Addiction, Coming-of-Age, Contemporary American, LGBT, Literature, Ocean Vuong, pride month, Vietnamese

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

The irony is not lost on me that, just a couple of days after claiming that I no longer plan to write formal/lengthy book reviews for this blog, I finish reading Ocean Vuong’s first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It would be absolutely thrilling to think that I can articulate just why it is so necessary for me to write a full-length reflection about this novel, but the idea that I can do this book justice is ludicrous. Still, I’ll try my best.

Ocean Vuong is an acclaimed Vietnamese-American poet who has already won numerous prestigious awards, including the T.S. Eliot award for poetry. His collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, is one of the highest regarded contemporary collections on the market, which made the anticipation about this first novel all the more extreme. It is rare to see a talented writer in one genre, like poetry, crossover into another genre, like fiction, and even rarer still to find that she or he manages it expertly. Vuong is such a rarity.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is marketed as a letter from a Vietnamese-American boy to his mother, who cannot read. Taken literally, this is the case. Little Dog is writing to his mother about all the secrets he has kept, all the memories he has buried, and all the love he carries for his mother and his grandmother, both of whom are reeling from the traumas of war, immigration, loss of language, and Alzheimer’s. So, it is a kind of love letter to these women, to their past, but also to himself as a boy and to his future self, the man who will be made possible. He knows his mother cannot understand the words he writes, the language he speaks, so he shares without restraint and sends the letter to us all.

One of the reasons why I enjoyed and appreciated this novel so much is that it is written by a poet. This is clear not just in the language, but in the shape and delivery of the major themes and ideas. Vuong, through Little Dog, looks at the world through the eyes of the poet and describes what he sees in a way that only a poet could. The mundane is made miraculous, the painful is paradox, and the beautiful is wrenching. He manages to make the reader empathize with a host of characters, from the quietly rebellious protagonist, to his contradictorily abusive yet loving mother, and to his young boyfriend, a country redneck simultaneously terrified of yielding himself to another boy while still capable of treating his lover with the greatest compassion and tenderest care.

What holds it together most, what makes it a masterpiece, is its honesty. Words like “courageous” are often applied to novels like this one, stories that tell of family traumas, of coming-of-age and coming out. But Vuong’s honesty, here, is on a different level altogether. The way he describes his coming out and his growing up, his ever-progressing awareness of self, his first love and loss, moves beyond courageous. It is an act of total surrender, a giving up of everything that the world tells us should be kept to ourselves. In this way, Vuong allows Little Dog to reach the two kinds of readers who most need his story: the readers like Little Dog, who experienced or will experience the unique moments of gay life, of immigrant life, of life as an outcast, that can rarely be discussed in public, if ever. And the readers who know nothing of this type of journey, but who might learn what it means to be the someone else, the one without words or defense in a world that is terribly loud and aggressive. To be the dove in a crow’s nest.

For me, Ocean Vuong’s novel comes at a time when I am re-examining my own life and past. It comes at a time when Eugene Lee Yang releases his beautiful artistic articulation of a similar journey. For me, it seems, a universe of ellipses is falling into place at exactly the right moment, and to read a perfect book in a turbulent and confusing time is perhaps the most miraculous way to think of one’s place in that universe as intentional, purposeful, and necessary.

Notable Quotes:
“The nameless yellow body was not considered human because it did not fit in a slot on a piece of paper. Sometimes you are erased before you are given the choice of stating who you are” (63).

“The children, the veal, they stand very still because tenderness depends on how little the world touches you. To stay tender, the weight of your life cannot lean on your bones” (156).

“To be clean again. To be good again. What have we become to each other if not what we’ve done to each other?” (206)

“The thing is, I don’t want my sadness to be othered from me just as I don’t want my happiness to be othered. They’re both mine” (181).

“The sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted” (238).

