My Characters Knew Who They Were #TheLiteraryOthers

My characters knew who they were before I did.

by Robert Hill for Roof Beam Reader

remnants-front-cover-web-sizedWhen I started to write my novel, The Remnants, I had only the vaguest idea about whom the people in it would truly be. All I knew was that I wanted to write a story that would capture life among the last members of a small, isolated town, a group of very senior citizens at the end of the town’s days and at the end of their own. Yet, while fleshing out their individual and collective pasts, traits began to emerge as randomly and organically as if my fictional creations were born of the womb. Eccentricities and genetic oddities made their way onto the page and marked every family line. Dark deeds found their way into every family’s home. Humor arose from the most unlikely moments. But what surprised me the most, were the relationships that took shape without my planning for them.

In creating backstories for the three protagonists (two men, one woman, all of whom are in their 90’s) and other townsfolk as well whose stories are woven throughout, I found myself dredging up a rite of passage from my own youth that suited the small town story well – the rite of passage known as the circle jerk – and used it to exemplify a kind of freedom of exploration that growing up in a small town sometimes makes possible (more often than not, in fiction only).

I’m a gay man and I’m a writer, but I don’t self-identify as a gay writer. Yet, as I delved into the childhoods of the two main male characters, and had each of them furiously gripping themselves during this “innocent” rite, over and over and over and over and over and over again, the two boys loosened my grip on their creation and decided for themselves that their youthful curiosity about each other was more than a curiosity.

Fictional characters, like real people, are born. And like people as real as Cole Porter, or Michael Sam, or too-numerous-to-count Republican Congressmen, or myself, fictional characters are sometimes born gay. I love my characters for having had the (fictional) balls to tell me who they were and make me honor them.

At the core of the novel is the evolutionary desire to find love, and although I may have been coy at first about writing a relationship arc between two men, my characters would not let me cheat them out of their truth. Nor, for that matter, would other characters in the novel whose relationships also took unanticipated turns – some of them surprising, others disturbing, and one downright weird. (But who am I to judge?) All were born from the womb of my imagination, and I love and respect them all equally for their defiance against all odds and conventions to find love in a doomed world. I hope readers find these characters as surprising as I did.

GIVEAWAY:

Robert has generously offered one paperback copy of his book, THE REMNANTS, to a lucky winner! Please comment on this post with your email address if you’d like to be entered to win! Good luck!

Advertisements

Back to Blogging Giveaway!

95e16-giveaway

Hi Everyone!

After a lengthy hiatus from the blog, I’ve been slowly making my way back. There’s still a whole lot going on academically and professionally, but this blog is a place that I simply need to be, sometimes. I may not be posting/reviewing regularly, but I’ll definitely still be here. I’ve also found some time to surf around and visit some of my favorite blogger pals, which has been great for me.

As a welcome back or “grand re-opening” of sorts, I thought I’d celebrate in my traditional style, with a giveaway! I’ve recently stumbled across a couple of books that I would love to share with interested readers. So why not now?

Giveaway 1:

Dog Gone: A Lost Pet’s Extraordinary Journey by Pauls Toutonghi

27071489

The true story of a lost dog’s journey and a family’s furious search to find him before it is too late.

Saturday, October 10, 1998. Fielding Marshall is hiking on the Appalachian Trail. His beloved dog—a six-year-old golden retriever named Gonker—bolts into the woods. Just like that, he has vanished. And Gonker has Addison’s disease. If he’s not found in twenty-three days—he will die.

The search begins. Fielding and his father, John, are dispatched to the field. They have the family’s other dog, Uli, in tow. Combing the trails, Fielding and his father bond like never before. Fielding’s sister, Peyton, calls and talks him through some of his lowest moments. And—at home—Fielding’s mother, Virginia, sets up a command center.

