Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Family, Favorites, Fiction, Homosexuality, Justin Torres, LGBT

We the Animals by Justin Torres

Justin Torres’ We the Animals is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novella about a young boy and his two brothers, growing up mixed-race (their father is Puerto Rican and their mother is Caucasian) in New York. Though the book is rather short, at just under 130 pages, it is written as a series of episodes, similar to a short-story compilation, and every episode packs a wallop. As “the boy” and his two brothers, Manny and Joel, grow up, we see their hunger: hunger for food, for love, for attention, for something bigger, better, brighter. They are always hungry for more. They and their parents go through life in a torrent – sometimes smashing and breaking things (and each other) just to have something to do, to have some power over their out-of-control lives. They watch their parents’ violent love affair; they witness their father disappear and reappear; they see their mother working night shifts just to bring home enough food to keep the boys from starving, while she goes without most of the time. And the reader watches “the boy,” the narrator, as he slowly develops into a person different from his family, more intelligent, more sensitive. He is their one hope and they are simultaneously encouraging and envious, until the world comes crashing down around them all and the family is changed forever.

Part of what makes this such a brilliant work is that, although none of these characters is particularly redeeming or heroic, it is impossible not to fall in love with each of them, just a little bit. The reason for this is that they are so believable; none of the characters is simply “the bad guy” or “the good guy.” These are human beings, a family. They are wildly, furiously passionate about and defensive of one another, but they also despise each other at times. The kids love and adore their parents for many reasons, but the parents also manage to disappoint in some way. Likewise, it is easy to believe that Ma and Paps would do anything for their kids, even die for them; but this doesn’t stop them from yelling, beating, or ignoring them at times. The most interesting and effective characterization, then, is not just in the development of the characters as individuals (because that is present, particularly in the narrator), but in the development of the family as a whole and how they live and interact with one another as the years and episodes go by. Their interaction says so much about who they are, what they want and need, and where they are likely to end up when years have come and gone.

Justin Torres’ debut work, is stunningly written. The prose pulls you along with seemingly no effort of your own; it is as if the reader is a ship, the story is the sea, and Torres’ prose is the boat-crew. Whether the story-sea be raging and ravaging the ship or if it be sweetly calm, lapping gently at the boat, Torres’ prose, the crew, is there to guide you, navigating you onward, directing you through the storms and allowing you to settle in, relax, and enjoy the voyage when the weather has calmed. Torres also structures the book in an interesting way, through episodes rather than direct progression. Each short chapter is a scene from the narrator’s life which exposes a certain aspect of the narrator or element of his family.  We learn about the narrator by catching glimpses of various moments he finds important, such as dancing with his brothers and father, or playing messy games with his mother who never seems to tire of the boys’ wild antics. As the episodes move along, the boys grow and the glimpses into their lives become more complicated, more dangerous.  Finally, in the last episodes, we see the narrator for who he has become and the family for what it is, and we are left to hope that all the pieces will someday come together again.

We the Animals is the first book I find impossible to compare to any other, because it is like nothing else I have ever read. It excites you and it saddens you. It terrifies you and it makes you laugh. There is an honesty and reality to this book that is almost unbearable; the story cuts you to the quick one moment and, in the next, is suckling at your fingertips, dulling the pain. The raw emotion from the writer/narrator, be it in discussing family or race, sexuality or poverty, is told in one of the most uniquely genuine and effective ways I have ever experienced. The episodic structure allows readers to see what the narrator believes is most important and, while some could use this type of structure toward one or another character’s benefit (in an omniscient narrator kind of way), this narrator is oddly fair, exposing the good and bad in each person, including himself. This book tackles family, neglect, and poverty; it confronts adultery, pedophilia, and loneliness. It is a book of love and hate, dark and light, and, ultimately, a book of life and existence; a masterful retelling of the world as it is. We the is riveting, gut-wrenching, and bittersweet. Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

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GLBT, guest post, Homosexuality, Joel Derfner, LGBT

Guest Post: Joel Derfner, Lawfully Wedded Husband

Dear Readers,

Today, I am pleased to welcome Joel Derfner, author of Lawfully Wedded Husband and Swish, to the blog!


