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[805] The Sellout – Paul Beatty

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“I understand now that the only time that black people don’t feel guilty is when we’ve actually done something wrong, because that relieves us of the cognitive dissonance of being black and innocent, and in a way the prospect of going to jail becomes a relief.” (Prologue, 18)

This book is incendiary and funny. In a time when race in America is at an absolute boil, Paul Beatty comes along with a book so bold and straight-forward, tackling all the racial taboo and faultlines. To the conservative mind it is repugnant, but to the liberal it’s brilliant.

In the nutshell The Sellout is about a young black man born in the “agrarian ghetto” of fictional Dickens, a neighborhood on the southern outskirts of LA, who becomes a farmer and weed dealer. He ends up before the Supreme Court because he is reinstating slavery, at least in his own house, and segregating the local middle school, erecting around town signs that scream “COLORED ONLY.” Son of a psychologist, “Bonbon” has a weird childhood in which he was subjected to many social experiments studying blacks’ behavior.

When I was young I had a reputation for being extremely lucky. I never suffered from the typical ghetto maladies . . . Hoodlums would jump on my friends but leave me alone. The cops somehow never got around to putting my name on a scare card or my neck in a choke hold. (Ch.9, 124)

When Dickens is removed from the map of California, Bonbon aka “Me” goes on a campaign to have it reinstated with the help of Hominy Jenkin, an erstwhile chattel who is the last surviving Little Rascal, who used to perform racial skits. He volunteers to be the narrator’s slave. In addition to segregate the local middle school, he creates facade of a fake charter school populated by smiling white kids that he paints across the street from the real public school, inspiring a race to racially segregated achievement.

What really makes this book shine is Beatty’s constant barrage of asides that takes precedence over the whole plot. His wicked wit, bold racial discourse give the book it’s momentum. The rich asides, so full of racial slurs and innuendos, are very incendiary and provocative. They touch on the hilarious vignettes about nearly every black stereotype imaginable. Within the humor, Beatty encourages the reader to re-examine the preconceptions of race and look at race relations in America in a new light. The book by no means suggests that black Americans were better off in the eras of segregation and slavery; instead, Beatty argues that the idea that racial issues are a thing of the past is a misguided and very detrimental concept. He calls for accountability and open discussion, dealing with inequality, prejudice, and discrimination in a honest way.

304 pp. Picador. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading “The Sellout”

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The opening paragraph, satirical, provocative and funny, decides the purchase of this book. The book looks like a madhouse of insight into race in America.

This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly…

These are some of the most snarky and electric opening lines. I’m sold immediately.

[801] Sula – Toni Morrison

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“Their evidence against Sula was contrived, but their conclusions about her were not. Sula was distinctly different. Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her and, with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.” (118)

Sula is compelling story about a black girl, mentally ahead of her time and of the social convention, who strives to achieve freedom and individualism. She is another pariah. She grows up in a household pulsing with larger-than-life people and activity, presided over by her tyrannical and probably sorcerous grandmother, Miss Eva. Left with three children after her husband left her, Miss Eva threw under a train, with one leg cut off, and collected insurance money. Sula’s gentle mother, Hannah, is devoted almost entirely to the practice and pleasure of sensuality. As the story unfolds, it is obvious that Sula, determined to flee the Bottom, is a fusion of the two. She is haughty but has a mind of her own.

Like Sula, Nel Wright is the only daughter of a distant mother, Helene, who is in perpetual query of everyone’s propriety. Sula and Nel have the immediate intimacy of friends who seem to have known each other all their lives, because “each had discovered years before they were neither white nor male and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden them they set about something else to be.” (52) Vivacity and closeness of their friendship over the year withers and the women are split into opposites. Nel becomes the conformer, assimilating to the conventions and values of black community and in large a male-dominant society. Sula, returning from the city after ten years, is the dangerous outsider whose amorality (like art with a form) poses a threat to the community. She is a living mockery, a sinister force, a sex-hungry, man-stealing figure of darkness and betrayal. She is frowned upon on and coined the evil—who is to be survived and overcome. Having dread to smash the taboos that are her neighbors’ poor guarantees of simply surviving, she is scorned, despised, and abandoned by the people she grew out of—even after she was dead. In short, she is shunned by her people, punished for her rebellion against traditions.

