Book Review, Christopher Phillips, Death and Dying, Fiction, George Saunders, Grief/Recovery, Historical Fiction, LGBT, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Philosophy, Potpour-reads, Will Walton, Young Adult

Lincoln, Socrates, and A Funeral

In this third “potpour-reads” post, I share some quick thoughts on three recent reads, all of which were completed in June. Somehow, none of these books are ones from any of my challenge lists. Go figure. I read Lincoln in the Bardo because it is getting a lot of attention and because it sounded interesting. I read Socrates Café because I have been pivoting toward philosophy and history pretty heavily in the last couple of months (since January, really, when I began my focused study of Stoicism); and I read I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain largely based on the recommendation of the incomparable Andrew Smith, who has not steered me wrong, yet.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo is unlike anything I have ever read. It is a contemporary postmodernism married with black humor and historical fiction. As a first novel, it seems a stunning achievement, though this is the first Saunders work I have read at all, so I do not know how it compares to his short stories. (I’ve had Tenth of December sitting on my shelf for years, having purchased it only a few weeks after it was published; it is safe to say I plan to get to it sooner rather than later, now.) Essentially, Saunders combines historical accounts of Lincoln’s life and presidency with fictional ones that he creates, and then interweaves in almost testimonial fashion between the narrative portion, which is told by a trio of bizarre ghosts who meet one of Lincoln’s sons and, through him, the President himself. I’ve read a number of reviews that found the humor in this book to be off-putting and even inappropriate. I can understand their point, as some of the bawdy comedy does seem to come out of left-field. And yet, I can’t help thinking about what I’ve learned about Lincoln’s sense of humor over the years. It seems to me that he would actually appreciate the irreverent take on his life and legacy, particularly as it highlights the elements of human nature that Saunders explores, here, including fear, sexuality, death, mental health, and loneliness. It is safe to say that I did not know what to expect of Lincoln in the Bardo, even after reading the description and other reviews. Then, when reading the book, it somehow managed to be even more different than I thought it would be. In this way, I think, it deserves all the praise it has received as a contemporary masterpiece and a novel approach to, well, the novel. I was also thrilled that Saunders explored a lot of contemporary issues that are actually historical, yet would have been “taboo” for discussion in Lincoln’s time

Socrates Café by Christopher Phillips

I have been reading much more non-fiction, lately, including history and philosophy. I stumbled upon Christopher Phillips’s Socrates Café while perusing the philosophy section of Barnes & Noble for contemporary overviews (I’ve been in a kind of “self-help” exploratory approach to the history of philosophy, I guess.) Despite reading the blurb, this is another book that caught me slightly off-guard and was not what I had expected. It is in many ways a reference guide to creating your own Socrates Café, something I had never considered and yet left the book feeling, “well, why the hell not?” I loved Phillips passion, though I did sometimes feel like the examples he gave from his own cafes around the country seemed a little far-fetched. Maybe they did happen, I don’t know, but he himself says that most of this was reconstructed after the fact, so I can’t help thinking he added a bit more flair and impressive insight than might have occurred originally. (So many of his café participants seemed to know so much about philosophy, for example, and could quote a range of philosophers from memory.) In this way, I found the book might be setting false expectations for people who are using it as a guide to beginning their own Socrates Cafe. That said, as a generally interested reader, one who is on his own journey to learn more about ancient philosophies andto think more thoughtfully about the current world, this book does an excellent job of putting the two together. In the end, it did make me want to get out there and engage with other thoughtful people, to ask big and small questions without expecting concrete answers, and to wonder gleefully about all manner of things. I think, then, Phillips does what he set out to do: make philosophy exciting again.

I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain by Will Walton

Like Lincoln in the Bardo, Will Walton’s young adult novel about grief and loss, I Felt A Funeral, In My Brain, is a creative approach to narrative (and verse) fiction. It was also not what I expected from the blurb and from reading other reviews, and yet somehow ended up being much more satisfying, much more curious, than I imagined it would be. I’ve been let down by “hype” on too many occasions, as I think we all have, but in this case, I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain lives up to the hype without necessarily living up to expectations. I’m not sure how to clarify that except to say, even though the book did not meet my expectations, I ended up appreciating it and what it does in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. This is mostly due to its construction and to the fact that, somehow, Walton manages to create that sense of grief in his text, the confusion, the sense of drowning, the psychological wandering we do when we have lost someone important to us. There are a lot of books about grief and loss, some of them are beautiful in the way they treat the subject or in the language they use to explore it. Walton’s is beautiful because, inexplicably, it simply reads like the experience of grief. I think back to a time when I most felt a terrible loss and can easily connect those feelings to the way this narrative is told and the way it unfolds, in choppy segments, in distant characterization, and in the interplay of concrete prose and transcendent verse. My only personal critique was that I felt, sometimes, like some of the segments read as if they were creative prompts inserted for the sake of it, and not as if they developed along the course of this particular story. That said, I Felt A Funeral, In My Brain, is a special book that explores a difficult topic in a unique way. It is unlike anything else on the market this year.