Virginia becomes a field general. With a map and a phonebook at her side—she contacts animal shelters, police precincts, general stores, community centers, newspapers, radio stations, churches, and park rangers. She is tireless. The local paper in Waynesboro writes a small story about the family’s search. The story hits the AP Newswire. Tips—many of them of questionable authenticity—pour in from across the country. But as the search continues, the Marshalls realize they may not survive losing him. Even as the wounds of their past return to haunt them and threaten to jeopardize everything—they know they have one mission: Bring Gonker home.

With a big heart, intelligent humor, and a deft touch, Pauls Toutonghi tells this true tale of loss, love, and resilience. Dog Gone is by turns a story about how a family comes together in a crisis—and the way heroism can assert itself in the little things we do each day.

Giveaway 2:

Nitro Mountain: A Novel by Lee Clay

26040911

An astonishing, even shocking debut–darker than a bad night in hell–that is written with both humor and heart by “a writer with abundant and scary gifts and consummate skill.”

Set in a bitterly benighted, mine-polluted corner of Virginia,Nitro Mountain follows a group of people bound together by alcohol, small-time crime, and music. There’s Leon, a hapless bass player who can embroil himself in trouble just by getting out of bed in the morning. And his would-be girlfriend, Jennifer, who’s living with Arnett, the town’s most dangerous thug–and hoping Leon will help poison him. And there’s Arnett himself, a psychopath for the ages–albeit so charming and deranged, so strikingly authentic, that he arrests the reader’s attention at first sight and holds it fast. His mirror image, a singer-songwriter named Jones, has his own moral issues, though at least he’s trying to be a good man. The bright if battered soul who pulls us through this story is Jennifer, struggling heroically to survive the endemic hopelessness and violence that have surrounded her since birth. Relentless? Yes. But nothing remotely gratuitous: only the pain and misery that inspire so much of the music these people love more than life itself.

HOW TO ENTER:

Complete this Rafflecopter form

RULES:

  • Must be a follower of this blog (E-mail or WordPress subscriber).
  • Bonus Entries for Following on Twitter and/or Facebook
  • Winners must respond to e-mail within 48-hours or new winner selected.
  • Winner will be chosen randomly.
  • GIVEAWAY CLOSES Friday, July 22nd at Midnight CST.

GOOD LUCK!

Book Bloggers Made Me Do It #BBAW

Day-OneIntroduce-yourself-14

It’s the third day of Book Blogger Appreciation Week and we’ve got a new blog topic to discuss! Here’s what the fearless leaders came up with: Day 3 Have you ever read a book because of a book blogger? Be it a good book or bad, bloggers recommend books every day of the year. Sometimes we take their advice and it’s great! Hello every graphic novel I’ve ever read! Sometimes, it’s not so great. Damn you Like Water for Chocolate (ducks). Today, tell us all about the book or books you’ve read because of a book blogger and be sure to sure to spread the blame around.

Okay. I think I can handle this. There must be many, many books that I’ve read based solely on the recommendation (urging, pleading, threatening) of book blogger friends. But I’ll stick to just the first five that come to min.

Gone_with_the_Wind_cover

1. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

II am fairly certain that I would have read this book sooner or later, but a few years ago Jillian and I and a few others started The Classics Club. I learned then (and have been reminded many times throughout the years) that Jill adores Gone With the Wind. So, I put it on my club list and got to it a year or so later. I don’t regret it! I hadn’t seen the movie, either, but after reading the book I had to compare. Anyway, here are my thoughts on the book!

250px-Saga1coverByFionaStaples

2. The Saga series by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

As a kid, I was a pretty big fan of comic books. I loved the X-Men, Adam Warlock, the Avengers, and more. I got really into the Death of Superman storyline, and all the new supermen to follow. As well as the darker Batman stories, like A Death in the Family. After my teenage years, though, and after discovering “real” books, I kind of let my love of comics fall by the wayside. I think the only comics I read between the age of, oh, fourteen and twenty, was probably Marvel’s Civil War series. About a year ago, I was in the mood to revisit. I sent out a tweet about how to get back into comics/graphic novels, and the overwhelming response was to try SAGA. I did. I’m in love. I’m obsessed! I even gave the first few volumes to my comic-book-reading brother-in-law for Christmas last year.

