Book Review, Christopher Phillips, Death and Dying, Fiction, George Saunders, Grief/Recovery, Historical Fiction, LGBT, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Philosophy, Potpour-reads, Will Walton, Young Adult

Lincoln, Socrates, and A Funeral

In this third “potpour-reads” post, I share some quick thoughts on three recent reads, all of which were completed in June. Somehow, none of these books are ones from any of my challenge lists. Go figure. I read Lincoln in the Bardo because it is getting a lot of attention and because it sounded interesting. I read Socrates Café because I have been pivoting toward philosophy and history pretty heavily in the last couple of months (since January, really, when I began my focused study of Stoicism); and I read I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain largely based on the recommendation of the incomparable Andrew Smith, who has not steered me wrong, yet.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo is unlike anything I have ever read. It is a contemporary postmodernism married with black humor and historical fiction. As a first novel, it seems a stunning achievement, though this is the first Saunders work I have read at all, so I do not know how it compares to his short stories. (I’ve had Tenth of December sitting on my shelf for years, having purchased it only a few weeks after it was published; it is safe to say I plan to get to it sooner rather than later, now.) Essentially, Saunders combines historical accounts of Lincoln’s life and presidency with fictional ones that he creates, and then interweaves in almost testimonial fashion between the narrative portion, which is told by a trio of bizarre ghosts who meet one of Lincoln’s sons and, through him, the President himself. I’ve read a number of reviews that found the humor in this book to be off-putting and even inappropriate. I can understand their point, as some of the bawdy comedy does seem to come out of left-field. And yet, I can’t help thinking about what I’ve learned about Lincoln’s sense of humor over the years. It seems to me that he would actually appreciate the irreverent take on his life and legacy, particularly as it highlights the elements of human nature that Saunders explores, here, including fear, sexuality, death, mental health, and loneliness. It is safe to say that I did not know what to expect of Lincoln in the Bardo, even after reading the description and other reviews. Then, when reading the book, it somehow managed to be even more different than I thought it would be. In this way, I think, it deserves all the praise it has received as a contemporary masterpiece and a novel approach to, well, the novel. I was also thrilled that Saunders explored a lot of contemporary issues that are actually historical, yet would have been “taboo” for discussion in Lincoln’s time

Socrates Café by Christopher Phillips

I have been reading much more non-fiction, lately, including history and philosophy. I stumbled upon Christopher Phillips’s Socrates Café while perusing the philosophy section of Barnes & Noble for contemporary overviews (I’ve been in a kind of “self-help” exploratory approach to the history of philosophy, I guess.) Despite reading the blurb, this is another book that caught me slightly off-guard and was not what I had expected. It is in many ways a reference guide to creating your own Socrates Café, something I had never considered and yet left the book feeling, “well, why the hell not?” I loved Phillips passion, though I did sometimes feel like the examples he gave from his own cafes around the country seemed a little far-fetched. Maybe they did happen, I don’t know, but he himself says that most of this was reconstructed after the fact, so I can’t help thinking he added a bit more flair and impressive insight than might have occurred originally. (So many of his café participants seemed to know so much about philosophy, for example, and could quote a range of philosophers from memory.) In this way, I found the book might be setting false expectations for people who are using it as a guide to beginning their own Socrates Cafe. That said, as a generally interested reader, one who is on his own journey to learn more about ancient philosophies andto think more thoughtfully about the current world, this book does an excellent job of putting the two together. In the end, it did make me want to get out there and engage with other thoughtful people, to ask big and small questions without expecting concrete answers, and to wonder gleefully about all manner of things. I think, then, Phillips does what he set out to do: make philosophy exciting again.

