Ancient Roman, Book Review, Classical Roman, Classics, Fiction, Gay Lit, GLBT Challenge, Historical Fiction, Mythology, Petronius, Satire

Review: The Satyricon by Petronius

The Satyricon by Petronius
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD:  58

Plot/Story:

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

Okay, this is not your grandfather’s classical Roman literature, unless your grandfather was a horny old homosexual (well, perhaps bisexual or pansexual), with a particular penchant for teenage boys and/or eunuchs.  That being said, Petronius’s satirical version of classical Roman life is a breath of hilariously fresh air!  The work was written in the 1st C A.D., and it gives a brilliant and incomparable first-hand look into the life of the lower and middle-classes at this time.  It seems to me to be both a general satire of politics and society at the time, as well as a chastisement of Emperor Nero, for having exiled the great tragedian, Seneca (source inspiration for Shakespeare, Marlowe, and others). The translation, too, brings the old Latin work into clear focus, allowing any contemporary reader relatively easy access.  Petronius gives us much of what we would expect to find in a work inspired by Homer, Cicero, and the gang – two or three rag-tag characters, humbled by the gods, set off on ridiculous quests and challenges, all the while trying to prove themselves, find love (or at least fulfill their desires), and indulge in great food and lots of alcohol.  The major differences, though, are that the story line obviously pokes fun at the brilliant nature of the epic hymns, and the impossible feats those ancient heroes accomplished.  And, rather than our “hero” risking his life to champion and woo a Danae or Venus, he fights tooth and nail for the attention and protection of his 16 year old male lover.  Throw in lots of hilarious poetry, some great mythological tales (“fictional” and historical), and a tongue-in-cheek depiction of the rich and powerful, and we have one entertaining and oddly romantic story on our hands.  

Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

The main characters, Encolpius (narrator), Giton (his young lover), and Eumolpus are all interesting in their own way, though a bit flat.  Encolpius, as the narrator, has more development than the rest, and his interactions with Giton, Ascyltus, Circe, Tryphaena, and Lichas (some of the cast of minor characters – all of whom are love-interests of/for Encolpius) are interesting and fun to witness.  As much of this work has been lost (only portions are extant – and they have been combined here into broken novella form), the characters do not get as much history or development as I think they originally had in the full work, which is assumed to have been approximately 500-1000 pages long.  Still, the glimpses that we get of these characters in action is enough to entertain and to allow the reader to engage with their story without being bored or distracted by all of the missing breaks  – in fact, the situations and interactions are so interesting, that I found myself angry to have been stopped mid-scene by missing segments!

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

The mixture of prose (this is probably the first extant example of the current form of the “novel” in Western literature) with song and poetry creates a wonderful reading experience, particularly as it was done so well.  Reading an ancient tale in novel form makes the story much more accessible for the modern reader, but the style and the many hints at ancient poetry and song/story-telling allow the reader to sink back into the time period too.  Also, there is one lengthy poem called “The Civil War” (about 12 pages long) which reminds the reader of the time period and the tradition of verbal story-telling.  It was just enough, for me, to enjoy the epic narrative without feeling overwhelmed (as with most of the works which inspired this one) by verse.

Additional Elements:

4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
What makes this novel so great is really a combination of elements: 1st) that it is an ancient text written in prose, rather than verse, and in a way which, ultimately would become the “standard” for novelization in Western literature; 2nd) the honest account of social interaction and sexuality in this time period, most of which has been lost to history; 3rd) the genius satire, executed in a way that is both funny and somehow serious.  Petronius obviously has a bone to pick with the political powers that be, and with the moral justices – he seems disturbed by those who are “in charge” and by the way they enact their trials and verdicts. 

