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Passing by Nella Larsen — book review

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“It’s funny about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.”

At once alluring and disquieting Nella Larsen’s Passing presents its readers with a piercing examination of the interplay of race, gender, and class in 1920s New York.
Clare and Irene, the women at the centre of this novel, are childhood friends who grew up in the same black neighborhood. Both are light-skinned and can ‘pass’ for white but whereas Irene now lives with her husband, who is a doctor, and two sons in Harlem, and seems to enjoy a respectable middle-class existence, Clare has left their community and now passes for white. Irene has never paid much attention to the rumours surrounding Clare’s ‘disappearance’ from their circle. A chance encounter reunites the two women. Clare, who has married a white supremacist, views Irene has a link bank to the black community she abandoned. While she’s clearly made the most of the privileges that come with being ‘white’, Clare seems tired of her new identity. Irene too may be more dissatisfied than she’d like to believe and begrudgingly rekindles her friendship with Clare.
The fraught dynamic between Clare and Irene brought to mind that between Sula Peace and Nel Wright (from Toni Morrison’s Sula). Both sets of women used to be childhood friends, Clare and Sula leave their community only to return years later. Their beauty and insouciant attitude arouses jealousy and envy in their old friends.
While Clare is using Irene as her ticket to re-enter and re-connect with the black community and culture, she seems to be genuinely be happy to be spending time with Irene. Irene, on the other hand, grows resentful of Clare’s careless vacillation between a ‘white’ and a ‘black’ identity. When Irene perceives a decline in her relationship with her husband she will attribute this to the ‘change’ brought by Clare reappearance in her life.

“There were things that she wanted to ask Clare Kendry. She wished to find out about this hazardous business of “passing,” this breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chance in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friendly. What, for example, one did about background, how one accounted for oneself.”

Desire and jealousy cloud Irene and Clare judgments. They seem drawn to each other, perhaps because they are in many ways polar opposites. Yet, underlining this mutual attraction is something closer to animosity. Irene judges Clare for ‘passing’ and for being with a boastfully racist man, while Clare’s remain much more inexplicable (as the narrative favours Irene’s perspective).
Larsen’s naturalist approach to her characters’ behaviours and feelings (“Brought to the edge of distasteful reality, her fastidious nature did not recoil. Better, far better, to share him than to lose him completely. Oh, she could close her eyes, if need be. She could bear it. She could bear anything.”) reminded me of Edith Wharton. Larsen, similarly to Wharton, can be incredibly perceptive—in her social commentaries, in her honing on the subtleties of certain feelings, impressions, and thoughts—while also allowing for a certain opaqueness to surround her characters, their motivations and actions. This sense of ambiguity, although present from the novel’s opening scene, soon seems to dominate the narrative, so that the more I read, the more uneasy I felt towards the characters. Larsen’s disillusioned portrayal of marriage and domesticity also made me think of Wharton’s (the two also have a penchant for tragedies).
Larsen doesn’t loose herself in the ethics of passing, rather she renders the system of white supremacy which seeks to control and undermine people of colour (regardless of their class).
As Larsen navigates themes of race, gender, and identity, she brings to life 1920s New York from its norms to its social hierarchies. Larsen’s commentary on race feels modern and all-too relevant to today’s society.

“The social, psychological, and economic motivations for passing, they also perform acts of literary trespass in exposing the cultural and legal fiction of race.”

Through her elegant and contemplative writing Larsen captures the discordance between self and society. The tension between Irene and Clare results in an uneasy atmosphere, one that makes Passing into a work of suspense. This a novel of transformation, liberation, jealousy, and betrayal.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie — book review

51Cf9ajBQ3L._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThe Murder of Roger Ackroyd is an excellent example of why I consider Agatha Christie to be the Queen of Crime.

“Fortunately words, ingeniously used, will serve to mask the ugliness of naked facts.”