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Harvey Milk, History, LGBT, LGBTQ History, Top Ten Tuesdays

Ten LGBT History Books for Harvey Milk Day

Today we remember an important figure in LGBT American History: Harvey Milk. Harvey Milk, known as the “Mayor of Castro Street,” was a gay rights activist and community leader. In 1977, Milk won a seat on the San Francisco Board. He became the city’s first openly gay officer and one of the first openly gay individuals elected to office in the United States. In addition to gay rights, his campaign platform incorporated a variety of issues, including child care and affordable housing, as well as a civilian police review board. Harvey Milk was assassinated on November 27, 1978, by a conservative political rival who infamously claimed the “Twinkie defense” at trial, asserting that his junk-food diet had made him mentally unstable. The jury convicted him of manslaughter rather than murder and sentenced him to just six years in prison.

To honor Milk’s memory, I would like to share ten books on LGBT history that I think everyone should read. Someday, I hope to add my own book on Gay American Literature to this list, but that will have to wait until it successfully finds a publisher. Feel free to reach out to me if you’re looking for a researched, academic text on early twentieth century gay American literature. It’s ready for you!

Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 by George Chauncey: Gay New York brilliantly shatters the myth that before the 1960s gay life existed only in the closet, where gay men were isolated, invisible, and self-hating. Based on years of research and access to a rich trove of diaries, legal records, and other unpublished documents, this book is a fascinating portrait of a gay world that is not supposed to have existed.

A History of Bisexuality by Steven Angelides: Why is bisexuality the object of such skepticism? Why do sexologists steer clear of it in their research? Why has bisexuality, in stark contrast to homosexuality, only recently emerged as a nascent political and cultural identity? Bisexuality has been rendered as mostly irrelevant to the history, theory, and politics of sexuality. With A History of Bisexuality, Steven Angelides explores the reasons why, and invites us to rethink our preconceptions about sexual identity. Retracing the evolution of sexology, and revisiting modern epistemological categories of sexuality in psychoanalysis, gay liberation, social constructionism, queer theory, biology, and human genetics, Angelides argues that bisexuality has historically functioned as the structural other to sexual identity itself, undermining assumptions about heterosexuality and homosexuality.

The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America by Margot Canaday: The Straight State is the most expansive study of the federal regulation of homosexuality yet written. Unearthing startling new evidence from the National Archives, Margot Canaday shows how the state systematically came to penalize homosexuality, giving rise to a regime of second-class citizenship that sexual minorities still live under today.

How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States by Joanne J. Meyerowitz: From early twentieth-century sex experiments in Europe, to the saga of Christine Jorgensen, whose sex-change surgery made headlines in 1952, to today’s growing transgender movement, Meyerowitz gives us the first serious history of transsexuality. She focuses on the stories of transsexual men and women themselves, as well as a large supporting cast of doctors, scientists, journalists, lawyers, judges, feminists, and gay liberationists, as they debated the big questions of medical ethics, nature versus nurture, self and society, and the scope of human rights.

The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government by David K. Johnson: Historian David K. Johnson here relates the frightening, untold story of how, during the Cold War, homosexuals were considered as dangerous a threat to national security as Communists. Charges that the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were havens for homosexuals proved a potent political weapon, sparking a “Lavender Scare” more vehement and long-lasting than McCarthy’s Red Scare. Relying on newly declassified documents, years of research in the records of the National Archives and the FBI, and interviews with former civil servants, Johnson recreates the vibrant gay subculture that flourished in New Deal-era Washington and takes us inside the security interrogation rooms where thousands of Americans were questioned about their sex lives. The homosexual purges ended promising careers, ruined lives, and pushed many to suicide. But, as Johnson also shows, the purges brought victims together to protest their treatment, helping launch a new civil rights struggle.

Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America by Christopher Bram: In the years following World War II a group of gay writers established themselves as major cultural figures in American life. Truman Capote, the enfant terrible, whose finely wrought fiction and nonfiction captured the nation’s imagination. Gore Vidal, the wry, withering chronicler of politics, sex, and history. Tennessee Williams, whose powerful plays rocketed him to the top of the American theater. James Baldwin, the harrowingly perceptive novelist and social critic. Christopher Isherwood, the English novelist who became a thoroughly American novelist. And the exuberant Allen Ginsberg, whose poetry defied censorship and exploded minds. Together, their writing introduced America to gay experience and sensibility, and changed our literary culture. 

