Quicksand

Quicksand


Quicksand

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.

A Year of Reading: 2012

Woman with book

January

  • Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
  • Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King
  • Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald
  • The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

February

  • The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To by D.C. Pierson
  • Matched by Ally Condie
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green
  • White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  • Never Have I Ever by Sara Shepard

March

  • Chime by Franny Billingsley
  • Two Truths and a Lie by Sara Shepard
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
  • Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer
  • Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling
  • Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  • Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
  • A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

April

  • Hickory Dickory Dock by Agatha Christie
  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
  • The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee by Sarah Silverman
  • Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
  • Wonderland by Joanna Nadin
  • Old School by Tobias Wolff
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

May

  • When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen
  • Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
  • The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
  • An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

June

  • Bossypants by Tina Fey
  • Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
  • Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

July

  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  • The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

August

  • Crossed by Ally Condie
  • The Girl is Murder by Kathryn Miller Haines
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
  • Hide and Seek by Sara Shepard

September

  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • Every Day by David Levithan
  • Wallflower at the Orgy by Nora Ephron

October

  • Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose
  • Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

November

  • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
  • The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
  • Carrie by Stephen King
  • Passing by Nella Larsen

December

  • State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
  • Maus, Vol. 1: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman
  • Maus Vol. 2: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman
  • Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
  • How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
  • On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner

[Image courtesy ClipArt ETC]

Memorable Quotes: The Moon and Sixpence

When I write reviews of the books I read, I always try to keep two goals in mind. My first goal, since this is a small blog without many readers, is to create a record of what I thought the book was about, along with my own personal reactions to it. I want to feel personally satisfied with the review because I am not seeking a lot of outside feedback. Of course, since this is still a public blog, and since I do have some readers—and because I believe it is important to develop some facility in describing plot points and relaying critical views to others—I also want to keep any potential readers in mind. My second goal, therefore, is to make the book knowable to people who have never read it so that they might have some idea of whether they would ever like to read it. I want to offer a review that can be appreciated by people who do not know me, or who have never read my blog before: that is, I want to write reviews that can stand alone, without any explanation of how I read books and what the purpose of my blog is.

Although I try to vary my approach in minor ways, most of my reviews adhere to a certain format in which I compose a synopsis of what I thought were important plot points and then offer some judgments on the book as a whole. If I have remembered beforehand, I will include a quotation or two that I think exemplifies the story. Most of the time, though, the writing I offer is solely mine. This is effective to a point, but it fails to give a complete picture. It frequently privileges plot over style; the author’s voice remains a mystery. While ideally I would rectify this problem by including more quotations for every review I write, I must be realistic and admit that I find the prospect too tedious and time-consuming. It’s a lot of work to find exactly the right quote! Thus, my somewhat lazy solution is just to create a post listing a number of quotes that I found particularly interesting. Especially since I have been more in a reading mood than a writing one, I have decided to write “Memorable Quotes” entries for those books I never got around to reviewing.

The first book I am going to cover is The Moon and Sixpence, a short, impressive W. Somerset Maugham novel loosely based on the life of the painter Paul Gauguin. As with all Maugham novels, the language is lovely and the insights profound; additionally, all of the characters are unsympathetic, and many of their actions despicable. Perhaps one of the reasons I never reviewed the book is because the subject of the story, Charles Strickland, is so unlikeable. He leaves his wife and children to begin life as an artist (never thinking of them again), and disdains everyone, even those who make sacrifices to keep him healthy and alive, because he is so singularly focused on his pursuit of art and beauty. It is only Maugham’s superb writing that makes this story worth reading, which is why a plot summary would be ineffective and a poor representation of the reading experience. Thus here are some memorable quotations to give a better idea of the virtues of The Moon and Sixpence.

  • “Life isn’t long enough for love and art.” —Charles Strickland
  • There was in him something primitive. He seemed to partake of those obscure forces of nature which the Greeks personified in shapes part human and part beast, the satyr and the faun. I thought of Marsyas, whom the god flayed because he had dared to rival him in song. Strickland seemed to bear in his heart strange harmonies and unadventured patterns, and I foresaw for him an end of torture and despair. I had again the feeling that he was possessed of a devil; but you could not say that it was a devil of evil, for it was a primitive force that existed before good and ill.
  • Love is absorbing; it takes the lover out of himself; the most clear-sighted, though he may know, cannot realise that his love will cease; it gives body to what he knows is illusion, and, knowing it is nothing else, he loves it better than reality. It makes a man a little more than himself, and at the same time a little less. He ceases to be himself. He is no longer an individual, but a thing, an instrument to some purpose foreign to his ego.
  • Unconsciously, perhaps, we treasure the power we have over people by their regard for our opinion of them, and we hate those upon whom we have no such influence. I suppose it is the bitterest wound to human pride.
  • To the acute observer no one can produce the most casual work without disclosing the innermost secrets of his soul.
  • Strickland was an odious man, but I still think he was a great one.
  • I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid certain surroundings, but they have always a nostalgia for a home they know not. They are strangers in their birthplace, and the leafy lanes they have known from childhood or the populous streets in which they have played, remain but a place of passage. They may spend their whole lives aliens among their kindred and remain aloof among the only scenes they have ever known. Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends men far and wide in the search for something permanent, to which they may attach themselves. Perhaps some deep-rooted atavism urges the wanderer back to lands which his ancestors left in the dim beginnings of history. Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds rest.