It’s curious that one of the most influential crime novels ever written came about by accident. The idea for this novel was given to Christie by her brother-in-law (she states as much in
her autobiography). Still, I doubt that there are many authors who could have pulled it off as Christie does. Now that I have finally re-read it I can also confirm that knowing the twist did not deter my reading experience…if anything I was able to appreciate just how clever a twist it was.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is in many ways a very Christiesque type of book.
While the story implements a lot of the established conventions of the detective novel (the countryside setting, red herrings, the eccentric and brilliant detective and his intellectually inferior companion) it is also cleverly and unexpectedly subversive.
Once again Christie plays around with themes of justice and good & evil. Poirot calls into question the morals of the people connected to Roger Ackroyd (his family, friends, and employees). Thanks to his little grey cells he’s able to disentangle the truth from an increasingly intricate web of lies…

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

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THE REMAINS OF THE DAY: BOOK REVIEW

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The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

 ★★★★★ 5 of 5 stars

“Indeed — why should I not admit it? — in that moment, my heart was breaking.”

…and now I am sad.
This hit me harder than expected.

I find it impossible hard to believe that this book was written by Kazuo Ishiguro and not Mr. Stevens. The thing is, by the end, I believed in Mr. Stevens’ existence…
Okay, it might sound odd but that’s just how good this novel is. It made me nostalgic for something I have never known. I was overwhelmed by sadness and regret on behalf of Mr. Stevens. 71raA6p02aL.jpg
Regardless of its author, it is a beautifully written story. The narrative takes us back to certain pivotal moments of Mr. Stevens’ time at Darlington Hall. Through these glimpses we gain a vivid impression of Mr. Stevens. The other characters are just as nuanced and believable as the narrator himself. As Mr. Stevens’ looks back on his years of service, I became acquainted with him. He keeps back quite a lot, especially when it comes to his innermost feelings, and that made him all the more realistic.
This is a poignant and heart-rendering character study that was perfect for a melancholic soul like mine.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Dominic West (Mr. Stevens) who did an outstanding job.

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Stoner by John Williams

Initially I found the seemingly unassuming prose of Stoner to be full of insight. The very first page coldly announces the eponymous protagonist’s death, and I was drawn in by the unromantic story.
The novel focuses on William Stoner’s life: his rather miserable marriage to Edith as well as his studies and his academic career. Urged by his father to enrol to agriculture school, Stoner begins studying at the University of Missouri were his simple and lacklustre existence is changed by a the introduction of literature into his life. His passion is such that he decides not to return to his parents farm, opting instead to continue his studies. He meets and marries Edith, and this ‘happy union’ soon reveals to be a deeply unhappy one, which shouldn’t be that surprising since from the very start Edith was a bit of cypher. She passively accepts Stoner’s offer of marriage. As time goes by her motivations and her cruelties seemed – for the most part – irrational. John Williams paints a depressing yet somehow realistic portrait of marriage. Petty arguments, vendettas, annoyances, all abound in the relationship between Stoner and his wife.
Stoner’s decision to remain at the University during WWI rises interesting question. His reputation suffers but we are told clearly that his actions were not the ones of a coward. His love for literature and teaching is such that Stoner needs to stay at the University. Stoner acts in a similar manner when he approaches the age of retirement.
I enjoy reading about Stoner’s love for his profession. However, I found the whole situation with Professor Hollis Lomax and Charles Walker to be almost unbearable. I was frustrated at the entire situation and I was uninterested in this prolonged animosity. Both Stoner’s wife and his daughter were incredibly dreary. Not only I did not warm up to their temperaments, but I felt dubious about the reasoning behind their actions. They walked the line between seeming realistic and being stereotypes of a neurotic woman…
The initial chapters, when Stoner starts his studies, promised so much more that this. While I enjoy John Williams’ plain style, I did not feel involved by the storyline or the characters. I might have appreciated the down to earth look at a regular man’s life but I read about Stoner’s life with growing disenchantment.

My rating: 3 stars

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Before the Devil Breaks You by Libba Bray

But how did you fight an enemy who never fought fair? Didn’t you have to break the rules to win against the Devil?

It took me awhile to get into this novel, mostly because I couldn’t recall a lot of the events that had occurred in the previous instalments. Nevertheless, Bray’s engaging portrayal of the roaring twenties was compelling enough for me to keep reading, and I’m glad I did. Bray has created a world filled by an almost overwhelming cast of characters who we see develop through the course of the series: their many flaws and particularities make them relatable and likable. I was especially taken by the dynamics within the diviners, and I did wish I could see more of Henry and Ling…
Still, I loved the way in which Evie is portrayed: she is far from the ‘ideal’ heroine but it is her strong personality that makes her such a vivid and unique character. Sam, Theta and Memphis are as compelling. Each of their story arch gives us a fuller portrayal of them.