Ariel_Faber_2010

3. Ariel by Sylvia Plath

Years ago, I read Plath’s The Bell Jar and really enjoyed it. Or, well, “enjoy” is probably the wrong word for a book like that. But I responded to it, appreciated it. I hadn’t visited Plath again because I have never been much of a poetry reader (this has changed in the last year or so). It was my friend Amy’s love of Plath, though, coupled with my preparing for doctoral field exams in American Literature, which lead me to read Ariel. And oh my goodness. I’ve written my thoughts on it, and I’ll leave it there. I’m not sure what else to say. Thanks, Amy!

0140447423-original

4. Germinal by Emile Zola

Zola is someone who I had heard of but never knew anyone who had actually read him (or at least not recently or extensively). But then I met O from Behold the Stars who just raves about Zola. I took a chance and read this masterpiece, and it is just that, a masterpiece! Zola reminds me quite a bit of one of my favorite American writers, John Steinbeck, so of course I enjoyed the book. I’m looking forward to reading more (I’ve got a couple of his others on my shelves… it’ll happen).

20170404

5. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This one, like Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is one of those books where I just caved into the overwhelming book blogger pressure. Yes, peer pressure exists in the book blogging world! In both cases (and, honestly, I just went with Station Eleven because it was the most recent) the book actually lived up to the hype. I recall seeing this one plastered all over Twitter and a number of blogs, to rave reviews. I’m glad I trusted my book blogging pals and took the chance, it was a super cool read. I think the next one I’ll be “pressured” into reading is The Library at Mount Char, which I bought during the hype but haven’t read, yet.  Here’s my review for Station Eleven.

Pemberley and Poltergeists! #AustenInAugustRBR #RIPX

Goodbye to Austen in August!

janeausten

I’m not quite sure how this has happened, but the last day of August has arrived which means Austen In August 2015 is at its end. Oh, dear!

As we move onward from this annual event, I offer a few reflections:

  • First, I think it can be said without question that this fourth annual #AustenInAugustRBR event was the most successful ever! As of this posting, there are 100 link-ups on our Mister Linky widget: the most we’ve ever had!
  • Next, I’d also submit that this year’s giveaways were insane and the guest posts incredibly creative, unique, and interesting.
  • The engagement on Twitter, in blog post comments, and on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and other social media outlets was awesome! It was so exciting to see all of you posting your Austen (and Austen-related) thoughts in various ways and across a variety of platforms. I saw photos, videos, .gif animations, written posts, and so much more.

51qbyy-TmrL._SX300_BO1,204,203,200_All that being said, I am also pleased to have finished one book for the event this year, which is the Penguin Classics Clothbound edition of Jane Austen’s Love & Freindship and Other Youthful Writings.  I’ve now read all of Jane Austen’s published works, including juvenilia and unfinished pieces, at least once (most of them more than that).

Reading the juvenilia was so much fun. It was fascinating to see the young Austen flexing her muscles, as it were, and playing with the styles and conventions of her day. It is clear to see how she developed her craft. What I think I most enjoyed about the experience, though, was getting to know Jane Austen a bit more. Her brilliance truly shines through her writing, but her youthful writing also offers generous glimpses at her personality.  Having read Austen in the way that I did (first the completed novels, then the unfinished stories, then the juvenilia–so, backwards, as it were), I find I can appreciate in a unique way her skill, her practice, and her profound wit and intelligence.

Of the juvenilia, I do have a few favorites.  First, I think, is “Henry and Eliza,” which I found to be incredibly funny.  Another is “The Three Sisters,” which is an early attempt at a novel and in which, I think, we see the very early manifestations of certain iconic Austen characters, such as Mrs. Bennet, Emma, and Mr. Darcy.