Gay L. A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians by Lillian Faderman and  Stuart Timmons: Drawing upon untouched archives of documents and photographs and over 200 new interviews, Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons chart L.A.’s unique gay history, from the first missionary encounters with Native American cross-gendered “two spirits” to cross-dressing frontier women in search of their fortunes; from the bohemian freedom of early Hollywood to the explosion of gay life during World War II to the underground radicalism sparked by the 1950s blacklist; from the 1960s gay liberation movement to the creation of gay marketing in the 1990s. Faderman and Timmons show how geography, economic opportunity, and a constant influx of new people created a city that was more compatible to gay life than any other in America. Combining broad historical scope with deftly wrought stories of real people, from the Hollywood sound stage to the barrio, Gay L.A. is American social history at its best.

Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele: Activist-academic Meg-John Barker and cartoonist Julia Scheele illuminate the histories of queer thought and LGBTQ+ action in this groundbreaking non-fiction graphic novel.From identity politics and gender roles to privilege and exclusion, Queer explores how we came to view sex, gender and sexuality in the ways that we do; how these ideas get tangled up with our culture and our understanding of biology, psychology and sexology; and how these views have been disputed and challenged.

Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II by Allan Bérubé: During World War II, as the United States called on its citizens to serve in unprecedented numbers, the presence of gay Americans in the armed forces increasingly conflicted with the expanding anti-homosexual policies and procedures of the military. In Coming Out Under Fire, Allan Berube examines in depth and detail these social and political confrontation–not as a story of how the military victimized homosexuals, but as a story of how a dynamic power relationship developed between gay citizens and their government, transforming them both. Drawing on GIs’ wartime letters, extensive interviews with gay veterans, and declassified military documents, Berube thoughtfully constructs a startling history of the two wars gay military men and women fought–one for America and another as homosexuals within the military.

Colonialism and Homosexuality by Robert Aldrich: Colonialism and Homosexuality is a thorough investigation of the connections of homosexuality and imperialism from the late 1800s – the era of ‘new imperialism’ – until the era of decolonization. Robert Aldrich reconstructs the context of a number of liaisons, including those of famous men such as Cecil Rhodes, E.M. Forster or Andre Gide, and the historical situations which produced both the Europeans and their non-Western lovers. Each of the case-studies is a micro-history of a particular colonial situation, a sexual encounter, and its wider implications for cultural and political life. Students both of colonial history, and of gender and queer studies, will find this an informative read.

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Atheism, Book Review, Christopher Marlowe, Historical Fiction, Kathe Koja, LGBT, Novella

Christopher Wild by Kathe Koja

Anna Quindlen once wrote, “[books] are the destination, and the journey. They are home.” It is hard for me to find a better example of this adage than the works of Kathe Koja. The act of reading her stories is not just an experience, but an event. Every time I begin a new Koja novel, I wonder, “can I really go home again?” There is a fear in the first pages, a desperate hopefulness that Koja will not have abandoned me as a reader. But the answer to that question has repeatedly been, yes. In reading Kathe Koja, I come home.

Christopher Wild is a remarkable trilogy of novellas that reimagines the life of Christopher Marlowe as it was in the 1590s and as it could have been in more recent times. The first novella, written in the passionate, fluid, Elizabethan style that will be familiar to fans of Under the Poppy, pays great homage to the historical life of Marlowe and his contemporaries. Included in the tale are a number of familiar characters, including Shakespeare and the University Wits. Koja adeptly tackles the myth of the man and weaves into it the facts as we know them, recreating a believable identity for this spy, lover, and dramatist. In the second tale, Koja imagines Marlowe in a near-contemporary society. How would this man navigate city life, intrigue, sexuality, and his writing if he lived in a time and place more similar to our own? Some of the characters from the first novella reappear again with different names and roles, but they—most of them—fulfill their prophecies. The third novella imagines a near-future, one that seems dystopic in many ways but which, unfortunately, becomes more and more probable all the time. An intrusive government that can control anyone’s every move; a nation of closed borders and constant surveillance; a paranoia about free thought and free speech, both of which are stifled by a police state that employs its creative citizens or destroys them when they do not comply. Amidst this darkness is a poet who dares to defy the system and who will speak the truth, whatever the cost.  

Holding all three novellas together is the idea of the writer-activist. What responsibilities does a writer have to truth? How does the poet hold an oppressive government to account? Can words wake us up from our lethargy and apathy? In each case, Christopher, or Chris, or X04, or Kit, or Merlin, personifies the answer to these questions. To be bold and brazen. To be honest and courageous. To be independent of mind and heart and spirit. These are the necessary qualities of the poet, the individual, the rebel, the titan. And what sustains him? Love. Sure, Koja eagerly and truthfully draws a man who is liberal in his lusts and passions, for drink and for men. In all three novellas, the Marlowe character gives and takes of the body with abandon and without apology. And yet, the sexuality is never tawdry, never gratuitous. It reflects the character of the man, the vibrancy and virility of his existence, and his constant state of awareness, the recognition that his time is short. In whose hands could these sensibilities, this anchored sensuality, be more powerfully and delicately crafted? I’m reminded only of Anthony Burgess and Henry Miller—satirical surrealists—who express the balance of mind and body not only in the stories they create, but also in the language they craft to tell them. Koja is undeniably in this company.