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Contemporary, Fiction, Literature, Madeline Miller, Mythology

Circe by Madeline Miller

Have you ever read a book that left you feeling completely stunned? It happens to me rarely, but when it does, I have this thing where I can’t do anything with my thoughts afterward. I can write about a good book, even a great one. I can write about a bad book, even a terrible one. But sometimes, a book completely knocks me out, and I can sit on it for days, weeks, even years without ever being able to articulate a damn thing about it. That’s what happened to me with Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles. You won’t find a review for it here, because I simply could not do it.

So, it was with excitement and strange terror that I returned to Miller once again for her highly anticipated and well-received follow-up, Circe. This one, like Song of Achilles, explores the life of one mythological character in great detail, imagining her life “behind the scenes” of the sparse details we get from classical storytelling. What Miller did so brilliantly in her first novel, exploring the more interesting elements of a well-known hero, Achilles and his lover, she does again here with Circe, who is treated to centuries’ worth of imagined biography.

I will say that I did not respond to Circe in the way that I responded to Song of Achilles. I’ve been wondering how much of this is simply biased, considering I am and was more interested in and more familiar with Achilles’s story in the first place. His story, and particularly told in the way Miller chose to tell it, through the eyes of his lover, is something I’ve always wanted to read. I wasn’t as familiar with the mythology of Circe, nor did her story draw me in as deeply or passionately. It’s an unfair comparison, perhaps, because I felt intimately connected to Song of Achilles, and not necessarily because the book was “better.” In fact, Miller here writes one of my favorite lines from any book I’ve ever read: “[T]here are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”

Objectively speaking, though, I do think Achilles is a masterpiece, and that Circe is wonderfully well-done. The prose is not quite as interesting, this time, and the story does not move at the same pace. Indeed, because so much seems to happen in such a long period of historical time, but so shortly in narrative time, it sometimes feels oddly wind-swept and slightly disjointed, though never out of control. Miller knows what she is doing, and the story is powerful, interesting, and even joyful in its terrible sadness. The choice of Circe as protagonist is brilliant, too, because she is able to think and feel and interact with mortals in a way that Greek mythology does not allow of its gods, who are always (and to an extent must be) completely unconcerned with human needs, desires, pains, et cetera. (Rick Riordan has been playing with this, too, in his latest series re-imagining the god Apollo as a mortal teenager living in the contemporary era.)

To be fair, I find I’m still left spoiled by–wrecked by–Achilles. This might always be the case and, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that my experience with it must have, on some level, colored my reading of Circe. That said, Circe is a compelling novel whose reception is well-deserved and easy to understand. It’s also a particularly powerful statement in our time, as we confront head-on issues of gender and power. Miller crafts a flawed and sometimes ignorant hero whom I knew little about and for whom I struggled, at first, to champion; in the end, she convinces me.

Notable Quotes

“In a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”

“Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”

“I thought: I cannot bear this world a moment longer. Then, child, make another.”

“I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open.”

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Blog Tour, Culture, Essay, Literary Theory, Literature, misogyny, Politics

Reading Literature Causes Misogyny?

Parnaso 09Recently, Electric Lit published an essay by Erin Spampinato titled, “The Literary Roots of the Incel Movement.” In it, the author argues that a culture of reading and privileging “white male” (para. 5) texts has resulted in the modern-day incelmovement (note: the term “incel” is a portmanteau for “involuntary celibates.” It is most often used by white, male, heterosexuals online who claim they cannot “find love/romance” because of contemporary culture’s “demands” on their gender [read: supposed emasculation]. The term is now often used as analogous to misogynist because these self-described incels believe they have a “right” to sexual intercourse, without condition).The author names titles such as Great Expectations, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Things They Carried, to support her point that much of our school-taught canon (aside: I was not required to read any of these in school) is made up of books whose protagonists are sexually frustrated, then connects that literary frustration to modern-day “young men [who think] that male pathos is so pathetic, so worthy of tribute” (para. 1). Just a few sentences later, she connects that sentiment to the dawn of “the incel,” a “monstrous birth of our casually cruel and anonymous internet culture [and] a product of Anglo-American literary culture, which treats the topic of male sexual frustration as if it is of prime importance to us all” (ibid). 

