An Intimation of Things Distant

An Intimation of Things Distant: The Collected Fiction of Nella Larsen by Nella Larsen 

publication date: 1992
pages: 278
ISBN: 0-385-42149-4

Nella Larsen was a lesser known participant in the Harlem Renaissance. She published several stories in the 1920s and then abruptly disappeared after she was accused of plagiarism. The plagiarism accusation was never substantiated or proven, but it seemingly had such a negative effect on Larsen that she escaped from the scene. What she left the literary world with were three short stories and two novellas, all of which were collected in this volume.

Four of the works, The Wrong Man, Freedom, Quicksand, and Passing concentrated on middle-class urban black life. The fifth work, Sanctuary, revolved around a desolate spot somewhere on the “Southern coast.” This also was the work she was accused of plagiarizing.

Sanctuary was probably my favorite work, even though it included the most-dreaded of stylistic devices: dialect. It had a terseness and directness the other works were lacking. For example, this passage describing a man who was hiding from people who were after him:

For a second fear clutched so tightly at him that he almost leaped from the suffocating shelter of the bed in order to make some active attempt to escape the horror that his capture meant. There was a spasm at his heart, a pain so sharp, so slashing, that he had to suppress an impulse to cry out. He felt himself falling. Down, down, down . . . Everything grew dim and very distant in his memory. . . . Vanished . . . Came rushing back.

The two novellas, Quicksand and Passing, focused on women and their options at that time (namely: marriage). Both of these works started off very slow, almost to the point of dullness. Larsen attempted to use description to create a sense of mood and atmosphere and instead only created bloated and skimmable paragraphs:

A slight girl of twenty-two years, with narrow, sloping shoulders and delicate but well-turned arms and legs, she had, none the less, an air of radiant, careless health. In vivid green and gold negligee and glistening brocaded mules, deep sunk in the big high-backed chair, against whose dark tapestry her sharply cut face, with skin like yellow satin, was distinctly outlined, she was – to use a hackneyed word – attractive.

However, as the plot and characters developed, the stories became more interesting and tense. One of my favorite passages from the book came in the middle of Quicksand, while the main character was at a dance club:

Helga sat looking curiously about her as the buzz of conversation ceased, strangled by the savage strains of music, and the crowd became a swirling mass. For the hundredth time she marveled at the gradations within this oppressed race of hers. A dozen shades slid by. There was sooty black, shiny black, taupe, mahogany, bronze, copper, gold, orange, yellow, peach, ivory, pinky white, pastry white. . . . Africa, Europe, perhaps with a pinch of Asia, in a fantastic motley of ugliness and beauty, semibarbaric, sophisticated, exotic, were here. But she was blind to its charm, purposely aloof and a little contemptuous, and soon her interest in the moving mosaic waned.

Larsen’s writing did not have the drama and humanity of other, more famous, authors of that time, such as Zora Neale Hurston or Edith Wharton. To someone who vigorously enjoys writing from that time, I would recommend this book. For a more casual reader who is looking to read the best that period has to offer, there are better pieces to read.

3/6: more good than bad

Another review of the book:

L.A. Times

Lonesome Dove

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

publication date: 1985
pages: 857
ISBN: 978-0-684-87122-6

It is rare to find a book that makes you race along reading it because the plot is so spirited, while also pressing you to stop and ponder humanity and mortality because of its scope and language. A book that introduces you to characters so complex and whole that it doesn’t matter if you find them “likable” or “relatable;” instead, they just exist. A book that makes you laugh, makes you cry, makes you question, worry, wonder, remember, approve. Lonesome Dove is that book.

In Lonesome Dove, McMurtry crafted an epic Western that was sweeping, but never pretentious; long, but perfectly paced. The book followed the Hat Creek Cattle Company as it moved cattle from newly-settled Texas to the unsettled territory of Montana in the late 1800s. The Company consisted of two former Texas Rangers, Gus McCrae and Captain Call; young Newt; Bolivar the Mexican cook; unthinking Pea Eye; and steadfast Deets.

As these characters rode through the American West, McMurtry used description so expertly that a sense of atmosphere was evoked in almost every scene. Here was an example:

Jake looked off across the scrubby pastures. There were tufts of grass here and there, but mostly the ground looked hard as flint. Heat waves were rising off it like fumes off kerosene. Something moved in his line of vision, and for a moment he thought he saw some strange brown animal under a chaparral bush.

