Bisexuality, Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Death, Family, Fiction, Fictional Memoir, GLBT, John Irving, Literature, Sexuality, Transgender

Review: In One Person by John Irving

In One Person by John Irving

Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

YTD: 18

3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Irving is known for his bold approach to sexuality and the social/familial “other.”  This latest is no exception to that well-established reputation.   Meet William Dean Abbott, a teenage boy with a speech impediment.  And meet the first love of his life, Miss Frost, the town library.  William (or Bill, or Billy, depending on who we’re talking to) develops at a young age a love for reading and writing – the answer to that primordial question “What do you want to be when you grow up,” is, for Billy, “A Writer.”  He divulges this secret to just one person, Miss Frost.  It’s no wonder that a boy who loves to read and write might develop a crush on the town librarian, an attractive middle-aged woman.  Except, there might be quite a bit more to Miss Frost than meets the eye.  The story is essentially a fictional memoir, with Billy as narrator looking back on his life and works.  It takes us along Billy’s journey from boyhood to manhood and into old age.  We watch as he comes to terms with and explores his bisexuality and particular interest in transsexuals. Along the way, the reader is exposed to a variety of Billy’s friends, family members, and lovers – some male, some female, and some transgendered.  There are marriages and divorces, deaths and rebirths, supportive folks and terribly antagonistic ones.    

3 – Characters well-developed.

The characters in this book are one of its greatest charms and, simultaneously, one of its greatest issues.  While one can expect, from Irving, a blunt and over-the-top approach to any sensitive topic (in this case, bisexual & transgender people), what I found disturbing was the overabundance of both.  Billy, for instance, is a bisexual who finds himself attracted primarily to transgender women (“the best of both worlds”).  As it turns out, Billy’s father just happens to be gay – the effeminate kind, and Billy’s grandfather also thoroughly enjoys dressing up as a woman.  Billy’s mother, too, has sexual peculiarities of her own, though I will leave those for the reader to discover, since they are a particularly interesting aspect of the back-story which is revealed later in the book (it’s not the biggest mystery in the world, but it’s fun to let it unfold naturally).  One could say this might just be an odd family, but considering Billy’s best friend, Elaine, their mutual love interest, Jacques, others of their schoolmates (revealed later in the book) and the town librarian are all either bisexual, gay, or transgender – well, maybe there’s something in the water in First Sister, Vermont! The plenitude of sexually “other” characters was not wholly believable and, for me, even detracted from Billy’s journey a bit (the main theme seemed to be about a bisexual writer calling for tolerance in a world of normalcy, yet most elements of his world, with the exception of a few people whose negativity seems less than bothersome to Billy, are largely the “other” world rather than the “standard” – so where is the conflict?).  That gripe aside, the majority of the characters are more than interesting – as Irving’s characters usually are.  There are a plethora of personalities, from the butch lesbian to the effeminate old man, to the teenage boy trying to figure out what he is.  There are overbearing mothers, alcoholic uncles, and hilarious foreigners who can’t pronounce anything right, especially when they’re excited.  Although one might find it hard to believe that virtually every person Billy meets could actually be in some way queer, the journey itself and Billy’s interaction with all these people are still worth the ride.   

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

As with characterization, the overall experience with Irving’s prose was positive, but there were some elements which irked me, two in particular.  First, the narrator had a penchant for repetition.  He would re-tell certain parts of the story multiple times, like an old man reminiscing with his friends or grandchildren about life-gone-by, sometimes forgetting that he had already told parts of the story twenty minutes ago.  The second issue was his tendency to skip around in the timeline.  The narrator is writing this as a memoir, looking back fifty or sixty years, but rather than following a clear trajectory through boyhood, the teenage years, manhood, etc., he often skips around so that one moment he is a college student in Europe, and the next he is a boy again, getting ready for his school play.  This, at times, disrupted the flow of the story so that it was difficult to relax and sink-in completely.  That being said, there was also an endearing quality to it, when all was said and done.  The language and prose itself matched the characterization in that it was clever, witty, and sharp.  The dialogue was often the most interesting element of the story, and Irving’s ability at description certainly shows – it is perhaps the glue that holds the entire novel together, when it seems to be jumping around.