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  Adult
Interest: Classical Roman, Classical Greek, Ancient History, Alternative Roman, GLBT, Gay Classics, Satire, Mythology

Notable Quotes:

“Nothing is falser than people’s preconceptions and ready-made opinions; nothing is sillier than their sham morality.” (P. 152)

“I loathe the vulgar crowd, and shun it.” (P. 128)

“What good are the laws where Money is king, / where the poor are always wrong, / and even the mockers who scoff at the times / will sell the truth for a song? / The courts are an auction where justice is sold; / the judge who presides bangs a gavel of gold.” (P. 29) 


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Book Review, Coming-of-Age, David Levithan, Fiction, Gay Lit, GLBT Challenge, John Green, Young Adult

Review: Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

WillGrayson.jpg
Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 57
Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful

When I heard that John Green and David Levithan were teaming up to write a novel about the life and times of a manic-depressive gay teenager, I was understandably stoked.  The authors of Looking for Alaska and Boy Meets Boy working together?  Brilliant!  What they achieved, though, is more than even I, an admitted fan of both writers, could have imagined.  There are two Will Graysons – well, in fact, there are many Will Graysons, but there are two Will Graysons with whom this book concerns itself.  The first is a straight, socially awkward and girl-shy sidekick to one Evanston, IL (i.e. Chicago) school’s biggest (literally) gay student; the other is a semi-psychotic, tortured, poor gay loner from Naperville, IL – a suburb just about an hour outside the city.  Somehow, these two boys with the same name meet unexpectedly and hilariously in a Chicago porn shop called “Frenchy’s” – neither of them planned to be there, and both were too young to get in.  Still, cosmic fate being what it is, these two Will Graysons were brought together and changed by one big, giant, glamorous and fabulous gay boy named, ironically, “Tiny.”  Tiny falls in love with nearly every boy he meets – and his life’s ambition is to write a musical about … wait for it… his life!  The musical evolves, though, through Tiny’s struggles with Will Grayson 1 (the best friend whose friendship suddenly starts to strain) and Will Grayson 2 (the love interest who is no good for Tiny, but who impacts Tiny more profoundly than anyone else ever has). 

Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

I absolutely fell in love with the characters in this book, as I did in both books by these authors, read previously.  Each Will Grayson is distinct and identifiable, and not just because the prose is different, nor because each Will Grayson is written by one of the authors (thereby resulting in a separate voice).  They are distinguishable because their stories and histories are different; their attitudes and outlooks are different; they grow in different ways, interact with others in different styles; they learn different lessons, and show their appreciation for Tiny and their friendships and new relationships (Will 1 with Jane and Will 2 with Gideon) in singular ways.  Also, though they are both “loner” types, the Will Graysons interact with their few friends and with their parents in dissimilar ways as well.  Tiny, too, is brilliant – loveable and annoying at the same time.  He (and Will 2) instantly reminded me of people in my own past – people I can recall with both fond memories and some not so pleasant ones.  The ability to recall one’s past through a story – that “reaching out and taking a hand” which Alan Bennett writes of in his play, The History Boys, makes the book and its characters so easy to relate to and to be drawn in by.  Even the minor characters, such as Jane and Gideon, the musical’s cast members, the parents, and some of the teachers are all conducive to the plot in some way, without ever feeling unnecessary, over-the-top, or unrealistic.  Will 2’s relationship with “Isaac” and its ultimate conclusion is also fascinating and terrifying. 

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

Another of the great positives for this book is that it is written by two authors (normally not something I enjoy) who each take on the job of writing one of the Will Grayson characters.  David Levithan writes the gay, depressed Will (2) and John Green writes the coming-to-terms-with-growing-up straight Will (1), who ultimately learns not to succumb to his life rule #2 of “Shut Up.”  That each character was written by a separate author allowed the two to really grow and develop singularly and independently, yet in relation to the story as a whole.  Their meeting and link through Tiny is what holds their two worlds together, and which creates a cogent and highly readable storyline.  I adored, as well, the inclusions of notes, poetry, and song – at times, I could truly imagine this book taking place on stage, characters as cast members, breaking into comic musical numbers about the dangers of being a gay tight end on the high school football team!  What this means is the story, though written in prose, is highly visual and aural, so it literally comes to life in your imagination.  I could picture these characters, I could hear their songs, I could imagine the sounds of their voices.  The mastery of prose – though relatively simple (YA reading level), allows even a discriminate, adult reader to feel accomplished in reading the book.