Many have noted that this work is an ode to Christopher Marlowe. Koja’s knowledge of Marlowe comes across loud and clear, and her passion for the man, his talent, and his lifestyle are treated with deserved reverence. What this unique work does for me, however, even as a fan of Marlowe, is much bigger than a love letter to one Elizabethan playwright: it is a love letter to writing and to writers. In reading the three novellas, one notices common themes arise over and over again. At the heart of these is the river of time that connects all of us and all of our stories, and how its mythos cannot be outrun or over-imagined. This becomes clear in the way Koja ends each of the three Marlowe tales. The second, which takes place in a near-present time, is the most hopeful. It seems to me a powerful message about the role of the writer as s/he exists in the present. The past cannot be changed and the future is unclear, but if anyone has the ability and audacity to dare plumb and dam and navigate those rivers, it is the writer. And if anything has the power to move hearts and minds, to stir men and women to action, it is the voice of the poet. Kathe Koja, in honoring a literary and cultural hero and phenomenon, reminds us that Marlowe is much more than a man; he is an idea. The charge of that idea, the electricity of it, is so palpable in the way Koja crafts and caresses Christopher Wild, that it brought this reader, and writer, out of a months-long slump. Koja has made a writer want to start writing again, and I can’t think of any idea more profound than that.

Notable Quotes

“The small feed as they can, the large as they will, whether the meal suits them or no. there is the world” (22).

“What does it matter, that first fulcrum point, if the mind resolves to move the world?” (24)

“Was there concomitant comfort in the promise of rewards, pearly gates and eternity of rest among the blessed, safe forever from the outer darkness of freedom and sin, or only the fear of that dark?” (155)

“But for himself the point was and is still the brute beauty of it—attended by power, yes, sheer playful aggression, and that live-wire rush when the writing comes right, nothing in the world to better it, as if the gears of the universe have for one perfect moment fallen into perfect place” (209).

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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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Architectural Novel, Book Review, Cannibalism, Dennis Cooper, Experimental Literature, Favorites, Fiction, Gay Lit, Incest, LGBT, Postmodernism, Queer Theory, Voyeurism

The Marbled Swarm by Dennis Cooper

 

Harper Perennial calls The Marbled Swarm, Dennis Cooper’s “most haunting work to date,” and it is impossible to disagree. Although this latest from Cooper is more psychological and subtle, in many aspects, than most of his other works, it is perhaps because of those reasons that it is even more effective. The book is disturbing, as is typical from Cooper. The narrator, a deeply troubled young man with fantasies of incest on the brain, is consumed by homicidal and cannibalistic tendencies. The layers of his mind are just as twisted, concealed, and misleading as the secret passageways and hidden rooms that encompass his father’s voyeuristic mansion. The book, at its core, is a mystery story, which parallels the physical reality with the narrator’s subconscious, and what the reader finds in both places is darkly troubling.   

A narrator who refuses to identify as gay, but whose sexual perversions include raping and killing boys (particularly of the “Emo” type), then eating them; a father who spies on his sons, and who slowly and subtly persuades them to become sexually infatuated with each other; a boy who lies about being raped by his father to his brother, and by his brother to his father, with the hope that one of them will rape him; men who kidnap boys, alter them through plastic and bone surgery so they will look like their fantasy type, then sell them for sexual favors to men with twisted desires. These are just some of the characters in The Marbled Swarm. Individually, each is sick, twisted, and alarming in his own right; together, they create a world of psychological distrubia. The narrator and main character is the most interesting of the bunch, perhaps because the reader witnesses some of his secrets unfold chapter-by-chapter. His younger brother and father are also fascinating, in a “this car crash makes me want to vomit but I can’t turn my head” kind of way. Ultimately, the group serves to progress the story’s purpose, which is a commentary on language and communication, as well as Cooper’s modus operandi – exposing the terrible side of humanity and the evil side of desire. 

Cooper’s writing style is nearly unmatched; he is a type of writer that has been unknown in American Literature since William Burroughs. Although his themes are twisted and hard to stomach for most, his ability as a writer are laudable to say the least. His mastery of language, his ability to advance a plot seamlessly, and the sickeningly playful way he messes with his readers minds are impossible to overlook, despite how unsavory the subject matter. In The Marbled Swarm, Cooper has accomplished all that his previous works attempted, which is saying much, because his previous works were groundbreaking in their own right. In retrospect, though, it is clear to see that Cooper has been developing over time, getting better and better; and this latest, his masterpiece, is proof of how hard he has been working to perfect his craft. 

