m dubbing the Season of Baldwin. The bulk of this reading challenge would be to get through all his novels and maybe read other works that people recommend. Usually I’ll set up other rules like read them in chronological order but I’m treating this with the impression that I’ll read the right book at the right time.

Another factor that made me choose to do this reading challenge was that art of James Baldwin kept popping up in Portland and I took that as a sign.

Art by Daren Todd
He even showed up when I was on vacation visiting a bookstore in Las Vegas!

And, I had actually watched the documentary I Am Not Your Negro earlier this year as part of my antiracist education. It was a difficult and uncomfortable watch but necessary and eye-opening.

Here are the James Baldwin books I’d read in previous years…

Giovanni's RoomGiovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’d been meaning to read this and I’m glad I finally did because it’s become one of my favorite favorites. The writing is superb immediately drawing you into the story. And even though you know how it’s going to turn out, James Baldwin has created something so alive that you think it might somehow change.

 

The Fire Next TimeThe Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d been meaning to read this and admittedly I didn’t know much about it coming into it. I thought this was a collection of essays but it was actually just two works. The first is a short letter to his nephew on the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. The second, which is the rest of the book, is about his faith and the racial injustice in the US. Both are powerful in their own ways that reveals a cold hard look at the realities of his time- and sadly our time as well.

 

Little Man, Little Man: A Story of ChildhoodLittle Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood by James Baldwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A most unique picture book- James Baldwin’s sole children’s book. Leave it to him to capture experiences that are hardly told- and maybe at the time of its original publication, never told at all. It may seem gritty to our older sanitized selves but the honesty is refreshing. Adult situations and adult problems can never truly be separated from children’s lives as much as we would want to protect them from it as long as we possibly can. I wish there was a more cohesive thread to these vignettes and a stronger sense of a story structure to give it some sort of closure.

 

And, officially starting off the challenge with Going to Meet the Man proved it was the right decision because… wow!

Going to Meet the ManGoing to Meet the Man by James Baldwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This collection of short stories were incredible. I liked all of them except “The Man Child.”

I enjoyed “The Rockpile” and “The Outing” and because they involved the same characters I thought all the stories were going to be related and loosely interwoven. I’m excited to stick with these characters for my next Baldwin read, Go Tell It to the Mountain.

“Sonny’s Blues” contains some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever read so I think everyone should read that.

The titular story was ugly, horrible, and difficult to read- subject-matter wise. The writing was superb as usual.

“This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” was probably my favorite. I felt lots of the experiences the narrator shared stemmed from Baldwin’s real life. But I admit I don’t know much about his life so I have to remedy that, too!

 

Go Tell It on the MountainGo Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t know what happened to my review of this novel but I’m going to try and reconstruct my thoughts about this novel.

I had read about some of the characters in James Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man short stories collection and, since they were my favorite parts of those, I was excited to spend more time with them.

I was quite taken by the writing and loved the moment between John and his mother in the beginning. I really thought this would be a straightforward coming-of-age story but was surprised when the second part of the book was dedicated to flashbacks, which is Baldwin’s style.

The third part takes it back to the characters’ present time.

A masterful piece of work to write about so many powerful themes in such a unique structure.

 

If Beale Street Could TalkIf Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

James Baldwin does it again with another beautiful and heartbreaking novel that reflects the ugliness and scariness of that time- and, unfortunately, of his time, still, as well. It also celebrates the love and hope and perseverance of those a country, a system, is determined to break but knows it can’t.

The characters are memorable. You’ll be swept away in the love story of Tish and Fonny. You’ll be reading with bated breath to see how the story unfolds and the ending is surely something to think about.

A scene between the two families was probably one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.

I am (and continue to be) in awe of Baldwin’s writing.

 

Another CountryAnother Country by James Baldwin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wasn’t expecting this novel to be so long! I even had to up the speed of the audiobook so it would go faster but not enough so the narrator sounded like a chipmunk.