After weeks of trying to figure out what to write my guest post about, I take Roof Beam Reader’s recent post about Arthur Conan Doyle as a sign, because I’ve been spending a lot of time talking about Conan Doyle lately with my therapist.

acdWhen Conan Doyle started writing fiction in the early 1880s while waiting for patients to start appearing at the medical practice he’d recently opened (he waited, alas, in vain), detective stories were the furthest thing from his mind; he was writing a novel about three Buddhist priests who show up to take revenge on a general who had fought in the First Afghan War. But then he came up with Sherlock Holmes, and people liked him and wanted more, so Conan Doyle gave them more, and then they wanted more, and then more, and finally Conan Doyle couldn’t take it. “I weary of his name,” he wrote in one letter to his mother; in another, “I think of slaying Holmes . . . . He takes my mind from better things,” that was to say, his historical novels. His mother wrote back, “You won’t! You can’t! You mustn’t!” but he ignored her and sent The Strand a story in which he tossed Holmes off the Reichenbach Falls, at which point twenty thousand people immediately cancelled their subscriptions.

Alas for Conan Doyle, once he got back to writing his historical fiction, which was what he was really interested in, people got back to not caring about his work, and eventually in order to keep from starving to death he had to resurrect Holmes. Circulation for The Strand immediately went up by over thirty thousand, and Conan Doyle made enough money that he could make vast, extravagant attempts to prove the validity of Spiritualism before he died of angina.

211525The reason I’ve been talking about this in therapy is that I’ve written three books. The first, Gay Haiku, was a cute little pink bathroom book. The second, Swish, was a memoir; on the surface it’s an exploration of gay stereotypes and the truths that can lie underneath them, but ultimately it’s a book about what it is to feel like an outsider. The third, Lawfully Wedded Husband: How My Gay Marriage Will Save the American Family, published last month, is half memoir and half musings on history, politics, and culture. I don’t really count Gay Haiku, since it took about five seconds to write, but the other two books I think of as aiming at something important about the human condition, as fulfilling what D.H. Lawrence says is the function of art:

The essential function of art is moral. Not aesthetic, not decorative, not pastime and recreation. But moral. The essential function of art is moral. But a passionate, implicit morality, not didactic. A morality which changes the blood, rather than the mind. The mind follows later, in the wake.

Swish and Lawfully Wedded Husband are both attempts—whether they’re successful or not isn’t for me to say—to change the blood of their readers.

The problem is that now I’ve run out of life to memoirize, so I’m writing a murder mystery.

“My last book was about civil rights and pain and compassion,” I say to my therapist. “This book is about a dead body.”

“You know,” he says, “Arthur Conan Doyle wrote—”

“Yes, I know, I know,” I say. “So you keep telling me. But this is different.”

“Really? Have you ever even picked up one of the novels Conan Doyle thought was important?”

“You’re missing the point.”

“The point,” he says, “is that worrying about whether the work you’re doing is important or not is silly, because ultimately it’s not your judgment to make. Furthermore, it’s counterproductive, because it keeps you from engaging wholeheartedly in the work itself.”

“Can’t we just go back to talking about my mother?”

Of course my therapist is right, though I occasionally accuse him of trying to turn me into a Buddhist, and not the fun kind who would take revenge on somebody for his actions in the First Afghan War. And, to give myself some credit, I’ve started acting like he’s right too, and working on the mystery novel becomes a lot easier when I’m not hating myself for not writing something that fulfills the essential function of art. And who knows? Maybe Sherlock Holmes himself fulfills that function, showing his readers that reason and truth can triumph in a world that sets all its powers against them.

I don’t really have a clean way to wrap up this post, so I guess I’ll just say that I’m fine seeing all my other work fall by the wayside, as long as something I write changes somebody’s blood.


Praise for JOEL DERFNER:

“Moving seamlessly from the personal to the historical to the political, Joel Derfner meditates with wit, insight and even-handedness on the realities of marriage — his and everyone’s. His story is not only deftly placed in the context of the broader fight for marriage equality, but is also a powerful tool in that fight. Mainly because it’s so funny.”

—David Javerbaum, 12-time Emmy winner (for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) and co-author of The Last Testament of God: A Memoir

“In a culture where we disguise vulnerability with physical perfection and material success, Derfner skewers heartache with Wildean wit . . . [Derfner is] the next Noël Coward.”