As mentioned above, McMurtry was also deft at crafting characters. Because of the encompassing nature of the book, McMurtry introduced dozens of characters. However, I can picture almost all of them distinctly. One of my favorites was Lorena, a tough prostitute who showed little affection but was the unrequited Manic Pixie Dream Girl of almost every man who met her. Here’s a cowboy’s description of her:

Looking at her, though, was like looking at the hills. The hills stayed as they were. You could go to them, if you had the means, but they extended no greeting.

One of my favorite things about the book was how the characters were so realistic that they were not merely reflections of the author’s message or plot. Instead, all the narratives were slightly biased toward that particular narrator and were subtly false. It was nothing blunt or confusing, but the dialogues and the narratives wove together to create a picture of the character, not necessarily a picture of the world in the book.

As I was reading the book, I was struck by how alien these characters’ lives were. No electricity, no refrigerators, riding on horseback all day – usually voluntarily. However, much was the same. Some people sought adventure, some just wished to stay at home. Some people were lazy, some would work until you stopped them. Some people would do almost anything to get laid or have any kind of companionship, others would be content to see another person once every few years. Although the setting was foreign, the book itself never stopped being understandable.

6/6: instant classic

other reviews of the book:

New York Times
World’s Strongest Librarian
Wendy Reads Books

Jennifer Government

Jennifer Government by Max Barry

publication date: 2003
pages: 320
ISBN: 0-385-50759-3

What would the US look like if it was completely privatized? In Jennifer Government, Max Barry answers that question and creates a world that seems fantastical but is actually not too different from our own. Schools are run by corporations, the NRA and Police are just guns for hire, and everyone takes as their last name the organization they currently work for.

In an absurd and even wacky plot, the book follows Jennifer Government, an agent for the government, as she attempts to solve a murder probably perpetrated by Nike to sell more shoes. There is a supporting cast of characters, including unsteady Hack Nike and unintelligent Billy NRA.

Two of the characters – suits who work for Nike – are especially vivid, and funny. Max Barry does a great job at making me really, really hate them, with their corporate-speak and concern only for profits. Here’s their introduction to Hack Nike:

The suits looked at each other. . . . Then they stuck out their hands. “I’m John Nike, Guerrilla Marketing Operative, New Products.”

“And I’m John Nike, Guerrilla Marketing Vice-President, New Products,” the other suit said.

John and John Nike – don’t you hate them just a little bit already?

After the two Johns order Hack to do something illegal and instead he tells the Police, here is the response they give to Hack when he admitted what he did:

“Shh,” Vice-President John said. “It’s okay, Hack. Now we’re getting somewhere. I mean obviously none of this is good, from a big-picture point of view. Overall, it’s very fucked, a commercial-in-confidence arrangement getting spread all over the place. But on the individual level, as far as our relationship goes, Hack, I’m very pleased you’re being straight with me. . . . Everyone wants to outsource these days. No one has any respect for core competencies.”

“Big-picture,” “core competencies,” now don’t you hate them a lot?

Max Barry certainly makes John and John Nike, and the corporate world they live in, very dynamic and intense. However, most of the book is clunky and even tiresome. The writing is rushed but the plot was repetitive. The ending is especially unsatisfying. Only a few characters even had an ending, and the dystopian world that Barry creates is never addressed or dealt with.

Although the setting and plot of extreme privatization and stockholder greed is topical, and perhaps even inevitable, what I noticed and remember most from the book is the blunt writing and uninspired characters.

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews:

New York Times
The Guardian
SF Signal

Forest Dreams Forest Nightmares

Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox Of Old Growth In the Inland West by Nancy Langston

publication date: 1995
pages (including back matter) : 368
ISBN: 0-295-97456-7

For a book ostensibly about the decline in growth of Ponderosa pines in a small region of the Pacific Northwest, I found Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares to be surprisingly relatable.

In the book, Nancy Langston discussed the history of the Blue mountain range that spans the border between Oregon and Washington. At the time of her writing, the Blues had become a battleground between environmentalists, loggers, forest rangers, and bureaucratic government organizations. The history she gave of the Blues mainly encompassed the insertion of pioneers and ranchers in the 1880s up to the management by the Forest Service in the 1910s and the inadvertent destruction of the forest through the 1980s and 90s. Langston’s goal was to provide contemporary caretakers of the Blues with a way forward.

