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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Kushner's fine story in current New Yorker w/ a twist at the end

Rachel Kushner has a terrific story, Stanville, in current New Yorker double issue, a close look at life inside a max-security eponymous prison in California Central Valley, story told in alternating points of view, overlapping, of two people: a young man, somewhat of an idealist and devotee of Thoreau, who has chosen a career or teaching prison inmates and preparing them for their GED exam, choosing to work in a women's prison because he thought it would be somewhat less dangerous than a men's, and one of the inmates, Romy, a lifer, an attractive black woman who is among the most intelligent - scorns the GED prep as she already has a h.s. diploma and pushes the teacher, Hauser, to provide her w/ more challenging assignments. The story peripherally deals w/ the hardships and dangers of prison life, but is mostly about the boredom of the life and the contempt that all the employees feel for the prisoners: One harrowing episode involves a woman on death row spending hours piecing together some  kind of blanket or poncho, which ultimately gets thrown in the trash. You can see the arc of the story develop as Hauser becomes attracted to and gradually even obsessed w/ Romy - and how he resists his obsession. He seems to be leading a completely isolate life in a one-room cabin up in the mountains; he calls it his Thoreau year; a friend whom he writes to calls it his Kaczynski (Unabomber) year. You pick. In any event, Hauser resists the urge to Google Romy - he knows  a few salient facts about her life, but does not know what sent her to prison - protocol is that one never asks this question directly - until his year of service is completed. I was pleased to see that one of the books Hauser recommends to Romy is Pick-up, set in SF (where she is from); they both note the surprise at the ending, which I won't give away; similarly, Stanville has a bit of a surprise ending as well, esp is you follow Hauser's lead and do your own Google search. This was a really fine and engaging piece - not sure if it's part of a longer work, bu it seems Kushner is onto a story line and setting that has more possibilities - which of course might mean it's a perfect place to call this a completed short story and just stop.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Why Henry IV Part 2 may be Shakespeare's most cynical history play

You can see why Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 2 is rarely performed and rarely read except for those seeking to read the overall arc of S's history plays. Taken alone, it's a great play, of course, in many way, but it is so dark, even cynical - in spirit more like Troilus and Cressida or any of the so-called "problem plays" than like the comedies (w/ which HVI1 bears some similarities - in fact I included a chapter on HIV1 in my book of decades ago on S's comedies). First of all, the historical aspect of the play - the forces and armies massing on the borders, ready to attack England and restore the crown to the House of York - and then the Lancaster forces meet the conspiring generals on neutral ground before the battle. Westmoreland convinces the rebels to give up their arms and he promises on his word of honor to meet the rebels' demands (one of the rebellious forces, Northumberland, has ominously sent a message that he wouldn't join the battle and was retreating I think to Scotland). The rebel leaders agree and dismiss their troops, and then W and others double-cross them and say traitors can never be pardoned, etc., hauling them off for prison and probably execution. What kind of king/kingdom is this? Henry IV - pretty much confined to his castle (and deathbed) throughout this play was rebellious himself and now his forces double down - w/ some obvious parallels to our own time, regarding hypocrisy and treaty-breaking. On the other side, all of the Falstaff scenes are tired, old, and nasty  - the humor (and the byplay w/ Prince Hal) are completely gone. When Hal, as Henry V, banishes Falstaff, we feel like cheering, and yet - Hal/Henry V is such an opportunistic prig. I think his father has him right - he's cutting up as much as he can and just waiting to grab the crown and call the shots. I don't for a second believe his tears for his father nor his many protestations about his plan to surprise the world by his sudden reformation. Like his father, he'll take what he can get. Of all S's history plays, this one may be the most opportunistic and real-politick; Hal/HV is a bully posing as a nobleman, an opportunist posing as an idealist. It's no surprise, therefore, that his next move is to shift the optics, as we say to day, from domestic strife to foreign, as he prepares, for no good reason, to invade France. This, too, sounds sadly contemporary.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Sequel trouble - the problem of Henry IV Part 2