“Love and Freindship,” of course, is the titular story for a reason; it is humorous, insightful, witty, and characteristic of the author who would be Austen. Another point of interest for me in this story, as well as in a few other of these early works, are hints at homosexuality. Jane Austen was much more daring than many readers give her credit for, even in her later, finished works, where she discusses a number of important themes in subtle ways. She’s more audacious and overt in these youthful writings, though, which is a pleasure because it allows us to see how knowledgeable and socially aware she really was, and how adept she became at revealing just as much as she wanted to — a craft developed through genuine talent and practice. Austen, such a lady, even includes a number of murders in these early tales!

jane-austen-coversTwo other sections I really enjoyed were “The History of England,” which is an absolute riot. Young Austen responds to some of the critical histories of her time that claim to be unbiased (Oliver Goldsmith’s The History of England for example) with a work saturated by overt opinion representing itself as pure fact. She employs characterizations of her own family, with the help of images drawn by her sister Cassandra, which adds personal intrigue and humor to the story as well, and she lambastes Queen Elizabeth I at every opportunity (with sincerity? in jest?). It’s one of the funniest and charming stories in the whole collection. In addition, the section of letters, which seem to be simply practice for creative/fictional epistolary writing, are a joy to read.

I had my doubts about reading Austen’s juvenilia, not because I thought it would be boring or without merit, but because I wondered what it could possibly add to my understanding of Austen as an author, which is best understood by reading and interpreting her finished works. The reality is, though, because Austen was always a writer, one organized her work in volumes, even the early attempts and scraps, reading these pieces adds an extraordinary amount of depth and richness to the entire experience. I could see a lot of the later novels’ themes and characters beginning to develop in these early attempts. I think it will be great fun to re-read (again) the big six works and consider all the practice Austen had put into her craft originally.

Hello to RIP X!

Image used with permission, property of Abigail Larson.

Image used with permission, property of Abigail Larson.

Now that Austen has concluded, I’ve decided to approach the future with much more general abandon, meaning I don’t want to plan too much of my reading. I’m still participating in The Classics Club, so I do have a “list” for that, and I’m also writing a dissertation, so I have plenty of works that I must read as part of my research. Other than these projects, however, I have little intention of participating in any other events or challenges for the foreseeable future, with one exception: RIP X!

For those who don’t know, RIP stands for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril. It’s an annual event that takes place in September and October of each year. The goal is to read books/stories or watch movies that fit into the categories of horror, thriller, suspense, gothic, mystery, etc.  This is its tenth year, but my first time participating.  I’m getting married on Halloween this year (it is our favorite holiday), so I thought — well, all the stars and such are aligning! Why not?

ripnineperilsecond

There are a variety of challenge levels and goals and such, but I’ll keep my plans pretty simple: read at least two books in the horror/suspense genre. If all goes well, I might add a third, so I’ll list that as an alternate.

RIPX

Book One: Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). This is essentially the godfather of the gothic genre. It is very short and I’ve been meaning to read it for years. It’s also an entry on my Classics Club list, so I’ll knock out a two-fer if I finish it.

Book Two: Stephen King’s The Drawing of the Three (1987). I read the first in this series a few years ago and really enjoyed it. I’ve been meaning to continue on with the Dark Tower books ever since, but things get in the way. This will be a great way to get back into it.

Alternate: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) by Shirley Jackson.  I love Shirley Jackson – her short story, “The Lottery,” is one of the best ever written, in my opinion, and I also absolutely loved The Haunting of Hill House. I can’t wait to read more from her, so hopefully there will be enough time for me to get to this one as well (I do plan on it, actually, but I don’t want to set the bar too high with so much else happening right now).

So, that’s it! The end to one extraordinary event and the commencement of another. I hope you all had a great time with Austen in August this year, and if you plan on participating in RIP X, let me know! I’d love to hear your thoughts and reading/viewing plans.  

Thoughts: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

22822858

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

This is the first formal review I’ve written for Roof Beam Reader in five months, when I reviewed Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven in February. As with that book, I find, this time, that I’m unable to move onto other reading until my thoughts and reactions about this one are evacuated. It’s just one of those books. This post is bound to be lengthy, so I apologize in advance for that. But, as I set out to write my thoughts on this peculiar and devastating book, I find that I must clarify my position on two points that have significantly influenced my reaction to the novel.