After admiring Cooper’s work for nearly a decade, I can say that, though I have loved and been fascinated by almost every book, poem, and essay the man has ever written, this is the book all previous works were helping to develop. It is, by far, Cooper’s most complex piece to date, and also his finest in craft, in theory, and in delivery. The fluid prose, disturbing subject matter, and psychological warfare (within the story and between narrator and reader) make this book a demonstrable work of genius. Had this been just a story about a disturbed young man who had sexual attractions for his brother and father, and who liked to eat human flesh, the book would have been sick, sad, and confusing; however, though that is technically what happens in the book, it is not what the book is about. This is a story about desire and depression; it is a story about cravings and theatrics;  it is a story about the pleasure of playing “the witness” in horrifying situations and, most importantly, it is a story about story-telling. 

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

 

 

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Atheism, Biography, Books, Contemporary, Dan Brown, Fiction, Hillary Rodham Clinton, History, LGBT, Lisa Williamson, Literature, Memoir, Peter Ackroyd, Politics, Religion, Science-Fiction, Thriller, Transgender, Willa Cather

5 Mini-Reviews: From Willa Cather to Hillary Clinton

I’ll never catch-up on all the reviews I need to write for books I’ve read in the last 5 or 6 months. That’s that. But, I am going to make an effort to catch-up on the recent and then stay current moving forward. I do not intend to write a full review for every book that I read (I just simply do not have the time for that, and sometimes I don’t think the book needs it). Instead, I might write mini-reviews, like the ones below, so that I’ve at least shared some thoughts about my recent reading with you all and so that I have some record for myself, which was the whole point of beginning this book blog almost a decade ago! So, that being said, onto my thoughts for these three most recent reads:

Origin by Dan Brown: 3.0 out of 4.0

Origin is the latest in Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series, following Angeles & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol, and Inferno. I really enjoy this series. The premises are usually clever and interesting, and of course I love the way the stories are steeped in history (apocryphal or not) and often pit science versus religion. There’s just something fascinating about that seemingly eternal struggle and the lengths to which some people will go to protect their particular worldview (or, in the case of this series, eliminate the “competition” altogether).

That being said, I think Origin is my least favorite of the series. It seemed to me to be trying too hard, and the plot spent a long time stagnating (the “big mystery” is built up for something like 200 pages before going anywhere). This is also the rare instance where I knew from the first few chapters both what the secret was and who the villain was, which made the unfolding of it all rather anti-climactic. I did want to love this book because the topic itself is certainly timely and relevant, but I think that was also part of the problem. It was, for me, too current. It seemed like the imaginative leaps Brown had to take in previous books were unnecessary, here, so the thrill was gone. 

There were some things I did enjoy, though. Brown rather sensitively treats a non-traditional romance, for one, and he also incorporates some interesting thoughts from people like Sam Harris. On page 290, for example, he writes: “The term ‘atheist’ should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘nonastrologer’ or a ‘nonalchemist.’ We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive, or for people who doubt that aliens traverse the galaxy only to molest cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.” This particular passage triggered a thought experiment that I haven’t had nearly enough time to ponder; it made me wonder about the natural state of human existence and whether, if left to our own devices, separate from a social environment, would individuals default to religious belief to explain things like thunder, earthquakes, tornadoes, etc? Historically, we know that many cultures have created gods to do just that, but is that a social construct or an innately human one? Dan Brown’s Origins, in this way, did leave me with plenty to think about.

Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd: 3.5 out of 4.0

I received this little gem from Melissa, who knows I’m a fan of Poe. To be honest, I didn’t even know this book existed! Peter Ackroyd is a world-class biographer who has won awards for his work on figures such as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and William Blake. I was curious to see what he would do with a figure like Poe, whose life and times are much more a thing of legend than fact. There are so few extant (that we know of) factual records about Poe’s life, and much of what we do know has been exaggerated over the years, in keeping with the gloomy and mysterious aura surrounding the man. The first major post-Mortem written about Poe, for example, was a scathing, hyperbolic account of his personality, addiction, and talents, written by a man whom Poe had eviscerated in the press (as he did so often, to so many). The majority of that “biography” was wildly inaccurate and totally vindictive, and yet it is on this account that many have continued to base their opinions of Poe.

Ultimately, Ackroyd relies heavily on Poe’s works and letters to attempt to uncover the “real” man, beneath the facade. He also uncovers other written accounts of Poe, testimony from people who knew the author at various stages of life, such as former teachers, lovers, school “friends” (that term used loosely because Poe really did not get very close to many people, as he so often reminded everyone), and colleagues. The problem with these records is two-fold: first, that there are so few of them; second, that they are often contradictory. Some were even written or recorded well after Poe’s death, at which point time, distance, and the fact of Poe’s celebrity would all have influenced people’s perceptions. Was the myth making the man, or the man making the myth?