The Catcher in the Rye

I first read The Catcher in the Rye when I was 15 and difficult to impress. Although I liked the novel to some extent, it always ranked, for me, as one of those classics whose popularity—and status—was confounding. Especially when I began to hold it up against comparable books like The Bell Jar (one of my personal favorites, which is sometimes regarded as its female counterpart) I simply could not justify its reputation as the definitive novel of adolescence. The only thing it seemed to have on its side was the fact that it came first. Revisiting it almost a full decade later, I find that my initial judgments may have been a bit harsh. The Catcher in the Rye captures the teenage psyche in a way that I, as a teenager, may have been embarrassed to recognize was convincing. Holden Caulfield’s anxiety over growing up, and his belief that he is the only one feeling the way he does, is no doubt exactly what I (not to mention every other teen) felt at the time I was reading the novel. The very aspects that I was critical of—Holden’s excessive, often misguided angst, his repetitive use of the word “phony,” his inevitable self-centeredness—were things that I was guilty of, in some sense, as well. During this reading, in contrast, I was able to look back fondly on that time of emotional tumult and to appreciate Holden both for his virtues and his flaws. In fact, in spite of his poor vocabulary, predilection for rambling, and general hatred of mankind, I found that Holden Caulfield is actually pretty good literary company.

The Catcher in the Rye begins with Holden promising not to go into any of that “David Copperfield kind of crap” about his birth and childhood, and this colloquial, even crass, introduction serves as a sort of manifesto for the novel as a whole. From its informal language, to its convincingly angst-ridden, unpolished narrator, The Catcher in the Rye feels much more like a popular teen novel than a classic work of literature. Salinger writes in a way that is assured to the point of seeming effortless; Holden’s voice is so clear and steady that we readers may be tricked (as indeed I believe I was at 15) into believing that the novel is slight and uncomplicated. To be sure, the plot is minimal, and all of the characters except for Holden flit in and out of the story with little fanfare. There are tiny episodes that don’t seem to add up to much; really, the only constant is Holden’s absorbing commentary. This is precisely the point: the book is all about Holden and his unique narrative voice. If you can get past his obsession with who is authentic and who is a “phony” (hint: almost everyone, from his cocky roommate to his favorite history teacher, is a phony of some variety), and you can accept that, while well-read, Holden narrates precisely like a 16-year-old and not an articulate adult, then you should be able to appreciate his often shrewd observations.

Holden is both a more sensitive and a sadder character than I remembered. Indeed, the whole book had a more melancholy air, rather than a rebellious one, when I read it this time. Although I remembered the basic plot—that Holden gets expelled from his prep school and must bide his time around New York City before returning home on the expected day for Christmas break—I failed to attach any particular mood to the story. I knew that Holden wandered around a lot, complained a lot, got into a fight with a pimp and accidentally broke a little girl’s record into a hundred pieces, but I think I was under the impression that Holden was supposed to be some untouchable malcontent hero, somehow beyond any emotional response. This time, I found him brimming with emotions far more complex than simply the anger that hovers near the surface. Holden is confused and desperately clinging to the simplicity—and authenticity—of childhood…but he is also, perhaps most significantly, still recovering from the death of his younger brother Allie only a few years prior. He is sad, directionless, and lonely, and his longing for real human connections is really what drives the plot. Indeed all of the episodes I had thought were meant to illustrate Holden’s aloofness now speak to me of his loneliness. His freedom is not freedom at all, but a growing isolation that could destroy him.

It is easy to dismiss The Catcher in the Rye when so many books have been inspired by it, and have translated its essence into more contemporary stories. Certainly, Holden can sound silly to the modern teenager’s ear, since his once-current slang is now hopelessly dated. Even his feelings are a little too quaint; his shock over seeing profanity scratched into the wall of his old elementary school is, sadly, a bit hard to believe nowadays. Still, Holden is a character who can connect with readers even today, if only they will listen. He speaks earnestly, without a filter, and he wants the same things any teenager wants. His story is moving because it is so relatable; though none of us will know Holden’s New York, or, one hopes, his family tragedy, we still understand (even those of us who are no longer teenagers) his desire to be a part of something without compromising his ideals. Though we are witnessing Holden’s fall, we are still optimistic that he will survive. For, in the end, adolescence is simply something to be endured. Holden Caulfield’s wintry purgatory, in some ways, represents adolescence as a whole: it is a time of confusion, isolation, and wandering that one can only emerge from by choosing where to go.

