Book Review, Fantasy, Fiction, Helene Wecker, Historical Fiction, Mythology

Thoughts: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

15819028The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

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

Helene Wecker’s historical fantasy novel, The Golem and the Jinni, was a pleasant surprise for me.  It had been much-hyped, before and after publication, and my experience with “those” kinds of books has tended to be less than wonderful.  I am thrilled to say, though, that The Golem and the Jinni, not only lived up to expectations, but exceeded them (mine, especially).  The story is about two mythological creates whose paths are fated to cross.  The first, Ahmad, is a gorgeous, fiery Jinni who has been bound to a wicked master for generations; the second, Chava, is a uniquely gifted Golem, created to serve a specific purpose but now lost without her master who died at sea shortly after she was awaken (born).  The two creatures meet in New York city, thousands of miles from their middle eastern homelands, at the turn of the century (1899).  Although they are quite different – differently skilled, with wildly different temperaments – they develop a strange friendship, the strength of which their own fate, and the fate of the world, might depend on.

Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

It is rare to read a fantasy story about two inhuman characters who read as so very human.  Each of these creatures is awoken in a time, place, and situation which calls for them to be essentially born anew.  They must learn the ways of the world, the languages and customs of the new world, in order to survive and to protect those who they have grown to care for, if somewhat begrudgingly.  The Jinni, a creature of fire and air, learns to hone his skills with metalwork and artistry, all the while longing for freedom from his bondage and for his homeland, the deserts of the Middle East.  The Golem, more intelligent, inquisitive, and lifelike than any other golem before her, struggles to navigate such a populated place; living in New York is difficult for someone like her, because she can sense and feel all the thoughts and emotions of those around her.  Interestingly enough, while they both learn much about humanity by living amongst humans, it is the friendship that develops between them, the bond that only two non-humans can share, which teaches them the greatest human lessons of all – faith, love, and sacrifice.

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

Wecker certainly has a talent not just for storytelling, but for story-crafting. The story of Ahmad and his master, which is central to The Golem and the Jinni, is one which spans centuries of time, and numerous countries; yet, Wecker manages to weave the jinni’s sparse memories so fluidly into the main story that we hardly realize how much history has unfolded before us.  The lives of the characters and their stories interconnect effortlessly, right up to the conclusion, which is stunning in conception and delivery.  Her prose is simultaneously deep and delicate, romantic and bare.  The marriage of style and story reminds me of the great gothic Romances, of Robert Louis Stevenson and Mary Shelley – Wecker has somehow recreated one of the most sentimental, exploratory literary movements in a contemporary novel that is set in the past.  She provides just enough suspense, just enough romance, just enough magic, and just enough reality to make it all work seamlessly.

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

What the great gothic Romances, like Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde did was to tell the story of humanity through a supernatural lens.  What can we learn about ourselves, about our desire for power, knowledge, control, by exploring the cause and effect relationship between who we are and what we create?  Wecker revisits this question, she asks, again, what does it mean to be human, to be capable of creating great and terrible things, to be gods among men?  Much of today’s literature, with the exception, perhaps, of those like DeLillo and Vonnegut, forgets to question this power, forgets to wonder about the cause-and-effect relationship between our scientific, technological advances and our moral centers.  Wecker does this, in the original form.  She reminds us to think about how far we go, to question the value of our creations, to wonder about our humanity, and to reevaluate ourselves and our impact on the world – our dasein, as Heidegger would put it.  Above everything, she reminds us that the world belongs to all of us and that the best we can do with our lives is to love and to learn.  The Golem and the Jinni was one of my favorite reads of 2013.

Suggested Reading For:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Fantasy, Mythology, Historical Fiction, Witchcraft, Romance.

Notable Quotes:

“A man might desire something for a moment, while a larger part of him rejects it. You’ll need to learn to judge people by their actions, not their thoughts.”