This little book of less than 200-pages is divided into 11 chapters, each focusing on a particular time period in Poe’s life. With titles like “The Victim,” “The Bird,” and “The Women,” it is clear to see that Ackroyd did uncover certain themes and momentous occasions which help to explain who Poe was, what was important to him, and how he became the legend that he is today. By all accounts, Poe was very well-regarded by the literati and critics alike. He was considered, even in his time, as the father of American literature, the first true “American” voice of the new continent, wholly distinct from our British forebears. So, where does the idea come from, that Poe died forgotten, under-appreciated? Well, as Ackroyd explains, Poe himself had a whole lot to do with that final assessment. Ackroyd’s biography is, I think, a must-read for any true Poe fan. Still, someday, I dream of discovering a cache of Poe history that will help illuminate so many of the unexplained questions about Poe, his life, and especially his final days.

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton: 4.0 out of 4.0

Is my affinity for Hillary Clinton coloring my review? Probably, in part. I admire this woman, I always have, and I found much to connect with and appreciate in her latest memoir about the 2016 election. But, there is so much more to it than the title suggests, and much more than the “liberal media” (ha!) suggested in their never-ending attempts to stir the pot and grab the ratings. It’s pretty disgraceful, really, to think about the way they treated the release of this book, but it’s also completely unsurprising considering the way they have treated Hillary Rodham Clinton for the last 30 years, since she first entered the spotlight as First Lady of Arkansas.

Clinton covers a number of topics in this book, things that are important to her and which should also be important to us. She has a chapter on “Perseverance,” for example, which outlines the long and arduous process of deciding to run, and run again, when she may have much preferred to stay at home with her grandchild and garden. There’s a section on women, including historical influences and current issues for women in politics. There are thoughtful, painful, crucial explanations about how our election process has been compromised by domestic and foreign influences, and warnings about the continuing danger of big money influence in our politics. She talks about the very real divisions in our country and shares some of her thoughts as to why and how these things have come to be, and how we need to self-assess before it is too late.

Finally, though, she ends with a section titled, “Resilience.” She writes about Love and Kindness. She writes about her faith and her continuing attempts to grow and evolve and do better. And she ends with a chapter titled, “Onward Together,” wherein she asks all of us to keep going and keep trying, even when all seems lost, even when we are at our lowest, because that’s when the world needs it most. She closes by quoting Max Ehrmann, who said, “Whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul” (468). I think Clinton is trying to do just that in writing this book and inviting us into what must have been a terribly difficult time and process.

People who already like Hillary Clinton are bound to like this book, and to experience the deep pain of her loss all over again. But they will also be reassured that their vote was the right one, and in more ways than most of us could have realized in the first place. People who don’t like Hillary Clinton probably won’t give this book a chance; but if they did approach it with a truly open mind and sense of fairness, I think even they would come to see that what she writes about is true and honest, that she admits to many of her failings while raising the alarm about many of our failings, and that it is indeed possible to do both of these things at the same time.

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson: 3.0 out of 4.0

I’m so thrilled to be seeing more and more diversity in YA literature, and especially titles with main characters who are transgender, bisexual, and persons of color. Philip Pullman called this one, “a life-changing and life-saving book,” and I can see what he means. For a lot of people, especially young transgender teens who are beginning to understand what their feelings mean and to articulate to themselves just how they are different, books like this are incredibly important. Representation, feeling like you are a valid and “normal” person, rather than some bizarre aberration, can certainly be more than affirming, it can be everything.

Everyone thinks David Piper is gay. He is effeminate, he likes to wear girls’ clothes, he enjoys doing stereotypical girl things. Only his two best friends realize, though, that while David does like boys, he is not gay: he is transgender. When a new kid named Leo shows up to their private school, David feels an immediate affinity for him but can’t explain why. He’s not really attracted to him, and yet he can’t seem to shake the feeling that they share something, that they should be friends. Soon enough, David (and the readers) learn that Leo is different in his own way, too.

The novel is narrated from the perspective of both David and Leo, some chapters being told from one point of view, and some from the other (conveniently labeled “David” or “Leo” to let us know). While I appreciate the subject matter and Williamson’s smooth narrative style, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing, here. I think the goal was to suggest some of the very real struggles that transgender people face in their daily lives and in the transition process, while maintaining an uplifting tone and commitment to a positive and affirming message. This makes complete sense to me, but it seemed to get in the way of the story-telling, somewhat. David and Leo have their struggles, there are definitely some dark elements and disappointments, but for the most part, the characters seem constructed to fit a role rather than to develop a story. I just couldn’t connect with David or Leo, and most of the secondary characters (parents, friends, siblings) seemed there only because they needed to be there (because people have friends and families, so it’d be odd not to write them in?).