While I find much of Spampinato’s argument regarding the tradition and its still-too-exclusive canon compelling and accurate, the leap she makes between reading literature (even literature of the white male) and becoming a violent misogynist and/or internet troll, is tenuous at best. Consider two prominent incels (I refuse to use their names, but they are easy enough to find) who made headlines for their violent attacks in North America: one, a self-identified incel who carried out the recent Toronto van attack was 25-years-old; the other, described as the Toronto terrorist’s “hero,” murdered six people at a University and was 22-years-old. Isn’t it just as (perhaps even more) likely that the dominate narrative exposure these young men had was not from literature, but from, say, streaming television and social media? 

In addition, study after study suggests that reading classic literature/literary fiction, among other genres, makes people more humanist and empathetic. In addition, study after study demonstrates that people are reading less and less (especially “literature”). People having these conversations (writers and readers of articles like this one) are discussing these very ideas about men and women, masculinity and femininity, race and class, nationalism and colonialism, patriotism and religion, in literature and elsewhere. Are we to believe that these “incels” are reading literature and also having these discussions? Reading these books but ignoring their themes or interpreting them differently? Treating The Awakening, for exampleas a story about woman who got what was coming to her, rather than an example of a courageous woman who boldly demands her sexual freedom in a time when that was nearly impossible? And, assuming they are readers, what’s to say they’re not reading someone like Ayn Rand?

I take Spampinato’s point that we must continue to diversify the canon and discuss what gender (and other) disparities in reading and publishing have done to readers, writers, and cultures to date; however, I think the author’s primary thesis is unsound and no evidence is given to support her major claim, that reading classic literature causes misogyny. Do we have statistics, for example, on incel members and their reading habits, including choice of texts, frequency of reading activity, or favored genre? Where does the writer’s assumption originate, that literature causes these tendencies rather than helps people realize them? After all, without any data, isn’t it equally possible that these men simply do not read literature and therefore are less empathetic because of lack of exposure to humanistic ideals; or that they have not studied literature and therefore lack comprehension skills and global awareness? 

Indeed, while some kinds of reading might make human beings “better people,” other genres seem designed to do the exact opposite. How do we know these men are not instead being influenced by, say, classic westerns or true crime novels, or comic books? (no shade meant to these genres!) Spampinato suggests that the problem is classic literary fiction, specifically, and its focus on male sexual superiority, that causes cultural sexism/misogyny, but fascinating textual analysis aside*, where is the evidence that would support this claim? As a part of the larger context, certainly our literature is a contributing factor to how we think about and communicate with the world around us. But to claim it is the root? 

Perhaps, if we accept that these “incels” read classic literature/literary fiction, we should also look at the difference between “reading” and “comprehending” (or learning). If we are to grant that what she says is true, an overabundance of white male literature that privileges male sexuality is to blame for misogyny, must we then jump to the conclusion that it is because young men are simply reading a lot of these stories? Or is it possible that they are reading without understanding (or discussing) the issues? Here’s an excerpt from the essay: 

The literature we choose to teach our children evidences how untroubled we are by this disturbing cliché that rage and a fascination with violation are characteristic features of (again, white) male sexuality. This is of course one of the main points of O’Brien’s beautiful book, but it doesn’t change the fact that as a teenager I had read many fictional accounts of men’s rape fantasies long before I had ever read a literary account from the woman’s perspective of rape, or even of consensual sex. I was trained to accept that male sexual frustration was a serious issue because I read hundreds of pages about it before the age of 20, far more than I read about issues of undoubtedly greater social import, like the legacy of slavery, the alienation of women and people of color from public life, or the violence of the settler colonialism on which the United States was founded. Perhaps these novels even coached me into taking male sexual frustration seriously through a kind of frightful education: look what happens, they seemed to say, when men don’t get what they want. (para. 6)

I have highlighted two sentences in this excerpt because they are profound personal post hoc reflections from a thoughtful and critical reader (although she problematically provides just one scene/motif from each representative novel, all of which are arguably complex, and then suggests that these books are “about” that scene/motif). I think it is important to recognize, however, that while I believe she is accurate and honest in what she describes here as her own experience and edification, the anecdotes are also being presented in such a way as to suggest a generalization about larger reading outcomes for other groups/populations. I am not a female-identified reader, so I cannot speak to how broadly the author’s personal experiences translate to other women, but I believe her. As a gay man, I certainly felt the lack of LGBTQ representation (or at least the acknowledgement of it) in my own classes, even throughout college.