“Sometimes men want what they don’t have because they don’t have it. Even if everyone offered to share, they would only want the share that wasn’t theirs.”

“I look at what we call faith, and all I see is superstition and subjugation. All religions . . . create false divisions, and enslave us to fantasies, when we need to focus on the here and now.”

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1001 Books, American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Coming-of-Age, Courtroom Drama, Events, Fiction, Harper Lee, Historical Fiction, MockingbirdReads, Read-Alongs, Social Drama, Southern Lit

Thoughts: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

2657To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 46

Harper Lee’s noted –and only- work, To Kill a Mockingbird, has become a classic piece of literature and a staple of American culture and southern history.  The narrator and protagonist, Scout Finch, along with her brother, Jem, and their friend, Dill, begin the story as lighthearted, inquisitive and playful children who are fascinated by a mysterious neighbor named Arthur “Boo” Radley.  As the story progresses, they have a series of encounters with Boo, but they do not know it (until all comes to a head in the tragic and life-altering conclusion).  Jem and Scout’s father, Atticus, is the town (and county’s) best lawyer, and also a representative to the state legislature.  He is tasked with defending a black man against the charge of rape, and the task will change his children forever.

Although the book directly wrestles with issues of racism, violence, bigotry, caste, and education, its primary concern is coming of age and loss of innocence.  Scout’s innocence, in particular, but also Jem and Dill’s, is threatened by successive incidents that reveal to these generally kind, somewhat simple kids the presence and nature of human evils.  This is especially made clear with the conviction of Tom Robinson, a black man who, from the start, was bound to be found guilty, despite Atticus Finch’s brilliant defense and the clear evidence support Robinson’s innocence.  This conviction shatters Jem’s world and forces him into manhood, meanwhile causing Dill, a gentle and artistic soul, to face the harsh realities of a world he tries so hard to avoid.

The trial is only the first of two major incidents which will change the kids’ worlds.  The second happens at the end of the book, when the man whom accused Robinson of rape (and whom Atticus clearly implicates instead), attempts to make good on his promise to ruin Atticus Finch.  Although neither he nor anyone in his family was punished for their perjury and false accusations, and although Robinson was ultimately convicted and suffered the harshest fate, Bob Ewell still feels it necessary to seek his own justice for the “damage of character” done to him at the trial.  This particularly subplot is particularly telling of how class, within white society, is just as important and just as divided as the world of blacks and whites.

Ultimately, To Kill a Mockingbird is an exploration of human nature and each individual’s capacity for both good and evil.  It is a commentary on the importance of moral education – much more so than academic education, and a discussion on social class and the true meaning of justice (and who is entitled to it).  Harper Lee utilizes interesting Gothic techniques, reminiscent of the great southern Gothics such as Flannery O’Connor, to build tension and anticipation, and to foreshadow the story’s more important events.

Allowing the story to be told from Scout’s point of view, in retrospect, adds both honesty and evidence to the story, but also some room for doubt.  She narrates the entire story in the first person, as through her childhood self’s eyes, but then adds analysis and supplementary thoughts to the narration, as an experienced adult revisiting these events after many years.  The inclusion of these comments makes the narrator more trustworthy, as it reveals to us that she is aware (and admitting) that she is somewhat distanced from the time and place of the story and, therefore, could possibly be over or under-exaggerating certain things.  The tone of her narration, like the tone of the story, begins in childhood innocence but becomes increasingly foreboding and self-conscious as the tale unwinds.

To be sure, To Kill a Mockingbird holds a beloved place in the hearts of many readers and also a coveted spot in the canon as a “classic” of American literature.  When I first read this book, many years ago, I was not as much of a fan as I thought I would be, but this re-read has proved me wrong.  The book is well-written and masterfully constructed (where and how Lee begins the story, for instance, really struck me as perfection, this time around).  The characters, good, bad, and indifferent, are believable, interesting, and important to the plot and scenery.  This is a book I will be revisiting again and again.

