Sunday, May 29, 2016

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Mr and Mrs Macbeth find out what's done cannot be undone

Macbeth, simple and brave general under good King Duncan, is accosted by three witches who address him as King. Their spooky salutation/prediction plants an idea in Macbeth’s head, and even more urgently, the head of his wife. Spurred on by her merciless words, Macbeth kills the king as he sleeps. Initially panicky, the couple washes away the royal blood with a little water, then claims the throne. The once trustworthy Macbeth finds he now cannot trust anybody, and since murder has become a quick and effective tool, begins to murder friends and innocent women and children, all to keep his grasp on the crown. The list of his enemies grows long. Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth cracks beneath the guilt. Foolishly trusting the ambiguous words of the weird sisters, Macbeth believes he is invulnerable. Once he realizes all is lost, however, he dies like a warrior.

I forgot how good this is. How compact.  How it is a tiny sharp portrait of marriage.  The play hurtles along, supported by the clean and wonderful poetry. (The deceptively simple nursery rhymes of the witches – lingering on the “o” sound.) In many ways, the plot is that of a horror movie, though Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are not villains. The horror is the murder, and yet, at the same time, the horror is that the murder could very well be meaningless. Everything could be meaningless.  Murder, don’t murder – in the long run, does it make a difference? The Macbeths try for a better life, spotting a once in a lifetime opportunity, intending to keep their crime hidden in the dark. Instead the murder infects everything, the peace of their sleep, indeed the entire country.

At times, their judgment is off - Lady Macbeth fairly begs for demonic possession – typically a bad idea. They underestimate the long term consequences of cold blooded murder. It is at the end, when all hope is lost, that Macbeth becomes fully the hero.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Felicia's Journey by William Trevor

An Irish girl in trouble encounters an epicurean canteen manager

Felicia, an unemployed Irish teen who shares a bedroom with her 100 year old great grandmother, meets handsome Johnny Lasaght, worker in a lawnmower factory, and is smitten.  Johnny, however, is cagey about letting her know his exact address.  Despite her father’s warnings, once her period is late, Felicia realizes she must locate the now departed Johnny.  Armed with nothing more than the name of a town in England, Felicia runs away to find the lawnmower factory.  However, as it has become perfectly obvious to the reader, Johnny has no intention of being found.  The frightened girl wandering the streets of the inhospitable city rouses the curiosity of fastidious Mr. Hilditch, who loves cookies, as well as apparently "rescuing" lost young women.  Rescuing them and perhaps more. Anyway, the previous five girls he rescued can now be found in his own private “Memory Lane,” a shadowy place in which he often contemplatively strolls.  Once the lawnmower factory turns out to be a fiction, Felicia has more gumption than expected.  She encounters a religious cult, squatters, and once again the chilling Mr. Hilditch before finding her own kind of peace.

The reading of this was at first slow going.  The characters seemed stock and Felicia’s ignorance was annoying.  What pulled me in was the pure self centeredness of Mr. Hilditch, the insane care he takes with food shopping and preparation, his own personal wellbeing.  He thinks of nothing but himself, although the reader soon starts to feel sorry for him, sorry for his loneliness.  He is the patient spider laying a trap for the fly.  The writing was extremely beautiful, the descriptions were exquisite. But reading this was a little like drinking soda pop out of a silver chalice.  The plot is basically Psycho.  I didn’t buy the ending, though it had a certain kind of beauty.  Arrayed against the sweet cookie selection and the never described murders, we witness goodness and good people.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

An urban farmer comes up with a plan to help his people

Bonbon, homeschooled by his black studies professor father, the last (or only) farmer in Dickens, a blighted neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles, finds himself in a funk after his dad is shot during a routine traffic stop and bleeds to death on the street. Reluctant slave owner of the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins, and spurned lover of MTA bus driver intellectual Marpessa Dawson, Bonbon decides that the way to put Dickens back on the map and inspire its underachieving black and Mexican populace is to resegregate. Strangely enough, his plan begins to work, but not before outraging the country. The book opens and closes with Bonbon at the Supreme Court, defending his case.

This book rubs the reader’s face in outrageous racial stereotypes (as well as perhaps some subtle ones – significant chunks of the book are in fairly hilarious Latin). The meager oft mislaid plot is secondary to the poetic riffing on what it means to be black, to be an Angeleno, to be the child of a nutty professor trying to forcibly mold a child free of internalized white judgments. And also what it means to be a black man in a racist society. Or an amazing farmer who makes friends all over town by growing the sweetest oranges and the most kaleidoscopic weed.