I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain by Will Walton

Like Lincoln in the Bardo, Will Walton’s young adult novel about grief and loss, I Felt A Funeral, In My Brain, is a creative approach to narrative (and verse) fiction. It was also not what I expected from the blurb and from reading other reviews, and yet somehow ended up being much more satisfying, much more curious, than I imagined it would be. I’ve been let down by “hype” on too many occasions, as I think we all have, but in this case, I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain lives up to the hype without necessarily living up to expectations. I’m not sure how to clarify that except to say, even though the book did not meet my expectations, I ended up appreciating it and what it does in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. This is mostly due to its construction and to the fact that, somehow, Walton manages to create that sense of grief in his text, the confusion, the sense of drowning, the psychological wandering we do when we have lost someone important to us. There are a lot of books about grief and loss, some of them are beautiful in the way they treat the subject or in the language they use to explore it. Walton’s is beautiful because, inexplicably, it simply reads like the experience of grief. I think back to a time when I most felt a terrible loss and can easily connect those feelings to the way this narrative is told and the way it unfolds, in choppy segments, in distant characterization, and in the interplay of concrete prose and transcendent verse. My only personal critique was that I felt, sometimes, like some of the segments read as if they were creative prompts inserted for the sake of it, and not as if they developed along the course of this particular story. That said, I Felt A Funeral, In My Brain, is a special book that explores a difficult topic in a unique way. It is unlike anything else on the market this year.

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Book Review, Cancer, Death and Dying, John Green, Young Adult

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Plot/Story:
What’s that old saying? Laughter is the best medicine? John Green, of all people, certainly understands that. The Fault in Our Stars is a rather tragic tale of two young lovers, both of whom are suffering from fatal and debilitating illnesses. They meet each other at a Support Group where neither wants to be, and there begins the wild, mad ride that is: “Hazel and Augustus.” As Green explains in his Author’s Note, and again in the Afterward, this is a book of fiction – a book of realistic circumstances and realistic characters, but wholly imagined. Even the drugs and treatments mentioned are created by the author; all this to say, this is not a story about cancer or the treatment of cancer: it is a story about life and living. This story is about being a parent and a friend.  It is about being sick and about being healthy. It is about the many different ways that many different people deal with their own grief, some coming out stronger and more focused than they could have imagined, while others sink deep into a dark and dangerous depression that is nearly impossible to escape.  This book is about freedom, the chance we all have to live life the way we want to live it, no matter how short and painful that life may be. Circumstances happen, but they do not define us; what defines us is how we meet those circumstances; and that is what we will be remembered by.

Characterization:
One of Green’s strengths is creating believable characters, people we could recognize in our own real worlds. They are loveable or despicable, but we adore them all for the very fact that they are “right;” they fit the world he has created and they serve a purpose in the grand scheme of things. The Fault in Our Stars is no exception to this Green-rule. From our main character, Hazel, who is sick but refuses to let that define her, to her parents – who are strong and weak, open and secretive;  from Augustus, who is so consciously self-absorbed that he (and we) are actually able to enjoy his ego, even if his perfection is a bit irritating at times, to Isaac and Van Houten, minor characters who make a big impact on Hazel’s life and on the story itself.  Each of their stories is connected, in some way, and spending time with them will bring laughs and tears, anger and fear. The only small complaint I have is that the two main characters are a bit too brilliant. This is a theme I’ve noticed rising in young adult fiction, lately – teenagers who are so smart, and so wise, pop culture philosophers with the vocabularies of Ivy League undergraduates. It makes the story more interesting, sure, and it helps the readers learn a bit (if they’re paying attention) but it undermines the believability aspect just a bit, for me. It also caused the distinction between Hazel and Augustus to blur a bit – at times, they seemed to be almost the same person, because they spoke the same way, had the same sense of humor (elevated and clever), and hoped the same lofty hopes. Maybe all the teenagers Green knows are wordsmiths and geniuses, but in my experience (now and as a teenager myself) these were few and far between. Minor irk – but an irk, nonetheless.