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

What I found most difficult about this novel is that it is written by a heterosexual man who seems to be trying too hard.  Granted, Irving certainly has a history of exploring sexuality and human nature; still, because it was so over-the-top (almost every character had to be at least a little “gay” in someway) it almost felt like Irving was pandering to a particular audience.  That being said, Irving is also doing what his narrator is accused of doing by some of the more bigoted characters: He is demanding tolerance.  This I respect to the utmost and, in the end, I was able to put aside the fact that almost everyone in the book carries a “Different and Proud” card because so many moments in the book were pure, sensitive, and hopeful.  The story tackles the specific difficulties that bisexual men and women face, separate from general homophobia; for example, that they are distrusted by the gay community and treated with prejudice by the straight community.  Ultimately, this book puts bisexuality and transgendered people on center stage in the literary world, in an empathetic and intelligent way.  There are very few examples of high literature approaching these topics (few examples even in the YA or other genre categories, to be honest), so Irving’s In One Person is a welcome addition both to the LGBT canon but also to contemporary literary fiction in general. 

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Gender, Sexuality, Coming-of-Age, Transgender, Transvestite, Cross-Dressing, Family, AIDS, Death & Dying

 Notable Quotes:

“We are formed by what we desire.”

“Before you can write anything, you have to notice something.”

“All I say is: Let us leave les folles alone; let’s just leave them be. Don’t judge them. You are not superior to them – don’t put them down.”

“Don’t forget this, too: Rumors aren’t interested in the unsensational story; rumors don’t care what’s true.”

“Your memory is a monster; you forget – it doesn’t. It simply files things away; it keeps things for you, or hides things from you. Your memory summons things to your recall with a will of its own. You imagine you have a memory, but your memory has you!”

Book Review, Creative Non-Fiction, Dance, Expatriate, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Family, Fiction, Fictional Memoir, Flappers, Jazz Age, Literary History, Literature, Psychology, Zelda Fitzgerald

Review: Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald

Save  Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 16

3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was the troubled wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the most famous American writers of all-time.  Save Me the Waltz is her first and only novel, one which is largely autobiographical and which covers  approximately the same time period as her husband’s masterpiece, Tender is the Night.  Both books fictionalize the couple’s life in Paris together, but each from their own perspective.  While Tender is the Night deals with F. Scott’s attempt at handling his wife’s eccentric nature (and ultimate mental breakdown), Save Me the Waltz is much more about Zelda’s hopes and dreams and her sense of being overshadowed in most regards by her husband’s great success.  Zelda Fitzgerald was considered to be one of the first American “Flappers” – a glamorous and materialistic woman whose greatest hope was to become a superior ballerina, though she only pursued dance late in life. The story itself is interesting in that it reveals Zelda’s perspective on F. Scott as well as her interpretation of that great American time period known as “The Roaring ‘20s.”

3 – Characters well developed.

The majority of the characters aside from Alabama (Zelda), David (F. Scott) and Bonnie (their daughter) are relatively flat and, at times, even incongruous (characters’ names spelled in different fashions, eye colors changing, etc.).  What Fitzgerald does well, though, is creating characters in relation to Alabama.  The dance instructors and love interests, for example, all come to life quite unexpected because of the way they interact with Alabama.  The relationship between David and Alabama is drawn extraordinarily well and, in fact, reminds me of a lovers’ relationship written by Hemingway in The Garden of Eden.  It is tortuously romantic – hopeless and beautiful at the same time.  It makes sense that this would be the most aptly developed relationship, considering it is at the core of the story (and the primary impetus for Zelda’s writing the story in the first place).  Little Bonnie’s character is also quite charming and her relationship with her Dad is lovely, particularly near the end. 

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

This book has been both praised and derided for its prose and style.  The structure is sound and relatively traditional; however, the prose and language itself is quite odd.  At times, it reminds me of a less sexual, female version of William S. Burroughs, as there are oftentimes breaks into vivid streams of consciousness, where one has to wonder if passages were written in a fury of (drunken? drugged?) rage; while these moments are sometimes over-the-top and even inexplicable or largely irrelevant, they are also quite beautiful.  There’s a bizarre honesty to the breaks in tempo and the seemingly random items which Fitzgerald chooses to romanticize through language.  As a lover of creative storytelling and free prose, I was quite enamored by it.  Still, for some readers the prose could be distracting or even exasperating as it is, in many ways, self-indulgent and can come across as a novice creative writing student’s first, best work. 