The cadences are amazing – this book must have taken forever to write. The elaborately crazy sentences force the reader to slow down, to linger, to take pleasure. For the most part the imagery is beautiful, despite Bonbon’s journey always bumping him against unpleasant racist realities.  I loved the scene where Marpessa takes her newly resegregated city bus and drives it up Pacific Coast Highway onto the beach so that Bonbon and Hominy and the night shift at Jack-in-the-Box can go skinny dipping. This truly is a book about Los Angeles – how its beauty is a secret pleasure enjoyed by its laid back inhabitants. There’s freeway rides in here and surfing and the beans at Tito’s Tacos.

If you laugh at the outlandish stereotyping, are you racist? Maybe there’s a scene in the book that addresses that – maybe the answer is yes. Also, I wasn’t sure about the title – who’s selling out? Bonbon is nicknamed The Sellout by Foy Chesire, his father’s wealthy nemesis, who rewrites classic books for African Americans, such as Measured Expectations. But isn’t Foy is the real sellout?

This would make a great movie with some great scenes of LA but that would never happen.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill

A girl, a woman, and a horse.

Velveteen Vargas, 11 year old daughter to an illiterate Dominican immigrant, gets a chance to visit the country as a Fresh Air Fund kid. Her foster parents, Ginger and Paul, live near a rundown stable, and in that stable, caged, for she is too aggressive to run free, is a scarred horse called Fiery Girl, disparagingly referred to as “Fugly Girl.” But Velvet has a calming effect on the dangerous horse. Velvet's love for horses and riding grows and it is soon revealed she is a natural equestrienne. Meanwhile, Ginger feels a powerful bond with the disadvantaged child while realistic Paul feels she ignores his commonsense advice about getting too involved.  Also maybe he feels that she ignores him. As Velvet enters adolescent, she encounters the boys of the neighborhood, who are at danger of being shot, and falls in love with one. Meanwhile, Silvia, Velvet's mother, attempts to beat the waywardness out of Velvet and resents the pull this white couple and what they have to offer has on the girl. She says they treat Velvet like a pet. The story always heads toward the climax, the competition with the white girls at the upscale stable.

This novel is plotted like a children’s book (specifically National Velvet), but written with high technical virtuosity, bringing the characters and the conflict to life using brief (sometimes only a paragraph) first person narrations. The writing and the imagery are simple and beautiful, showcasing the unmitigated pain of the characters. Velvet, seemingly unloved apart from a dead grandfather, childless recovering alcoholic Ginger, mourning the death of her mentally ill sister. And Fiery Girl, unable to trust, after being brutally punished by an earlier owner. The three are able to comfort each other, but only partially and only temporarily.

Nominally about a girl and a horse, the book is actually about so much more. This is about race and class in America, the huge and perhaps irremediable differences these two things make in the stability of people’s lives. It’s hard to be even tempered when there’s not enough money for rent, or when your mother’s unsavory tenant molests you, or every boy you know seems to get shot. Like Mona Simpson’s My Hollywood, one of the points of the book is social commentary, presenting a first person narration of American society from someone at the margins, someone not possessing or using the vocabulary of the elite.

In addition to the brilliantly written prose, I also enjoyed the way the tension was skillfully, almost unbearably, ratcheted up, as the plot points planted near the end of each section detonated. One of the questions asked (and not answered) is why do people have such painful lives and why do those people end up making things more painful? The final scene, Velvet’s triumph is also, (I guess) her defeat.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli

A man and his imagination build a world for himself

Gustavo Highway Sanchez Sanchez is the eccentric hook on which hangs this intellectually impressive literary compendium. He is an itinerant auctioneer, a loquacious story teller, starting from the Beginning, the story of his birth, as a “tiny brown swollen blog fish”, then wandering into the Hyperbolics, the Parabolics, the Circulars, the Allegorics, the Elliptics and finally the Chronologics. There’s an extended sequence of a church sanctioned auction of some old teeth to a congregation of dementia patients. Highway manages to link the teeth to the greatest minds/mouths of European civilization. The book is a mosaic of off-the-wall tall tales. Finally there is an Afterword, (actually a graphical timeline) which Luiselli’s translator contributed.  The entire work is based on collaboration, in fact, with the employees of Jumex, a Mexican juice factory.

This book felt very Latin American, that is, taking silliness extremely seriously, using the flights of fancy as springboard to communicate life truths. There’s loads here, packed into 200 pages (and plenty of white space.) This is not a book the reader can blast through, the stories needs to be savored, to be considered. I’m not completely sure this was my cup of tea, however. I viewed the story of Highway and his troubles with a detached amusement and I prefer being passionately transported.