Book Review: “Cane” by Jean Toomer

I’m torn about this book.

There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s beautiful. I can give it full marks for that, but for some reason enough of it did not resonate inside me to leave me wanting more of it.

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The book is a collection of short stories and poetry, based around black experience both in the rural south and up North during the 1900’s to 1920’s. Every piece had a wandering, lost, sort of feeling to it, reminiscent of the author himself, who spent most of his life suspended between the worlds of white and black, due the to racism of his day. My version of the book had a fairly extensive biographical portrait of the author at the end, which helped to pinpoint the inspiration for a lot of the pieces within the collection. And though it is a collection, I have seen it called a novel. This is probably because as you’re reading you see little connections here and there, linking everything together in a sort of chain.

The longest and final piece in the collection is written in a very interesting style, a sort of mixture between prose and play. The dialogue attributions are not done with the usual, “he said” and “she said,” but like a play have the speaker’s name with a colon. All of the poetry was beautiful, and this same beautiful use of language spilled into the short stories, making them a kind of prose poetry.

As lovely as this book was, only a few of the short stories really grabbed me, and the very last and longest story was not one of them. Perhaps it was this that left me feeling a bit torn about the whole collection. It was almost like reading a really good book with a disappointing ending. I have seen many reviews online about how wonderful the final story is, and the author himself admitted in a letter that the main character in it reflects his personal experience, but I wasn’t moved by it the way I was when I read “Passing” or “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

If you’ve read it or plan to read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave them in the comment section, along with any recommendations for me to add to my ever lengthening “to read” list.

Book Review: The Night of Two Graphic Novels

Last year was the year of graphic novels. Partly because I bit off more than I could chew with my Goodreads reading challenge and had to get back on track somehow. Partly because one of my favorite authors is Neil Gaiman and he has written several graphic novels that were on my To Read list. In the slew of GN that I consumed last year, I found many that I loved and now make it a habit of pulling one or two out of the library every month.

I had two in my bag that night, so I reached in and grabbed one to read. It was Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann, illustrated by Kerascoët.

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Fans of Graphic Novel’s and/or Golding’s Lord of the Flies would probably adore this book. Personally, I hated itIt was haunting and violent depiction of humanity in crisis. I compare it to Lord of the Flies because it had the same allegorical feel about society and human nature only told with fairies instead of young boys. The illustrations were both beautiful and chilling. Some of the images were so disturbingly violent that still I cannot shake them from my mind.

Being a person of a somewhat sensitive nature, I obviously wasn’t going to be able to sleep with that on my mental palate. I reached back into my library bag and pulled out the next one. It was The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks. It was also utterly different from its predicessor in virtually every way.

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It was Middle Grade for one, and based on the violence of Beautiful Darkness I’d call that one at least Young Adult.

The story revolved around Kaidu, a young boy just entering the army, and Rat, a street girl he befriends. It was an innocent and engaging story about friendship and honor, based around the political issues of the city, a city called “the Nameless City” by its citizens because they are constantly being overthrown by nearby nations.

The artwork was bright and clean, and though the story had several violent altercations, the most disturbing thing inside it was a few bloody noses. Everything else was implied, but not directly shown. The characters were kind and fun, and the whole plot was devoid of excess drama. It was a refreshing read, a kind of smile to carry with me when I shut out the light.

I handed it off to my 11 year old sister-in-law in the morning. She read it in an hour and loved it even more than I did. She even asked me to see if the library had a copy of the sequel The Stone Heart.

It doesn’t. I’d already checked before I shut out my bedside light.

Book Review: “Half Broke Horses” by Jeanette Walls

I have been working my way through a reading list on Buzzfeed called, 35 Books You Need to Read in Your Twenties. Many of them were books that I had never read, by authors I’d never heard of. Most people get this kind of forced exposure in school, but since the only English class I took in college was a short story class, I haven’t been made to read much since the 12th grade.

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One of the many treasures I found was a book called “Half Broke Horses” by Jeanette Walls.

It’s about the life of Lily Casey Smith, Jeanette’s grandmother. It’s really nonfiction, but Jeanette calls it “a true life novel,” reason being that many of the facts were word of mouth and unverifiable, along with the added dialogue. It did not read like historical fiction. To me it was a mix of novel and memoir. I loved it. Lily was an amazing woman. She was born in 1901, in a time when women were mostly wives and mothers. Watching her look squarely in the eye of society’s expectations and spending her life fighting to find out what she was meant to be, was intensely inspirational. She broke stereotypes and learned to fly planes, break horses, and even sold moonshine during the Prohibition to help keep her family fed.

Here’s one of favorite quotes from the book, hopefully to whet your appetite. It takes place after she and her husband lose everything and end up becoming caretakers of a backwoods ranch. This is her first trip to the outhouse.

A distinctly malodorous aroma arose from the hole, and for a moment I missed my snazzy mail-order toilet with the shiny white porcelain bowl, the mahogany lid, and the nifty pull-chain flush. As I sat down, though, I realized that you can get so used to certain luxuries that you start to think they’re necessities, but when you have to forgo them, you come to see that you don’t need them after all. There was a big difference between needing things and wanting things — though a lot of people had trouble telling the two apart — and at the ranch, I could see we’d have pretty much everything we’d need but precious little else.”

Pick it up and give it a look, if for no other reason than to learn a little more about life on a pre WWI ranch in the American Southwest.

© Rachel Svendsen 2015

Quote from “Half Broke Horses” by Jeanette Walls – Simon and Schuster Inc. 2009