Because I’m not enough, she thought. That was the terrible echo shouting up at her: Fraud, fraud, fraud. She got drunk and talked too much and danced on tables. She had a temper and a sharp tongue, and she often blurted out things she instantly regretted. Worst of all, she suspected that was who she truly was–not so much a bright young thing as a messy young thing.

The story itself is intriguing, it may not be ‘jaw-dropping’ but Bray manages to include a few twists here and there while also playing around with certain cliches.
The setting is beautifully rendered: the slang, the atmosphere, the description are vibrate with an energy, a tone, attributed to the twenties.
(view spoiler)

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

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Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali

‘All I could feel was a terrible hollowness in my heart. A door had opened, promising the sublime, but then it had slammed shut, robbing my life of all hope and meaning. I felt as bereft as if I’d woken from the sweetest of dreams to face the pain of truth.’

Madonna in a Fur Coat surprised me in many ways.
I thought that it had been written in contemporary times, and was simply set in the early-ish 20th century rather and it was only after reading a good part of it that I discovered that Sabahattin Ali had died in 1947 and that this particular novel has just now been published in English.
The translators have done a marvellous job: I never did feel as if I was missing out on anything.
The style and themes tackled within this novel are very reminiscent of the ones James Baldwin addresses in Giovanni’s Room: the narrator is remembering a past relationship while incorporating an introspective evaluation of themselves.

‘Having never known such intimacy before, I was desperate to protect it. […] I was, in effect watching the most beautiful bird in all creation and keeping perfectly still for fear of frightening it away with a sudden movement.’

It is a rather short novel, yet it is in some ways it didn’t feel like it given that it was very dense: it has no chapters whatsoever. Most of which has Raif, our narrator, giving the reader a continuous inner monologue.

‘I was only too aware that I still knew next to nothing about her. My judgements were formed of my own dreams and illusions. At the same time, I was absolutely sure that they would not deceive me.’

The reader can already predict the outcome of Raif’s days in Berlin: we are first introduced to a version of him that has obviously suffered some form of loss.

‘My distrust of others was so great, and so bitter, that I sometimes scared even myself. Everyone I met, i met with hostility. Everyone I encountered, I assumed to be full of malice.’

Raif’s loneliness is a constant throughout this novel; he is rather remote in some ways. His character seemed to feel really something only when with ‘his’ Madonna. I believe the author has done this intentionally. Raif is meant to be a ‘cursory’ character. We are only aware of his differences to others: he is an observer, a bystander. Yet, it is because of his sometimes aloof narration that made him intriguing.

‘Perhaps she’d been all I needed. I suppose that is what any of us need: one single person. But what if that person wasn’t really there? What if it all turned out to be a dream, a chimera, a delusion?’

His relationship with Maria was the heart of Madonna in a Fur Coat. A relationship that cannot be always defined; it is more than a friendship and more than a ‘romance’. Maria herself often struggles with this. Their immediate calamity to one another contributes in making their relationship intense.

“Where’s the tragedy in that? The essence of life is in solitude – wouldn’t you agree? All unions are built on falsehood. People can only get to know each other up to a point and then they make up the rest,”

This novel offers clever observations and piquant monologues. At times, both Raif and Maria, could feel a tad melodramatic. Their poignant reflections and comments were dimmed by their prolonged complaints.

‘The more I dwelt on my absurd anxieties and needless, groundless apprehensions, the more I castigated myself for letting my paranoia and wretched intuition darken what should have been the brightest days of my life, and the more I despaired.’

Nevertheless, it was a very well written and enjoyable read that attempted to analyse a relationship between two very bereft individuals; I especially appreciated their not wanting to condemn their relationship by defining it , a quite modern idea.

“Whereas friendship is constant and built on understanding. We can see where it started and know why it falls apart. But love gives no reasons. “

My rating: 4.25 of 5 stars

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