a magnificent distraction

thoughts sparked by works of literature

Fresh out of my candidacy exams, I couldn't really get into any books. Call it burnout or relief or just plain time for a break, but I kept getting 10-15 pages into books and realizing I wasn't taking in a single word. Well, I checked Nick Hornby's book out from the Buellton public library and to my delight, I was 100 pages into it before I knew what hit me. As usual, Hornby's style is humorous and captivating, and the story was entertaining throughout. I think one of my favorite things about Hornby's stories is that he always writes about things with a brand of verisimilitude that I can relate to. Hearing his characters' thoughts makes me think about the same issues in my own life (although I tend to be somewhat relieved to discover that I'm significantly happier with how I've lived my life to this point than most of his characters are), and they always become "round" characters more quickly than I would think possible.

Juliet, Naked has perhaps one of the most successful happy endings (at least, I read it as a happy ending, although I think that could be a point of contention for some) I've encountered in a long while. Since he denies the reader the typical happy-ending-montage offered by the genre of contemporary "chick flicks," he avoids the sort of heavy cheese-factor that kind of ending creates. Instead, his sort of guided open-ending offers the satisfaction of a choose-your-own-adventure story without waking the reader from the dream of the text.

I really enjoyed Hornby's book, and I'm glad I happened to see it sitting on the shelf in the library. While the title made it mildly embarrassing to check out from the librarian -- a lovely and sweet woman whose daughter was a high school chum of mine -- it was certainly worth the two-second blush, and read like a light 200-page novel rather than a thought-provoking 406-page novel.

This is one of my all-time favorite books! It's not at all diminished on the second read, after years of building it up in my mind. I was doing a lot more thinking when I read it this time, and I was really quite impressed by the sheer number of ideas Yamashita took on with this novel.

Where to begin.... There's Chico Paco, the human angel who inspires people around the world, whose barefoot pilgrimage of 1500 miles secured his friend Gilberto's triumph over paralysis...the religious symbol who also happens to be gay as well as pure of heart and soul. There's Lourdes (the impoverished maid who has two children by a husband who abandoned her long ago) and Kazumasa (the extraordinary Japanese man with his own personal satellite in front of his forehead who makes a fortune overnight and does his very best to give it all away) -- and their love story that transcends class, nationality, assassins, and kidnappers. And what do we do with Mané Pena, the Father of Featherology who has "authored" innumerable books and delivered countless lectures and been awarded an honorary PhD...and who can't read, is extremely poor, and insists on going barefoot throughout his life? Of course, we can't forget J.B. Tweep, the three-armed American man obsessed with paperclips and increasing profit margins at any cost, who favors the artificial over the natural...and who marries Michelle Mabelle, the three-breasted French ornithologist who makes their home an indoor rainforest populated by all manner of birds (and of course the fact that they marry, have triplets, and split up). Finally, there's Batista Djapan and his wife Tania Aparecida with their pigeon business, their overwhelming love, and Batista's prophetic weekly messages.

It seems like, in many ways, Yamashita's characters achieve their greatest happiness when they form meaningful and honest relationships with the people in their lives. When, like J.B. Tweep, they choose profit and artificiality over all that is "real" in their lives, they cannot be happy. They cannot survive. The hitch in this argument, of course, is Chico Paco and Gilberto. They love each other, and they have a beautiful relationship, but Gilberto's obsession with crazy stunts and dangerous escapades ends up resulting in his death. However, he and Chico Paco die at approximately the same time, and they both die before the destruction of the Matacão which was so important to and so beloved by them. So perhaps there's something more to that, although they are also the only gay pair in the novel so perhaps Yamashita is making a comment on that as well.

Perhaps my favorite character in the entire novel is Kazumasa's ball. I love the ball, and I love that the ball is the narrator of the entire novel. I think everyone should read this novel!!

What a refreshing read! I've been reading a lot of stuff that's sort of out of my "for pleasure" reading zone, and while a lot of those works have been really interesting and worthwhile, not all of them have been quite as enjoyable. Larissa Lai's novel was so...well, fresh.

Okay, so part of what makes this novel so interesting to me is the "magical" aspect of it. It does "magic" in a very different way than some of the works I've been reading. For one thing (and this is not one of the "very different" aspects of it), the magic in this novel is very firmly grounded in folklore -- in a creation story, as a matter of fact. But another significant aspect of it is the prominence given to lesbian relationships. Not only is the creator in the creation story a female, but she becomes human only to fall in love with another girl. And of course, the present-day main character version of the creator finds herself reinserted into that same romance (with a woman named "Evie" of all things). In a similar vein, by the end of the novel the women have found a way to reproduce through produce that renders men 100% unnecessary. There's a lot of really interesting stuff happening at the level of gender and sexuality.

And of course, there're some interesting things going on with regards to genetics and cloning. The whole idea of making people -- carelessly, recklessly creating disposable people on a whim -- is a dominant theme throughout Lai's novel. What do we do with people once we've created them? Are we responsible for them? If they're cloned, if their blood contains non-human DNA, if they're just different enough, can we call them something other than human? And once they're no longer classified as "real people," can we take away their rights and use them as we please? The novel's publication date (2002) should be a good indication of how much the global cloning debates influenced the storyline and inspired Lai's imagination.