—Out.com on Swish

More about LAWFULLY WEDDED HUSBAND:
17885414When Joel Derfner’s boyfriend proposed to him, there was nowhere in America the two could legally marry. That changed quickly, however, and before long the two were on what they expected to be a rollicking journey to married bliss. What they didn’t realize was that, along the way, they would confront not just the dilemmas every couple faces on the way to the altar—what kind of ceremony would they have? what would they wear? did they have to invite Great Aunt Sophie?—but also questions about what a relationship can and can’t do, the definition of marriage, and, ultimately, what makes a family.

Add to the mix a reality show whose director forces them to keep signing and notarizing applications for a wedding license until the cameraman gets a shot she likes; a family marriage history that includes adulterers, arms smugglers, and poisoners; and discussions of civil rights, Sophocles, racism, grammar, and homemade Ouija boards—coupled with Derfner’s gift for getting in his own way—and what results is a story not just of gay marriage and the American family but of what it means to be human.

More about JOEL DERFNER:
123839Joel is from South Carolina, where his great-grandmother had an affair with George Gershwin. After leaving the south, he got a B.A. in linguistics from Harvard. A year after he graduated, his thesis on the Abkhaz language was shown to be completely wrong, as the word he had been translating as “who” turned out to be not a noun but a verb. Realizing that linguistics was not his métier, he moved to New York to get an M.F.A. in musical theater writing from the Tisch School of the Arts.

Musicals for which he has written the scores have been produced in London, New York, and various cities in between (going counterclockwise). In an attempt to become the gayest person ever, he joined Cheer New York, New York’s gay and lesbian cheerleading squad, but eventually he had to leave because he was too depressed. In desperation, he started knitting and teaching aerobics, though not at the same time. He hopes to come to a bad end.


Where to Buy Lawfully Wedded Husband: Amazon.com, IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, Anderson’s, Powell’s, Book People, Book Passage, McNally Robinson.


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Book Review, Coming-of-Age, David Levithan, Depression, Family, Favorites, Fiction, Gay Lit, Gender Identity, GLBT, Homophobia, Homosexuality, LGBT, Relationships, Transgender, Young Adult

Thoughts: Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

17237214Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD:  51


When you look at the cover for Two Boys Kissing, you get a pretty good idea of what this book will be about.  Then you read the synopsis on the inside cover and your idea becomes a bit more defined, a bit clearer.  Finally, you sit down to read the book, only to discover that your first impressions were of the vaguest kind.  In Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan brings back the literary chorus of old.  The narrative guides of Shakespeare and Ovid at long last reappear, this time through the collective voice of our “ancient” gay predecessors.  These are the men and women who bravely pioneered the social frontier, the rainbow-clad Lewis & Clark who pressed love onward – quietly or with booming voice- and who were lost to one of the greatest tragedies of our day, the AIDS epidemic.

As our guide, this chorus reveals to us a day in the life of multiple contemporary gay youths, in many iterations of the “type.”  The main couple, Craig and Harry, are the two boys kissing, but they are not a couple at all (although they used to be).  Their goal is to stand up for equality by breaking the world’s record for longest kiss – hoping that the process and the end result of two boys’ names together in a permanent book of world record will get people thinking, if not change the world entirely. They are also standing up for their friend, who was violently and viciously beaten for being gay.

In addition to their primary story, the chorus also gives us a peek into the worlds of Peter and Neil, a young couple who are learning what that word, “couple,” means; learning how to navigate life for themselves and for each other, including, most importantly, how to understand and respond to one another, sometimes without words.   We also meet Avery and Ryan, both of whom have their demons, past and present, and who must confront the idea of what it means to be different, even within the same “gay world.”

Finally, we see Cooper, the boy who no one sees and who refuses to be seen.  Cooper’s story is where the chorus truly rallies – where these spirit guides are needed most, lest we forget that where we came from and where we are going are inextricably linked.  Technology advances, and these advancements change our perspectives and our possibilities, but for boys like Cooper, the loneliness and isolation only grow deeper, more vacuous.

Two Boys Kissing is the gay anthem for our day.  It is the very book created from the very inspirations that many of us have been waiting to read for a long, long time.  Levithan pulls stories from the real world and links them to our present and our past.  He does this through the eyes of a compassionate yet devastatingly helpless and sometimes forgotten chorus of our forbearers. Levithan, since the publication of his wonderful short novel Boy Meets Boy ten years ago, has veered from the idyllic and romantic, to the daring and experimental (Every You, Every Me), and the exploratory (Every Day), right into the real, the raw, and the historical.  He keeps getting better, and Two Boys Kissing is a triumph indeed.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: YA+
Interest: LGBT, Transgender, Relationships, First Loves, Coming-of-Age, Interconnected Plots, Family, Depression, Hate Crimes.


