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

Thoughts: Sodom on the Thames by Morris B. Kaplan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1001 Books, 2013 Challenges, 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, Adultery, Book Review, British Literature, Classics Club, Fiction, Graham Greene, Jealousy, Masculinity, Modernism, PhD, post-World War II, Power, Religion, Sin/Redemption, War, World War II

Thoughts: The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

394731The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 12

Graham Greene is considered by many to be one of the most important 20th Century English writers. His novels are always highly masculine and usually carry a complicated but unambiguous Catholicism. For me, either of these “types” of literature could be highly repellant, but there is something about Greene’s ability that draws me in, something about his works that speak to me – even though I’m appalled by the misogyny and unreceptive to the religious overtones. The End of the Affair is, as its protagonist states at the outside, a story about hate. This, of course, means it is really about love – but a love which causes pain and heartache. The story takes place in England during the bombings of World War II, so there is always a sense of the uncontrollable – the powerlessness of man and the fleeting nature of life. The main character and narrator, Maurice, is a writer who falls in love (which, for him, means possession – sex!) with a woman named Sarah, who just happens to be another man’s wife. The two have a torrid affair which ends (not a surprise, considering the title of the book), but in a rather unconventional way. When it is over, Maurice and his lover’s husband become strangely close, almost coupling in a transitive way through Sarah.

The story is narrated in the first-person, from Maurice Bendrix’s point of view. Maurice’s anger and biases, as well as his own admission that he will choose what to include and what to leave out of the story, make his narration somewhat unreliable. That being said, he does come to an ultimate truth at the end and, despite his anger, admits to himself, to Sarah, and to the reader the very thing he had hoped to avoid throughout the story. Sarah, the love interest, as well as her husband, Henry, and a private investigator (Parkis), plus an atheist leader (Smythe) are all very well imagined and executed. They each have distinct personalities and their own parts to play in the story (as do other of the minor characters, such as the Catholic Priest and Sarah’s mother). For those interested in masculinity studies, for instance, one can clearly find representatives for the four principal categories of Hegemony, Complicity, Subordination, and Marginalization.

Like much of Greene’s work, The End of the Affair is a story about power and its prose matches that theme. Greene’s style and language are strong, direct, and highly “male.” He struggles a bit, I think, with the first-person narration. This was his first novel written in first-person P.O.V. and the story is also based on his own affair – the book was dedicated “To C”, which refers to his mistress, Lady Catherine Walston; so, given the first attempt coupled with the very personal nature of the story, it is not surprising that Greene may have been a bit uncomfortable. Still, the story would have been very different in the third-person – the anger may not have come across as genuine, the jealousy filtered through a narrator might not have been as raw, and certainly the condescension Maurice hold for all other males would not have been as pronounced.

What I enjoyed most about the book was its purity of sentiment. What I mean by that is, in this book, anger is anger. Jealousy is jealousy. Kindness is kindness. The book is like one raw, exposed nerved, pricked in different ways by different characters. It is also a good example of modernism, particularly in its structure (starting the story not at the beginning, but after everything has happened, the narrator trying to make sense of it all after the fact – reminding me of The Great Gatsby and The Good Soldier). Ultimately, I responded well to this book, as I did to The Power and the Glory. And, I must say, this troubles me greatly.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Adultery, Catholicism, Religion, Jealousy, Sin/Redemption, Power, Masculinity.

Notable Quotes:

“What happens if you drop all the things that make you I?”

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”

“I hate you, God. I hate you as though you actually exist.”

“I refused to believe that love could take any other form than mine: I measured love by the extent of my jealousy, and by that standard of course she could not love me at all.”

“It was as though our love were a small creature caught in a trap and bleeding to death: I had to shut my eyes and wring its neck.”

“The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.”

“Pain is easy to write. In pain we’re all happily individual. But what can one write about happiness?”

“Insecurity is the worst sense that lovers feel; sometimes the most humdrum desireless marriage seems better. Insecurity twists meanings and poisons trust.”

“I measured love by the extent of my jealousy.”

The End of the Affair is Book #10 for my Classics Club Challenge & Book #5 for my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge

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American Lit, Anita Loos, Book Review, Epistolary, Feminism, Fiction, Gender Studies, Jazz Age, Literature, Modernism, PhD

Thoughts: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

512704Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 11

I first read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in graduate school (2007?), as part of a 20th Century American Literature class. I loved that class, and the professor, because we read primarily unexpected texts – important ones, and ones which said much about the culture and politics of the time, but books which are nonetheless often overlooked, particularly in the classroom setting (such as Nathanael West’s, Day of the Locust, Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, etc.). What I loved about the book when I first read it was its humor. Anita Loos’s protagonist, Lorelei Lee, a genuine flapper and perhaps America’s first sensational gold-digger, is also the epitome (perhaps the originator) of the all-too-recognizable “blonde joke.” Her story is one of “education” and “morals” – a girl who is on a journey to improve herself, except that improvement, in Lorelei’s case, simply means getting her hands on as many jewels and as much money as she possibly can.

Along for the ride is Lorelei’s best friend, Dorothy, who, while a flapper, is much more sensible than Lorelei and truly is in search of love, rather than money – a claim Lorelei makes of herself all along, but the evidence repeatedly says otherwise. Dorothy is outspoken and direct about what she wants, and this attitude – though feminists might champion it- cause Lorelei to think that it is Dorothy who is in need of “education” and “improvement.” The joke, of course, is that it is Lorelei whose choices are highly suspect and rather immoral.