Being someone who is not overly interested in trees or plants or what Langston termed the “inland West,” I mainly picked up the book because I loved how melodramatic the title was. However, Langston wrote the book with such aplomb, I found myself constantly learning new and interesting things. Further, it is amazing how consistent human nature is, in its hubris and shortsightedness: from the Native Americans lighting fires in the forests decades before Americans arrived so they could ride their horses, to the loggers and ranchers in the 1920s who blamed the much milder sheepherders for any environmental damage done in the region because the sheepherders were often foreign, and to the overconfident Forest Service scientists in the 1940s who were so sure they knew what they were doing and instead brought in an era of unmanageable fires and insect invasions. Here is a long passage Langston shared about forest rangers attempting to reintroduce elk into the Blues after they had been hunted into extinction:

The history of elk reintroductions illustrates the ironic ways that attempts to save wild nature often led to the accelerated destruction of the wildness that people sought to preserve. . . . [In 1913], the [forest rangers] had to feed the [reintroduced] elk in stockyards for a month because of deep snow, and five more died and several calves were born prematurely and died. . . . The Association ran out of money to buy hay, and the elk were in danger of simply starving in the stockyards. . . . Finally one afternoon they drove them up to Benjamin Gulch on the edge of town. By morning all the elk had returned to the stockyards to be fed. Finally, in March, they drove the twenty-nine survivors to the Tumalum Creek at the north end of the Blues and released them in the forest, and this time they were too far to find their way back to the hay.

These are sad, confused stories of men who tried to manipulate wild things, which then refused to be wild, so people lost interest. . . . Reintroduction stories like the one recounted above are disturbing because people want wild nature to mean something.

The book’s explanations of its topic were interesting and sophisticated enough to keep me involved. However, Langston’s real masterstroke was that throughout all this, she told a story of American history and optimism. Of men (and a few women) who really thought they were doing right by god and country when they cut down old trees and grazed cattle until the land was barren and always moved ever West to find the next paradise. This is a book that is so much more than its compelling subject matter.

5/6: seek this book out

Other reviews:

University Of Washington Press
Book Addiction

Jam On the Vine

Jam On the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett 

publication date: 2015
pages: 323
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2334-3

Much like Artemis Fowl, Jam On the Vine started out ex-ceed-ing-ly slow. Unlike Artemis FowlJam On the Vine picked up as the story went on. It took me almost two weeks to read the first half and about two days to read the second half.

Jam On the Vine followed Ivoe Williams and her family as they moved from the sharecropping South to Jim Crow Austin, Texas and Kansas City, Missouri during the late 1800s and early 1900s. During all this the Williams family endured several racial injustices, including sexual and physical harassment, false imprisonment, and torture.

I wanted to like this book, because I had heard good things about Barnett’s writing and because this subject matter needs more narratives, but I simply did not enjoy it. There were certainly bright spots wherein Barnett captured the human experience, such as this passage from Lemon, the matriarch of the Williams clan, as she discussed her children:

You love your children more than they can ever know. I mean, they can’t never best you in the loving department. But they sure can make you proud.

I liked another similar passage equally as well, as Lemon discussed her stagnant and unemployed son Timbo:

He ought to know sooner or later you got to pay with something – your mind, your heart, your sweat. Something.

Although the book had a few stirring passages, for the most part it was confusing and naggingly unrealistic. For example, this is how the author told us that Ennis Williams had injured is arm:

Truth like that stared you down. More than hurt you, it numbed you – even to a hungry flame. Ennis cussed and stumbled backward to the slack tub, his right arm bubbling with blisters.

After a few re-readings of those lines and several pages later, I finally figured out that what Barnett was trying to convey in those lines was that Ennis was a blacksmith who burned his arm because he was distracted by feeling unable to provide for his children. Barnett revealed another important plot point in a similarly roundabout way. Here was how we found out that one of the character’s children might not actually be his:

Life ought to feel heavy when secrets piled up so high not even a crack of light could get through. Made a soul dark is what it did – all the untelling.

After seeing these passages in isolation, they don’t seem so bad – beautiful even. But reading several chapters with sentence after sentence like this was confusing and overblown.

Additionally, as mentioned above, parts of the book were simply not realistic. Some of the characters’ actions made no sense. And there were little things that would take me out of the story. I wish I liked this book more than I did, but I just can’t give it more than:

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews of the book:

Chicago Tribune
Kansas City Star
Lambda Literary

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë 

publication date: 1847
pages: 207
ISBN: 978-0-307-95780-1

Anne Brontë – in the tradition of her sisters and other writers from her time, such as Jane Austen and George Eliot – used novels and language to satirize contemporary culture and mores. In Agnes Grey, Brontë satirized the upper class and employment opportunities for women.