Inspired and made curious by watching Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight I've begun reading Henry IV part 2 , which I have neither read nor seen in decades. It's clear from the start that this is a more dark and more dry play than h41  a Shakespeare perhaps trying for a reprise but the jokes and barbed fun of part one seem tired and cruel in part 2 , which of course is part of the point . There's nothing funny about Hal's disguising himself to spy on Falstaff. Similarly f's running out on his debts and taking bribes to recruit soldiers whom he know will die in battle is cruel and mean-spirited. Reading or seeing this play we wonder how Hal could have slipped back from the heroic story of part 1 - dramatically it doesn't work and we keep straining toward the famous conclusion - I know you not old man etc.  easy for the callous Hal to say btw.  Welles wisely usd some of the best material in chimes not only the king's famous soliloquy- uneasy lies the head that wears a crown - but also falstaff and shallow reminiscing about the old days (w shrewdly cuts the followup when F says that shallow is a liar). Some of the poetic language is al,Ostroff cryptic - unusual for the generally crystal verse of S - Andy some of falstaff's prose rantings may even top his audacity in part 1 a butnthenrelation between F and Hal is so strained and unbalanced here that the play feel s out of synch - we begin to despise not only F Andy his crew but the crown prince as well. Sequ

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Melville and racism

There's no doubt that Melville's Benito Cereno (1855) contains some reprehensible statements about race. The novel/tale sets as a basic assumption that the "negro"'is of an inferior race. Are these, however, Melville's views? He doesn't explicitly assign these statements about white supremacy to his protagonist, capt Delano - but the whole novel (aside from the transcript of testimony at the end) is from Delano's POV, so we can assume the white supremacy and racial stereotyping are of the character and of his time (setting is 1799' 50 years before the composition of the work). In fact we might say that at the 2nd level the novel itself refutes the racist presumptions of the protagonist. Because he presumes that the blacks are childlike and suited only for loyal servitude to their masters, Delano misinterprets everything he sees: he cannot comprehended what every reader will see well before he does that the blacks are in control of the ship, that capt cereno is being held captive. Delano's racist assumptions therefore almost become his own undoing. So is this a progressive novel?  Not really, because on the next level, the third level we might say, we have to a look at what Melville does not say: There is not the slightest bit of sympathy for or understanding of the plight of the blacks aboard the ship, who are to be sold in slavery to a Peruvian landholder. At the time of composition, just 5 or so years before the civil war, slavery and abolition were obviously huge topics in American public life , but Melville's does not even hint at this. His silence about the plight of the blacks and their bravery in taking control of the ship and of their lives - at the end we learn nothing of their fate only of the demise of the eponymous cereno - is a silence that speaks to us, or should. How can readers not see beyond the scope of this novel, beyond 1799 or 1855, and recognize that not only did Melville's protagonist miss the story but so did Melville?

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The issues of Melville's Benito Cereno in the 21st century

Herman Melville's short novel/story/tale Benito Cereno (1855), from late in his writing life (4 years post Moby-Dick) makes Melville devotees queasy. Should it? There are a # of ways to read this tale, it's hard to say which is the "right" way or even what that means. In short - and I haven't finished re-reading the tale yet so there may be additional twists and elements - it's a story of an American sea captain, Amaso Delano, who comes upon a near-stranded ship off the cost of Chile, in 1799 (I think this may be based on real events and characters, however loosely) and approaches the boat to offer help. There he finds what appears to him to be a boat in severe distress, w/ the eponymous captain tended closely by several black (negro, in the parlance of the tale) attendants. Cereno tells Delano that they lost most of the Spanish crew to illness and suffered problems at sea while trying to make port. The black men (and women) aboard are slave cargo, but because most of the crew was lost the blacks have been impressed into service. Many aspects of this story puzzle Delano, and he suspects that perhaps he's being lured into a trap - that the crew of Cereno's ship will attack his when he lets down his guard. Now - spoiler here sort of but any contemporary reader I think will immediately pick up what Delano does not - the blacks have evidently revolted and seized control of the ship, and they watch Cereno and the other Spaniards closely to ensure that they give nothing away. The trouble for contemporary readers comes from the many racists remarks and observations: for example, Delano is amazed at the competence of the blacks, whom he believes to be an inferior race, and he's impressed by what he seems to believe is a childish, fawning loyalty to their beleaguered captain, for which he condescendingly admires the blacks. How to take this? On one level, Delano is merely accepting the received ideas of his time - and the joke is on him. His very inability to imagine that the blacks could act in their own interests, could stage an uprising, could successfully navigate a ship and retain control over the Spanish captain - all are Delano's (and Cereno's) own undoing. By underestimating the capacities of the slaves aboard, they have lost control of their world. On another level, however, and more distressing - Melville may hold these racist views himself (although the Melville of M-D does not appear to be racist) - he never explicitly puts the racist thoughts regarding white supremacy into Delano's consciousness, they're always stated as facts. the conclusion of the tale, which involves I think excerpts from a sea log, should further clarify how to read Benito Cereno in the 21st century.

