Quicksand by Nella Larsen (CC Spin #21)

Frankly the question came to this: what was the matter with her? Was there, without her knowing it, some peculiar lack in her? Absurd. But she began to have a feeling of discouragement and hopelessness? Why couldn’t she be happy, content, somewhere? Other people managed, somehow, to be. To put it plainly, didn’t she know how? Was she incapable of it?

Back in January of 2018 I read and reviewed Nella Larsen’s 1929 classic novel, Passing, and noted that I’d hardly ever come across a novel as slim yet as jam-packed with ideas ripe for discussion. I could definitely say the say thing about Larsen’s first novel, Quicksand (1928.) Both are arresting, probing explorations of race in early twentieth century America, both very readable. And while Passing is perhaps the tighter story, I found Quicksand to be the one that presented me with even bigger ideas to contemplate.

When we meet Helga Crane she is a young biracial woman (her father was black, her mother a white Danish immigrant.) Her mother died when she was very young and she never lived with her father; Helga feels adrift and as if she has no “people.” She is teaching at a Southern school for African Americans and engaged to a male teacher at the school. But she is not happy and doesn’t agree with the school’s educational philosophy. She makes a snap decision to leave the school and go to Chicago, where her mother’s brother lives, to see if he can help her begin anew. So begins her search for belonging and happiness, which takes her from Chicago to Harlem, to Denmark, and back again to the American South.

But just what did she want? Barring a desire for material security, gracious ways of living, a profusion of lovely clothes, and a goodly share of envious admiration, Helga Crane did know, couldn’t tell. But there was, she knew, something else. Happiness, she supposed. Whatever that might be.

Helga never does seem to find a place where she is viewed as a human being, treated superficially as an exotic, sexualized beauty in Denmark and feeling trapped in Harlem by strict rules of social etiquette and her companion’s obsession with ” the race problem.” I felt sympathy for her but also at times felt irritated by how rashly she made major life decisions. She was a compelling character and I eagerly turned the pages to see if Helga would ever find a safe place to land. Her life takes a surprising turn towards the end of the book, but I won’t spoil anything because this short classic is worthy of a place on your TBR.

This knowledge, this certainty of the division of her life into two parts in two lands, into physical freedom in Europe and spiritual freedom in America, was unfortunate, inconvenient, expensive.

Larsen is a thoughtful writer and her biography is ripe for a good biopic. Quicksand seems heavily autobiographical and I wondered how much more she could have written if she grew up in a later time, a time where biracial people’s lives weren’t so restricted by laws and societal conventions. She spent most of her life as a nurse, a career at which she, by all accounts, excelled and enjoyed. There are three short stories I haven’t yet read but that is all that’s left of her work for me to read. It’s a shame there isn’t more to explore, but I’m grateful to have found the novels she left behind.

This is the 16th book out of 51 on my Classics Club list, which you can see in this post.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The capacity to suffer. Elwood – all the Nickel boys – existed in the capacity. Breathed in it, ate in it, dreamed in it. That was their lives now. Otherwise they would have perished. The beatings, the rapes, the unrelenting winnowing of themselves. They endured. But to love those who would have destroyed them? To make that leap? We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. 

Elwood shook his head. What a thing to ask. What an impossible thing.

71yP-dPa0mLIf a 225-page book takes me nine days to read, either I don’t like it or it’s really sad. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is decidedly sad. I didn’t cry, and I didn’t feel burdened by gratuitous descriptions of violence. Whitehead, mercifully,  writes sparingly but efficiently of the punishments given out by the mean-spirited men in charge of the fictional Nickel Academy. I just felt sad, heavy with the knowledge that these injustices happened to real boys in the 20th century at Florida’s Dozier School for Boys, the inspiration for Nickel. Heavy with the weight of our continued struggle with racism in the U.S. At the same time, I relished Whitehead’s characterization of the two young heroes in this story, Elwood and Turner. He is a phenomenal writer – not an emotional one, but one who nonetheless has the capacity to move me greatly.

It’s the early 1960’s and Elwood and Turner, the book’s main characters, stand in for hundreds of boys, black and white, who endured horrible conditions at the real life Dozier School. (You can read more about it here.) The boys at Nickel were either wards of the state that no one was sure what to do with or they were there as punishment for a “crime.” Elwood, an enterprising, bookish young man, inspired by recordings his grandma bought him of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., starts the book as the least likely boy to end up at a place like Nickel. But he’s soon caught up in a tragic mishap that lands him in the nightmarish facility, where he meets Turner, a low-key, cynical, but streetwise teen who has no family and is on his second stint at the school. Turner takes Elwood under his wing after Elwood makes the mistake of letting his ideals guide him in the murky social structure at Nickel.