It seems important to acknowledge, however, that literary criticism itself has existed for generations because of these very individual interpretations and analyses, and that attempts to assert cultural causation (with any kind of media, really) have been regularly and resoundingly defeated. In other words, Spampinato’s personal reflections on and responses to the assigned reading she was given in school are an important and valid part of this conversation, but I am reluctant to accept them as examples for causation between reading literature and becoming “fill-in-the-blank” (in this case, militantly misogynistic), if only because it stems from a projection of her experience onto others’ reading experiences (all the while assuming that these other people have done the same reading and absorbed the same messages). It is also reductive to say that the incel movement is born in any single thing (i.e. “a product of Anglo-American literary culture”). Perhaps this is hyperbole to generate discussion about our (this community of readers) reading habits, or to illustrate just how systemic and institutionalized the problem of misogyny is; but if that is the case, it needs to be stated more clearly.

In the rest of this passage, Spampinato suggests that reading a number of texts that include, for example, rape fantasies, results in a kind of acceptance of or resignation to rape culture. If this is true, is that not a fault of the teaching and study of literature, rather than the literature itself? Perhaps that is too fine a distinction, but for those few remaining high school programs teaching classic literature, the question would seem highly relevant. It reminds me much of the debates over teaching books like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which some people object to based on its use of racial slurs (despite that fact that reading in context would and does reveal a great deal about why Twain chooses to use those foul terms, and about history itself). If “we choose to teach our children” literature that is violent or fascinated with white male sexuality, does that mean we accept those features as good, necessary, or normal? In other words, does “reading make it so?” (Et tu, “violent video games create violent people”?) Do we look at every other feature or theme in literature independent of its context, whether classic or some other genre, and suggest that reading a lot of it makes us think that only those issues are important or that only that way of thinking is the right one? Or is teaching these texts an opportunity to have these very discussions? To reject them, question them, teach alongside them? And is that happening? 

Spampinato gets to these same questions near the end of her essay. She asks us to think about why we almost intuitively recommend Catcher in the Rye to a teenager, but not The Bell Jar. She suggests that we do not need to eliminate all these white males from the canon, but we do need to change the conversation and we do need to add more diverse voices. With all of these suggestions, I heartily concur. But just as we should avoid unexamined and habit-based recommendations in literature (casually or in the classroom), so too must we be cautious in suggesting, especially without evidence^ and in this age of anti-education, anti-intellectualism and “alternative facts,” that the activity of reading literature is damaging us morally, socially, or otherwise. That seems, to me, a leap too far. 

*Her analysis of this theme in the texts she provides is interesting and provocative. I would like to read more.

^No evidence is presented that incels are reading classic literature/literary fiction of the types addressed in the article and no evidence is provided that reading literature causes negative socio-cultural behaviors (indeed, most studies seem to suggest the opposite). For a comprehensive study of this phenomenon and why “the answer is not simple,” see Angela Nagle’s book, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right (John Hunt 2017).

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Blog Post, Literature

What Do We Mean by “Literary”?

Here’s a question that comes up all the time: How do you know a work is “literary;” or, the even more common, “what is literature”?
As someone who has a difficult time narrowing things down to a “favorite” book, I admit that I find this question about defining or explaining the “literary” genre a bit difficult! But, thinking about the question in relation to a particular example might help. 

