It’s been a little while since I spent any time on my Penguin reading projects, and a recent narrow reading window seemed the perfect time to fit in the next two in the Penguin Moderns sequence. These titles are very different from each other – but oddly enough there are resonances!

Penguin Modern 3 – The Cracked Looking-Glass by Katherine Anne Porter

Porter is another one of those authors I know of, but have never read. Yet she was a prolific and critically acclaimed writer, perhaps most known for her novel “Ship of Fools”; and her short stories are apparently very highly regarded. This PM contains just one work, the title story, and it’s a moving piece of work.

Rosaleen sat silent, without rancor, but there was no denying the old man was getting old, old. He got up as if he gathered his bones in his arms, and carried himself into the house. Somewhere inside of him there must be Dennis, but where?

First published in 1922, the story tells of Rosaleen, married to a considerably older man and living an unsatisfactory life on a farm in rural Connecticut. At 30 years her senior, Dennis is aware that he is no longer man enough for his wife, who is obviously unhappy and bored. As the story progresses, both characters think back; both are aware of their flaws; and both have deep regrets about the loss of a child, a missing friend and how their lives could have been very different. Rosaleen is drawn to other men, yet holds back; and a trip to the city will test her real feelings.

Porter packs a lot into the 55 pages of her story, and it’s a poignant and atmospheric read. Rosaleen and Dennis share much, including their Irish heritage, and as a portrait of the ties that bind a marriage together, “Cracked…” is excellent. Porter’s writing is excellent, and on the strength of this I definitely would like to read more!

Penguin Modern 38 – Dark Days by James Baldwin

In contrast, book 38 is from the acclaimed author James Baldwin. He’s an author I’m familiar with, having read several of his works back in the day; however, I think these were all fiction, so I was keen to explore the essays in this volume. The book contains three titles: Dark Days (1980), The Price of the Ticket (1985) and The White Man’s Guilt (1965); and each is a powerful and moving read.

To be black was to confront, and to be forced to alter, a condition forged in history. To be white was to be forced to digest a delusion called white supremacy.

The essays explore the situation of people of colour in the USA, and Baldwin draws on his own life; growing up in Harlem, being given breaks by people whom he came to love and trust, and managing to make his way in the world, despite the odds being against this. He digs deeply into the prejudice faced by every one who is non-white, dismantling the illusion that there can be equality until white people’s supremacy is no more. One particularly resonant point he made was about education; this is, of course, structured by white people with a particular bias, and so even if a person of colour gains an education, it is skewed. The essays are inspirational reading, and still very, very relevant today…

…I am facing sixty. Dark days, for we know how much there is to be done and how unlikely it is that we will live another sixty years.

You see, I put in above the years the essays were published because I think it’s worth noting, tragically, how little has changed. In the 1960s and 1980s Baldwin was writing about police brutality to people of colour; and we saw last year how the same attitudes and prejudices lead to continuing violence against non-whites and how those who perpetrate it don’t seem to be brought to justice. It’s a sobering reminder of how much still needs to change.

Baldwin’s writing is, of course, excellent; his arguments are persuasive and his sense of outrage palpable. He’s obviously a writer I need to return to.

*****

This pair of PMs might on the surface, therefore, seem to be quite unalike. However, there are similarities; both books deal with the kind of system of inequality which exists in the USA. Rosaleen and Dennis are marginalised because of their povery and their Irish heritage; Baldwin because of race; and it struck me reading these works that America has a class system of its own. It does seem that those who emigrated to the New World took all their problems and prejudices with them, and if you aren’t one of the white folk who scrambled to the top and are clinging onto your privilege, life is still very hard. A thought-provoking pair of books, which I highly recommend!