The Bell Jar

I’ve read The Bell Jar three times now, which is a fact I tend not to share with future employers, concerned family members, or the people installing my new oven. It’s the kind of book I enjoyed when I was 16, yes, but it’s also the kind of book that I can revisit at 24 and still appreciate, perhaps even in a more nuanced way. While it certainly appeals to the alienated teenager in all of us, The Bell Jar is much more than just a how-to guide for failed suicide attempts. Its narrator is as smart, funny, and charming as they come, and many of her struggles—perhaps barring the whole “I feel like I’m suffocating under a bell jar” one—are relatable to readers of any age.

The typical pressures of being a student, not having much money, and, of course, being a woman are observed through the wry, and often very witty, eye of Plath stand-in Esther Greenwood, a born writer who is as engaging as she is astute. The novel has a very breezy, even conversational, feel, all while tackling a very serious subject. As, no doubt, even someone only casually acquainted with the book already knows, Esther decides to kill herself. The first half of the book leads up to this event, and the latter half deals with its aftermath. The events are closely based on Plath’s real-life breakdown and suicide attempt, which means that the mind set and the emotions are authentic. Indeed, the enduring popularity of the novel is probably due to the fact that Plath captures depression so convincingly, so thoroughly, and so hauntingly.

The novel begins with Esther, listless and aloof, interning at a major magazine in New York City. Although she knows she should be thrilled with the attention lavished on her, and invigorated by the chance to live, for a month, on her own in the city, she instead feels nothing. She cares little for the events being put on for the benefit of the summer interns—she is one of many girls selected for the program—and she even tags along indifferently on the extracurricular excursions of her party girl friend, Doreen. Though inwardly thoughtful and observant, she is often outwardly passive, occasionally allowing herself to be led into dangerous situations. She is unsure of what type of woman she wants to be: the rebellious Doreen, the sweet Betsy (whom Doreen disparagingly calls “Pollyanna Cowgirl”), or the professional Jay Cee, her editor. Each of them represents a side of Esther, but none can encompass all of her hopes, her desires, her yearnings. Nor can they resolve her anxieties over how to be a woman who is not just a wife, or a mother, or a career person—that is, how to be a woman who is everything she wants to be, and nothing she doesn’t want to be.

After an unfulfilling start to the summer, Esther returns home for what she hopes will be a brief stay. Before her internship, she had applied for a summer writing class taught by a renowned author; upon her arrival back home, she learns that she was rejected from the program. Distraught over this news, as well as over having to live alone with her mother, Esther begins to unravel. She sleeps all day, and discovers she can no longer read anything more than scandal sheets, with their flashy, trashy headlines about celebrity comas and suicide rescues. She begins to entertain her own thoughts of suicide, until, eventually, she acts on them. She loads herself up with all the pills prescribed by her doctor and hides herself away in a cubbyhole under the house. A sensational search ensues, and Esther is rescued before the pills can do much damage. The remainder of the novel details Esther’s treatment, and her gradual emergence from her captivity under the bell jar.

Despite the dark subject matter, the novel has many humorous moments, some which occur even after Esther’s suicide attempt. Esther is a clever, comical person, and she can appreciate the absurdity of many of the situations she finds herself in. Of course, she also struggles with the injustices of her time, and such anxieties are often at the heart of her ostensibly amusing encounters. In particular, her keen awareness of the double standard for women troubles her throughout. She is incensed when she learns that the value of sexual purity is so one-sided, and deeply bothered by those who suggest that she will abandon her career aspirations once her first child is born. For someone whose existence so far has been defined by academic excellence, the insinuation that it might not be everything, that it could end up being meaningless, is too much to bear. Indeed, when we consider how stifling society itself is for a motivated woman like Esther, we might begin to wonder if it may have contributed to the suffocating atmosphere of the bell jar. And, with that, the novel feels less like a story of mental illness and more like a coming-of-age tale, still important to young girls and women in this time.

Thus, Esther Greenwood is the perfect narrator precisely because she is so complex: funny yet despairing, struggling yet determined. She is not defined by her depression, nor is she free to transcend it on her own. Esther is the kind of narrator who welcomes readers in with her conversational tone, yet doesn’t fail to challenge them, to make them think. And, so, with each new reading, The Bell Jar still feels fresh, interesting, and thoughtful. It is a glimpse into a world likely different from our own, yet familiar enough to consistently startle.

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