Prose/Style:
Green’s wit and charm ooze out onto the page in such an effortless way; it’s almost as if the reader is sitting in a room with him, listening to him chatter on. There’s a difference between writers and storytellers, and Green is absolutely a storyteller. His cadence and rhythm are beautifully constructed and timed. He delivers punches in the right moments, and then allows his readers to catch their breath. The pages are lined with humor and messages of beauty, hope, strength, courage and individuality. I became a fan of his style when I read Looking for Alaska years ago, because it was just so very honest. He proved me right with Will Grayson, Will Grayson, and he makes me feel like a master critic these days, because I’m so right about his prose being so wonderful (see – it’s all about me!). Although the story is a heavy one, it is not despondent. Some of the characters suffer a hopeless fate, but they do not succumb to it. There is a lighter message woven through the pages, to embrace the inevitable and leave the world behind you a better place for having done so; this, coupled with Green’s unique way of crafting a narrative, is what turns the pages and makes the book almost un-put-down-able.   

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
Markus Zusak calls The Fault in Our Stars a story about “life and death and the people caught in between.” This is true in a literal and metaphorical way. Some of the characters are quite literally stuck in that “in-between” world, where they are alive, but they know they have little time left. They must decide to either submit to their illness and avoid the world, or choose to live the best possible life they can, with however few moments remain for them. There are others caught in between, though, on that battle ground. Friends and family who are healthy and who have years ahead of them, but who are preparing for a new life, a life without the ones they love, without their sons and daughters, without their friends and lovers. As much as this is a story about cancer and how it impacts people, Green makes it clear that it is not a story about cancer, not in any traditional sense. The cancer sufferers do not go quietly into the good night, with proud and angelic smiles on their faces as they drift softly into oblivion. They are real people; they fight, kicking and screaming. They cry and get angry. They soil themselves, fall down, struggle to get out of bed; they deal with the side-effects of their illnesses but they recognize that these are just side-effects. Life is still happening, because they have the power – until the last – to make it happen.

A story like this leaves the reader thinking: What will the world say about me, when I’m gone? How will I be remembered? That power is mine and mine alone.   

Notable Quotes:

“Writing does not resurrect.  It buries.”

“Okay.”

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

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2013 TBR Pile Challenge, Book Review, Christopher Bram, Death and Dying, Fiction, Fictional Biography, Film and Cinema, Gay Lit, Historical Fiction, Hollywood Novel, Homosexuality

Thoughts: Gods and Monsters by Christopher Bram

79986Gods and Monsters by Christopher Bram
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 34

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

Gods and Monsters, originally published under the title Father of Frankenstein is a creative retelling of the life of Hollywood director James Whale, who is responsible for films such as Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Show Boat, and The Man in the Iron Mask.  The story focuses specifically on the last two weeks of Whale’s life, after he has suffered from stroke, but also includes many flashbacks which give the reader insight into Whale’s boyhood in England, his rise to fame and glory in theater and Hollywood, and his sad decline following the studio butchering of what may have been his crowning achievement, The Road Back.  Whale was an open homosexual in a time when homosexuality in the industry was both accepted but also ignored.  Later in his life, after retiring from Hollywood and after the industry had become much more conservative following the war, Whale separated from his long-time partner and attempted to find himself as a secluded painter.  Bram tells his story by introducing a gardener, Clayton Boone, whom Whale admires physically and whom sits for Whale, as a life model.  Their unlikely friendship is both sad and touching, one which, perhaps, gives Whale the courage he needs to exit life on his own terms, and which gives Boone the human connection, mentorship, and guidance he had been lacking all his life.  Although this relationship is fictional and Clayton Boone, as far as anyone can tell, is a figment of the author’s imagination, still it provides for a gut-wrenching and heartwarming inside-look at Classic Hollywood and the sad realities that touched even its greatest icons.  

Characterization:
4– Characters very well-developed.