Additional Elements:
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

The final result of the musical, and the book, is that each of these three main characters – Tiny, Will Grayson, and Will Grayson, all come to terms with who they really are and, equally important, with what they mean to one another.  You can love a friend as a friend.  You can remain friends with an ex.  You can appreciate another person without having to put your heart and soul into your relationship with that person – but the point is, ultimately, that you have to be honest.  You have to open that metaphorical box and let Schrodinger’s cat loose – or you will never know if the friendships are alive or dead, they will just remain meaninglessly mundane and inconsequential, forever.  There is also much to be said, in context, about gay rights and the “live and let live mentality.”  The importance of forgiveness, too, rears its head – it is forgiveness which allows the gay Will Grayson (Will Grayson 2) to let go of some of his pain and anger, to allow himself real friendships with decent people, and to do something good for someone else.  Love. Friendship. Acceptance. Forgiveness.  This is Will Grayson, Will Grayson.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Young Adult, Adult
Interest: GLBT, Gay Lit, Coming-of-Age, YA, Theater/Drama, Depression, Family, Friendship

Notable Quote:

“When things break, it’s not the actual breaking that prevents them from getting back together again.  It’s because a little piece gets lost – the two remaining ends couldn’t fit together even if they wanted to.  The whole shape has changed.” (P. 174)
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1001 Books, Book Review, Dystopia, Fiction, Gay Lit, GLBT Challenge, Japan, Kenzaburo Oe, World War II

Review: Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oe

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oe
Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

YTD: 51

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful

Kenzaburo Oe’s Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids is the story of a group of teenage boys who are taken from their corrective center (juvenile detention center, to my American readers) during wartime. They are brought to a village where the intent is for the children to do the grunt work of farming and fielding. Unfortunately, a plague breaks out and the boys are deserted – barricaded into the village until the plague is believed to have dissipated. In that time (about five days), the boys learn to fend for themselves – to hunt, cook, and even to play as they were never able or allowed to before. The story is both similar and opposite to Golding’s Lord of the Flies. It is similar in that it tells about a group of young boys who are stranded alone together and who must organize and function together as a unit; it is different in that, in this case, the children learn that they must work together in order to survive, and they do so without breaking down into animalistic madness. Instead, the adults are depicted as the brutes and beasts, abusing and terrorizing the children. Also similar to Lord of the Flies is the one lone adult who is found by the children and who is at first misunderstood or mistrusted by the boys. What Oe implies, which Golding did not, was that adults are just as likely to act monstrously when fearful or threatened as children are – and that children are just as capable of maintaining order and surviving independently as adults might be. A shared theme, though, is the darker nature of humanity – the “survival of the fittest” mentality and that humans are by nature mistrustful and selfish, regardless of age, race, or social status.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

The narrator is a boy likely around age 14 who is shadowed throughout the story by his younger brother, likely about the age of 10. They are traveling with a group of boys from the youth prison, where each of the boys were sent for misdeeds which are never really explained, though which the reader is meant to believe were probably relatively minor offenses, such as petty theft. The interaction between the boys is one of camaraderie (in fact, they often refer to each other as “comrade” rather than friend or some other distinction). While we get a general sense of what “adults” are and what “children” are – there are also brief moments of a deeper understanding, such as when the narrator and the doctor from another village interact on three occasions, and the dialogue goes very differently each time. The most developed or explained characters are the narrator, his brother, and their Korean friend Li. We also learn much (or at least just enough) about the boy who is nearest to being the narrator’s friend, Minami. The rest of the boys and villagers, except for the village leader, are left relatively undeveloped and without purpose, other than to fill in the space – particularly in the “mob mentality” moments, when the villagers confront the boys, for instance, or when the boys gang up on our narrator’s brother and his dog, Leo. This does not detract from the story, however, as the point seems to be that there are many “comrades” and “villagers” but few people of distinct personality, capable of independent thought, and those few who are – such as the defected militia man and the narrator, are either killed or are forced to desert. I would have perhaps enjoyed some deeper character interaction and development, particularly in regards to the narrator and Minami’s relationship, as well as the narrator and his “girl’s” relationship. The brothers, too, are interesting to watch, and witnessing more of their bond would have been helpful in terms of creating an empathic link between the story and the reader.