Two Major Issues:

First: the book has been heralded as the long-awaited “great gay novel.” This description is not only maddeningly inaccurate, it is dangerously wrong. Despite appearances, this is not a novel about gay life, about homosexuality or coming out; it is not about sexuality or sexual identity at all. This is a book about friendship and love battling to save the life of someone who is haunted by memories of pedophilia and rape, sexual and physical abuse, psychosis, emotional trauma and sadism, and who cannot escape except through self-criticism and self-harm.

While any of these terrible things could be relevant to gay life, they are also relevant to straight life. The problem is: calling this book the “great gay novel” and then expecting readers to equate homosexuality, gay identity, with child sexual abuse and pedophilia as some kind of post hoc ergo propter hoc relationship is what gay rights activists have been fighting against for so very long. Jude St. Francis does not end up in a gay relationship because he was abused, as a child and an adult, by men. Jude St. Francis is not even gay: he is sexless; no, he is de-sexed.

The comparison that these reviewers make are perhaps unconscious, but they are all the more dangerous for that (worse: a part of me wonders if this push is due to cultural realities: it’s “time” for the great gay novel, so this must be it). I prefer the description given on the book’s own inside-flap: “An epic about love and friendship in the twenty-first century that goes into some of the darkest places fiction has ever traveled and yet somehow improbably breaks through into the light.” Yes, that’s it, for the most part. Let’s hope later editions remain true to this description and not the disturbingly misleading ones that outside forces have attempted to place on it.

That being said, in an academic sense, calling this book a “great queer novel” makes a lot of sense. The difficulty is helping people understand the difference between a “gay” novel and a “queer” one. The book is wildly anti-heteronormative. There are some straight people in the book, major and minor, but the majority of the main characters are somehow “othered,” as are their histories and relationships. For example, one character is adopted as an adult, another is parentless; one character is bisexual, another is gay but struggles with it; one character is disabled, another seems able to change his body almost at will.

Gender and sexuality in this book are uncomplicatedly fluid: transgender issues come up, for instance, as does lesbianism and the cis-gendered. In this way, yes, call it a great queer novel. Call it a study of male friendship that refuses to be categorized. But do not call it the great gay novel, as the relationship at the heart of the story has nothing to do with sexuality: the main character is basically asexual and his eventual lover is basically heterosexual even though he ends up with another biological male. Most importantly, their love, their partnership, has far less to do with sexual identity than it does with non-sexual romantic friendship.

This is all my reaction to others’ descriptions of the book, however. There’s nothing the author or publisher have said (that I know of) which reflects such a flawed perspective on the story, and the story itself doesn’t presume to present itself that way, either.

Second: My personal experience reading this book might be far different from most, and that is because I intimately understand and relate to it. Because of the nature of this book, of Jude St. Francis’s life, and Willem’s, I can’t say any more than this. Suffice it to say, it is a deep struggle for me to separate myself from this story in order to review it objectively as a work of art. But I’m going to do my best.

Thoughts on the Book:

Essentially, this is a book about friendship. The characters are the heart and soul of this novel, especially the main character, Jude, who, despite his tragic past, is the core of the four friends’ lives. They (Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm) met as college freshman, although Jude was only 16 at the time. Each of the characters is special in some way: Willem the actor; JB the artist; Malcolm the architect; Jude the lawyer. They all struggle, at first, but each will eventually reach wild levels of success. One can imagine that they were able to achieve their successes only because of their friendship, although this is never specifically granted by the novel itself.

Outside their friendship are other characters, major and minor, some of whom arrive and remain (Jude’s adoptive parents, for instance, and his doctor) and others that serve a purpose and then disappear. There are not many women in the story, which has been a point of contention for some, but Yanagihara has already explained her reasoning for this (it’s a story about male friendship and the many varied ways that friendship can manifest itself) and I take no issue with the lack.

