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January 15, 2008

Reading Update

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Still catching up on YA. I'd heard a lot about The Chocolate War when I was a kid but never read it because the jacket copy made it sound so boring: a kid defies a secret society by refusing to sell chocolates? Yawn.

But then I read a question on Yahoo Answers about whether or not there was any existentialist YA fiction and a buncha people mentioned The Chocolate War, which I found really interesting. And it was ... the book I mean.

Actually, I don't want to write about it right now. I have too many other things to write about. But a recommended read to anyone who hasn't.

Passing by Nella Larsen

I think my friend Tisa may have mention this to me first during her visit to SF in late Fall. We were talking about biracial and passing texts. In any case, I looked up the book at some point, and then acquired it used at another point. Okay, the provenance of the book is boring.

Anyway, it's about a light-skinned black woman, Irene, in the twenties who can pass for white. She's married to a black doctor--a handsome man who can't pass--and lives in New York black society. While visiting her family in Chicago she stops off in a (white) tea room to refresh herself--a privilege you understand she allows herself frequently--when she runs into an old neighborhood friend from childhood, Clare, another woman her age who can pass.

It is revealed in their conversation that Clare disappeared from the neighborhood after her janitor father died, and everyone assumed she had become a prostitute or a kept woman. Instead, it turns out that she's gone over to the white side and married a man who doesn't know she's black. Clare takes Irene back to her hotel, when Irene meets Clare's extremely racist white husband. Clare's husband insults Irene unknowingly, when he makes derogatory racial remarks to Irene, who has internalized a strong black identity (it is suggested, although never stated, that Irene does so to anchor herself to her community, given her ability--and propensity--to pass.)

Two years pass and the two women meet again in Clare's world of New York. And the shit proceeds to hit the fan when the logical extension of the choices and behavior of each play out.

This book was amazing, fascinating, smart, beautifully written, and ultimately disappointing. When I say "beautifully written," by the way, I, as usual, don't mean the kind of cheap lyricism held up by contemp creative writing workshops. Larsen is earnestly literal about making her meaning clear--in the way of her contemporary D.H. Lawrence--by often describing moment-by-moment what a character's internal reactions are.

But you discover that she leaves just as much out, and deliberately, revealing more about a character's feelings than that xtr herself would reveal, but keeping the xtr's deepest, most shameful secrets, except in gesture and deed.

Larsen's ability to dramatize racial ambiguity is the best I've ever seen--and not the less astounding for being a project few have tried with any ambition.

But the novel's climax and end come far too quickly and are too melodramatic for my taste. It felt wrong to end with such a scene, and it also felt abrupt to end without revealing any denouement. But still, a strongly recommended read.

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