 

I first have to expand on my own definition of literary, as it is something that comes up on my blog/twitter often, with the argument often being that “literary” or reading “literature” applies to anyone who reads lots of books. This is just not the case. I am sorry if that sounds snobbish, but it’s true. One who reads hundreds of books a year might rightly be considered bookish, but if these books are mainly* YA-Level, romance novels, erotica, etc., then, no, that, in my opinion, is not literary reading.

 

I would define a work of literature, in general, as something that has lasting or permanent literary and social/political/theological, etc. impact. It could be works, like those of Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins, that revolutionized a genre (here, the detective story and the mystery genre, respectively). It could be a stand-alone work, like Vanity Fair which, read now, might make one wonder “hm..this is a classic because…?” but which, upon deeper contextual study, is discovered to have been a landmark in terms of prose, execution, or other groundbreaking change to the elements of fiction. The point is, a literary work must have a larger impact on the “literary” world, and it must stand the test of time. Books that have been published within the last 10 years might qualify as literary, because we anticipate that they will last for generations to come and because they are, in some way, a “first” for literature (like Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides).

 

So, all that being said, which novel can I pick in order to discuss this idea of “literary merits”? Well, I think I must go with Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Hugo wrote Les Miserables following the French Revolution, and after his exile to Guernsey (after calling Napoleon a traitor to France). The novel itself spans 20 years in the life of its unusual protagonist, Jean Valjean, but it tells, through flashbacks and historical segues, much more of French history and culture than could be contained in 20 years.

 

The novel is lengthy, though this has nothing to do with literary merit (some say it is more difficult to write a perfect short book than a perfect long one); however, in this case, it certainly helps that the book is hefty, because it tackles so much: politics and war, religion, and the nature of “family.” Hugo also expounds on elements of moral philosophy; how is a thief a thief, if he thieves only to feed his family? How does a policeman arrest the man responsible for saving his life? These complex morality arguments and the historical nature of the book are what make it socially and academically significant, and thereby will likely seal a place for this book in literary discussion for all time. It is an interesting and sometimes exciting story, but that on its own does not qualify the book as literature. What makes it literature are the many deeper elements that touch upon human nature and that ask the reader to take a look at life and his/her place in it, then ask, “what shall I do with this information?”

 

From my original (short) review of the book:

 

Victor Hugo’s achievement with Les Miserables is stunning and breath-taking. Not only is the story superb, realistic, and moving, but it is complemented by aspects of French philosophy, history, and politics. When beginning this novel, I had no idea that I would be exposed to, and learn so much about, French history and culture. Napoleon Bonaparte, Waterloo, Louis VIII, the Guillotine, European relations, the gamins, prisons, crime and punishment, religion, morality; all of this is examined with a literary microscope. Meanwhile, love, poetry, song, revolution, family, and society are all exposed to the scrutiny of an expelled patriot. The story of Jean Valjean is heartbreaking and vindicating. Cosette and Marius, lovers despite the odds. Javert, the intensely dutiful (to a fault) inspector, and his tragic revelations. Gavroche, the beautiful underprivileged. Fantine, the lost and compromised woman, taken advantage of while trying to care for her daughter. Eponine, Fauchelevent, the Nuns, the Gillenormands, all minor but telling characters that are described incredibly and delicately by Hugo. What most impressed me is how Hugo described the history and purpose of each detail, to demonstrate it’s importance. Chapters of the novel are devoted to explaining seemingly insignificant points of detail, such as the prisons, the chain gangs, the slang language, all of which come into play during the story, but become active and live characters on their own merits because of Hugo’s attention to them. I cannot say enough about this novel – it is truly a masterpiece.

 

So, what about you? Do you select your reading according to type or genre? Do you tend to read mostly from one particular style? Do you find a distinction between literary and non-literary works? And, if so, do you have a preference for one or the other? What do you think compels you toward the books you do read? 