An interesting and admirable element, in my opinion, is the narrative voice which is at times third-person with varied relativity to one or another of the characters depending on whose story is being told at the time, and sometimes, much less frequently, in the first-person, as when a character is relaying things directly (usually in a kind of monologue, which I imagined as dictation or epistolary in nature, but could just as well be a character speaking aloud to himself). This narrative approach allows for two things: first, the mysterious, slow, painful revelation of Jude’s backstory; we the reader know as much about Jude as the other characters do, and only bits and pieces (first, hints; then, allusions; next, minor descriptions; finally, all of it) come through, in guesses made by other characters or in sections when the narrator is closely aligned with Jude himself. This can be vexingly frustrating, but it is also brilliant in its devotion to an honest portrayal of the main character. Second, it allows the reader to get closer to Jude in the same way that the characters do, to understand how this dynamic works, fails, strains, etc.

Less interesting, less creative, is the prose style. It’s surprisingly matter of fact. I haven’t read Yanagihara before, so I’m not sure what her writing style is in general, but I will say that I think it works well, here. Even though the prose and language aren’t particularly appealing, the pages still turn. There’s a balance, here, equal to the balance between the plot and narration. The raw, almost clinical style of writing is like the raw, almost clinical way that Jude lives his life. In moments of tension, the prose style will change subtly. In moments of affection, breakthrough, break down: the same. The reader gets to know Jude, as much as is possible, and begins to realize that Jude must make great effort, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to be the person he is: he is always, always inside his own head. Every thought has some level of darkness and pain attached to it; every action is planned, agonized over, debated.

This has been one of the most intellectually and emotionally challenging reads for me. The complexity of the novel’s themes is matched by the intricacy of the narrative, the cerebral construction of story edifice and story time that allows the present and the past to unravel, slowly but significantly, so that, at a certain point about 400-pages into the book, I suddenly felt like I was just a part of this group. For me, it was like the flip of a switch.

At the half-way mark, I hated this book. I wanted to give it up.  It is painful, horrifying, depressing, and almost gratuitous. It is without hope, without joy. It is, as many have said, a type of exaggerated fantastic allegory, where the evils laid upon man are as persistent, unrelenting, scarring as can possibly be, and the goodness of friendship and true love are as pure, unwavering, angelic as can possibly be. It is a fairy tale where the only happy ending for Prince Charming is the ending every fairy tale necessarily leaves out.

There’s very little that is pleasant about this book: it is not a beautiful story and it will not be a beautiful read. I can’t recommend this book. But I can’t deny its power, either.

Suggested Reading for:

  • Age Level: Adult
  • Interest: Friendship, Sturm und Drang, Child Abuse, Self-Harm, LGBTQI+, Disabilities, Nontraditional Families.

Notable Quotes/Passages:

  • “The only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.” (210)
  • “It is always easier to believe what you already think than to try to change your mind.” (369)
  • “He had forgotten that to solve someone is to want to repair them: to diagnose a problem and then not try to fix that problem seemed not only neglectful but immoral.” (517)
  • “You don’t visit the lost, you visit the people who search for the lost.” (656)

Tiny Thoughts on a Bunch of Books

20170404The last book review I posted was for Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, way back in February. Since then, I’ve read “a few” books, but haven’t had time to get my thoughts down about any of them.

This post is going to serve as a very brief, rather frantic “catch-up.”  I want to at least write down reactions to the other books I’ve read so far.  No, these aren’t formal reviews – but something is better than nothing!