Notable Quotes:

“We thought of magic as something that existed with or without us. But that’s not true. Things are not magical because they’ve been conjured for us by some outside force. They are magical because we create them.”

“You spend so much time, so much effort, trying to hold yourself together. And then everything falls apart anyway.”

“It is hard to stop seeing your son as a son and to start seeing him as a human being. It is hard to stop seeing your parents as parents and to start seeing them as human beings. It’s a two-sided transition, and very few people manage it gracefully.”

“What strange creatures we are, to find silence peaceful, when permanent silence is the thing we most dread. Nighttime is not that. Nighttime still rustles, still creaks and whispers and trembles in its throat.  It is not darkness we fear, but our own helplessness within it.”

“Our bodies don’t have to be touching to be connected to one another. Our heart races without contact. Our breath holds until the threat is gone.”

“You grow. Your life widens. And you can’t expect your partner’s love alone to fill you. There will always be space for other things.”

“Here we are, thousands of us, shouting no, shouting at him to stop, crying out and making a net of our bodies, trying to come between him and the water.”

“There is the sudden. There is the eventual. And in between, there is the living.”


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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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2013 TBR Pile Challenge, Book Review, Drugs, Gay Lit, GLBT, Homophobia, Homosexuality, Lauren Myracle, LGBT, Mystery, Young Adult

Thoughts: Shine by Lauren Myracle

8928054Shine by Lauren Myracle
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 31

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

Cat and Patrick are best of friends.  Cat is a tomboy who doesn’t mind getting a bit dirty and who doesn’t realize just how pretty she is.  Patrick is a bit of a nerd and an introvert, though he does have friends.  He’s also openly gay, which is brave considering he and Cat live in very rural North Carolina.  As Cat becomes a teenager, she learns, in a terrible way, just how much her body has changed and how she has begun to catch the eye of boys her age (and older).  Although the disturbing thing that happens to her is only alluded to during the first part of the story, it clearly affects her relationship with her family and with her friends – she, too, becomes introverted and, because of this, is not with her best friend Patrick when the book’s major tragedy strikes.  She blames herself for not being there to help and, on her quest to find out what happened and to bring the criminal to justice, she also begins to repair herself and her old friendships, and even to seek out new ones. 

Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

Although some of the characters, such as Jason, a friend of Patrick’s who, like Cat, is determined to find out what happened to him, seem a bit too conveniently placed to be believable, most of them are integral to the plot, work well with the story, and fit in with the particular group of people in this particular place that Myracle has created.  Mama Sweetie, Patrick’s grandmother, leaves a legacy for Patrick and Cat even after she is gone; Cat’s father, brother, and aunt, all play pivotal roles in developing her character and her response to Patrick’s tragedy; her friends (The Redneck Posse) are realistic in their actions, good and bad, and in the ways they treat one another, as well as any outsiders.  They are complex enough, too, to add further mystery to the plot and to complicate Cat’s investigation, not to mention her own attempt at reintegrating herself with the group.  The minor characters, such as the church ladies, the meth cooker, and the bar tender, are static (some might say cliché), but they do round-out the community environment and serve their purposes.

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

For the most part, I found Myracle’s prose to be perfectly suited to the reading level and the tone of the novel.  She clearly knows a great deal about this particular region (or areas like it) or has researched it enough to portray it in a realistic way.  That being said, the dialogue (and internal monologues) sometimes came across as less than natural.  Still, it was well-written and well-executed.  Allowing Cat to be the narrator post-incident, and to reflect on those incidents (her major pain as well as Patrick’s) while she was investigating what happened, was a great approach, as it allowed the protagonist to grow and mature in a recognizable way.  Seeing Cat as a child, through her own memory, and watching her come to terms with difficult things in her life, particularly when she begins to understand the reasons why some of the people in her life may have let her down, provides much of the power and depth of the story, so crafting the plot this way and then delivering it so that it unfolds naturally and slowly was a smart, creative choice.   