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

Oe’s prose calls to mind a mixture of Hemingway’s simplicity and straightforwardness, with Golding’s stamina and honesty, and a dash of Japanese story-telling, redolent of what one might find in Americanized role-playing video games. It’s an odd mixture, but given the subject matter, it definitely works. For instance, Oe seems to me the Japanese mirror of Hemingway in terms of war-time story-telling. The prose is direct and powerful, but reveals a manly type of sentiment. The narration from a child’s point of view is remiscent of what Golding does in The Lord of the Flies, and the simple honesty, the revelatory nature of the prose as seen through a youth’s eyes, the helplessness and ignorance is a style which works oddly well in conjunction with the coldness of a war-narrative prose. Finally, the Japanese story-telling encompasses both natures, so there is a bit of ancient magic woven into the threads of the story – these disgusting and disturbing children can be championed; the vicious, cruel adults can be detested. There is a “good” and a “bad’ but there is no happy ending. One critique, though, is the nature of the prose does not allow for much connection from reader-to-character, nor does it allow for empathy or even sympathy. There is a frigid detachment, which is perhaps intentional – it is as if the story we are reading is cold, hard fact and there is nothing we can do but to witness it. This could very well be the point, but it makes for difficult reading at times and is largely what accounted for my needing an entire week to read such a short book.

Additional Elements:
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

The major themes of this novel seem to be: 1) the nature of the individual in war time; 2) the nature of the collective in war time; 3) the nature of family; and 4) the inversion of the adult/youth dichotomy. Oe clearly has much to say on the idea of war and its impacts on the individual and the “village” – be it hometown, state, or nation. There is a loss of self which is felt when a country is at war. Suddenly, there is nothing important about “me” and all attention must be paid toward the greater good – protecting and honoring the state. Also, he comments continuously on the dangers of a mob mentality and of ignorant persecution of innocents. Family seems to be the only bond which is unbreakable and, when it does snap, the repercussions are permanent and unbearably painful; family seems to be the one thing which remains fearless in the face of adversity so, when family – its protection, its hope, or its memory – is not present, the chances for survival or independence are annihilated. Finally, there is this interesting inversion of the social constructs relating to “adulthood” and “childhood.” Oe reverses the roles, so that adults act like lawless, persecuting, immature children, striking out irrationally at every danger and refusing to think or act within the realm of logic or reason. The children, on the other hand, form bonds and relationships in order to get tasks done, to feed themselves and their group, and to maintain a balance within the community. Oe seems to imply that, when left alone, adults are more likely to turn on one another, whereas children are more likely to work together to survive. An interesting study.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult, Literary
Interest: World War II, Japanese Culture, Dystopia, Fear, Survival, Coming-of-Age

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1001 Books, Classics, Creative Non-Fiction, Fiction, GLBT Challenge, William S. Burroughs

Junky by William S. Burroughs

Junky by William S. Burroughs
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

William S. Burroughs’s Junky (originally published under the title Junkie) is an autobiographically-inspired romp through one man’s introduction to drugs, the addiction that ensues, and the many attempts-serious or not- to get sober. Burroughs’s tale is honest and to the point. Wild and unusual things happen, as they will when you and your closest acquaintances are all high, but they remain believable – unlike, say, the incredible escapades found in Electroboy or A Million Little Pieces. The main character and narrator (and author), Bill, is introduced to drugs off-handedly while a Midwestern youth. He begins to deal to make money, and the dealing eventually leads to using, which leads to more dealing and more using. The reader rides along as Bill makes his way to New York (where he spends some time in an asylum), down to New Orleans (where he barely escapes conviction) to Mexico, his ultimate refuge.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

