27 March 2012

Moses, Man of the Mountain, by Zora Neale Hurston

I continue to lovingly work my way through Zora Neale Hurston's works. This is certainly not one of her best, sad to say, but it's interesting nonetheless. A retelling of the Moses story (incidentally, published in1939, same year as Moses and Monotheism) with clear references to the African American experience, giving it a somewhat complicated politics. Obviously, Pharaoh and the Egyptians are still evil, but there's a strong emphasis too on the Chosen People basically acting like ungrateful jerks. Moses, the hoodoo master, is a harried and unwilling hero. Most of the people around him are greedy, self-absorbed, and openly uninterested in freedom. He must mold this unmanageable mess into a nation* and they will resist throughout. I guess this is probably in the Bible version too? I mean, I know the Golden Calf is and stuff, I guess I'd just never really thought about Moses having so much trouble with his followers. But it's a pretty shocking implication as political allegory, when you think about it.

This is one of the reasons I find Hurston so interesting. She's intensely problematic, politically speaking. This is especially noticeable when you consider her portrayal of women. The intro to this book stresses the way in which she emphasizes the oppression of women, which is true enough, but she also emphasizes how women distract men and prevent them from achieving greatness, and are shameless gossips who love shiny things. Seriously. I think Zora Neale Hurston might have despised women. She definitely seems to see them as simultaneously powerful and helpless, needing a man to set them straight, but usually incapable of realizing how much they need him (this isn't as noticeable in this book as it is in Seraph on the Suwanee which I loved, but it's there).

The best reason to read her stuff is still her gorgeous, gorgeous prose. This book too has moments of incredible beauty, but I also found that dialect a wee bit grating at times (which is weird, I normally don't at all). I kept hearing it in this cartoonish, aw shucks voice in my head ("well gee pharaoh, I reckon that Moses is a goner for sure!") and it was just made it all seem ridiculous.

*Amusingly enough, I am currently also about halfway through a biography of Daniel O'Connell, which is basically about the same problem.

25 March 2012

Open City, by Teju Cole

I keep coming across references to this book. It happened so many times that I checked a copy out from the library, and now that it's been recalled from me, I finally got around to reading it. I understand why there's so much buzz about it - it manages to hit a whole cluster of hot topics in politics without seeming overtly preachy. This is one of those books where I am so obviously the choir it's preaching to that I can't help but be suspicious of my own enjoyment. The novel meanders between New York streetscapes, encounters with strangers laden with thoughtful reflections on race, identity, and politics, and references to literature and cultural theory. I mean, come on. Of COURSE I ate it up. Moroccans living in Brussel discussing Malcolm X vs Martin Luther King Jr and Walter Benjamin? Yes please.

That said, I honestly don't know how enjoyable the book would be for someone who isn't picking up on those references. I suspect that they're explained clearly enough for it to still be interesting. I think the questions the novel raises are given life in ways that will appeal to people from a variety of political backgrounds (though you probably do need to be at least left-leaning), and I enjoyed the way the book gave you space to interpret situations in a variety of ways. The bigger question, for me, is whether the lack of a strong narrative arc will be enough to sustain readers who are looking for more than a kind of talking heads experience. The narrator basically walks around thinking about stuff. At one point he goes to Brussels. He talks a bit about his childhood in Lagos, but not much. There are a few other characters, and some progression of events, but it's pretty sparse. It does, however, read very quickly - I started it last night and finished it this afternoon. It's a contemplative, interesting read, one that you'll probably think about for awhile once you finish it. I was not blown away by it, but I found it very pleasant.

19 March 2012

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), by Mindy Kaling

Apparently I am very late to the party on this one, because Mindy Kaling first came to my attention when I read this piece, which is fantastic, in the New Yorker. My boyfriend got me her book for Christmas, and it's been sort of calling to me every since, with its bright pink spine and promise of light-hearted amusements. Kaling is a very smart and funny woman, and the book is a breezy pleasure with moments of poignancy. It's chatty and meandering, with somewhat random chapters clumped together (the New Yorker piece actually appears as two separate chapters in the book. Reading it is like going out for lunch with a good friend who you don't see too often and spending a few hours gossiping and catching up. It's interesting in the way that hearing any smart person talking about their experience of the world is - you learn something about them, but also about the world. One of Kaling's recurring subthemes, for example, is her weight. She's open and honest about her fluctuating size and how shitty it makes her feel sometimes. She seems conscientious of the fact that her book will probably be read by a lot of teenage girls, and she doesn't want to give them the wrong idea (I love her for that). But while her observations may occasionally be somewhat pithy, overall it does make you think, not just about what it's like to be famous and of fluctuating size, but more broadly, how our culture constructs and reenforces its ideas of beauty. Another thing that is kind of great about Kaling is her somewhat prim, disapproving side. She is not advocating for some kind of adventurous project of self-realization. She fully acknowledges having a normal healthy sex drive but she also wonders why an evening of conversation seems like enough of a prerequisite to get in bed with a person. It's charming.