The Art of Being Normal is a quick and easy read, oftentimes sweet and sometimes maddening, and it is an important addition to the YA LGBTQ+ library as well as the YA offerings more generally. But it’s not something I would read again.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather 3.5 out of .0

Oh, my dear, sweet Willa Cather. How do I love thee? Okay, pardon the sap. I do enjoy Willa Cather so much, though. This novel was the September selection for the Classic Book-a-Month Club. I have to say, I’m still not quite sure what to say about it. I always enjoy Cather’s writing style, and this time was no different. She somehow combines naturalism with a rare, auditory elegance. Her descriptions of the land are beyond compare, so much so that her characters almost always come second to the landscape. I enjoyed this one in particular because it is set in the American southwest, a region that I love and that I just recently moved to myself; there was much to relate to. 

On the other hand, the story itself felt extremely distant this time. I just couldn’t connect with it, though I recognize it was beautiful and recounts an important history. At the center is the story of two Catholic priests who come to minister to the native people of the greater-New Mexico area. They must learn how to communicate with Native Americans and Mexicans, to tame the land, and to respect local customs while fulfilling their roles as missionaries. The book is split into nine separate sections, each with a particular focus, so that the novel reads more like an extended play with nine acts. To some extent, I appreciated this because it allowed me to focus on each individual scene, beautifully crafted, and to try to appreciate the purpose of that scene as I was experiencing it; on the other hand, unlike the dichotomy set-up by the structure of Cather’s A Lost Lady, for example, I did not find these segments particularly helpful in telling the priest’s story. And maybe that’s my issue. If I were to go back and read this again, I think I would approach it as a story about the land, and not a story about the Archbishop.

The narrative digressions, flashback recollections, and fictional accounts of actual historical figures and events added interesting context and complexity to an otherwise leisurely Cather work. I find in Cather’s works that she wants, more than anything, to tell the tale of a land, a time, and a people, and that is certainly the case here. The Hopi and Navajo people are treated sympathetically, and the recounting of the “Long Walk of the Navajo,” is both important and brave. Cather does not dull her criticism of the American government and rightly calls them to account for the way they treated our native populations, shuffling them around from one increasingly barren and uninhabitable region to the next. She also makes suggestions about the intimate and powerful relationship between religion and politics. Ultimately, I think I’m going to have to read this one again to fully appreciate it, preferably during a break when I can really sink into it.

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Book Review, David Levithan, Fantasy, Fiction, Gender Identity, LGBT, Sexuality, Young Adult

Every Day by David Levithan

13262783Can you imagine yourself not as a physical being, but as an ethereal entity – a formless consciousness that floats through life from day-to-day, always looking like someone different but always knowing yourself to be the same?

Every day since birth, A wakes up in a different body. Sometimes he wakes up as a boy, sometimes she wakes up as a girl. A has no physical or biological sex, instead needing to adapt to the sex of the host body where s/he resides any particular day. S/he is capable of accessing the memories of the host bodies and can also allow (or not) that host to remember what A experiences on the day of his visit, though s/he usually chooses to block these memories so that the host will not feel as if they have been possessed or invaded. Each night, when A falls asleep in one body, s/he knows that s/he will wake up in the morning as someone entirely different.

A does have a personality, consciousness, and sense of self that is entirely individual, though s/he has no physical form, and A carries this individuality into each new day and every new body. This is the story of 40 days in the life of A – perhaps the most important 40 days that s/he will ever experience. S/he learns that s/he is perhaps not alone in this very unique experience – there may be others out there who are doomed (or blessed?) to exist only in others’ bodies. A also falls in love, for the second time, and must learn how to make a relationship work under such extraordinary circumstances or s/he must choose to make the ultimate sacrifice, for someone else’s happiness.

The two main characters are A and Rhiannon, 16 year olds who are on their own paths to self-discovery and whose encounter with each other will set the trajectories of their lives in new directions. Through A, we also witness, on the surface, the lives of dozens of other teenagers: boys and girls; popular kids and nerds; athletic kids and beautiful ones; kids who are blind, fat, depressed, alcoholic, addicts, or suffering from ADHD. We also get glimpses of their families and friends, though their stories are always in the background as A navigates their lives for one day, in pursuit of his own. The only other recurring characters include two of A’s former hosts, Justin (Rhiannon’s boyfriend and the way A comes to meet her – awkward!) and Nathan, whom A has left, perhaps purposely, with lingering feelings of his “possession” and who ultimately introduces him to Reverend Poole, the man who will change A’s perspective forever. Levithan’s primary characters are interesting individuals, as are the host bodies, all of whom are believable teenagers with varied personalities and circumstances. Viewing the characters through A, who essentially is each of them (including Rhiannon) at one point or another, creates a unique experience for the reader.

journal-011-300x200The structure of the book, too, is interesting, though not entirely unique. It is, in a way, a journal-format. Each small chapter is one day in the life of A and, indeed, the chapter titles correspond to the chronological day (such as Day 6014) in A’s life. This structure, while not entirely original, is absolutely appropriate for the type of story being told and is suitable to A’s narrative style. Levithan’s writing style, too, his prose and language, are appropriate to the age and maturity level of the narrator and also match the oftentimes didactic nature of the story. It is lofty but grounded, well-paced but reflective.