Most of the minor characters remain minor and static throughout the novel, but Bill and his more regular acquaintances (keeping in mind that, in the world of the drug addict, few friendships last long) are told well – they are interesting to watch and, while you cannot really “root” for anyone, you still enjoy being along for the trip (double entendre?). The characters in Junky are also much more real, relatable, and believable than those in other Burroughs novels. While it is hard to reconcile the “on the go” lifestyle of the book’s main character (considering he seems to survive for quite some time without any money or income – he never works and rarely steals, at least so we are led to believe), the emotions of the addict, the ups and downs, the highs and lows, the irrationality and the sobered sensibility are wonderfully realized through Bill. He is a complete do-nothing bum, really, but he is witty and entertaining, he is charming – in a way, and mysterious. All of this – the complexity of his character- makes the reader want to see a little bit more, know a little bit more, and it keeps the pages turning ‘til the end.

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

The clear, naturalistic day-by-day story-telling, characteristic of The Beat generation, is also conducive to this sort of “witness” story. It allows the reader to connect with what is happening in the story, rather than feeling distanced as one will in later Burroughs works, like Naked Lunch or The Wild Boys. The story is also littered with clever, quotable phrases – clear psychological or metaphysical ideas which are presented here “in the nude” and are later re-examined, tortured, ripped apart and put back together in Burroughs future works. One such example, near the end, is the following: “There is something archaic in the stylized movements, a depraved animal grace at once beautiful and repulsive. I could see him moving in the light of campfires, the ambiguous gestures fading out into the dark. Sodomy is as old as the human species.” Several of Burroughs’s later examinations – natural and human law, beauty in the grotesque, and innate sexuality, are all posed here in this one, clear statement and, as one familiar with Burroughs, it is thrilling to see this clearly and to know to what lengths he will later go in exploration of the topics.

Additional Elements:
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

The great thing about Burroughs is he really gets it. This is one of the first and best examples of drug-addiction writing (I cannot classify it as “fiction” with a clear conscience) because Burroughs has no need to exaggerate anything, in the way so many contemporary writers of the same topic do. He tells it like it is, he hints at the nastier sides of the living, and he explores equally the highs of being sober and the functioning ability of the addict. Though the novel is generally about Heroin addiction, Burroughs also explores other drugs, from marijuana and peyote to Cocaine and Morphine. Whether or not drugs interest you, per se, the examination of each against the other – the effects, the dangers, the results of mixing such-and-such of one with the other, is truly fascinating. It becomes clear that Burroughs knows what he is talking about (which, in a way, is rather sad) and is being honest with his readers. It’s as if he’s saying: “Look, guys, this is how it is – take it or leave” without getting too heavy-handed or political. Of course, the burgeoning U.S. laws regarding narcotics – the “crack down” in the states comes up near the end, and Burroughs makes it clear on which side of the argument he stands – both in words and actions. While his experiences and his positioning on the topic are not exactly laudable, the way he tells his story certainly is.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Society, Literature, Drug Culture, Beat Generation, GLBT

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2010 TBR, Book Review, Edmund White, Fiction, Gay Lit, GLBT Challenge