I read this book as part of a read-along, with additional thoughts posted Here.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 16+
Interest: Social Justice, Racism, American South, Courtroom Drama, Coming of Age, Southern Gothic.

Notable Quotes:

“Thus we came to know Dill as a pocket Merlin, whose head teemed with eccentric plans, strange longings, and quaint fancies” (9).

“There were other ways of making people into ghosts” (12).

“It’s best to begin reading with a fresh mind” (19).

“When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults” (99).

“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (103).

“Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that just doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience” (120).

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what” 128).

“Dill was off again. Beautiful things floated around in his dreamy head. He could read two books to my one, but he preferred the magic of his own inventions” (163).

“I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks” (259).

“Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret court of men’s hearts Atticus had no case” (276).

“I came to the conclusion that people were just peculiar. I withdrew from them, and never thought about them until I was forced to” (279).

“As I made my way home, I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, except possibly algebra” (321).


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1001 Books, 2013 B2tC Challenge, 2013 Challenges, Book Review, Chivalry, Classics, Classics Club, Comedy, Historical, Historical Fiction, Literature, Miguel Cervantes, Morality Novel, Parody, Romance, Spanish

Thoughts: Don Quixote, Part One by Miguel Cervantes

don-quixote 

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, Part One

by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 40


Don Quixote is considered by many to be the first example of the contemporary novel-as-we-know-it, though I believe this is much more applicable to “Part Two” than it is to “Part One.”  The story is set in the year 1614, shortly after publication of Part One (1605) and just before the publication of Part Two (1615).  In this hilarious adventure tale, Don Quixote, a self-proclaimed Knight Errant, with his faithful squire Sancho Panza, set out on a journey to restore chivalry to the world, with a goal of defending the helpless and destroying the wicked. The two foolish men wander throughout Spain and encounter all sorts of bizarre adventures, from giants mistaken as windmills to village taverns mistaken for castles.

Sancho Panza joins Don Quixote in these adventures because he believes that his squireship will bring him riches, or at least the governorship of an isle, as that is what Don Quixote tells him has happened in all the books of chivalry (which must mean it is true!).  As for Don Quixote, he claims to be on a quest to make himself worthy of the love of his lady, Dulcinea del Toboso, and he demands that all who would challenge him must proclaim to the world that Dulcinea del Toboso is the most beautiful, most wonderful woman in all of Spain.  Of course, Dulcinea del Toboso, like Sancho’s riches and Don Quixote’s texts, is just a fiction.

After numerous adventures, wherein Don Quixote repeatedly proves just how foolish (and dangerous) he is, he and Sancho eventually meet a woman who quickly comes to understand Don Quixote’s “affliction” and uses it to her advantage, pretending to be a royal woman in distress who needs the assistance of a noble knight. What is fascinating is how very sane and, indeed, brilliant Don Quixote can be when speaking about anything other than knighthood and romances.  It is only when he is invested in his chivalric adventures (which is most of the time) that he becomes, essentially, a madman. In the end, a priest and barber from La Mancha, who had disguised themselves in order to get in with Don Quixote’s company without raising suspicion, capture Don Quixote and convince him that he has been enchanted; in this way, they manage to bring him home, where they hope to cure his insanity and obsession with fictional tales of knight errantry.

Untitled

Don Quixote is a parody of the romances of the time.  The Renaissance (15th-16th centuries) which, in Spain, had immediately preceded Cervantes’ life and the creation of this novel, gave rise to new discussions about and interpretations of art, morality, identity, and humanism; however, the popular literature of Cervantes’s era continued to be rife with books of chivalry – melodramatic fantasies about the adventures of wandering knights who slay giants, rescue damsels in distress, and battle evil wizards and enchanters.  These were highly stylized tales with shallow characters who were playing out the rules of tired, dusty old dramas.  In those dramas, the main theme was chivalry: protecting the weak, lauding women, and celebrating brave knights who traveled the world in search of good deeds to be done.