So, in order of completion from most distant to most recent:

Half Bad by Sally Green: This is the first book in a planned YA fantasy trilogy by new author Sally Green. I think the premise is interesting and the execution rather good. There is quite a bit in this book which is derivative, owing a lot to other popular YA fantasy series’ on the market; however, that being said, I really enjoyed the story and a lot of what is unique about it. Green builds quite a bit of believable tension into the story, issues between the main character/protagonist and his best friend, his girlfriend, his father, his family etc. I think this is a series worth reading and fans of YA fantasy are likely to enjoy it.

downloadWarlock by Jim Starlin: Adam Warlock is one of my favorite comic book characters and I’m glad to have finally read the complete story in graphic novel form. Some of the more interesting stories (like the Infinity plots) are not present because they are exterior to the original Warlock storyline, but this graphic collection was still fun, dark, and interesting.

Half Wild by Sally Green: This is the second book in Green’s fantasy trilogy and an interesting and improved follow-up to the first in the series. Main characters from the first book reappear and some new ones are introduced. A lot of the tension between the main character and minor ones continues to deepen, and Green takes some very welcome and exciting risks. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series (which, from what I’ve read, will be the conclusion to the trilogy – but you never know with fantasy series’!)

The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith: I’m a huge fan of Andrew Smith, and The Alex Crow did not disappoint. This is Smith’s most complex and adult novel to date. It’s not hard to understand the comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut. There have been some criticisms about unnecessary storylines or sub-plots, but I think those critiques are missing the point. The story’s sub-plots work together toward a final conclusion, without one or the other of these storylines, the overall message would not be as profound as it is. Unfortunately, that message seems to be lost on some readers. Still, this book, after Grasshopper Jungle, is resulting in a great deal of critical attention and acclaim for Smith, praise which I think is completely valid.

download (2)Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore: I read this because of Twitter hoopla surrounding gender representations in comic books and the new covers for some classic comics. I’ve never been a big fan of Batman comics (I’ve enjoyed the movies more – and I’m really a Marvel fan, so I haven’t given as much attention to DC stories) but this was a really interesting take on the Joker’s possible backstory. I know there’s a debate as to whether or not the backstory is necessary or helpful – some fans like that the Joker is just innately evil, while others appreciated the fact that perhaps some event triggered that descent into madness. I can understand both points of view – for what it is, I enjoyed this story.

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1 by Willow G. Wilson: I think this is an incredibly powerful and long-overdue take on female power in comics. The new Ms. Marvel is young and fierce, filled with good intentions but also prone to mistakes. Volume 1 introduces us to her character, her friends, and her family, all of which adds great complexity and detail to her personality and the possibilities/pitfalls that might be ahead of her. Super cool.

download (1)A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin: I’m so glad I finally read this book, and I’m eager to get on with the series. While I don’t think that Martin is quite the writer or world-builder as, say, Tolkien, his take on fantasy is still refreshing and unique. As Martin has explained, his goal was to place fantasy elements in a realistic medieval environment, and in that I think he is succeeding. The story is dark, dangerous, and rarely redeeming or uplifting, but the times (from a historical perspective) were equally difficult. As a fan of the television show (until this season, where I’m finding much to complain about) I think it’s incredible how closely the show was adapted from the book – but those who have only watched the show are missing some important things, even simple things like the characters’ ages make a big difference in understanding and appreciating what’s happening.

Saga, Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan: I finally took the plunge and started this series. Everybody talks about it, and now I know why. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a comic so much since Blankets (which, admittedly, is completely different and not actually a comic – it’s a long graphic novel). Anyway, Saga is narrated from the future by the protagonist who is, in the first comics, just a newborn baby. We learn about her parents and their worlds & the war they’re engaged in. The comic is rated “M” for good reason – I wasn’t expecting some of the graphic sexual situations and violence, but the great thing is that it’s not at all gratuitous, it’s just a part of the world. I’ve got Volume 2 sitting on my shelf waiting to be read, and I haven’t been so anxious to get to a read, especially a comic, in a very long time! Loving it!