I absolutely fell in love with these two characters, especially Elwood. The way he continues to struggle throughout the novel to reconcile his ideals, the ideals Dr. King showed him, and the reality of his situation, all the adults and kids who weren’t playing by the rules of love and justice and a higher purpose, this is the heart of the book for me. I have read some reviews of Whitehead’s works that fault him for being detached or unemotional. I agree with that characterization but for me it’s a good thing. The things he writes about, especially his last two books, have been about so much sadness and violence that I want a level of detachment from the author – it helps me, a sensitive person, not get overwhelmed by the subject matter. I can focus on the beauty, strength,  and economy of the writing and, here, delight in the characters.

The Nickel Boys is an achievement, a testament to the hell that real life boys endured for most of the 20th century. I think Colson Whitehead is a genius who can write just about any kind of book he wants to and I love the range of his work. I know this kind of book isn’t an easy sell, especially for sensitive readers. But I highly recommend it – if I, known shunner of heavy books, can handle it, you most likely can too! ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

 

March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell

In Mississippi that summer we suffered more than 1000 arrests, 80 beatings, 35 shootings, 35 church burnings, and 30 bombings. Doctors who evaluated volunteers returning home from Freedom Summer describes the symptoms of the emotional and physical toll as “battle fatigue,” marking a “crisis in the  lives of those youths who experience them.”

March: Book 3 is a marvel. I read Books 1 and 2 back in 2016 (review of Book 2 here) and loved them. They gave me a window into what it was like to put your body and life on the line for the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s, how horrible the violence and hatred that met these young people was, and also gave me a new respect for what a true hero Representative John Lewis is.  I didn’t read the concluding volume when it came out because demand was high at my library and there were few copies. And then it got lost in the shuffle – you know how that goes. I’m so glad I chose to finally finish the series. Book 3 is another enlightening, moving gem, focusing specifically on the push for African Americans’ right to vote in the South, ultimately leading to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Opening with the horrific bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four little girls, the graphic memoir next explores the ways in which Southern whites prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote, through intimidation, literacy tests, threats to their jobs and homes, or any other whim that the local Registrar of Voters could come up with. Lewis’s work as leader of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) along with others like Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses, coordinating marches, sit-ins, and protests across the Deep South to enforce voting rights was met at every turn with violence, intimidation, and police brutality.

The graphic novel format is the perfect medium to tell this story because it makes the violence and hatred feel so visceral and terrifying. Some brave young activists, white and black alike, were killed in the line of duty and their killers were never brought to justice. I hope this series is taught in high schools across America – until we truly know and confront our past we can’t hope to make progress against the deep strain of racism still alive and well in our country. I wish I had read something like this when I was in school so that I would have been aware of what the Civil Rights heroes were up against. These events seem far away sometimes, but my mother was a little girl when all of this occurred – it really wasn’t that long ago. Some people in power today were young people growing up steeped in the segregated culture of hate and violence.

The brutal, televised beatings of non-violent protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on “Bloody Sunday,” John Lewis included, forced the rest of America to finally look at the brutality enforced by state and local governments in the South.  March portrays President Lyndon Johnson as a sympathetic, if at times halting and measured, ally of the cause. The political maneuverings of 1963-1965 were interesting but not as compelling as the stories of the activists fighting for justice on the streets. When we finally get to the end of the volume, back in the 2009 inauguration of President Obama, it feels bittersweet, knowing how many people who worked for equality didn’t make it to see that great day.

In short, this series is phenomenal and I highly recommend it, even if you don’t ever read graphic novels or graphic memoirs. What a gift this series is.

Have you read this series? What other histories, biographies, or memoirs of Civil Rights heroes would you recommend?

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

img_4355This book is not for everyone.  There’s lots of “language” and casual (kind of icky) sex, plus domestic abuse references and mental health issues – but I really enjoyed it and read it quickly – in two days! The main character, Queenie Jenkins, is compelling and interesting, complex and flawed. She nearly drove me crazy making some very poor choices but I was always invested in her story. Queenie is a 25-year-old black British woman of Jamaican heritage and has just “taken a break” with her long-time (white) boyfriend. While her personal life is falling apart, her physical health and professional life are also suffering. She has some good friends and a sweet extended family but is very reluctant to get therapy to address long-standing issues from her past that are sabotaging her present. I found her struggle with anxiety and depression very convincing and I empathized with her. Carty-Williams does a great job of portraying a family and a culture where mental health issues aren’t talked about or dealt with other than just basically saying, “Yes, life’s hard, now soldier on.”