As one who knows very little about cinema, film studies, or “insider” Hollywood during the 1930s, it is impossible for me to judge how realistic the story and its characters are; however, as a story in itself, with fictional characters (based on real ones), it is at the top of the class.  James Whale is a fascinating man – his decision to create a sequel to Frankenstein (the film that became Bride of Frankenstein) was a difficult one for him to come to, as he was not, by nature, a “horror” director.  He was, however, gay man in a powerful position and with powerful gay and lesbian friends, all of whom (Whale included) were nonetheless marginalized –tolerated only as long as their private lives and actions were kept quiet.  With Bride of Frankenstein, Whale’s personality truly comes through, and Bram does an exception job of showing that personality in Gods and Monsters.  Jimmy Whale was charismatic, clever, quick-witted, and extremely playful.  Bride was a true subversion, cloaked in a campy horror film.  The addition of Clayton Boone, an all-American heterosexual man, allows for the character Whale to be fully flushed by giving someone to oppose him but also by giving him someone to talk to.  The other characters, such as Whale’s maid, Maria; and a young film student, Edmund; or his first romantic love interest and other Hollywood contemporaries (David Lewis, Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester, etc.)  provide wonderful context, both in the book’s present setting and in flashbacks to Whale’s Hollywood and pre-Hollywood days.

Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

This is the first Christopher Bram novel that I have read, but it will not be the last (The Notorious Dr. August and Lives of the Circus Animals, in particular, look fascinating).  He is a wonderful storyteller and his artistic choices are nearly perfect in every instance.  The book read almost as if it was intended for the screen, which would be appropriate considering the book is about the director of one of Hollywood’s most iconic films of all-time.  Bram’s language and prose are almost spellbinding – complicated enough to match the intricate and emotional plot, and distinct enough to raise the text above that of standard popular fiction. His choices in point of view, alternating chapters from Whale to Boone, to flashbacks or intermediaries (such as present third-person), allows the story much more depth and opportunity than it would have had, were it to be told from any one person’s narrative perspective.  There were some moments, particularly with Boone, that seemed a bit weaker, and there were a few proofing errors (very few and very minor) which should have been cleaned up, particularly considering this edition was in its third printing; but these were small flaws to an otherwise gripping narrative.  

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Few stories match the power of a dying man’s and even fewer can match the poignancy of a story-teller’s final production.  Gods and Monsters is about a man, at the end of his days, experiencing life all over again.  Whale, notorious for embellishing his past, is given, in this fictionalized account, the opportunity to come to terms with who he truly is and with where he really came from – including the lovers he had and lost along the way, the successes and failures that made and broke his career, and the friends and monsters he surrounded himself with, throughout it all.  How many of us bury the more painful parts of our own histories?  How many of us ignore what we can’t or won’t acknowledge?  Gods and Monsters is much more than a story about a Hollywood director, though much of its fascination is absolutely in imagining what Whale’s life in 1930s Hollywood would have been like; still, the true tale is of life and death – of honesty and illusion.  The friendship between an old “fairy” and a young, “man’s man” is strained, confusing, uncomfortable, kind of horrible, but incredibly beautiful.   Bram gives us a glimpse of what the reality of Hollywood, if there is such a thing, might be like – but he also drives home the point that we are all directors of our own lives, making editing choices and casting decisions which, in the end, might come back to haunt us.     

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  16+
Interest:  Film History, Classic Hollywood, Fictional Biography, Gay Fiction, Friendship, Death and Dying.

Notable Quotes:

“Imitation is a form of understanding” (11).

“Sex is as bad as drink for the way it consumes energy . . . it squanders the passion he needs to climb out of the common life into the greater world” (24).

“It hangs on him like a suit of clothes he’s too thin to wear anymore. The truth stands closer to him now, peering over his shoulder” (33).

“He wants to burn his soul clean by being part of something terrible and real, an intense experience that would prove he’d been somewhere” (128).

“We should never let the opinions of others stand between us and what we want” (188).

 

Gods and Monsters is Book #9 completed for my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge

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