Review: Beautiful Room is Empty by Edmund White

Summary:
The Beautiful Room is Empty picks up shortly after where White’s earlier memoir, A Boy’s Own Story, leaves off.  This work discusses not just the growth of boy-into-man, but also gives a historical account of the period. The 1950s and 1960s – the rise and fall of the Beatniks.  The advent of hipsters.  The strain for one man to understand what being homosexual means, and for one nation – one culture – to begin approaching a similar question.  What is “gay?”  A disease?  A malady? A psychological disturbance or a physical perversity?  White seamlessly weaves the individual and the populous struggle and turmoil.  There is the question in general, and the answers as approached through different lenses: class, education, region.  How do the Midwestern intellectuals, mundane and suburban, treat homosexual?  What about the artsy, edgy New York City high-rollers?  The rich? The destitute?  What’s the difference between a “trick,” his “john,” and day-life versus night-life?  This novel attempts to answer these questions, and more.  Really, though, it’s a novel of questions.  It’s a memoir of life, as lead by the author – someone still obviously affected by the pain, the struggles, the joys, and the many, many questions of his youth.
The Good:
White’s prose is beautiful, almost musical.  The pages turn rapidly because sentences and paragraphs flow richly and uninterrupted.  Ideas, encounters, and the (many) literary references are approached with caution, but also with a shy confidence.  Personal experiences, like the narrator’s experiences in a prep school – guarded from the subversive Art College just across the way- conveniently and realistically mime moments in time, the greater American sentiment.  The psychological fascination with homosexuality as something to be cured, the insecurity of the gay men and lesbian women, so totally aware of who they are, yet still trying to cope with the realization that society around them will not accept their own reality, all wrapped in the narrator’s concession that what he does he knows to be wrong (the consumption of anonymous, meaningless sex, night after night – not being gay in general) and that, though he comes from a dysfunctional family, it is not the family that makes the man.  It is both the personal touches, the narrator’s struggle to find meaningful love – and to lose it – friendships, loss, embarrassment, shame, self-consciousness and body image, coupled with the bigger ideas of society, religion, and law (the many references to gender laws, some of which included laws that banned women from wearing more than three articles of “manly” clothing, and a law which required that in each group of men at a night-club, at least one female must be present) which makes this story so impactful, so believable and so important.  The personal struggle is terribly hard, but White also wants us to remember that, there was a bigger struggle.  Yes, the “Pink Panthers” at the Stonewall Riots found themselves to be a bit ridiculous, yet they were, for the first time, standing up for a certain right being denied them, singing “We Shall Overcome” and, upon waking up the next morning, are crushed in spirit when they find that no mention of the riot, the movement, the importance of their presence can be found in any newspaper.  It was a painful time in America, and that strife and clawing-struggle is purposefully and powerfully represented by White in The Beautiful Room is Empty. 
The Bad:
There is an uncomfortable amount of time and attention paid to the many sexual exploits of the narrator.  Certainly, I understand the inclusion and, admittedly, believe it to be entirely necessary if the novel is to be truly honest.  Still, I did oftentimes find it distracting.  How could White have remained honest without the repeated, saturated references to prostitution, glory-holes, bathroom orgies?  I can’t say – and for this reason, I understand the necessity.  Still, I find myself wishing a bit more attention had been paid to the personal relationships, the professional growth, the assimilation of the narrator into “normal” culture, and his feelings in these situations.  This is my only gripe, and it is a minor one, because despite my need to find fault with any novel, there’s little to find here.  I believe the work could have been strengthened, certainly, by more attention to the late-blooming, loving relationship between the narrator and Sean, which is quickly ended but obviously important to the narrator and his personal growth.  The novel also might be more enjoyable if a closer connection could have been made between reader and the narrator.   Though White makes an effort to open up the narrator to observation and examination by exposing inner thoughts & feelings, by placing his narrator in the darkest depths of his own embarrassment and making the reader bear witness, yet we don’t ever really get to know the narrator. Not even his name.  We know that writing and artistic appreciation drive him, but we don’t ever see any prowess or success in this – in fact, very little time or attention is even paid to the task of writing.  Perhaps the novel itself is the writing, the final outcome, the “what” that had been developing from all of these experiences.  If that’s the case – I missed the hint.
The Final Verdict: 4.5 Out of 5.0

The Beautiful Room is Empty is quite an accomplishment, despite White’s guardedness over his narrator.  I can understand if the story was too personal to disclose anything more than what was disclosed and perhaps, to White, the most sensitive nerves truly were exposed.  Ultimately, the development in plot and in prose & style from A Boy’s Own Story to The Beautiful Room is Empty makes me believe, as I seldom do, that the author’s every concealment and revelation was intentional.  There are later works in this “series” and I can only imagine that the work continues to grow and improve.  That the honesty will continue to be more honest, the writing will continue to run fluid and the self-realization will continue to occur in tandem with the greater growth and understanding of a people.  Truly enjoyable, if at times uncomfortable.