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

Cat, though the hero and protagonist of this book, also has her own demons to deal with and personality flaws to overcome.  Part of what makes this story such a good one is that it is not just about one mysterious hate crime or one person’s attempt to solve it.  Cat learns a lot about herself along the way – she is forced to admit to herself that even she was sometimes guilty of silent acquiescence, allowing others to bully her friend Patrick because she was afraid that, if she stood up for him, she might become the target.  Similarly, Beef’s story is also moving and doubly complex because of the two major secrets he carries.  This story isn’t just about friendship or a rural town’s bigotry; it’s not just about the rich versus the poor; it’s not about underground drug cartels or incompetent police forces.  It’s about a community steeped in tragedy, a community that is all of those things and more, all at the same time, and about a group of people who are trying to live as best they can when faced with obstacles great and small.   

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  Young Adult (13+, with some mature elements)
Interest:  Coming-of-Age; Friendship; Homophobia; Rural South; Identity Issues; Family; Poverty; LGBT; Mystery; Drugs; YA.

Notable Quotes:

“I loved everyone who said yes to the world and tried to make it better instead of worse, because so much in the world was ugly.”

“Knowledge was more powerful than fear. Love was stronger than hate.”

“Girls kept their bodies tucked in tight, while boys took up every inch of room they could.”

“We all mess up.  It’s what we learn from our mistakes that matters.”

“You know it’s them books what make you talk funny.”

Shine is Book #8 completed for my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge

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2013 TBR Pile Challenge, Book Review, Gender Studies, GLBT, Historical, History, Homoeroticism, Homosexuality, Homosocial Relationships, LGBT, Morris B. Kaplan, Non-Fiction, PhD, Queer Theory, Sexuality, Victorian

Thoughts: Sodom on the Thames by Morris B. Kaplan

1025812Sodom on the Thames: Sex, Love, and Scandal in Wilde Times by Morris B. Kaplan
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 20

Sodom on the Thames is a descriptive and argumentative essay divided into four chapters, each of which focuses on one element of male same-sex love and/or sex in the late-Victorian period.

Part One, “Sex in the City,” deals with the infamous Boulton and Park case.  In it, the history of two men (Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park) who were also crossdressers and likely prostitutes, known as Lady Stella Clinton (Boulton) and Fanny Winifred (Park), is given and their trial for intent to commit the act of sodomy is relayed.  Kaplan employs readings from court records, newspapers, personal correspondences (diaries, letters, etc.) and a famous pornographic novel written by John Saul to reconstruct the world of Boulton and Park, including the way male-male love and sexuality manifested itself.

Part Two, “Love Stories,” recounts the story of William Johnson Cory, a master at Eton College who had intimate relations with some of his students.  It also relays the story of those students’ relationships with each other (and other male and female lovers) as they aged and moved on from college (high school).  Kaplan again relies heavily on primary source documents, such as letters and diaries, to reconstruct their friendships and romantic and sexual relationships.  He also discusses linked fears and perceptions between the Boulton and Park case and the pederasty and effeminizing nature of all-boys schools (where boys were encouraged to play the role of women in plays, for instance).

Part Three, “West End Scandals,” and Part Four, “Wilde’s Time,” both deal with sexual and romantic scandals of the period, not all of which were homosexual in nature (many were about Irish divorce cases, for instance).  His primary investigation here is not just how homosexual acts were persecuted and prosecuted, but how class and wealth impacted one’s treatment by the law and by the press.  Kaplan makes the case that the aristocratic and powerful “criminals” were often given preferential treatment under the law, but the press at this time became more publically outspoken against such biased treatment and often pushed prosecution of offenders when the legal authorities might have otherwise turned a blind eye.  Such realities set the scene for Oscar Wilde’s trial and are likely why he was eventually convicted and sentenced to such severe punishment.

The introduction, epilogue, and conclusion are, like the intermediary chapters, very interesting and add much to Kaplan’s overall argument.  He discusses in these sections, for instance, the role that queer and feminist theories play on the construction of this work.  He also supports his decision to relay these histories in story form as a way to add depth and honesty to the discussion, elements which historical analysis or theoretical approaches might typically lack.  Kaplan is clearly passionate about the subject material –sometimes arguably to the point of bias- and anyone interested in sexuality and gender issues of the late-Victorian period will likely gain much from reading this book.  Though it is not in the strictest sense a historical synthesis (the lack of a works cited/bibliography speaks to this), Kaplan’s argument for adding storytelling narrative to historical analysis is well-taken and well-received.

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