I'm also really interested in the politics of this novel. Lai tackles feminism, discrimination, socioeconomic standing, etc. There's so much to talk about, and I'm trying to decide if there's room for this novel in my dissertation.

I read both parts of the play (although I'm not entirely sure why it's broken into two separate books, since when you finish the first one you really don't have a choice but to read the second one if you want to find out what happens with all the characters). The first part is called Millennium Approaches, and the second part is called Perestroika.

Wow. I mean, where do I begin? Kushner is addressing so many different HUGE issues. He's dealing with AIDS in the 1980's, racism, homosexuality, politics, Zionism, religion (Judaism and Mormonism, with a little bit of Catholocism sprinkled throughout), and more. I feel somewhat overwhelmed as I try to construct some sort of coherent blog post. I'll start somewhere easy: the characters. Kushner's merciless. His characters either seem to be saintly (as in the case of Prior Walter and Belize) or sinnerly (as in the case of Joe Pitt and Roy Cohn). I'll admit that one of my favorite characters was actually Harper Pitt, Joe's wife, because of her perceived insanity (when she's actually one of the most sane characters in the play). Despite some pretty severe flaws, most of these characters are surprisingly likable. I think Kushner isn't interested in villainizing anyone -- I think he's more interested in exposing some of the tangled and complex aspects of human beings, and digging into some of the issues that arise from those complexities.

The central focus of the play really becomes AIDS, not because of the disease itself, but because of the way it plays out in the characters' lives. The idea that it's some sort of shameful disease that one should cover up arises in Roy Cohn's character...but he's also the most reprehensible character there is in this play, so when we see him trying to pass AIDS off as cancer it comes off as a negative action. And of course, through his interactions with Belize (especially regarding his stash of mega-elite drugs) we get more of an idea about how widely AIDS is really affecting people. Of course, we get this from the several direct comparisons between AIDS and the Black Plague (most blatantly when Prior Walter's ancestors visit him).

Man, I'm at a total loss as to how to tackle this play. Suffice it to say it's a really powerful, intelligent, and scathing work that tackles some huge issues and forces the reader to confront issues that are not always openly addressed. Also, Kushner's use of "split" scenes (in which some characters are in one location interacting with each other while other characters are located elsewhere on the stage, but are also interacting with each other -- both groups oblivious to the other) is a really interesting technique that allows him to create interaction between different characters and different situations, but through staging and line alternation a whole new message emerges out of the side-by-side action.

I'd heard of the Zoot Suit Riots before reading this play, but I didn't know a whole lot about them. To be honest, I didn't even know where they happened (which is quite appalling, considering I'm from Southern California and all)...which makes me wonder about the aims of American education. But shifting my focus a bit...

Formally, I really enjoyed this play. It was interesting and thought-provoking, and I thought Valdez employed some very fresh strategies throughout. Plays that are based on historical events run the risk of being kind of flat -- sort of reporting the facts without really thoroughly developing the characters. This play found a nice balance between the political and the aesthetic, and it really worked to convey the messages. I thought Valdez's point was really interesting. I mean, of course there's the aspect of the play that concerns historical events (hence the newspaper headlines that various characters spout off at different points in the play), but there's also the aspect of the play that connects those historical events to contemporary Chican@ life. Pachuco almost ends the play at a falsely happy Hollywood moment, but brings the lights back up and says:
But life ain't that way, Hank.
The barrio's still out there, waiting and wanting.
The cops are still tracking us down like dogs.
The gangs are still killing each other,
Families are barely surviving,
And there in your own backyard...life goes on. (88)
The idea that "gangs are still killing each other" is one that has powerful resonance in today's America (especially in highly urbanized cities like LA). Zoot Suit makes this connection explicit for the reader to highlight the relevance of what happened ~70 years ago (egad, was it that long ago?) to life today. Injustice is still alive and thriving, but the message that Henry learns through these events -- that there is hope, and that family is ever-important -- is still relevant. The play's ending, a sort of choose-your-own-adventure ending with three different life endings for Henry -- a return to prison and a drug-induced death, a trip overseas with the military and a soldier's death, and a more ordinary life lived happily-ever-after with wife and kids -- presents a series of options for young people who are involved in gangs. Valdez's play hinges on the idea that there is a choice to be made. It sort of asks the reader what they want their life to look like, how they want their story to be remembered. Burn out? Hero? Family (wo)man? And inherent in that choice is an invitation to change the direction that one's life is currently headed.

I read three stories from this collection: "My Ride, My Revolution," "Mechanics," and "Chain-Link Lover." All three focused on male protagonists who were struggling to succeed in some aspect of their lives -- mostly in love. Rodriguez's stories (at least, these three) took a closer look at the pressures and stressing factors at work on romantic relationships for these men; while this theme was fairly central to these stories, other ideas were at play as well.