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

When Zelda Fitzgerald originally wrote this book, it was much more accusatory and obviously biographical than the version which was ultimately published.  Her husband believed that she had created the book in a fit of self-destruction, hoping to destroy her (and his) reputations. F. Scott Fitzgerald and their editor, Max Perkins, “assisted” Zelda with revisions.  Although historical evidence (letters, manuscripts, etc.) seem to prove that their part in the revision process was limited and mostly geared toward making elements and characters who were modeled after real-life events and individuals more obscure, Zelda would later accuse her husband of forcing her to change the book entirely and also allege that he stole her original manuscript to write his own (Tender is the Night).  Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this book, then, is in its history and historical significance.  Much can be learned about the Fitzgeralds’ relationship and personalities not only by reading the story (as the two main characters are modeled directly after F. Scott and Zelda), but also in researching the creation of the book itself, as well as F. Scott’s similarly themed novel (which is ultimately much more despondent).

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Literary History, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dance, Paris, Italy, Expatriate American, Jazz Age, Roaring ‘20s, Family, Schizophrenia, Creative Non-Fiction.

Notable Quotes:

“Alabama had learned from the past that something unpleasant was bound to happen whenever the Saviour made his appearance in the dialogue.”

“The heat pressed down about the earth inflating the shadows, expanding the door and window ledges till the summer split in a terrific clap of thunder.  You could see the trees by the lightning flashes gyrating maniacally and waving their arms about like furies.”

“People are always running all over the place to escape each other, having been sure to make a date for cocktails in the first bar outside the limits of convenience.” 

“The troubles with emergencies is that I always put on my finest underwear and then nothing happens.”

“A shooting star, ectoplasmic arrow, sped through the nebular hypothesis like a wanton hummingbird.  From Venus to Mars to Neptune it trailed the ghost of comprehension, illuminating far horizons over the pale battlefields of reality.”

“People are like Almanacs, Bonnie – you never can find the information you’re looking for, but the casual reading is well worth the trouble.”

Anthony Burgess, Book Review, Fiction, Fictional Memoir, GLBT Challenge

Review: Nothing Like the Sun by Anthony Burgess

Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun is a highly fascinating, albeit fictional, re-telling of Shakespeare’s love life.  In 234 pages, Burgess manages to introduce his reader to a young Shakespeare, developing into manhood and clumsily fumbling his way through his first sexual escapade with a woman, through Shakespeare’s long, famed (and contested) romance with Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton and, ultimately, to Shakespeare’s final days, the establishment of The Globe theater, and Shakespeare’s romance with “The Dark Lady.”  
The Good: 
Burgess has a command for language.  This is my third experience with a work by Anthony Burgess and, once again, I am impressed and awed by his skill as a story-teller and an imagist.  While, in typical fashion, he does tend to break-off at points of leisurely prose into something more Gertrude Steine-esque (stream of consciousness, for example), for the most part he keeps this novel in finely tuned form.  There is also an exceptional arc to this story, which carries the reader from Shakespeare’s boyhood, to his death, with common characters interacting regularly and to an end result.  Even the minor characters, such as Wriothesley’s secretary, are well-established and easily identified, once they have been described.  I also very much appreciated the references to other historical figures of the time, and how they impacted Shakespeare’s life and works. Marlowe, Lord Burghley, Sir Walter Raleigh, Queen Elizabeth I, The University Wits (Greene, Lyly, Nashe) all make an appearance, or are at least referred to, throughout the novel – their works (as well as works of the Classicists – Ovid, Virgil; and the early dramatists – Seneca, etc) are clearly defined in relation to their impact on Shakespeare’s own designs and interpretations.  I found this highly informative and a nice refresher to/reinforcement of my studies of Shakespeare at the Undergraduate and Graduate levels – I enjoyed being reminded of how the playwrights competed and worked together, how Shakespeare was inspired, and by whom, and how politics and the time period played an important role in the successes and failures of the players (Greene, for instance, died sickly and shamed; Marlowe hunted down as an atheist; Jonson’s imprisonment for treasonous writing, and Nashe’s escape from England for the same).  Incredibly fascinating and surprisingly sound story, which also appropriately references, with subtlety, many of Shakespeare’s works, at their time of development, so that a reader familiar with the works may catch them without their names actually having been written.  Lovely little way for Burgess to reward his learned readers (as Shakespeare oft amused himself by doing).   
The Bad:
Burgess takes much creative, though well-researched, license with Shakespeare’s life and the details of his relationship with various people.  For instance, while many scholars believe “The Rival Poet” of “The Fair Youth” sonnets to be either Chapman or Marlowe due to circumstances of fame, stature, and wealth (ego, essentially), Burgess breaks from the traditional interpretation of “The Rival Poet” to explore the possibility that Chapman was, in fact, a rival for Henry Wriothesley’s attention and affection and,  for this reason, Shakespeare became jealous and critical of Chapman.  Similarly, the ultimately un-established relationship between Shakespeare and Wriothesley, Shakespeare and “The Dark Lady” (or Lucy, in this novel), as well as, even Shakespeare and his wife – are all quite largely fictional.  That being said, while the novel’s general details – including historical happenings, political and religious tensions, and rivalries between the poets and the players are all well envisioned – the novel is dangerous in that the story of Shakespeare’s life comes across so logical here that it almost appears factual (and, who knows, a large portion of Burgess’s interpretations may have been true).  Thus, the writing is fantastic, but the liberties taken are troublesome. 
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 5.0
The story was well written and enjoyable.  It was also, I thought, a fascinating glimpse at history and this particularly time period.  Burgess reminds the reader of many of the fears and prejudices of the time, and seems to be more critical of Elizabeth I than Shakespeare himself (most scholars believe) was.  I appreciated Burgess’s cleverness and subtlety, but also his openness and candor in terms of sexuality and taboo relationships.  Burgess clearly wants to open the reader’s eyes to what very well could have happened, yet is never acknowledged.  Still, some of the author’s creative license, I think, goes beyond an artistic historian’s realm.  When I compare Nothing Like the Sun to, say, Stone’s Lust for Life I find the latter to be much more honest to the facts as we know them, whereas the former is a bit more adventurous in scope.  Overall, though, it was a highly educational, enjoyable read of an interesting and valid perspective look on Shakespeare.
Book Review, Felice Picano, Fiction, Fictional Memoir, Gay Lit

