Dutchman (Jones)

Well, those were 38 very intense pages. I can’t imagine what the reaction was to it in 1964. I am looking forward to seeing it next week.

It runs July 26-29.

Given that the play features just two performers, casting has to be key. The back and forth between the white woman (Lula) and the black man (Clay) is taut; Clay’s final speech is absolutely explosive and, despite the gap of over 50 years, remarkably timely.

I can see the pairing with Get Out and, in a different way, The Zoo Story.

I don’t think it ruins anything to read it first. This is one of the stories where knowing the ending just makes the lead up to it more powerful.

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The Hakawati (Alameddine)

In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie asks (repeatedly), “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” It seems to me that Alameddine’s amazing novel begins to provide some of the reasons. This book is full of stories and stories within stories. Stories that are supposed to be true and stories that are meant to explain or teach. There are stories that suggest that our lives consist less of what happens and more of the stories we tell ourselves and each other about what happens. There are stories that reveal how two people involved in the same story can tell it so differently without either version being false. Most of all, I think this is a story about how necessary stories are, and how our protagonist finally learns or accepts that.

What’s also staggering about this book is its structure. This is not one story after another as with one of its obvious inspirations, One Thousand and One Nights. These are stories layered within stories, similar to the family, seemingly endless, that is at the center of the book. This particular onion never ends. One small example, one that will not spoil anything.

There is a minor character, a cousin. While he seems to be doing well in life, he doesn’t seem to fit. His one bit of mystery is that he disappears for a few hours a few times a week. The first thought is that he’s having an affair. He assures his wife that he is not. On one of these afternoons, he is followed. I can’t remember whether it’s by his wife or a relative. He is found to be posing as a tourist, carrying a map and asking for help. He is, for a few afternoons a week, posing as a stranger in his own land. He does not want to be who he is, so he’s creating a new identity for himself. He’s telling a new story. This particular moment, less than a page long, was heartbreaking in its honesty. And the book is filled with such moments, both small and large.

The Sun Also Rises (Hemingway)

In high school, I had the good fortune to visit the Soviet Union. One day, we had the opportunity to meet with students our age, and I asked my partner if she had any favorite American authors. She said Hemingway, and I had to admit that I hadn’t read anything by him. When I returned to the United States, I picked up The Old Man and the Sea and The Sun Also Rises and liked neither of them. I believe my Twitter-ready reviews (I was ready though Twitter wasn’t around then) were something akin to, “He keeps chasing the damn fish” and “They go from place to place to drink.”

I have since had occasion to re-read The Old Man and the Sea and to use it in the classroom. While I still don’t love it, I recognize more of its depth. Though Hemingway’s biography can be useful at times, that book can stand on its own.

I picked up The Sun Also Rises again because I was trying to get in the mood to see Pamplona, a one-person show based on the life of Hemingway. While I still recognized the reason for my teenage comment about drinking, I was able to appreciate it more this time. I know more now – about Hemingway, about the Lost Generation, about World War I – and I think such things are important if not essential for this novel. While Hemingway’s style is easily caricatured, I saw its elegance even necessity this time through. I still don’t think I could teach this book. I am more of a fan of A Farewell to Arms.

As for the play, I thought Stacy Keach was excellent. You see a man nearing the end of his career, his life (two names for the same thing in Hemingway’s case?) and struggling with what got him to this point and foreshadowing the end which most of the audience seemed to know. I was disappointed only with the script. The attempts at humor – and I recognized the necessity for them – tended to be feeble, sophomoric. The dramatic intensity was breathtaking. (In certain ways, I was reminded of Mickey Rourke’s performance in The Wrestler.) It was not just the humor that fell flat. Perhaps it was because I didn’t expect it, but I was disappointed that the author, Jim McGrath, sought to turn the play into an opportunity to explore Hemingway’s whole life. Hemingway lived too much life to compress it into 80 or so minutes, and so some of the play had a kind of greatest hits feel to it. There was enough going on near the end of his life that McGrath could have made it more specific to that time. That’s not to say that some biography wouldn’t have been necessary; McGrath just didn’t need to hit everything.

