Written By: Nella Larsen

192 pages

Literature/ African-American/ Classics

Publisher: Penguin Classics

This Edition Published: 2002

First Published: 1928

Quicksand, by Nella Larsen, is just what it sounds like: an experience of ever-sinking, of flailing and failing, of struggling to stay above the muck but endlessly falling back into it. The protagonist, Helga Crane, is smart, thoughtful, and aware, and that is precisely her problem. She is mixed-race, the product of a Danish mother and a black father, and she sees too clearly the problem of how people of her skin tone are treated in America. The novel deals with her constant struggle to find a place where she can belong—not only as a black woman or as a white woman, but as her unique self, the sum of those parts. Readers are transported from Harlem to Denmark and back again, hoping against hope that Helga will eventually find a compromise that she can live with.

One thing I like about Nella Larsen is that her books are never just about race, or being mixed-race, or even about being a woman, but rather are about characters who seem like real people and not symbols. Helga Crane is idiosyncratic: she is smart, but impulsive, personable but sometimes alienating, and she doesn’t always know (or do) what’s best for her. She can be frustrating and even unlikable, but she remains relatable in some way. Larsen succeeds at creating antiheroes, women who are not conventionally sympathetic, but whose interior life nonetheless makes us feel for them.

While I think Passing may be Larsen’s masterpiece, I still enjoyed Quicksand for its keen insights and devastating conclusions. Larsen draws largely on her own life, and this added dimension makes the novel all the more fascinating. It is a meaningful look at issues of identity, and it shows both how far we have come and how far we still have to go in creating a more inclusive society.

Reading Out Loud: How I Got Into Audiobooks

It started with a long car trip, a short attention span, and this book:

Me Talk Pretty One Day

This was the beginning of my conversion, from audiobook skeptic to…well, someone who still doesn’t listen to audiobooks very often, but who can finally appreciate them in the right context.

I’ll be honest: I’m not a great listener, and the idea of reading a book solely by listening to it terrifies me. What if I miss a lot? It may be easy to do a 30-second rewind, but what if I need to revisit something that happened a few chapters ago? There are limitations to the audiobook that don’t exist on the printed page. For someone who has been reading physical books (and now e-books) for decades, it’s not so easy to go back in time and adapt to a more passive reading experience. I need to see the words, to interact with them on the page. With audiobooks, there is nothing to hold on to: readers must give themselves over to the experience, sacrificing control for the very different pleasure of having a story presented theatrically to them.

I like this idea in theory. It makes one think of families gathered around an old-timey radio (except, of course, in this case the large piece of furniture has been replaced by an electronic device that fits in the palm of a baby’s hand.) What could be more delightful than this act of togetherness? In actuality, though, many audiobooks are not that fun to listen to. They can be presented dully—or, worse yet, in improbable voices—by people who did not write the book, but were simply hired to read it.

Which brings me back to Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. What I immediately liked about this audiobook was that it was read by the author. David Sedaris was telling his story to me, as if we were friends…or, at least, as if I had kidnapped him and forced him to entertain me for the duration of a long car ride (after which he was free to go). This actually heightened the reading experience for me, making it less about me interacting with the words themselves and more about the author speaking directly to me.

BossypantsI’ve discovered that this is type of audiobook I can appreciate. When another long car trip introduced me to Bossypants by Tina Fey, I was ready. Tina Fey is a talented performer, and she delivers her jokes better than any hired voice actor could. After all, it’s her story: there’s not going to be a better person to do her Lorne Michaels impression. Again, I felt that the reading experience was actually improved by listening to the author’s own voice. But it had me wondering, could I only respond favorably to authors telling me their life stories? What about fiction?

Beauty QueensLately, I’ve been listening to Beauty Queens, a YA book written and read by Libba Bray. My long car trips are behind me; now, I listen to the book while I knit. I think the two activities complement each other well, and it’s a habit I would like to keep up with in the future. My only worry is that I will never find another book as thrillingly well done as this one. For starters, Libba Bray may have the most charming multiple personality disorder ever. She juggles over a dozen characters, complete with different accents and linguistic quirks, flawlessly, and her energy level is always set to 11. The book is a satire about teenage beauty queens who get marooned on an island and must learn to survive, and it is just as hilarious as it sounds. I am finding that listening to an audiobook can actually be exhilarating…and I’m even pitying the people who only got a chance to read this in print. In short, it’s a far cry from my audiobook-hating days, when I assumed the only way I would listen to an audiobook was if I had just had laser eye surgery.

Of course, my first love will always be the printed word. It’s comfortable. It’s reliable. It won’t sway my taste too much in either direction, like a well-executed or terribly-executed audiobook might. Still, it can’t boast the engaging performance aspect of the audiobook—or, at least, not until I get better at funny voices. It’s always limited by my limitations—of imagination, of pronunciation, and, of course, of performing a Lorne Michaels impression. Sometimes the audiobook is just better. But the trick is finding the right one.

Confession: I’m No Good at Goodreads


I have a confession to make, and it could shock you. (Well, probably not if you’ve already read the title of this post.) I love to read, and I’m pretty good with social media (or, at least, I know what a Twitter is)…but I’m bad at Goodreads.

I don’t mean that I can’t use Goodreads, like I don’t understand the basics of how it works. I can add books I’ve read, rate them, and even set challenges for myself regarding books to read in the coming year. Sometimes I even do the silly things, like enter giveaways or silently judge the bookshelves of successful authors. The problem is simply that I’m not using Goodreads the way it’s meant to be used. I’m not posting reviews, which is egregious considering I actually have reviews already written for this website. And my star ratings? I give them, but I have no idea what the hell I mean by any of it. Oh yeah, and I have only three friends.

Lest you think I’m simply not that interested in Goodreads, let me add that I actually find it very worthwhile. I use it every day. It’s a great way to keep track of page numbers, and I especially like that users can track past updates on books to see how quickly they are reading, what their initial impressions were, and so forth. It’s important for me to realize when I’m advancing only five percent on To the Lighthouse in a given day, so that I know when I am completely failing as a human being. Goodreads keeps me honest. Bitter, depressed, and honest.

But I give nothing back. I rate books simply because I can’t stand to see the empty stars staring back at me. I rate books even when I read them nearly a decade ago, even when I think I may have loved them…or was it that I hated them? I rate for the vanity of it, for the semblance of having strong opinions. And my ratings are based on no consistent criteria, just mad whims and occasionally guilt. (I know I’m supposed to like you, Persuasion, dammit!) If you are one of my (three) friends, please disregard my opinions. I don’t know what they mean either.

My problem with Goodreads is that I sometimes find it too great a leap from my private tallies and tentative notes. I’ve made lists of the books I’ve read in a given year since I was 16, but usually these lists were nothing special, just a record of the date each book was completed, and later personal star ratings that I didn’t have to worry about sharing with anyone else. (I also used half-stars. Half-stars make everything better when you are indecisive.) I just haven’t caught up with the social aspect of it yet; for too long, reading has been a deeply personal experience that I’ve only shared incrementally. It’s not that I’m ashamed of what I’m reading (even when I should be), or that I think anyone gives more than a passing glance at my updates. It’s just this: I don’t relate to books in this way.

Still, I’m learning. I’m learning both what it’s like to be the kind of person who shares random personal information with her (three) friends and occasionally bored strangers, as well as what it means to enjoy books in an age in which you never have to enjoy them alone. I assume that someday I will add a fourth friend, I will post a review of a book I felt strongly about, and I will even participate in one of those author events that I get so many notifications for.

…That day is just not today.

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