Morrison does not only make you question the small town morality, but something deeper, about the meager choices available to black women outside their own society’s approval. Sula is the quintessential outsider who has gone on a real trip. She risks individualism in a determinedly individualistic, yet radically uniform and socially static community. She is strange but compelling. She doesn’t feel obliged to please anyone—not even her best friend. She is an outlaw not because of her outrageous behavior, partly out of vengeance and partly rebellion, but because historically women are seen as naturally disruptive. The end is heartbreaking and very moving, as Nel realizes she is no different from her friend, whom she misses.

173 pp. Vintage UK. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading Sula

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Pamuk’s My Name is Red is too dense to read all in one sitting, so I set it aside for Sula. In Morrison’s Sula, women experience adversities generated from the idea that women should project a certain image in society and maintain a specific role in the home. Most commonly, masculinity is defined by aggression and dominance, whereas femininity is portrayed as emblematic of passivity and submission. The need for women to be submissive in a male-dominated society causes many women to suffer from a lack of individuality and self-expression. Sula and Eva suffer from the victimization of patriarchy, even though the victimization may sometimes be self-inflicted. Morrison portrays the strength perseverance, and determination that reside in women.

Whitman on Election

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Since last year, I made a habit of reading Walt Whitman everyday. I keep the hardback on my nightstand for easy access. Literature, he argues, constructs the scaffolding of society’s values and “has become the only general means of morally influencing the world.” Archetypal characters of literature shape the moral character and political ideals of a culture. Long after the political structures of the ancient world ave crumbled, what remains of Ancient Greece and Rome and the other great civilizations is their literature.

In light of Super Tuesday, in a sentiment that makes one shudder imagining what the poet would have made of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, Whitman writes,

I know nothing grander, better exercise, better digestion, more positive proof of the past, the triumphant result of faith in human kind, than a well-contested American national election.

[…]

America, it may be, is doing very well upon the whole, notwithstanding these antics of the parties and their leaders, these half-brain’d nominees, the many ignorant ballots, and many elected failures and blatherers. It is the dilettantes, and all who shirk their duty, who are doing well…. America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without.”

Therefore, the sole antidote, Whitman reminds us, lies in our own hands and the ballots they hold—in not shirking our duty as voters.

[785] A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

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“So he had invented some solutions, for small memories—little slights, insults—you relived them again and again until they were neutralized, until they became near meaningless with repetition, or until you could believe that they were something that had happened to someone else and you had just heard about it.” (Part IV, Ch.3, 380)

To summarize in one phrase, A Little Life is relentless suffering. It is extremely dark and disturbing, beyond excruciating, but has so much beauty in it. The novel follows a diverse crew of four friends, all graduates of a prestigious New England college, tightly bound to each other, who move to New York City to make their way. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; Malcolm, the biracial scion of a wealthy family who is stuck in an architect firm; JB, the child of Haitian immigrants, a painter in pursuit of fame in the art world; and withdrawn, brilliant, and enigmatic Jude, who really is the center of gravity of the story. As Jude’s harrowing, mysterious past is revealed in a restrained manner, mainly because Jude is determined to curb those horrible memories, the relationships between the four friends deepen and darken, each f whom is challenged by Jude’s unspeakable trauma in his childhood.

His brain was vomitting memories, they were flooding everything else—he thought of people and sensations and incidents he hadn’t thought of in years . . . He had tried—all his life . . . he had tried to make himself clean. (Part IV, Ch.3, 391)

As narrative exhausts on the camaraderie, the ensemble recedes and Jude comes to the fore. A Little Life is Jude’s story; it’s a long meditation on sexual abuse, suffering, self-injury, and the difficulties of recovery. What childhood trauma that had befallen him ultimately defines his life—his fear of life and relationship. He’s inclined to self-injury, to cutting himself so that he’s numb from pain. The cutting becomes a leitmotif, recurring and queasy. Cutting is both a symptom of and a control mechanism for the profound abuse Jude suffered during the years before he came to university. The depiction of abuse and physical suffering at the hand of a priest is so graphic that would make some readers queasy.

The book is long, but what Yanagihara does in chronicling Jude’s battered past is balanced by lighter stretches. Some of the most moving parts of the novel are not its mos brutal but its tenderest ones, moments when Jude receives kindness and support from his friends, his adopted parents, and especially from Willem, who loves him and does not treat him as an object. In a way, friendship is the only solace available to him and friendship alone makes it possible for him to conceive life. The book doesn’t offer any possibility of redemption and deliverance beyond the tender moments, but it does give us the moral that however sad life is, one goes on to search for solace. It’s a book about the limits of friendship and the bright humanity of people.

720 pp. Picador. UK Paper Edition. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[784] The Starboard Sea – Amber Dermont

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“For so long, I’d feared that I was hanging on to Aidan, on to all my thoughts and memories of her because of how our night together changed the meaning of all my nights with Cal. But I understood now that it didn’t change anything. I loved them both. I’d opened my life up to each of them.” (Ch.15, 297)

Jason Prosper grows up in the exclusive world of Manhattan penthouses, old-boy boarding schools, and summer estates. He’s pruned to be the alpha-male, continuing his father’s work in banking. But the talented sailor maintains a healthy disdain for the trappings of affluence and prefers to sail with his beat friend Cal, who later committed suicide. Devastated by the loss and wrought with grief, Jason transfer to Bellingham Academy for his senior year. Through the course of a single harrowing school year, the novel follows Jason and his inner emotions and secrets, as he tries to make sense of his friend’s death.

What made me like her? Her pain. Her mystery. I was drawn to her because she reminded me of Cal. I was drawn to her because she reminded me of myself. (Ch.5, 86)

Coincidence and serendipity bring Aidan and Jason together. Though off to a wrong footing at the first place, the two cultivate a deep friendship as they confide in each other not-so-innocent secrets, trying to heal their wounded hearts. They absorb the hideous weight of each other’s confession, and come to self-forgiveness. Jason is a likable, appealing first-person narrator that reminds me of Nick Carraway (The Great Gatsby), observing from a distance the terrible things privileged teenagers do to each other knowing wealth can buy silence. Hazing. Bullying. Debauchery. The steady, restrained unmasking of Jason’s history, in particular his powerful guilt over the death of Cal, which haunts him continuously, keeps the pages turning. As if the loss of a best friend is not intense enough to make one grows up, the destruction of a winter storm brings yet another upheaval in Jason’s life, which forces him to make sense of a secret buried by the boys he considers his friends.

Dermont compares adolescence to sailing a boat into the wind. She adeptly charts the fine calibrations of teenage love, shame, belonging, and the agony of coming of age. The book is an in-depth examination of abused class privilege, in which hazing rituals, which require secrecy and compliance, are as dangerous as the ruthless machinations of the truly powerful and wealthy parents. Despite falling in with a gang of rich indulgent kids who practice delinquency almost like a religion, Jason comes out unscathed and a better person. The book is a well-written debut that explores the balance of riches and ethics, in particular how privilege supersedes societal structures and the inner voice of one’s conscience.

308 pp. St. Martin Press. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[783] Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller

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“The cancer of time is eating us away. Our hero killed ourselves, or are killing themselves. The hero, thus, is not Time, but Timelessness. We must get in step, a lock step, toward the prison of death.” (1)

Tropic of Cancer doesn’t adhere to fiction’s convention. The 1934 controversial book, banned until the U.S. Sepreme Court lifted the ban, is more autobiographical in style, written in stream-of-consciousness that captures the details and nuances of a particular moment in history in as intense a way as possible. It’s filled with Miller’s anecdotal tales that are exuberant and obscene. The book is set in Paris in the years after World War One, a time when most young people, like Miller and those he encounters, have turned permanently cynical and nihilistic, so horrified as they aptly were over what exact carnage humans have proven themselves capable of to the business of warfare.

Even as the world falls apart the Paris that belongs to Matisse shudders with bright, gasping orgasms, the air itself is steady with a stagnant sperm, the trees tangled like hair. (166)

In Miller’s hand the world is an impasse, on the verge of annihilation, with people lining up to the prison of death. In search for some kind of utopia, these young expatriates, feeling anachronistic with the time they live in, plunge into such bawdy adventures intertwined with sex and substances. Down and out in Paris, Miller lives hand-to-mouth, eking out a living with a variety of jobs. He’s at the mercy of rich patrons for whom he writes pseudoymous letters and books. The artistic pursuits do not make their lives easier. But they take life lightly. The result is an entire neighborhood that becomes boisterous, drunken melting pots, packed to the gunwales with bohemians from around the world and all stations of life who no longer give a crap about anything. they embrace such things as casual sex and exotic drugs in a way no other generation has embraced them before, as they party the way to apocalypse they are all sure is right around the corner.

The book reflects on a generation lost in the underworld of seed sex. For Miller who arrived on the Left Bank of Paris in the 1930s, he was the quintessence of abject failure. All he had going for him was creative rage, mixed with some artistic vision of the truly avant garde. But those he ecounters are borderline hopeless cases and psychopaths, all of whom are trying to make the best of Paris and making sense of their lives.

318 pp. Grove Press. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[775] The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame

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“Rouse thee, old loon, and take over from us this vile Toad, a criminal of deepest guilt and matchless artfulness and resource. Watch and ward him with all thy skill; and mark thee well, grey beard, should aught untoward befall, thy old head shall answer for his—and a murrain on both of them.” (Ch.6, p.81)

Deemed a children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows has more far-reaching meanings relevant to the adult society. The animal-populated village is a microcasm of our society. It’s springtime and curious Mole, bored with housework, leaves his molehill to explore. At the riverbank he meets the laid-back Water Rat, with whom he cultivates a firm friendship. Water Rat shows Mole only kindness and loyalty and introduces him to the mysteries of life on the river and in the Wild Wood. The Mole meets the exuberant, speed-crazed Toad, who lives in the most resplendent house overlooking the river. But Toad has a penchant for all things luxurious and drives recklessly. He ignores the friends’ advisory against boasting and vanity. His theft of a car lends him in court and he is sent to jail. His irresponsible living and extravagance lead to the loss of his home to the barbaric stouts and weasels.

Under the surface of a charming story with its lovable characters, The Wind in the Willows is a story with strong moral. It celebrates friendships, capturing the meaning of true friendship. Badger reprimands Toad’s foolishness but Toad doesn’t take critique well. His conceit totally blinds him and that brings disaster. The evergreen tale deserves recognition as a novel in which readers will find wisdom, humor, entertainment, and meaning, as well as many passages of great literary power.

180 pp. Barnes & Noble Classics. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[762] Oreo – Fran Ross

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” The girl’s got womb . . . she’s a real ball buster. “

This is one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read—puny, hilarious and sublime. Fran Ross’ throwaway lines have more zing than most comic writers. Sadly, it was the only book she wrote and that it didn’t get much attention when it was published in 1974. The heroine is Christine Clark a.k.a. Oreo. An “oreo” is, of course, a cookie, white on the inside and black on the outside; it’s also the taunt of choice for black people who appear to “act white.” Oreo doesn’t act white, in fact she embraces her multiplicity, aggressively asserting her mixed identity, code-switching between Yiddish, Ebonics, and highbrow academic jargon. Born to a Jewish father and black mother who divorce before she turned two, Oreo grows up in Philadelphia with her maternal grandparents while her mother tours with a theatrical troupe. Soon after puberty, Oreo heads for New York with a backpack to search for her father, a voice-over actor in Manhattan who has left her an absurd list of clues regarding her birth. He’s a bum, according to her mother, and her mission turns into a wickedly humorous picaresque quest.

Although the novel draws no conclusions and the quest leads to no ground-breaking revelatory payoff (a slight let-down), it’s diversion from the quest by wordplay and metareferences that makes Oreo shine. Ross has no qualm about racial taboo and she just goes off the tangents with racial puns. The narrative challenges accepted notions of race, ethnicity and culture. Oreo is Oreo’s quest, in bumpy parody of the classical odyssey of Theseus, to find her (Jewish white) father. She is cheeky, intelligent, and mischievous. She develops a self-defense system that deploys against many men who beat women with impunity. Her encounter with a horde of diverse people allows her to meander through her wicked and free imagination and to push reader toward a hyper-awareness of language itself. This book is erudite and playful. That it’s tied to the Greek myth allows it to go through some very insane materials without spinning out of control. Uproarious feminist attics!

230 pp. New Directions. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]