Reading the book reminded me that I'm still only halfway through listening to Tina Fey's book and made me want to revisit it. To be honest, cheesy as it sounds, one of the most rewarding things about both of these books was realizing that these fantastic, successful women are a lot like me in many ways. They were dorks in high school, they have insecurities, they wonder if they are too bossy or arrogant, etc. I guess that's what celebrity books are supposed to do? These are the first two I've read. Are they all this good at it?

12 March 2012

The Descendants

I haven't gotten around to complaining about this movie yet. When I get bad about updating my blog, it's generally a sign that I'm working really really hard or putting off work. I'm not entirely sure which this one is, oddly enough. ANYWAYS.

I'm really sick of these seemingly charming tales about "quirky" people and their exploits that invariably involve some mildly shocking scenes where people end up, for example, hanging out with the wife of the guy your own wife cheated on you with. I'm fed up with the sassy, foul-mouthed children and their attitude problems, and the vicious or hapless extended family. And the 'inspiring' tale of the protagonists striving for self-realization in this crazy crazy world after they've basically been fuck-ups (and shitty parents) for way too long. And the fact that the characters are often ultra-rich kind of adds insult to injury. I don't hate rich people. But I do find myself annoyed by their many gripes and complaints, especially when watching these movies in Turkey. It's not that their problems aren't real, or that the struggle to make ends meet is somehow more noble. But there's something a wee bit absurd about illuminating the travails of multimillionaires to entertain a lower-middle class audience.

So no, I didn't like this movie. Pretty much all of the people in it are basically despicable. They get a little bit more palatable as the movie progresses, but they're still essentially selfish jerks. To be honest though, my real problem with the movie was that I found it dull. It's really long. Really. It actually feels almost interminable. I normally like Hawaiian music, but this movie sorely tested me by bombarding me with endless dreamy ukelele numbers. The dialogue was pretty atrociously bad, and the whole thing didn't really hold together in its attempt to weave a plot out of three separate stories; a guy who learns of his wife's infidelities as she's on her deathbed, his relationship to his messed up daughters, this massive business deal he's on the verge of making, and his connection to Hawaii and its history. I bet the novel does a better job at it. In fact,  wouldn't be surprised if the novel is pretty good. But the movie is not.

04 March 2012

Te Doctor and the Devils, by Dylan Thomas

I picked this up completely randomly in a used bookstore awhile back. It's actually a screenplay for a movie, though apparently it was never actually filmed. And the language of the stage directions is so wonderful, it seems a pity to lose it -

Fallon and Broom are looking at the wares on a clothes-stall. 
They plough and scatter through the clothes, while the stall-keeper, a fat woman smoking a pipe, looks on expressionlessly.
Fallon pulls a shawl from a heap of oddments and tosses a coin to the woman who, still expressionlessly but with the deftness of a trained seal, catches it.

I can't explain exactly what is so beautiful and expressive about the way these directions are written. It's not just the use of these fantastically evocative and almost extravagantly elegant metaphors ("The deftness of a trained seal"), but also the way in which you have the sense of a shared world that you and the author are exploring together - The tavern is crowded. Many of the faces are familiar to us now. There is also the logistical matter of how one could successfully convey some of these things in film. It's funny how instructions work; a kind of meta-language that is also a descriptor of a scene without, in a sense, being responsible for actually evoking it. What makes this work so surprising and fascinating to read is that although the language does a terrific job of conjuring up the scenes, it's almost hard to imagine how they could be executed in reality and still be as effective. It is easy, in prose, to have the audience suddenly catch a glimpse of something in the straw - it's trickier if you have to actually have the straw and the object and somehow control when they actually notice it.

So much for the form of the text. The story itself actually engaged and absorbed me much more than I expected or even wanted it to. It sort of got into my head in a not entirely pleasant way - it's a grim, frightening work in many ways, even though it is simultaneously quite warm and occasionally very funny. The story is of a doctor, here called Rock but based on a real life figure named Dr Knox. He runs a school, and, because he cannot legally get corpses for anatomical study, he buys them on the dl. Perhaps inevitably, he attracts suppliers from the poor neighborhood, and they soon figure out that there are faster ways of getting a body than waiting around to see where one gets buried. It's almost a cliche story, but it is rendered in highly moving and disturbing ways this time around. I was extremely impressed, even though I was also a bit shaken. An excellent book.