The character Don Quixote is obsessed with these romances and these knights.  He truly believes himself to be one of the greatest of knights errant, who must live and die by the code set down in these fictional texts.  Through him, Cervantes is commenting on the ridiculousness (and tiredness) of these old ideas.  He desperately wanted to bring Spanish Literature into the new age (which, though Cervantes wouldn’t know it, yet, was anticipating the Enlightenment).  All is not a joke, however.  Cervantes was a soldier and he was deeply devoted to Spain.  The country was making great advances in technology and social enterprises, and it was earning a great deal of wealth from its American colonies.  Amidst all this change, Cervantes did believe that a code of values (like the ancient codes of chivalry) could be useful for a nation confused by war with England, militarily, and also with the Muslim religion.

One of the most ground-breaking elements of Don Quixote is its narration.  The book is narrated by the author, who is commenting on a “true history” as written by a fictive historian called Cide Hamete Benengeli, a Moor who originally chronicled the adventures of Don Quixote.  Cervantes as narrator charges himself with translating the original text; thus, he narrates most of the book in the third-person, but does sometimes enter into the thoughts of the characters or into first person, such as when he is commenting on the novel itself or the original manuscript (written by Benengeli).  There are three sections to Don Quixote, the first two being in “Part One” and the third being all of “Part Two.”  The first section is largely a parody of the contemporary romance tales and is likely what most people think of when they think about Don Quixote.  The second part, however, takes a narrative shift toward historical fiction.  It proceeds episodically, is not as comedic, and is pulled much more from Cervantes’s life experiences, via third-party tales (not just the narrator telling us what is happening with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, but other characters talking to our main heroes about their own histories and adventures).  In these first two sections (or “Part One”) it is Cervantes as narrator who is reporting the entire story, in direct narrative style, but this is something which will change for “Part Two.”

1

In addition to the interesting narrative choices (which become much more interesting and complex in “Part Two”) there are other major themes and motifs, such as: Morality (old ideas versus new ones); a comparison between Class and Worth (Cervantes’s claim being that one’s class does not necessarily speak to their personal worth – an extremely radical idea for the time); Romance (romantic love being of highest value); Honor (the idea of being personally honorable is lauded, whereas the idea of living up to a lofty, ancient code of honor seems to be mocked and leads to sometimes disastrous consequences); and Literature (there is a raging debate about the need for truthfulness and historical accuracy in fiction, and about how much of literature can/should be expected to be honest and how much of it pure imagination).

Some of the most interesting elements of Don Quixote, are those which are drawn from Cervantes’s own life.  His fears, his biases, and his own experiences very much contributed to the themes in the book, even giving him inspiration for the creation of it.  Mistrust for foreigners, for example, is a prevalent theme, as is the tension between the Moors and the Catholics.  Cervantes and his brother were captured by pirates and sold to the Moors (Muslims), after which they ended up in Algiers.  Cervantes tried to escape –three times- but could not get away until he was ransomed in 1580, after which he was able to return to Spain.  This experience, in addition to the defeat of the impenetrable Spanish Armada in 1588, by the English, are the backbone of the tale, and make up some of its intermediary tales, such as the tale of the captive (Chapter 34).  Many of the battles Cervantes engaged in when he was in the Spanish Army are recounted somewhat in this book, through other characters’ tales, which adds depth and autobiographical history to this fantasy tale.

Ultimately, Part One of Don Quixote is historical fiction disguised as literary parody.  It is great fun, for a while, but is, in my opinion, longer than necessary; one could get the point in half the time, though what Cervantes starts to work on in the second section of Part One is definitely a shift away from the pure farce and fantasy of the first section. Cervantes does explore some interesting notions, such as cross-dressing, self-worth, female independence, and the nature of love, all of which are looked at it relatively new ways. For its autobiographical exploration, its historical significance, and its narrative uniqueness, Don Quixote (Part One) is a valuable read, but it is Part Two, in my opinion, which really stands out and, perhaps, keeps Don Quixote in the canon of important classics.  Continue to my thoughts on Part Two.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest:  Spanish Literature, Classics, Parody, Comedy, Romance, Morality Novel, Historical Novel.


