Letters selected from a lifetime of correspondence shed fresh light on the insights and anxieties of the author of one of America’s greatest novels. Readers can trace Ellison’s intellectual, creative, and political development across six decades of exchanges with other writers, thinkers, and, poignantly, his wife Fanny. Masterfully edited, the volume rewards random browsing, but Ellison was an especially prolific and compelling correspondent following the 1952 publication of Invisible Man, even as hints of the pressure he’d face in producing a follow-up became evident. To his close friend Albert Murray—on being “flabbergasted” when asked to address a group of African American college students on “achieving peace through creative experiences”—Ellison writes: “I knew I wasn’t going to tell them that creative experience brought peace, but only a fighting chance with the chaos of living.”
The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison
Edited by John F. Callahan & Marc C. Connor
Random House, $50, 1,072 pp.
Notre-Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals is just what it sounds like. Following a preface about the 2019 fire, the pocket-sized volume chronologically traces the history of Notre-Dame’s builders and architects; the setbacks of its century-long construction; the nineteenth-century renovation inspired by Victor Hugo’s writing; and de Gaulle’s procession to the cathedral after World War II. Follett, whose 1989 novel The Pillars of the Earth led him to research cathedrals, writes conversationally, with humor and optimism, emphasizing the quirks of personality and strength of community that enabled such a monumental project. The proceeds of the book will be donated to the French historical preservation charity La Fondation du Patrimoine.
Viking Press, $17, 80 pp.
Set mostly in Haiti, or among Haitian immigrants in Florida, shared culture (food, weather, faith, language) unites Edwidge Danticat’s new collection, Everything Inside. But each story is also precisely unique. A home health aid lends her ex-husband ransom money to free his kidnapped girlfriend. An art dealer meets with her lover for the first time after his family has been killed in an earthquake. An essayist flies to meet a childhood acquaintance, now the first lady of a Caribbean island, for a glamorous New Year’s Eve ball. Danticat plays out these relationships and others—between employers and employees, college roommates, a woman with dementia and her daughter—perfectly. Though her characters find themselves in rare circumstances, somehow they always respond relatably: with nuanced guilt, grief, wisdom, and tenderness.
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 222 pp.
Published in the February 2020 issue: