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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.

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.

[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]

[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]

“Roots”

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Oreo leads me to Roots by Alex Haley. After I finished the book, I read the introduction:

While Oreo may have been one of the least-known novels of the decade, Roots went on to become the single most popular novel of the decade [1970s], black or white. It occupied the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list for twenty-two weeks. It was adapted into one of the most-watched television miniseries of all time. –Danzy Senna

Now I’m very curious about Roots and it’s on my reading list. Have you read?

[755-2] Atlas Shrugged (Part II) – Ayn Rand

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***Read in conjunction with Tina at Book Chatter***

“…if you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders—what would you tell him to do? . . . To shrug. ” (Part II, Ch.III, White Blackmail)

Part II, titled “Either-Or,” focuses on Dagny Taggart’s struggle to resolve a dilemma: either to continue her battle to save the crumbling railway network, an artery of the country’s economy, or to give it up and grant the “looters” sanction. The middle section of the novel sheds light on the new directives that, what were meant to boost economy by encouraging competition and eliminating monopoly, actually leads to the collapse of the nation’s oil industry. Following the disappearance of Wyatt who imploded his oil fields, Rearden, refusing to cede the rights to Rearden Metal to the State, is indicted for secret sales to a coal magnate, a transaction made illegal by the equal opportunity directives.

It seemed to her that some destroyer was moving soundlessly through the country and the lights were dying at his touch—someone, she thought bitterly, who have reversed the principle of the Twentieth Century motor and was now turning kinetic energy into static. (Part II, Ch.II)

Equally perplexing Dagny is the continuous disappearance of industrialists for no conceivable reason. Francisco d’Anconia, heir of the largest copper core who has turned a playboy, reveals that he has deliberately destroyed his company to harm the looters who are profiteering on his abilities. He coaxes Rearden to renounce the State by quitting. By continuing to work under such dictatorial circumstances, Rearden is granting a moral sanction to the looters, a sanction they need from him in order to compromise his rights and his mind. At his trial, Rearden is unapologetic for his success and defensive of his right to produce for his own stake. His sound reason only leaves the court speechless and panicked. But it’s Rearden’s wife Lillian, upset at his affair with Dagny, uses this as a weapon to deliver him to the State.

There had been a time he had been required to do his best and rewarded accoringly. Now he could expect nothing but punishment, if he tried to follow his conscience. There had been a time when he had been expected to think. Now they did not want him to think, only to obey. (Part II, Ch.VII, The Moratorium of Brains)

Part II sees further deterioration of the railway, punishment of Rearden’s success, and a rapid, chilling assimilation of a society in which all talents and ambition are curbed and the citizens become indistinguishable. Bussinessmen use government power to loot competitors, they gain in the short run while greater losses are spread throughout the society. The “aristocracy of pull” in the book rules through access to Washington, trading favors and back-stabbing in a destructive political competition that eventually leads to economic collapse. But the most porous damage is the death of brain—gone are reason and individual thinking. The virtues that made life possible and the values that give life meaning become agents of its destruction.

Reading Louise Erdrich

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Love Medicine is like One Hundred Years of Solitude all over. A multi-generational story spun around two Native Indian families. Family chart should be kept at arm’s legth the whole time the novel is being read. Once reader gets over the complicated relationships, the reading is a magical realism of the native land and traditions.

Love Medicine opens in 1981 with the death of beautiful but broken June Kashpaw. June stumbles from a truck cab and runs from a stranger who calls her by another woman’s name as he makes love to her. She sets out for her home on a North Dakota Chippewa reservation, following her instincts through a later winter storm. But her sharp survival skills, honed in a lifetime of living out-of-doors, cannot overpower the snowstorm or keep her warm in a pair of jeans and a thin jacket.

It is challenging to keep straight the shared bloodlines and histories. I believe later editions contain a family tree of sorts. But Erdrich explains these connected lives in a way that you realize they are like the root system of an aspen tree—one tree, standing alone, is really part of a vast forest.

[756] A Raisin in the Sun – Lorriane Hansberry

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” MAMA: My children and they tempers. Lord, if this little old plant don’t get more sun than it’s been getting it ain’t never going to see spring again. (She turns from the window.) What’s the matter with you this morning, Ruth? You looks right peaked. You aiming to iron all of them things? Leave some for me. (Act I) “

The story of A Raisin in the Sun is simple but epic. Published in 1959, it’s about a family living on the south side of Chicago struggling with poverty, striving to maintain dignity, and dreaming of a better life. One of the central conflicts was loosely based on an event from Lorriane Hansberry’s own childhood. In 1938, her family, in violation of a restrictive covenant that was legal at the time, bought a house in an all-white neighborhood. The fight that ensue, against both legal system and hostile neighbors, deeply affected young Hansberry.

RUTH: Shoot—these here rich white women do it all the time. They don’t think nothing of packing up they suitcases and piling on one of them big steamships and—swoosh!—they gone, child.
MAMA: Something always told me I wasn’t no rich white woman. (Act I)

The Youngers have been living in a “rat-trap” that has become too small and crowded for their needs. Mama’s grandson Travis has to bed down in the living room that also serves as the dining room. The family has to get up earlier in the morning so the bathroom, shared with neighbors, would be available. In receipt of insurance money of her recently-deceased husband, Mama buys a house in an all-white neighborhood to provide a home for her family. Mama is cutting edge in trying to defeat segregation, for she believes “there is no such thing as white folks neighborhood except to racists and to those submitting to racism.” (Act I) She is the meek protector of the house, tending her children, though grown-up, like plants.