*Note: I think reading widely and eclectically, whatever the type and genre, also has its benefits. I’m not knocking any particular reading choice — I think that’s a rather silly thing to do. My argument is simply that, when we use the term “literary” or “literature,” we should be thinking about context. I might want something from my romance reading, and something else from my comics, and still something else from my horror. I don’t particularly look for the “literary” in those texts, but that doesn’t mean they’re not fun, interesting, and valuable experiences. 

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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, British Literature, Charles Dickens, Classics, Fiction, Literature, Mystery

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

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

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is Charles Dickens’s last and unfinished novel. It was inspired, supposedly, by Dickens’s brush with death while riding aboard a train with his wife. The train derailed, and Dickens and his wife literally watched as people were flung from a bridge, to their watery deaths. The early draft of Dickens’s second-to-last novel, Our Mutual Friend, was imperiled in the cabin ahead of his own, and that cabin was hanging over the edge of the bridge; Dickens risked his life by climbing into that cabin to retrieve the manuscript and bring it back to safety. He was reportedly haunted for the rest of his life by a dark shadow (Drood) which is said to have been the ghost of a murdered man seeking resolution/vindication from the mortal world. The back-story and history is enough to get anyone interested; but the novel itself, though unfinished, is also quite extraordinary. The prose is the most natural and flowing of any Dickens novel I have read. The situations are believable and the sometimes fanciful or caricatured personalities are done away with. The novel’s eponymous character, Edwin Drood, disappears about mid-way through the completed portion of the story. A suspect is brought in, but the readers are led to suspect another. Whether Drood is murdered, however, and, if so, who the actual culprit is, has been left to speculation because the narrative never reaches its conclusion. My edition of the book contains the famous “Trial of John Jasper” play, which was staged by some of the literary giants of the time, following Dickens’s death. Writers and critics such as George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Waugh, and G.K. Chesterton, took parts in the play, which developed extemporaneously and was one of the most popularly watched events of the day. As it is not a portion of the original book, however, I am not including it in the review (though it is highly interesting – so if you are intrigued by the story and the history around it, it is not to be missed). Lastly, the dangers of opium addiction begin to be clearly established – and Dickens’s own personal experiences with the drug in later life, including a possible self-consciousness about his own use of it and his witnessing the addiction of his good friend and fellow writer, Wilkie Collins – are brought into play. This makes the novel, though incomplete, rather powerful to me, due to its honesty and sensitivity.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

As I mention above, Dickens seems to have developed a stronger sense of true characterization in his later career. His earlier novels employ many literary devices, such as grotesques and caricatures, which are in a way cutely identifiable as “Dickensian” but which are, to me, sometimes rather annoying. While Dickens does lash out vehemently against the Philanthropists (as he does in other works) here, he is blunt and direct in the approach; he does not exactly employ a character and warp that character into representing Dickens’s vision of “The Philanthropist” but, instead, just bashes the group as a whole. There is a Philanthropist in the novel, and he does embody many of the elements which Dickens has stated in the narration are deplorable, but he is more a character than a caricature. Dickens does a great job of differentiating the many different characters, even those who come in near the “end” and are not well understood because the story is cut off prematurely. The characters are described in such a way as to be identifiable, with familiar ticks or physical quirks. Their slang and dialects are distinct, as are their mannerisms and features. What would have perhaps enhanced the characterization further, other than having completed the novel, would be a bit more time spent on development. Drood, for instance, who we pretty much understand, is not really missed when he disappears. This is a shortcoming, since he is the crux of the plot and the one person (aside from, perhaps, his “Pussy” – Rosa) whom we should care about. Similarly, Neville, the supposed antagonist, is relatively underdeveloped compared to the minor players – like Durdles and The Deputy. John Jasper, Mr. Crisparkles, and Mr. Grewgious, however, are all very well done.

