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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1001 Books, 2013 B2tC Challenge, 2013 Challenges, 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, Art, Book Review, British Literature, Classics, Classics Club, Feminism, Fiction, Fictional Biography, Gay Lit, Gender Identity, Giveaway, Giveaway Hop, Giveaways, GLBT, LGBT, Literary History, Literature, Monthly Review, Sexuality, Time, Virginia Woolf

Thoughts: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

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Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 5

Orlando is Virginia Woolf’s sixth major work and was written in a year, between To the Lighthouse and The Waves. It is an epic novel and historical biography which follows the journey of one character, Orlando, over the course of about 350 years (1588-1928). It is a biography not of any one character, but of the nature and history of gender, identity, and sexuality through time. At the start of the novel, readers will encounter Orlando as a young boy of noble birth. His family entertains Queen Elizabeth I, who is the first to notice Orlando’s beauty and potential. As he ages (slowly), Orlando will spend much of his time with “low” people – those well-outside the realm of nobility, though he himself is a member of the court. He explores and enjoys sexual relations with women of varying types, though each of his three serious ventures into love soon goes sour. Orlando will twice mistake the loves of his life for the wrong gender, which is particularly complex after Orlando himself has become a woman, remembering himself as a man, loving a man who is actually a woman. Ultimately, after trips abroad and back home again, Orlando’s story is one of exploration and being open to the many possibilities of life. He is a writer, first, who spends hundreds of years working on one short poem called “The Oak Tree,” a strong symbol of nature’s presence and dominance throughout the passage of time. Orlando witnesses the world-changing, from the sexual freedom and marriageless years of the Elizabethan period, to the stringent, stuffy, prudish world of the Victorian age. At a certain point, he (now she) wakes up to “the present” and is terrified, realizing that she suddenly exists in the now, and it is a now that she no longer recognizes, where women are property, where love is regulated, and where art and literature exist only in the past.

There are two main characters in the novel; the first is Orlando, who changes from male to female throughout the long passage of time. The second is actually the narrator – a third-person, mostly omniscient but nevertheless unreliable “biographer,” whose tone and style change throughout the book, as Orlando and his life are changing. One could argue, though, that the true characters are actually gender (identity), sexuality, and time: these are the ideas explored most intricately and most often throughout the course of the book and they are certainly front-facing; the narrator/biographer views time and Orlando in opposition to how opinions and practices of sex and gender are viewed differently at various points in history. Other characters (of the usual sense) include Sasha, Orlando’s true first love, a Russian princess; Shel, Orlando’s husband who is actually a woman (or who, at least, has the qualities of one); the Archduchess Henrietta who is actually Archduke Harry (perhaps the only truly homosexual character, as the others whose genders bend throughout could truly be said to be of the opposite gender, psychologically and even physically, after their changes, while Harry is simply a man who cross-dresses as a woman and who loves Orlando as a man); and certain historical figures, like Nick Greene (poet/critic), Queen Elizabeth I, and Alexander Pope.

Orlando, though massive in scale, brilliant in conception, and beautiful in prose, was actually considered by Woolf to be a “writer’s holiday,” so to speak. She refused to allow gender nor time to constrain her writing, which is evidenced by the fact that Orlando, who begins the story as a man and ends it as a woman, 4 centuries later, only ages 36 years in the process. Woolf’s secondary aim, aside from bending time and gender, is satirizing Victorian biographies and novels which traditionally emphasize truthfulness and fact (though they are obviously fiction). What is most fascinating for me is the fact that the book was, for Woolf, a game of sorts – a lighter satire and departure from her more rigid works; yet, this one is incredibly important and speaks seriously, though fantastically, to issues of self-discovery, truth, art, and gender. The exploration of the many time periods, from Elizabethan to the early 20th Century, particularly in terms of the literary arts in any given movement, will be fascinating for serious readers, but the beautiful and sensuous prose (less explorative than other works, making it more accessible) as well as the unusual topic and uninhibited re-imagining of reality and time make this a unique, awe-inspiring read for anyone willing to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Gender, Sexuality, Time, Art, Literary History, Nature, Truth, Poetry.

Notable Quotes:
“Nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates happiness from melancholy” (45).

“Once the disease of reading has laid hold upon the system it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the ink pot and festers in the quill” (75).

“Bad, good, or indifferent, I’ll write, from this day forward, to please myself” (103).

“No passion is stronger in the breast of man than the desire to make others believe as he believes. Nothing so cuts at the root of his happiness and fills him with rage as the sense that another rates low what he prizes high” (149).

“Nothing can be more arrogant, though nothing is commoner than to assume that of Gods there is only one, and of religions none but the speaker’s” (173).

“Illusions are the most valuable and necessary of all things, and she who can create one is among the world’s greatest benefactors” (199).

“We write, not with the fingers, but with the whole person” (243).

“For it has come about, by the wise economy of nature, that our modern spirit can almost dispense with language; the commonest expressions do, since no expressions do; hence the most ordinary conversation is often the most poetic, and the most poetic is precisely that which cannot be written down” (253).

“Our most violent passions . . . are the reflections we see in the dark hollow at the back of the head when the visible world is obscured for the time” (323).

Orlando is Book 1 for my B2tC Challenge; Book 9 for my Classics Club List; & Book 3 for my 2013 TBR Pile.

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