The play explores significant themes in American literature: dreams, identity, power, and race. Every character has a very specific dream, and they struggle to cope with oppressive circumstances that rule their lives. Mama dreams of a house for her family. Walter dreams of success in business enterprise. Ruth dreams of a place for her family and a baby. Beneatha dreams of becoming a doctor. These dreams both spur the characters on and frustrate them. They become consumed by their dreams and make decisions they might not ordinarily make because they are so frustrated by their lack of fulfillment.

MAMA: Then isn’t there something wrong in a home—in a world—where all dreams, good or bad, must depend on the death of a man? (Act III)

This play revolves around the conflicts within and between characters. Each one of them is a representation of something generational, a gender or race issue, and it’s a testament to Hansberry’s writing that her characters don’t come across as mouthpieces of the story. They are living, breathing human beings who have obstacles. What finally brings their inner conflicts to a boil are the demonstration of power through what one can achieve based on one’s race. Despite the myriad manifestation of racial discrimination, the core of the play is the human condition—how human beings struggle against oppression, struggle for individual fulfillment.

152 pp. Vintage Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[755-1] Atlas Shrugged (Part I) – Ayn Rand

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***Read in conjunction with Tina at Book Chatter***

” Thought—he told himself quietly—is a weapon one uses in order to act . . . Thought is the tool by which one makes a choice . . . Thought sets one’s purpose and the way to reach it. ” (Part I, Chapter VII, The Exploiters and the Exploited)

Tremendous in cope and gripping in suspense, Atlas Shrugged is a philosophical novel set in dystopian People’s States of America. Titled “Non Contradiction”, Part I confronts two prominent business executives, Dagny Taggart of the Taggart Transcontinental Railway and Hank Rearden of Rearden Metal. The main story line concerns Dagny’s quest to understand the cause underlying the seemingly inexplicable collapse of her railroad and simultaneously, her search for a man who invented a motor that could not only save her railway but also benefit the nation’s economy.

What protection does society have against the arrogance, selfishness, and greed of two unbridled individualists, whose records are conspicuously devoid of any public-spirited actions? These two, apparently, are willing to stake the lives of their fellow men on their own conceited notions about their powers of judgment . . . (Part I, Chapter VIII, The John Galt Line)

Part I presents a mystery and it thickens with the increasing failure of the railway, and with the disappearance of able men like scientists, engineers, oil producer, motor manufacturer and banker. While Dagny struggles to salvage the dying branches of the crumbling system, from her brother, the president of the company, she gets a bewildering evasiveness and a vague resentment toward men of achievement. In response to the oil industry boom in Colorado, Dagny decides to replace the crumbling track with new rail made from Rearden Metal, Hank Rearden’s untested but revolutionary new alloy. Every step of the way Rearden he meets obstacle, opposition, and humiliation of his values and achievement. His lobbyist in Washington abandons him. A rival steel tycoon uses his political pull to pass laws that will crush a competing regional railroad to Colorado, and eventually cripple Rearden’s steel operation with equalization opportunity measure. This leaves the oil man Ellis Wyatt , whose oil fields fuel the whole nation, with no choice but to ship with Taggart Transcontinental, whose track is in total disrepair.

When Rearden refuses to see all rights to Rearden Metal to the State Science Institute, they retaliate with a public statement questioning the safety of the new alloy. Still, despite enormous opposition and obstacles, Dagny and Rearden complete the John Galt Line (in defiance against the widespread despair that this catch-phrase entails) and demonstrate its safety by riding in it. Their victory over adversity and irrationality is short-lived, as political pressure groups are clamoring for more dictatorial directives that punish success and productivity, in the name of public welfare.

On the surface the novel lambastes greed and exposes manipulation to one’s gain, but it lays the philosophical foundation for what is to come. All the mysteries and strange events of Atlas Shrugged proceed from a single philosophical cause, obscure at this stage, revolving reason and individual mind. To Dagny there is this mysterious force, seems purposefully bent on luring away from society its most talented people—a destroyer who is “draining the brains of the world.”

Reading Atlas Shrugged: John Galt vs. Prometheus

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John Galt is Prometheus who changed his mind. After centuries of being torn by vultures in payment for having brought men the fire of the gods, he broke his chains and he withdrew his fire—until the day men withdraw their vultures. (Part II, Chapter V)

Prometheus was the Titan god of forethought and crafty counsel who was entrusted with the task of molding mankind out of clay. His attempts to better the lives of his creation brought him into direct conflict with Zeus. Firstly he tricked the gods out of the best portion of the sacrificial feast, acquiring the meat for the feasting of man. Then, when Zeus withheld fire, he stole it from heaven and delivered it to mortal kind hidden inside a fennel-stalk. As punishment for these rebellious acts, Zeus ordered the creation of Pandora (the first woman) as a means to deliver misfortune into the house of man, or as a way to cheat mankind of the company of the good spirits. Prometheus meanwhile, was arrested and bound to a stake on Mount Kaukasos where an eagle was set to feed upon his ever-regenerating liver (or, some say, heart). Generations later the great hero Herakles came along and released the old Titan from his torture.

In Francisco’s comment, Prometheus (personified by Galt) represents the great industrialists who have provided men with prosperity and improved their lives with their inventions and products, but have received only condemnation and government interference in return. These men, led by Galt, have disappeared and taken their prosperity-generating minds (the “fire” they had provided) with them. They will no longer allow themselves to receive torture as payment for their talents, and they will only return their talents to the world when they are no longer punished for bringing them.