Review: Ambidextrous by Felice Picano

Ambidextrous: The Secret Lives of Children is part one of a three-part memoir trilogy, recounting events of the author, Felice Picano’s youth and life. Upon finishing, I found the blurb “not so much secret, as just forgotten” quite appropriate. As we age, much of the passion, fear, and intensity of childhood – friendship, first loves, the first kiss, first hatred, first adventures, and first heartbreaks – is swept under the rug, in place of more “important’ and pressing day-to-day matters; yet, Picano would have us remember that it is what happend in our childhood that is responsible for shaping us and sending us down our independent paths – for good or for bad. While Picano is certainly not a master of youthful dialogue – and his memories of just how much he read, and what subject matter (and with how much comprehension of said material) seems far fetched – even for such a self-proclaimed genius with an I.Q. of 170 – he is still an honest, touching story-teller. Ambidextrous (literally and metaphorically appropriate, in this case) is a novel about all the pressures, mysteries, and excitement of growing up and experiencing everything for the first time- something we, as adults, are numb to and eventually take for granted. A time-worthy read, though a caution to sensitive readers is not without merit.

Book Review, Creative Non-Fiction, Edmund White, Fictional Memoir, Gay Lit

Review: A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White

A refreshingly realistic tale of a gay boy’s “coming of age.” White makes a point of expressing his distaste for fanciful boy’s tales in which all boarding schools are brothels of young sex and violence, then proceeds to tell a painfully true story (autobiographic) about a youth growing up confused – his mother’s companion, his father’s shame, his sister’s punching bag, physically and emotionally. The boy struggles with self-image, with friendships and sexual experiences, with religion and philosophy, with truth and farce. While the story itself did sometimes get dwarfed by the over-arching themes which it meant to present, the novel still ends powerfully in that its stays true to its purpose. The narrator accomplishes what he meant to, but is left without any deus-ex-machina type epiphany. While I find the comparisons to Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye a bit stretched, I can see a mixture of Knowles’s A Separate Peace (A Boy’s Own Story being more explicit of events, whereas Knowles left much to implication) and Forster’s Maurice. Interestingly enough, early American gay literature tended to be more subdued than its British counterparts; however, white seems to invoke a bit of the beat generation’s bravado in A Boy’s Own Story. Still, the language is often loftier than story would seem to necessitate and the narrator’s pretense of genius (the narrator himself and all characters around him, including his mother, seemed to consider him something extraordinary, though no characteristics were developed to explain this) gets a bit nauseating. All in all, I quite liked the blunt realism, in spite of many instances of pretentious prose.