Monday, February 12, 2018

A fine piece of fiction concludes 100 Years of Best American Short Stories - but is it a story?

The final selection in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories is At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners (2014), by Lauren Groff, and it's an excellent story in many ways though I have one objection, which I'll get to, but first: Yes, this story, like few others, tells the life story of a young man in a short space. It feels neither rushed nor truncated, it's unusual and vivid in its setting, and gives a good sense of the man's personality as it evolves through various crises and in the shadow of two odd, powerful parents. The protagonist is raised in Florida swampland, where his father, a herpetologist, captures snakes for study and for sale. His father is abusive and self-centered; the mother abandons the family when the boy is young, and he suffers  through a painful adolescence. Shortly after he's reunited w/ his mother in his college years, she dies (cancer?) and later his father dies, despite his boasting of immunity, from a snakebite. The young man marries well, and sells off various pieces of his inherited property to the university of Florida, eventually becoming wealthy from the sales and from shrewd investments (he seems like a complete social misfit, but evidently he's quite capable). Some kind of illness of trauma causes him to lost all sense of hearing, leaving him isolated and depressed - and we build toward a scary ending, which I will not divulge. Nice work in a short story, but - is it a short story? Many readers will recognize that Groff went on to include this piece - verbatim perhaps, I'm not sure - in her well-received novel Fates and Furies, where it serves as the lengthy back story to one of the characters. Well, perhaps she composed this initially as a story and then saw broader possibilities and expanded it into a novel; that does happen. But I have a sense that, certainly by the time the story was published, let alone re-published in the 100 Years anthology, that she and the editors knew this was an excerpt from a longer work. As a piece in a magazine, I don't care whether it was actually a story or an excerpt; however, in an anthology that unabashedly boasts that it represents a selection of the best American short stories, couldn't, shouldn't the eds (Lorrie Moore, Heidi Pitlor) have been more vigilant and actually select pieces that represent short stories, not merely short fiction?

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Otsuka's excellent story about dementia, with an unusual narrative technique

Julie Otsuka's excellent 2012 story Diem Perdidi (which, as we learn from the story, means I have lost the day) in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories is an excellent example of experimentation in form to good ends - clear and moving delineation of character, emotional and moving, a life portrait. The story is told from the POV of a late 40s narrator in regard to her mother, a Japanese-American, who is suffering from early or perhaps not so early stages of dementia in progress (or regress). Almost every sentence begins with the phrase She remembers of She does not remember, and with this unusual narrative device we see, in fragments, the life story of this woman. She remembers much of her life - w/, as is often the case with the elderly, an unusual focus on the distant rather than recent past - remembering her first love with more affection, it seems, that toward her faithful husband, remembering her first born who died within hours of birth with much more intensity than she remembers or recognizes her oldest living child (the narrator, sort of - she doesn't narrate but only from her close POV can the story be told). This story would make a great prose poem, if the sentences were arranged as such - lines and stanzas rather than paragraphs and sections. We feel the pain of the woman with her uncertainty about her present life (she believes every day to be Sunday, when she goes for a ride w/ her husband), her sufferings (particularly in an internment camp during the 2nd world war), her inability to remember what she was told or what she said just a few minutes ago - all tied to her deep memories and strong feelings about long ago - and as a result we feel the pain of her family, the daughter often forgotten, the husband whom she can barely recognize. In a particularly smart closing of the narrative loop (minor spoiler here) the last section f the story repeats, more or less, the list from the first section of what "she remembers" but now "she does not remember" - giving us a sense of the inevitable course of the dementia: the main character disappears like smoke before our eyes.