Also read but not reviewed:

download (3)The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan (4 out of 5, Read May 2014)

Bertram Cope’s Year by Henry Blake Fuller (5 out of 5, Read June 2014)

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley (3 out of 5, Read June 2014)

Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry (4 out of 5, Read June 2014)

The Dog Star by Donald Windham (3 out of 5, Read June 2014)

Messenger by Lois Lowry (4 out of 5, Read June 2014)

The Madness of Lady Bright by Lanford Wilson (4 out of 5, Read July 2014)

Son by Lois Lowry (3 out of 5, Read July 2014)

download (4)The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley (3 out of 5, Read July 2014)

Totempole by Sanford Friedman (5 out of 5, Read July 2014)

The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren (4 out of 5, Read July 2014)

The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer (5 out of 5, Read July 2014)

Lemon Sky by Lanford Wilson (4 out of 5, Read July 2014)

Invisible Life by E. Lynn Harris (2 out of 5, Read July 2014)

Letters to Montgomery Clift by Noel Alumit (5 out of 5, Read July 2014)

Sons of the Prophet by Stephen Karam (3 out of 5, Read August 2014)

51Be-zEhd7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (4 out of 5, Read December 2014)

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee (3 out of 5, Read December 2014)

Halfway Home by Paul Monette (4 out of 5, Read December 2014)

Revival by Stephen King (4 out of 5, Read December 2014)

Red Caps: New Fairy Tales for Out of the Ordinary Readers by Steve Berman (3 out of 5, Read January 2015)

Thoughts: Trifles (1916) by Susan Glaspell

9780874406382Susan Glaspell’s Trifles (1916) is a one-act play that would ultimately inspire another of her works, a short story called “A Jury of Her Peers.” The story is loosely based on an actual event, the murder of John Hossack, which Glaspell reported on while working as a journalist in Des Moines, Iowa. Hossack’s wife was accused of killing her husband, but the wife denied it. Although she was convicted, that conviction was eventually appealed and overturned.

Glaspell is an essential early feminist writer, one who was directly influenced by the likes of Kate Chopin and Fanny Fern; alas, she is often overlooked in feminist literary studies. For those unfamiliar with Glaspell, this short one-act play (my copy was only 26 pages) is a great place to start. The play is funny but poignant. It is a brief, direct example of Glaspell’s primary concerns – the inequalities between women and men, and the culture’s preoccupation with gender roles (stereotypes). It is ultimately a harsh exposé on the patriarchy’s oppressive control over women’s lives.

As its title suggests, the “trifles” of this play are “women concerns,” which men look at as relatively nothing in comparison to “real” (that is male) problems. Glaspell’s approach, however, which sets-up two distinct narrative points of view, one female and one male, creates an interesting and often comic tension between the main characters – the men and their wives. The house which serves as the play’s setting functions as both a crime scene but also as a home, and the characters, depending on their sex and their “purpose” or “role,” will view the house as one or the other of these things (the men treat it as merely a crime scene, the women cannot detach the house from its function as the home of their friend and neighbor who has been accused of murder).

51aea1cdd79ba.preview-620What is most interesting about this play is how much of a wallop it really packs. It is deceptively simple, not just because it is short, but the language, scenery, dialogue, stage direction – everything about the play is designed to be easy. Everything, that is, except for its subject matter. A reader (or audience member) could easily lose herself in the comedy of the situation, in the banter between husbands and wives, or in the knowing looks passed between the ladies, but the reality of the play, the feminist charges being raised and the dark, despondent yet somehow liberating mood created by the plight of the play’s absent Mrs. Wright (pun intended?) creates a rich paradox impossible to ignore.

The final moral crisis, which the women must face together and alone, reveals much about the meaning of justice and the role of women in seeking or fulfilling that justice. Although it is the men who “own” the law (quite literally, as the two male characters represent the police force and the county law offices), it is the women who will determine Mrs. Wright’s fate.

Notable Quotes:

“I didn’t know as what his wife wanted made much difference to John.”

“Women are used to worrying over trifles.”

“She used to wear pretty clothes and be lively, when she was Minnie Foster, one of the town girls singing in the choir. But that–oh, that was thirty years ago.”

“I know how things can be–for women. I tell you, it’s queer . . . we live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things–it’s all just a different kind of the same thing.”