The book followed Agnes Grey, a young poor woman who loved and cherished her family but wanted to see more of the world and be financially independent. To that end, she became a governess.  The bulk of the book was Agnes’s encounters with members of the upper class – most of whom were morally depraved or downright psychopaths. For example, there was this young man, who trapped birds and tortured them:

“Sometimes I give them to the cat; sometimes I cut them in pieces with my penknife; but the next, I mean to roast alive.”
“But don’t you know it is extremely wicked to do such things? Remember, the birds can feel as well as you, and think, how would you like it yourself?”
“Oh, that’s nothing! I’m not a bird, and I can’t feel what I do to them.”

Beyond being mildly disturbing in parts, Brontë’s portrayal of the English gentry could be very funny. This was a conversation between husband and wife at lunch, beginning with the husband asking what is for dinner:

“Turkey and grouse,” was the concise reply.
“And what besides?”
“What kind of fish?”
“I don’t know.”
You don’t know?” cried he, looking solemnly up from his plate, and suspending his knife and fork in astonishment.

There were also a few times where Brontë presented brilliant insight:

We are naturally disposed to love what gives us pleasure, and what is more pleasing that a beautiful face . . . when we know no harm of the possessor at least? A little girl loves her bird . . . Why? . . . Because it lives and feels, because it is helpless and harmless. A toad, likewise, lives and feels, and is equally helpless and harmless; but though she would not hurt the toad, she cannot love it like the bird, with its graceful form, soft feathers, and bright, speaking eyes.

However, the book in its entirety didn’t thrill me. It was good, but not great. There was a lot of pontificating and moralizing by the author, as she instructed the reader on how to raise children, how to be a governess, how to grieve, how to be a good neighbor, and on and on. It was also somewhat boring and predictable. I knew who the “good” characters were, and who the “bad,” almost immediately, and what comeuppance they would all receive.

In the interest of completeness, and because it is slim, and interesting, Agnes Grey was certainly a worthwhile read. However, there are more exemplary books from that period that I would recommend.

4/6: worth reading

The Guardian
Books Please
She Reads Novels

Calico Joe

Calico Joe by John Grisham

publication date: 2012
pages: 227
ISBN: 978-0-345-54133-8

This was my first John Grisham and it was about what I expected. The book very easily could have been converted into a 1980s flashback movie about kids a la Stand By Me. To illustrate my point, here is the beginning of chapter 2:

In the summer of 1973, the country was slowly emerging from the trauma of Vietnam. Spiro Agnew was in trouble and would eventually go down. Watergate was getting hot with much more to come. I was eleven years old and slightly aware of what was happening out there in the real world, but I was wonderfully unburdened by it. Baseball was my world, and little else mattered.

Can’t you imagine Patrick Dempsey’s voice intoning those words as the camera pans over rolling Arkansas hills just as the beginning credits are over?

As hinted at above, Calico Joe was baseball-centric, which I didn’t mind, and is, in fact, the reason I picked up the book. The baseball writing was often interesting but was sometimes completely unbelievable, although Grisham attempted to back up his characters’ athletic feats with statistics. The whole thing also got a little tedious, even though the book only weighed in at 227 pages. I felt like, if the baseball story was realistic, it would have made a better Grantland article than a Grisham novel.

Additionally, the book was formulaic, with characters only your dad could love, generic dialogue, and anachronistic asides that seemed to be pandering to the stereotype of a Grisham reader. For example, when the narrator meets his despised father’s latest wife, here are his observations:

It doesn’t take much to amuse Agnes, I decide after ten minutes. I wonder if it has crossed her mind that in virtually all polite circles she, as the hostess, is expected to offer me something to drink.

There were so many assumed values in those sentences! What’s wrong with being easily amused? And why couldn’t the father offer his son a drink? In fact, why do drinks need to be offered at all?! If being polite is offering my judgmental sons-in-law beverages, then you can shove your politeness!

With all that said and done, I was surprisingly moved by the ending. I guess that’s why Grisham is so good. He sets up characters, plots, places, and themes that tug at the heart strings just enough to provide a satisfying ending, but not too much as to actually be interesting.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews of the book:

Los Angeles Times
Washington Post
The Oregonian