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

Review: Nothing Like the Sun by Anthony Burgess

Summary: 
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.
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Book Review, Christopher Isherwood, Fiction, Gay Lit, GLBT Challenge

Review: A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

Summary
George, the main character, is an English-born gay man, living and working as a literature professor in Southern California.  George is struggling to readjust to “single life” after the death of his long-time partner, Jim.  George is brilliant but self-conscious.  He is determined to see the best in his pupils, yet knows few, if any, of his students will amount to anything.  His friends look to him as a revolutionary and a philosopher, but George feels he’s simply an above-par teacher,  a physically healthy but noticeably aging man, with little prospects for love – though he seems to find it when determined not to look for it.

The Good
Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man is not Isherwood’s most popular or most lauded work, even after the recent Hollywood movie, starring Colin Firth & Julianne Moore (two of my favorite actors).  That this novel is one of the “lesser read” of Isherwood’s novels, I think, speaks volumes for his other works –because this novel is absolutely beautiful.  In some ways, it reminds me of a gay Nicholas Sparks, except the themes are deeper and the language/style is more artistically driven and manipulated.  Edmund White, one of gay literature’s most respected and prominent authors, called A Single Man “one of the first and best models of the Gay Liberation movement” and it’s impossible to disagree.  Isherwood himself said that this was the favorite of his nine novels, and though it is my first encounter with Isherwood’s works, I imagine it would be quite difficult to top this work in terms of emotional connectivity and social relevance.  The language flows beautifully, even poetically, without seeming self-indulgent.  The structure – like short bursts of thought – is easy to keep pace with and seems to function almost in tune with George’s day-to-day musings.  What’s for breakfast?  What’s happening on the way to work?  What am I saying to my students, but what do I hope they’re hearing?  Once I got 15-20 pages into the novel, I knew it would be impossible to put down and, indeed, I completed most of the book in one afternoon.  This is not to say that the book was an “easy read.”  In fact, it was emotionally and psychologically haunting.  George’s love for his deceased partner, his loyalty to a broken friend, and his struggle to control lustful emotions for a student are effortlessly expressed by Isherwood, and the tension is brilliantly divined.  There is a twist ending which, had it not been constructed with such ingenuity and genius, I would have ordinarily found it quite cliché.  Fortunately, Isherwood gets his point across without having to sacrifice his (or the readers) immersion into the plot line.  This was a balancing act pulled of immaculately, and I was –as a seasoned reader- truly impressed.

The Bad
There is little to place here under “the bad.”  I found the novel just so impressive and moving, it’s hard to find fault.  The two things I was disappointed in, I suppose, are 1) the novel’s length.  George’s simple, sad life was so ordinary but had so much promise – largely due to George’s internal monologue – his analysis of every action and emotion (typically literary-inspired).  I would have enjoyed getting more of the back story between George and Jim – and more of the relationship (little as it existed) between George and his student, Kenny.  I was disappointed in George’s kindness to Dorothy, mainly because I would not have been able, personally, to forgive such a transgression and betrayal – so, for this reason, I find it a bit unbelievable (but that could be my problem, and not George’s or Isherwood’s).  2)  No, I was wrong – I covered all of this in point #1.

The Final Verdict: 4.5 out of 5.0
The novel takes place in the course of one day – so the characterization was probably as well-developed as it could be; the emotion of the novel – the desperation and sadness were genuine and personal – I felt exposed and violated, frustrated and hopeful.  I could see myself in George – the future me – and I was disappointed in myself at times, proud of myself at times, but – ultimately – I was left with the sense of knowing who I am (who George is) and of accepting things as they are.  The only truly possible way of living a satisfied (not happy) life.

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