This installment: a very old favorite by Theroux on CD; a profound Iranian DVD; short funny essays about folly; a teenager in New York dealing with a gay dad; and a novel in which chess and a bad prognosis come together.
The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux
Another book from the old days that haunts me. (I shared it with my 16 year old grandson recently and he said, "that's so awful" but couldn't stop reading it.) In the ear, it's even better. The actor's depiction of Allie Fox, brilliant, cracked inventor and despot, is incredibly three-dimensional with a flat New England accent and polemic zeal that turns to terrifying madness in the course of the story. The Fox family decamps to Honduras for a pure life, away from the sickness of Western society. Long-suffering codependent wife and 4 children. Charlie, 12 at the book's start, is the narrator. Their first attempt comes close to their vision until an ill-fated, obsessive trip to bring ice to the "savages" in the mountains draws very bad people to them. Then their scene literally blows up, leaving them with nothing. But Allie and family forge on, upstream, and into the very heart of his insanity. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is how Allie's rants presage the substance of our environmental concerns today. Absolutely riveting.
A lauded film from Iran, and well-deserving. The mother wants to immigrate to make a better future especially for their teenage daughter. But the father won't leave his Alzheimer's stricken father. The daughter initially elects to stay with her father but arrangements for the old man's care go galley-west as his pious, pregnant caregiver can't deal with changing his pants, let alone being alone with a single man, and she has troubles of her own. Loyalties, love, and justice are all put to a very severe test. (The caregiver's hot-headed husband fulminates and periodically explodes over the class system and his bad luck. He has little left to lose.) The tone of the movie is economical and restrained but ran me through the gamut emotionally, especially the scenes with the old man. At the end a fascinating question: which parent will the daughter choose after the divorce goes through? We don't find out and the director in a special features interview (my favorite part of DVD watching) said he doesn't know himself. Highly recommended.
My Heart is an Idiot by Davy Rothbart
The title speaks the truth, as we learn over and over in these off-the-cuff sounding essays by the creator of Found magazine. He's appeared on This American Life and I think that format suits this material better. It's exhausting to keep reading about folly. In small portions, though, quite entertaining, as Davy flings himself into the slipstream of yet another out-of-reach lassie. And when he's not nursing his bruised heart, he runs into lots of unforgettable characters. Lively writing for sure.
These Things Happen by Richard Kramer
Wesley is a sensitive teenage loner in NYC, now living with his gay dad and dad's partner George. Wes's best friend Theo has just come out and managed to get elected class president, but there is a brutal incident at school that belies its progressive values and Wes discovers a lot more about the true nature of his dad and George's special qualities in light of the crisis. The chapters are narrated by various characters so we get a kaleidoscopic view of the story, a clever device. Familiar material, but well done.
A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer Dubois
Such an intriguing conjunction: Irina, a young woman in New England with a terrible diagnosis (Huntington's disease) and chess wizard, Aleksandr, in St. Petersburg who lost his first and only match with a computer and is now running for office, a hopeless enterprise indeed. She has a short window before the first symptoms appear and wants to escape the bleakness of her future and the solicitude of her lover and her mother who saw Dad through his ghastly final years. Her goal: to find out the answer posed in a letter from her father to Aleksandr, never answered, about how to deal with failure. She follows clues, we learn his history of dissidence, and they make a surprising connection. History and politics aren't my usual areas of concentration but this book brings these elements into play very accessibly.
Back next Monday.