I also read a few summaries since the first seemed quite spoilery, the second too vague and the third even more spoilery!

Maybe because I was meeting a friend to discuss this book and that time was fast approaching but the length of the book really affected my feelings towards it, I was exhausted by the time I actually finished.

If each character was a country, I felt we spent too long on each one when a slight layover could have sufficed.

The storytelling and writing were still superb and insightful but some of the tactics he’s known for (like time jumping) really annoyed me during this read. Plus, I didn’t like any of the characters. I don’t have any problems with realistic fiction but I also want it to be slightly different from real life.

 

Just Above My HeadJust Above My Head by James Baldwin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In a way, James Baldwin’s novel of brotherly love is a culmination of what made his other novels so great with the superb writing, the memorable characters, and the insights of what makes us all so wonderful and horrible at the same time. But, it also feels like all those other books combine in the sense that this was really long. I ended up reading two of his other novels before finishing Just Above My Head. I admire his ability to write such an epic but I wish we didn’t have to spend so much time with so many characters.

My Season of Baldwin is nearing its end after finishing this novel. One more to go!

 

Tell Me How Long the Train's Been GoneTell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone by James Baldwin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wow, I can’t believe I just finished my last James Baldwin novel to complete my Season of Baldwin Reading Challenge.

As for this particular novel, my only regret is that it was so unnecessarily long. Somehow the last three novels I read were lengthy. I couldn’t believe how much into the past we had to keep going into when a few key moments would have sufficed and made the story better. And then the ending was so abrupt.

I wish this novel had focused solely on the theatrical life of Leo Proudhammer because there was already so much to dissect there. The flashbacks to his childhood were fascinating but seemed redundant and a choice that was repeated in previous works. (Or maybe this was the first instance since I did read them out of order.)

I think another reason I wanted this to be shorter was that I probably wouldn’t have minded if they were two or three separate books.

 

I also decided to read other books by him that wasn’t for the challenged but I felt really enriched my experience of reading his works.

Blues for Mister CharlieBlues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Knowing this play was written by James Baldwin and knowing this was based on killing of Emmett Till, it was bound to be powerful. A murder of a black man divides an already divided town. When the white killer is put on trial, there is hope that justice will be served but the history of racism and racist ideals shows the near impossibility of that happening- and as we can see in present time the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Jimmy's Blues and Other PoemsJimmy’s Blues and Other Poems by James Baldwin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Readers can still expect James Baldwin’s sharp and cutting insights on life and love, race and society, in this collection of poems. “Inventory/ On Being 52” was probably my favorite.

The Amen CornerThe Amen Corner by James Baldwin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A pastor’s past comes to wreak havoc on her present and future. A power play erupts within the congregation. James Baldwin is great at putting characters you want to care about in difficult situations- most often due to society and sometimes, like in this case, because of human behavior.

One of my best friends and I actually had a book club for Another Country during Pride. And she surprised me a few weeks later with this nice postcard that had a quote from Giovanni’s Room.

Watching the documentary James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket was a great way to know him not just as an author and activist but also as a human being. It talked about some of his works which I read and it gave me a whole new appreciation for them. And, to paraphrase someone in the documentary talking about Baldwin’s writing but to expand it about his life as well, even though he wrote a lot of heavy and dark topics, he was able to shine a light sometimes from a fiery rage against the world but also from the burning flame of hope that he didn’t completely lose to despair.

I’d say, overall, my reading life has been greatly enriched reading James Baldwin’s work and that every reader should read at least a few of his books.

2 thoughts on “Season of Baldwin Reading Challenge Completed

  1. Baldwin is a must read when it comes to race issues and the black experience. There is one essay I would recommend from 1955 entitled “Stranger in the Village” where he describes being, what he believes, the first black man ever to be in the Swiss village he was visiting at that time.

  2. I try to read one Baldwin a year. I have been impressed by him ever since I read my first one. I love that Little Man was written in the vernacular of the community.

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