However, there are moments of humor which go a long way towards breaking up the heavy issues. The jacket says it’s “darkly comic” and I’d agree with that. Really good stuff, if you want some contemporary fiction and are okay with your characters making questionable choices!  ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Favorite passage:

“…well, he asked to buy me a drink, but I very firmly said no.”

“Oh, well done.”

“Thanks. He was one of those mainstream millenials, which wasn’t so appealing, but I wouldn’t have let him buy me a drink even if he wasn’t. He didn’t try to bang me on sight, though, so that’s something, I guess.”

“What’s a mainstream millenial?” Darcy asked.

“Have I made this term up?” I questioned myself. “I’m sure I’ve seen it on the Internet. You know, those men: bike riding, knitted sweater? Pretends Facebook isn’t important to him, but it really is?” I was met with a blank stare, so carried on. “Craft beer, start-ups, sense of entitlement? Reads books by Alain de Botton, needs a girlfriend who doesn’t threaten his mediocrity?”

“Oh, right,” Darcy said, not as mediocre-man-hating as me. “Anyway, well done, you! One of these days we’ll have a whole week of conversation where we can pass the Bechdel test!”

 

 

Reading Round-up and The CC Spin Result

Hello friends, I hope you’ve had a good week! It’s time to do a little catching up and finally tell you what my Classics Club Spin result was.

Recently Finished Reading:

Tooth and Nail by Ian Rankin.

5519730This is the third book in the Inspector Rebus series. In this one the Inspector gets called down to London (from his home base of Edinburgh) to assist on a serial killer case, chasing a suspect nicknamed “The Wolfman.” There’s a lot about the psychology of serial killers here, and I liked how open-ended the case was right until the very end. Rankin highlights the tension between the English detectives and our Scottish protagonist. He’s not exactly welcomed with open arms. There’s a subplot about Rebus’s family, his daughter and ex-wife who live in London, and how he’s not exactly been the most present father. And another cringe-worthy romantic relationship – my least favorite element of these books so far. Rebus is kind of a screw-up in that area. I am not sure that I really like John Rebus, but he’s interesting and funny and complex and I like reading *about* him. And I’m a softie for a maverick detective. I eagerly anticipate getting to read the next installment.

Currently Reading:

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start-up by John Carreyrou.

37976541I’m listening to the audio book of this from my library, and it’s BANANAS. I can’t even begin to comprehend the amount of money poured into this half-assed, shady, unethical operation. The hubris, megalomania, and privilege of Theranos’s founder, Elizabeth Holmes is mind-boggling. It’s a highly entertaining and eye-opening read. I’m ignoring my usual podcasts in favor of this book. I definitely recommend it. The narrator is nothing special, but the book is just so… wow. One heck of a story here. I’m about half way through.

Karamo: My Story of Embracing Purpose, Healing, and Hope by Karamo Brown.

43253544I’m OBSESSED with Netflix’s Queer Eye and all the guys. They are just the most joyful and kind-hearted people and their show makes me happy. So of course I’m going to read any memoir that one of them writes. (And I do like to read celebrity autobiographies.) Karamo is laying it all out there. I’m halfway through this and he’s just discussed his addiction to cocaine that nearly killed him, an interesting take on colorism and gender, and his love for his church and how he won’t let anyone cherry-pick Bible verses to denigrate who he is. He comes across just as confidently as he does on the show, and I like how he is baring all of his past mistakes honestly. I recommend this if you’re a fan of the show.

CC Spin Result:

The number chosen in Monday’s spin was 19, which means I’ll be reading Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. I’m really excited to finally read this and I own a copy already which is nice. Here is the Goodreads blurb:51MDxGgSUmL

The most nostalgic and reflective of Evelyn Waugh’s novels, Brideshead Revisited looks back to the golden age before the Second World War. It tells the story of Charles Ryder’s infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly-disappearing world of privilege they inhabit. Enchanted first by Sebastian at Oxford, then by his doomed Catholic family, in particular his remote sister, Julia, Charles comes finally to recognize only his spiritual and social distance from them.

Have you read this?

What have you recently finished?

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Ayoola summons me with these words – Korede, I killed him.

I had hoped I would never hear those words again.

91vWDBRqMqLWith that awesome opening, Oyinkan Braithwaite had me hooked from the start. Her debut novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer, is quite the page-turner – a quirky, darkly funny, kind of sad, creepy depiction of sisters caught in a warped dynamic.

Korede is the responsible, plain-looking older sister, working as a nurse in a Lagos hospital. Ayoola is the younger, flightier, more beautiful sister who posts incessantly on Instagram and attracts men easily. We are drawn into the action immediately, as Ayoola asks for her sister’s help after she kills the man she’s been dating.