The one joke that did make me laugh out loud was not McGrath’s but one he was wise enough to quote and has to do with The Sun Also Rises. The woman who was the source for Brett was angry as were some of their mutual friends. Hemingway apparently tried to defend his portrayals by saying that the group didn’t know who they were. Her response: “We know who we are; we’re the ones who used to be your friends.”

Tunnel to Hell (MacGregor and Dumm)

This graphic account of the 1916 Lake Erie tunnel disasters is a compelling way to tell an important and all-too-familiar story. Politicians, pressed for time and money, prey on the desperate circumstances of non-white populations (which at this time not only meant African-Americans, but also Irish, etc.) to undertake a dangerous job that reflects the kind of short-term thinking that made the dangerous job necessary in the first place. It is a prime environmental example of kicking the proverbial can down the road that we’re paying for today. Rather than cleaning up the polluted water on the surface, a decision is made to use lives viewed as expendable (i.e., largely immigrants) to dig tunnels under Lake Erie to provide water for Cleveland’s growing population. Thanks to the greed and selfishness of some (which is not just limited to politicians), the effort ends in 20 deaths. A hero does emerge – Garret Morgan. He pushes past racism and uses one of his inventions, a gas mask, to find the remaining survivors and to retrieve the casualties. As is often the case – and I appreciated that MacGregor and Dumm included this element, and not just as a superficial epilogue – the battle then became one about whose version of the story would get told, both in court and in public. MacGregor and Dumm both do solid work here, but when the disaster starts to unfold, the words and images together make this an incredibly gripping story which is impressive when the reader already knows the ending. I wasn’t sure how the topic would align with a graphic novel approach, but the two creators weave together so many strands of the plot, so many characters, and so many political issues in such a tight and complementary manner that any doubts I had about the format choice quickly evaporated. This is a story of that time and a story of our time, one we need to read and see because we still haven’t learned from it.

American Hunger (Wright)

I didn’t know until recently that there was a sequel, or continuation, of Black Boy. It mainly focuses on his conflicts with the Communist Party, which is interesting when you consider the presentation of communism in Native Son. It seems like he was working on it around this time. Wright is commenting on his life more than living it, so this one lacks the unique power that makes Black Boy so compelling. I didn’t find much insight here. His comments about his interactions with the Communist Party are predictable. The limited day-to-day stuff, especially about his experience working in life insurance, is more compelling. It’s only 135 pages, so it seems like Wright may not have had much enthusiasm for the project. I think it’s necessary to read, though not necessarily enlightening.

Breaking the Maya Code (Coe)

While I can’t say that I followed (or always read) all of the specifics about the glyphs and system debates among the academics who were attempting to decipher what Coe calls the Maya code, I was able to follow the arguments and their implications in broad strokes. It is the liveliness and fair-mindedness of Coe’s voice together with his ability to evoke the characters in this quest that made this book readable and intriguing. I also appreciated that he did not try to wrap the effort to break the code in some more noble cause, though I’m quite certain he could say why it did and does matter. His book is about an academic pursuit, so it’s all that more impressive for its ability to engage someone not in the field.

Dothead (Majmudar)

This collection has multiple personalities. There is a portion of it that is great. There is a portion of it that seems trivial – clever exercises, passes off as poems. And there’s a small, but telling portion of it that disturbed me, and not in a good or useful way. WHen Majmudar writes about women, especially sex, the language and imagery of it made me pretty uncomfortable. Poems like “Dothead” (that week was India – myths, / caste system, suttee, all the Greatest Hits) demonstrate Majmudar’s wit put to good effect. “Immigration and Naturalization” (But is it still a family / When the son cannot speak / The mother tongue of the father?), “To the Hyphenated Poets,” “The Star-Spangled Turban,” and “Lineage” are outstanding.

So, yes, wade in the gems, even be impressed by the cleverness. And I don’t know, maybe you’ll read poems like, “The Doll” and “Abecedarian” differently than me.