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

I mentioned previously how impressed I am with Dickens’s apparent growth from his earlier works to this one, in terms of his prose and style. I am easily annoyed by some of his trademark characterizations and burlesques, but seeing what he does here in Edwin Drood makes me extremely interested, and much more compelled, to read more of his late works, like Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House or Hard Times. This was also visible in Great Expectations, though I think it is most prominent here. Dickens employs a rather straightforward style, and his prose is much more conversational and accessible, though still beautifully wrought. He introduces snippets of letters and song or poetry to break the monotony of prose, which advances the story quite well and adds a welcome and entertaining level to the story. This edition also includes original illustrations which are beautifully done and allow the reader a pictographic point of reference, as it were – an image of the scene, with characters drawn in the style of the times, wearing the clothes and expressions of the period. I was highly receptive to their inclusion.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

What I found most intriguing about this novel is the personality which Dickens gives the work overall. I am deeply saddened that the book was never completed, because I truly believe it may have been one of his crowning achievements. Dickens was always a writer who exposed social injustices, particularly in regards to poverty and religion, having experienced a childhood of nearly absolute deprivation; but he gets even more personal with this work. Many believe the character, John Jasper, to be a re-imagining of Dickens’s feelings toward his embarrassment of a son, Sydney, who racked up enormous debt in Dickens’s name and was ultimately banished from the Dickens home. Also, it is believed that one of Dickens’s great regrets was marrying so young – which is clearly expressed in the tormented relationship of Edwin and Rosa, which is eventually broken off, mutually, by the two. And, of course, as I mentioned above – Dickens’s mental anguish and torment since his brush with death, intensified perhaps by his (likely) use of opium, are all present within the text. The amount of “self” which Dickens exudes in this work is touching and painful, like a scarred wound, unveiled at last by an old writer to his loyal but ignorant readers. It is almost as if Dickens was writing his own eulogy – a farewell in swan’s song, putting his mind at rest before the long, terrible, and permanent final rest.

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“The cramped monotony of my existence grinds me away by the grain.”

“Circumstances may accumulate so strongly even against an innocent man, that directed, sharpened, and pointed, they may slay him.”

“Stranger, pause and ask thyself the question, canst thou do likewise? If not, with a blush retire.”

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Blog Post, Classics, Fiction, Just for Fun, Literature, Recommended Reading

Recommended Reading: Bending Boundaries

i4ndexWhat is the heart and soul of literature? What is the purpose of a reading-driven life? I believe people who read a lot, and with variety, are uniquely placed to learn more about the world, its history and its people, and to become more compassionate, tolerant, and patient because of their reading experiences.

These are the real reasons why I love to read the classics. Yes, they’re an escape; they can be beautifully written, exciting, scary, and emotionally charged. But, mostly, they teach me, and show me, more about the world and its people and places than anything else ever could.

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The books below are some of my favorites, and they’ve all helped me to experience the world in ways that I couldn’t possibly in my own life. They’ve transported me to a different world, taught me about different cultures, and helped me step into the shoes of people who are different from me. From the poverty and union movements of French miners to the experience of Jewish people during the Holocaust; from the lives of women, gay and straight, to the experience of black men and women, Latino immigrants, German philosophers, religious leaders and spiritual seekers, and the mentally and physically disabled. The books below can teach us so much about the world, past, present, and future.

Even dystopian fiction like A Handmaid’s Tale helps us to explore gender roles and the dangerous, complex, and unfair power structures established to keep women subservient. I am not going to write specific thoughts on these, and there are so many more I could have included, but I do highly recommend the list of books below. I’ve reviewed some of these here at Roof Beam Reader. Unfortunately, I read a number of them before I began blogging, so I don’t have reviews to share.

  1. Germinal by Emile Zola
  2. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  3. The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes
  4. Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane
  5. Angels in America by Tony Kushner
  6. Night by Elie Wiesel
  7. The Diary of Anne Frank
  8. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
  9. Freakboy by Kristin Elizabeth Clark
  10. Rain God by Arturo Islas
  11. Memory Mambo by Achy Obejas
  12. Wonder by RJ Palacio
  13. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  14. A Rasin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
  15. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  16. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
  17. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  18. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  19. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
  20. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Which books have allowed you to truly step into another’s shoes? To experience a completely different lifestyle? Please share your own recommendations!

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