I was surprised to realize I had never read anything by James Baldwin before. He’s one of the top American writers, so this read was long overdue for me.

Baldwin’s writing in “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is beautifully descriptive. He evokes clear images with each passage. Through his words we can clearly envision the setting of the church, down to the dust on the floor. We can feel the vastness of New York City, and also the familiarity of an individual street. One of my favorite moments of imagery is the scene where John is on his “mountain,” the hill in the middle of Central Park. Baldwin so poignantly described the quiet solitude that can be found even while you know you’re surrounded by people and a bustle of activity, and the strength the vantage point lends to a boy on the verge of being a young man.

These carefully crafted scenes help carry us through what can be a heavy novel at times, diving deep into questions of religion, morality, family and self.

Though the story is about John -- and begins and ends with his perspective -- we also see into the minds and the pasts of others around him: his aunt, mother and father. As John struggles, the three adults reflect on what they view as their sins. In the end, the stories of John’s family have shaped John, defining how he has been raised and treated, and in doing so, who he is

-- Rebecca Mariscal

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Like Rebecca, I was rather unfamiliar with Baldwin when we chose this book as the August RiverTown Reads text. I had read a collection of Baldwin’s poetry and snippets of longer texts, but after reading “Go Tell it on the Mountain” it became clear to me that a reader needs to sit with the entirety of a Baldwin novel to obtain its full meaning and impact.

Throughout this novel there are moving and heart wrenching moments as well as lines that could stand on their own and offer insight to the human condition. But the weight of the many storylines in the novel and the impacts of characters’ decisions don't become fully clear until the last few pages.

Baldwin weaves together numerous storylines, events and timelines to create a story with a complex plot and even more complex characters. Some books feel like they exist in a vacuum, that the story being told and the decisions made within its pages will only impact those in that story at that time. But Baldwin creates characters who have been shaped by decisions and people from the past and, as is suggested throughout the novel, the future will be shaped by what happens in his book. While we leave the characters at the end of the novel it feels like they continue to live their lives in the world that Baldwin has built.

-- Rachel Fergus

September pick

September’s RiverTown Reads book is “Feel Free” by Zadie Smith. To send your review or future book recommendations, contact Rebecca Mariscal at rmariscal@rivertowns.net or Rachel Fergus at rfergus@rivertowns.net.

Zadie Smith is a novelist and essayist from London. She has published New York Times bestsellers and her essays have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The Guardian and The New Yorker.

In “Feel Free,” a collection of essays published in 2018, Smith covers a variety of topics including Brexit, Jay Z, writing, Joni Mitchell, philosophy, Justin Bieber and more. Each essay is unique so readers can jump around, selecting the pieces that interest them.

Reading questions for “Feel Free”

  1. Have you read a book of essays before? What do you think about the format? Does “Feel Free” make you want to read more essay collections, or do you prefer different genres?

  2. Smith’s foreword addresses the context these essays were written in, and how it is for her looking back at them. That was in 2017. How does today’s world affect the impact her words have?

  3. Were there any essays within the book that you found most interesting or impactful? Were there any that you did not enjoy?

  4. Zadie Smith frequently uses cultural references in her essays. Were you familiar with the references she made? If not, were you able to glean anything from the essays that were about ideas or people with whom you are unfamiliar?

  5. Smith resides in both the U.S. and the U.K. and writes about her experiences in and the ongoings of both countries. Did reading about topics like Brexit or hyper-local stories set in a London neighborhood impact how you think about local or global events? Did the juxtaposition of affairs occurring in the two countries help you think about current events in a new way? Or, did you find it difficult to connect with the events and people that Smith was writing about?

  6. Smith appears to have a very warm tone (meaning she is open and intimate with the reader) and her voice is very distinct (the reader knows who is writing; we never question who is “speaking” through the text). Do you agree with this or do you find her tone and voice to be different than described? When you read an essay do you have a preference for what tone/voice the author uses?

  7. Would you recommend this book to someone else? Why or why not?