“We need to move the body,” I tell her.

“Are you angry at me?”

Perhaps a normal person would be angry, but what I feel now is a pressing need to dispose of the body.

We learn more about the sisters’ childhood, their violent and abusive father. We start to understand more about how that affected them.

More and more, she reminds me of him. He could do a bad thing and behave like a model citizen right after. As though the bad thing had never happened. Is it in the blood? But his blood is my blood and my blood is hers.

Korede is in love with a doctor at the hospital named Tade. He is unaware of how she feels, viewing her as a friend who really listens to him. Once Ayoola and Tade meet, a meeting Korede was desperate to block, a chain of events is set into motion that will give Korede the opportunity to break free from the family’s cycle of violence and dysfunction. Will she be strong enough to take it, though?

There are moments of humor sprinkled throughout the novel, enough to make this not a bleak book despite the subject matter.

“You’re not the only one suffering, you know. You act like you are carrying this big thing all by yourself, but I worry too.”

“Do you? ‘Cause the other day, you were singing ‘I Believe I Can Fly.'”

Ayoola shrugs. “It’s a good song.”

I alternately felt sorry for and frustrated by both sisters. But I never lost interest or stopped wanting to turn pages. (I also LOVE the cover.)  This is a smart, insightful debut and I can’t wait to see what Braithwaite does next.

 

Five Sentence Reviews: Dear Mrs. Bird, Anne Lamott, and Romance!

I’ve been on a month-long yoga journey with the amazing Adriene Mishler of Yoga With Adriene. I’ve practiced EVERY NIGHT. This is kind of a big deal because I’m famous for starting things and not finishing them. There are three practices left in the sequence (I started a day late.) I’m telling you this because the nightly yoga, while amazing for my soul, posture, and core, is not conducive to blog posting. I’ve been reading, though, so I’m (as usual) a bit behind on reviews. Here are some five-sentence reviews to clear the decks. All of these were four-star reads. In fact, in January I’ve had ALL four-star reads. Still waiting for the first five-star of 2019!

81w5wudgvllDear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce. A charming historical fiction novel set in London during World War II. Emmy Lake is an irresistibly plucky heroine. She takes a job that she thinks is going to be a junior reporter for a newspaper but turns out to be a typist for an advice columnist at a floundering women’s magazine. Mrs. Bird, the advice columnist, is prudish and severe, so Emmy decides to secretly help the young women who need friendly advice in a scary time. This was an enjoyable yet moving look at lives in England during the Blitz.

After a big raid it was always sad to see flattened buildings and burnt-out churches which had stood for hundreds of years, but there was something rather triumphant about the monuments and statues, even the parks and big department stores that were still there, getting on with things. The Luftwaffe may have been  trying to blast us to pieces, but everyone just kept getting back up.

Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott. I love Anne Lamott. I listened to 39203790the audiobook, read by the author, and it was wonderful. If you’ve never read her before, she’s like a kindly, slightly kooky neighbor or aunt who tells you hard truths about life but also gives you M&Ms and hugs. She is consistently hopeful yet aware of the pain of the world and unfairness of life. Reading her makes me feel better, stronger, less crazy, and this was one of her better recent books.

It’s okay to stop hitting the snooze button and to wake up and pay attention to what makes you feel okay about yourself, one meal at a time. Unfortunately, it’s yet another inside job. If you are not okay with yourself at 185 pounds, you may not be okay at 150, or even 135. The self-respect and peace of mind you long for is not in your weight. It’s within you. I resent that more than I can say. But it’s true. Finding a way to have a relatively healthy and safe relationship with food is hard, and it involves being one’s very own dearest person. This will not cause chaos or death, as you were surely taught, but rather an environment where you can drown out the many mean and mistaken voices.

51flpz8fm5lA Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole (Reluctant Royals #1.) A fun, smart, sexy page-turner. This contemporary romance features a guarded, independent STEM-based grad student heroine, Naledi, and an actual prince from the fictional African country of Thesolo, Thabiso, who comes to New York to track down his long-lost betrothed. A case of mistaken identity brings to two together, where they experience undeniable chemistry. The storyline was so well-crafted I kind of skimmed over the sexy parts, to be honest. These characters were fully realized and incredibly likeable; I can’t wait to read more of this series (the next focuses on Naledi’s best friend Portia.)

“Um,” she said. Her general reaction to men she met in her daily life was indifference or tolerance, at best, but something about this man sent her thoughts spinning far, far away from lab work or serving or studying. The only data she was currently interested in collecting was the exact tensile pressure of his beard against her inner thigh, and the shift in mass of his body on top of hers.

Have you read any of these? Have you had a five-star read yet in 2019?