"My Ride, My Revolution" dealt heavily with the idea of purpose -- the main character constantly questioned his purpose, his goals, the work he might do with his life instead of ending up beaten by the system and forced into low-paying dead-end jobs as he has been doing for his entire adult life. Compared to Chacon's stories in which the drive to break out of societal constraints and move life in a direction that's actually desired (oftentimes with the added element of anger), Rodriguez's stories feel much more trapped, cornered, and not-quite-but-nearly defeated. I'm not saying that he's presenting a hopeless portrayal of Chican@ life in the US; nope, I'm saying that his characters are struggling to stay afloat in a much more desperate way than Chacon's because, for the most part, they've lost their anger.

In "Chain-Link Lover" we see a counter-example for this trend. When the main character is confronted by a road-raging white truck driver threatening him with a tire iron, he remembers the mentally handicapped girl who loves him unconditionally and begins to feel real anger toward the man. He thinks of all the injustices or frustrations he's faced at the hands of others and draws them together to form a sort of fighting rage. However, while he is able to talk back to the driver and give him the "You want me? Come get me!" line, he also knows (and admits quite openly to the reader) that if the man decides to go through with his violence, it's a lost cause. In his big moment of bravery/bravado, this is how the narrative runs:
"'You want me? Come get me!' I prodded again, much braver now since I figured he didn't have the huevos. I knew most people didn't. It was something I counted on (but the day will come when I meet the vato who has what it takes to do exactly what he intends to do)." (157)
In other words, he is able to put on a brave face and make a hollow stand, but he's also very aware that he cannot follow through on his threats. I feel that there's a deeper political significance here, but I haven't figured out exactly where to go with that yet.

Finally, "Mechanics" presents a strangely optimistic/pessimistic outlook on love. The protagonist's entire life revolves around his wife and children until the day his wife leaves him. Then what? Well, then he realizes (over time) that her departure has actually freed him...but that he still loves his children immensely. I have no idea where to go with this, but it felt almost utterly hopeless.

I read three stories from this collection: "The Biggest City in the World," "Aztlán, Oregon," and "Too White." While all three were about different characters and had very different premises, there were some common themes running through them.

In "Aztlán, Oregon," the idea of institutionalized racism is really highlighted. The main character, a reporter named Ben who was once a gang member in Fresno but has since moved and become an anchorman, decides that he's going to do a radical political report on Chicano gangs. However, when he tries to talk to the gang members about the political conditions that may have contributed to their involvement in the gang, they shrug him off and continue talking about their own versions of the American Dream (wanting a decent house, a nice wife, etc.). Chacon focuses on the relationship between gang activity and contemporary American society, taking a critical look at the different ways kids (well-meaning kids, at that) end up involved in gangs. The issue comes up again in "Too White" when the main character, Joey, is forced to end his friendship with a white boy named Kenny in order to save his life. As Kenny rides away on his bike, Joey takes the beating that was originally meant for his ex-friend, only for Joey the beating takes on an entirely different meaning as evidenced by the last lines of the story:
"Through blurry eyes, I saw three figures standing over me. Then I felt the kicks all over my body, and I heard laughter. Then a sire. The cops were coming. They were all beating me, David, Johnny, Gilbert. I was the first to be jumped in." (134)
For Joey and his friends, there doesn't appear to be a way to bridge the racial divide between characters. The only solution is a violent reconciliation. Of course, in "Aztlán, Oregon" the violence that ends the story is of an entirely different nature: Ben beats up his supervisor (Brad) in a sort of cathartic outpouring of all of the emotions he's been keeping down in this city where he feels lost.

What, then, am I to do with "The Biggest City in the World" in light of these other two stories? In a similar manner, this story ends with the protagonist -- a timid college student named Harvey Gomez -- taking a cab ride to various locations in Mexico City when he knows he is flat broke. He makes a decision that will simultaneously allow him to experience his cultural heritage and also mean becoming a thief/cheat. Well, in many ways this is related to the other stories in a very significant way. Like Ben (who feels that he's lost his Chicano-ness) and Joey (who tries to navigate the gap between whites and Chicanos), Gomez begins to figure out what it means to him to be truly Mexican. After losing his wad of scholarship money -- a symbolic event that translates to a disconnection between Gomez and the Western institution -- he ends up being recognized by the cab driver (an "authentic" Mexican) as a "real" Mexican (this after Gomez's statement that he likes mariachi music).

Chacon's collection, from the three stories I read, seems to have a very specific political mission. The prevalence of gang issues and conflicting ideas of what it means to be Mexican, Chicano, or American are also critical, and Chacon seems to be writing for an audience who is struggling to work through these issues themselves.

the distraction

Books. Reading. Words on a page. This is my magnificent distraction, a black and white obsession that has resulted in my pursuit of a PhD. This blog was born of a desire to write down my thoughts about the books on my reading list for the candidacy exams, and to share them with anyone who cares to read about them. Now it continues beyond that reading list (as my exams are behind me) and into the realm of my regular reading pursuits, whether they are for pleasureful or professional purposes. Enjoy!