One criticism of the book is that it is at times preachy. This point is well-taken and I do agree with those who find certain elements, such as the narrative arguments for social and sexual equality, not just pointed, but sometimes heavy-handed. Levithan is an issue writer, though, and as another reviewer has aptly mentioned, issue writers are interested in making their point and, in fact, making points is necessary to their purpose. The fact that I agreed with most of the points Levithan was making (gender equality, love of the person not of the sex, etc.), made the story more interesting for me, but I can certainly see how readers who struggle or disagree with such sentiments might find the “lecture” portions of the narrative a bit jarring.

My primary point of contention comes from a particularly disturbing element of the story, which is, I believe, both indicative of the narrator’s personality but also, though I am usually reluctant to make these arguments, of the writer’s bias. Throughout the book, the narrator makes a point of being highly understanding and empathetic. Since s/he has spent his (I will stick with gendered-male pronoun from here on out, as that is ultimately how I perceived the narrator) life living inside of different bodies, it is understandable that he would be a more enlightened individual. He has been male and female, blind, deformed, ugly, and everything in-between. In each case, he makes the argument for empathy and compassion – that we should love ourselves and each other as we are and that each of us suffers from our own demons which might affect the way we treat ourselves and the way we interact with the world. A is able to build his relationship with Rhiannon, another equally enlightened young woman, whether he be in the body of a beautiful black girl, a beefy metal head, or a stringy track jock. The point is well-taken: be yourself, try to show others what is on the inside, and learn to accept others for who they truly are, not just for what they look like.

fat-thinBut then we get near the end of the book and A wakes up in the body of an obese boy. The body weighs 300 pounds and suddenly the tone changes dramatically, for the worse. This chapter, and the next one, is devoted largely not to acceptance or understanding, but to feelings of disgust and anger. It is this body, and only this one, that A is ashamed to show Rhiannon. It is this body that A blames for what it is. Unlike the addicts or depressed teenagers, whom A tries to empathize with and thereby get the reader to think more deeply about, this fat kid gets nothing but criticism – A even tries to “access” the reasons why he might be so fat, but finds only laziness as the cause. Then, after deciding to meet with Rhiannon anyway, it is after this particular meeting that Rhiannon concludes she can no longer engage in this kind of relationship, because she cannot build a relationship with someone who never looks the same. Rhiannon struggles with this all along, but with all of the other bodies, male and female, tall and short, pimpled, hairy, or beautiful, Rhiannon accepts the body. Until the fat, sweaty boy shows up and everything changes. It would be easy to say that this is just a teenage insecurity – that the author is trying to make a statement about the judgmental nature of people and youths; however, throughout the book, both A and Rhiannon, as I have already mentioned, are incredibly enlightened and accepting of all people and situations. Why, then, is this one person so different – so disgusting? Unfortunately, I feel it is a deeper bias coming from the author. He makes a point of making points in this book, as in all of his books. It would be naïve and unfair to think, then, that this, too, is anything other than his making a point: do not be fat. Fat comes from being lazy. There are no psychological or emotional reasons for obesity, it just means you eat too much and do too little. It is outrageous. Not since reading Atlas Shrugged have I been so angered by a particular element of a particular book and it saddens me that this perspective comes from Levithan who is, otherwise, a very positive, compassionate writer.

Ultimately, though, I did love this book. I found the premise incredibly interesting and thought the social/gender politics were expressed in a unique way. The story moves at a great pace, the characters and their stories are fascinating and believable. There is a fantasy element to the story which comes into play late in the book, when Reverend Poole and A finally meet, but the narrative is still grounded firmly in reality. Had it not been for the one bizarrely glaring prejudice mentioned in the paragraph above, I could have easily found this to be a perfect read. As it is, I found it, still, to be a wonderful one. Highly recommended.

Notable Quotes:

“Kindness connects to who you are, while niceness connects to how you want to be seen” (56).

“You shouldn’t have to venture deep down in order to get to love” (72).

“Tomorrow . . . a little less than a promise, and a little more than a chance” (97).

“I see no sin in a kiss. I only see sin in the condemnation” (223).

“Ultimately, the universe doesn’t care about us. Time doesn’t care about us. That’s why we have to care about each other” (320).

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