Notable Quotes:

DonQuijoteDeLaMancha-767176“I am too spiritless and lazy by nature to go about looking for authors to say for me what I can say myself without them” (17).

“And so from little sleep and much reading, his brain dried up and he lost his wits.  He filled his mind with all that he read in them, with enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, wooing, loves, torments and other impossible nonsense; and so deeply did he steep his imagination in the belief that all the fanciful stuff he read was true, that to his mind no history in the world was more authentic” (32).

“I do not understand why, merely because she inspires love, a woman who is loved for her beauty is obliged to love the man who loves her” (108).

“I do swear, I tell you, that I will keep silent to the very last days of your honour’s life. And please God I may be free to speak to-morrow” (125).

“A knight errant who turns mad for a reason deserves neither merit nor thanks. The thing is to do it without cause” (203).

“They say we ought to love our Lord for Himself alone, without being moved to it by hope of glory or fear of punishment. Though, as for me, I’m inclined to love and serve Him for what He can do for me” (273).

“Love, I have heard it said, sometimes flies and sometimes walks. With one person it runs, with another creeps; some it cools and some it burns; some it wounds and others it kills; in a single instant it starts on the race of passion, and in the same instant concludes and ends it; in the morning it will besiege a fortress, and by evening it has subdued it, for there is no force that can resist it” (304).

“Women have naturally a readier wit for good or for evil than men, although it fails them when they set about deliberate reasoning” (308).


Don Quixote is Book #12 completed for my Classics Club Challenge

Don Quixote is Book #3 completed for my Back to the Classics Challenge 2013 

Don Quixote is Book #124 completed for my 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die Challenge


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

Thoughts: Gods and Monsters by Christopher Bram

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

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

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

Characterization:
4– Characters very well-developed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notable Quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Belgium, Book Review, Brussels, Fiction, Gay Lit, Historical Fiction, Kathe Koja, Romance, Secret Societies, War

Review: Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja

Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 1

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

If you can imagine a marriage between the coy, tongue-in-cheek, clever mysteries of Agatha Christie and the melancholic, whimsical, romantic lyricism of Shakespeare, then perhaps you have an understanding of what Kathe Koja has created with Under the Poppy.  The place is 1870s Brussels, amidst what one assumes is the beginnings of the Franco-Prussian War (at least, this reader assumes, as he is unfamiliar with any other war of this time and place).  The book’s main players – Rupert Bok and Istvan – are life-long lovers, drawn together in boyhood, pulled apart by circumstances.  The two, in their youth, somehow became entangled with the darkest, most powerful and secretive of high-society.  That entanglement, coupled with the two’s dangerous romance (never spoken aloud, but so clear to all), results in a perpetual cat-and-mouse game between the story’s antagonists (de Metz and his servants – the General, in particular) and the puppeteer-players.  The somewhat under-explained history between the two puppeteers (primarily Istvan) and their former masters is what drives the drama onward, resulting in feints and volleys, dashes and escapes, relationships severed and deepened, and, ultimately, wounds scarred, but healed. 

Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

What certainly shines in terms of characterization in this novel is the genuine presentation of the main characters, who happen to be homosexual.  In another story, as written by another author, it is likely that these two men (and some of the minor characters as well) would have quickly turned into grotesques – exaggerated stereotypes for the larger perception of “gay man.”  Instead, Koja allows each to be an individual, and both are strong in their own ways, talented in their own ways, and equally devoted to the other, in his own way.  Realizing that the portrayal of these two characters was going to allow for not a “gay historical romance” but just a historical romance, period, quickly afforded me enough peace of mind to truly immerse myself in the story.  The one less-than-perfect aspect to be found in this book, at least for me, is the somewhat shallow characterization and character development.  Now, to be clear, the characterization in the book is good – it just wants deeper and more thorough development.  What is interesting and unusual is that each of the major players – Istvan, Rupert, Benjamin, Isobel, Lucy, Ag, and even Mr. Arrowsmith, are so incredibly recognizable and distinct, and yet still under-developed.  The disappointment, in large part, is not due to the fact that these characters are poor, because they are, in fact, rather fantastic; however, with these characters, there seemed so much more room to grow.  Knowing more of their histories, for instance, their previous interactions with one another – the “how” and “why” of their relationships – would bring so much to the story, enriching it with a deeper substance that just was not present, because these relationships and histories remained largely a mystery.  Of course, the sense of mystery allowed for a dramatic effect, overall, which speaks largely to the book as a play – which, perhaps, is right on point, considering the subject matter and the intent to mirror the puppeteers with their puppet-masters with the string-pulling of the narrative itself.  So, ultimately, one is left not so much with a disappointment in the characters (because who could be disappointed in these beautiful, sad, lonely and heroically tragic creatures?) but in a craving for more – and knowing that the more was there to be had, if only…

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

This particular section has been a point of contention for me, but I am erring on the side of the artistic, and forcing my personal structural preferences out of the picture in hopes of relaxing and enjoying the aesthetic aspect of the novel, in lieu of proper form.  Of course, one must do this on many occasions with creative works, particularly those with an artistic function and subject-matter (like the stage!).  Still, I will be up front in saying: I like grammar.  I enjoy quotation marks and separated dialogue and internal monologue.  I prefer different speakers to be distinguished by paragraph (or at least line) breaks.  And none of this happened in Under the Poppy.  At first, this made it very difficult for me to sink into the story – until I realized that the point is to let go.  Then, my goodness!  The artistry of the prose, the fluidity of the language, the sensuality and connectivity of the descriptions – no reader could ask for more, particularly from such an intensely romantic novel, which takes itself seriously by virtue of beauty and honesty alone.  There is something strangely cohesive, too, between the relationship enjoyed (ever-painfully) between Rupert and Istvan, and the prose of this work – it is almost as if Rupert and Istvan are whispering their story, and those whispers scrawl themselves across the pages, so that thoughts and feelings, actions and desires, all pour out in series after series of emotional memory. There are points in the story when it almost seems like the words – the passions- are moving right through you, and out the other side, so, suddenly, you are the story and you feel it in every inch of your being.  This is almost impossible to describe, but when a grammatical linguist can become enthralled and moved by a type of free-verse prose, well, that is a laudable accomplishment, indeed. 

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

If ever the phrase “all the world’s a stage / and all the men and women merely players” were to fit a novel – this would be that novel.  Koja leaves the reader stunned by the brutal honesty of the story – no punches are pulled, and yet the tale is told so beautifully, so passionately, and so artistically, it becomes hard, at times, to pull one’s self off of this stage and remember that we are only the audience to this bittersweet drama.  Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this novel is its decorum.  How is it conceivable that a story about a saucy and crafty puppeteer, coming to live with his male-lover in a brothel, will turn out to be nothing but heartrendingly sweet and heroic?  In the style of Dumas, less swashbuckler, or Austen, more twisted, it is so;  this incredible tale, which starts off with perhaps one of the most memorable scenes I have ever read, quickly defines itself as a serious, old-fashioned, romance-mystery, the likes of which the Bronte sisters may have admired.  A story like this could have easily become trite or even bawdy, but Koja manages to keep it delicate, tender, and truthful.  Overall, this reader was incredibly impressed with Koja’s performance – the story certainly lives up to the romance of the book’s cover art, which originally drew me to it.  Bravo! Merde! And may the show go on!
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  Adult

Interest: GLBT, History, European History, Belgium History, Puppetry, Theater, War, Secret Societies, Romance

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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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