Upon reading the book for a second time (this time for a Gender Studies course in my doctoral program), I find that I love all of the same things, including the humor, the wit, and the wild adventures, but I also responded strongly to the bond between Dorothy and Lorelei and also to the subversive themes, particularly women in traditional male roles (dominating sexual/romantic relationships, traveling abroad without chaperones, etc.). Much of what this book is about, and why it is so great, can be summed up by the following passage:

So Mr. Jennings helped me quite a lot and I stayed in his office about a year when I found out he was not the kind of a gentleman that a young girl is safe with. I mean one evening when I went to pay a call on him at his apartment, I found a girl there who really was famous all over Little Rock for not being nice. So when I found out that girls like that paid calls on Mr. Jennings I had quite a bad case of histerics and my mind was really a blank and when I came out of it, it seems that I had a revolver in my hand and it seems that the revolver had shot Mr. Jennings.

The spelling and grammar errors, the flippant attitude, the game of conceal and reveal (quite prevalent in this book – she has a lot of sexual encounters, for instance, though she never, ever specifically mentions them. She does, however, mention that this “diary” of hers might be given to a gentleman, one day, so we know she’s not revealing everything), the faux-innocence, it’s all here. What is interesting about Lorelei is that she seems to think that everything is a result of fate. She never takes responsibility for the things she does, though she is a character of extreme agency. For instance, when the above scene is referred to again later, Lorelei never says “I shot the man;” instead, see says that “Mr. Jennings came to be shot.” This victim-esque mentality comes about in many ways, as when she is “abused” by wealthier men and women, whom she will later exact revenge upon (though she was in the wrong in the first place), or in her general gold-digging nature – she believes she is a girl “that things happen to,” which leaves her free to make all sorts of dubious decisions and not feel any kind of guilt or remorse about them. She is a woman with a bad reputation (which even Dorothy jokes about, though Lorelei never “gets” the joke) – she’s understood by others to be sexually corrupt and morally bankrupt, yet she doesn’t see these things in herself; ironically, she ultimately seeks “saving” (rather than “education”) by marrying a religious man who works as a censor (hilarious considering both Lorelei’s personality as well as Anita Loos’s career as a screenwriter).

Gentlemen_Prefer_Blondes_(1953)_film_posterThis book has received wide and varied reactions, from James Joyce who fell in love with it and reserved his ailing eyesight for the serial installments (the book having first been published in chapters, through Harper’s Bazaar) and Edith Wharton, who called it “the great American novel;” to William Faulkner, who absolutely loathed it. Many people are familiar with the 1950s film adaptation starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. The film, too, is brilliant, but readers should keep in mind that the two are very different. Much of the book’s essence is changed to suit the 1950s mentality and to strengthen the friendship between Lorelei and Dorothy (a relationship which is often stained in the book, but which is paramount in the film). Leaving the film aside, which one might argue is perhaps more feminist, the book is deceptively complex. Lorelei comes across, in her diary, as a type of brainless valley girl, full of “Like’s” and “So’s;” but this is Loos’s genius. She exposes the underbelly of 1920s hypocrisy and morality in a raw and humorous way. As Loos herself mentions in the introduction, this book was enormously popular in Russia, where it was likened to the dreary, often fatalistic social works of Tolstoy and this is because, leaving out the humor, Loos’s depiction of the world, of capitalism, sexual commodities, body image, and the treatment of women, is all very bleak. It’s a fun ride but, somehow, a dangerously serious one, too.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Gender Studies, Feminism, Women’s Literature, 1920s American Literature, Flappers, Jazz Age, Modernism, Epistolary.

Notable Quotes:
“Kissing your hand may make you feel very, very good but a diamond and a sapphire bracelet lasts forever.”

“Does this boat go to Europe, France?”

“Memory is more incredible than ink.”

“I always think that the most delightful thing about traveling is to always be running into Americans and to always feel at home.”

“Fate keeps on happening”

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Annamarie Jagose, Book Review, Feminism, GLBT, LGBT, Literary History, Literary Theory, Literature, Margaret Walters, Non-Fiction, PhD, Queer Theory, Theory, Thomas C. Foster

Brief Thoughts: 3 Texts on Literary Theory

39933How to Read Literature like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster
YTD: 07

Goodreads Summary:
What does it mean when a fictional hero takes a journey? Shares a meal? Gets drenched in a sudden rain shower? Often, there is much more going on in a novel or poem than is readily visible on the surface — a symbol, maybe, that remains elusive, or an unexpected twist on a character — and there’s that sneaking suspicion that the deeper meaning of a literary text keeps escaping you.
In this practical and amusing guide to literature, Thomas C. Foster shows how easy and gratifying it is to unlock those hidden truths, and to discover a world where a road leads to a quest; a shared meal may signify a communion; and rain, whether cleansing or destructive, is never just rain. Ranging from major themes to literary models, narrative devices, and form, How to Read Literature Like a Professor is the perfect companion for making your reading experience more enriching, satisfying, and fun.

My Thoughts:
Lots of helpful tips, useful references, and practical advice. It’s certainly not critical theory, but that shouldn’t be what one expects going into this text. It’s a “literature made easy” type of guide, but it’s good for what it is. Easy to read & added plenty of texts to my “to read” list. For English majors early in their programs or for casual/recreational readers who would like to get more from their reading experience, this book could offer some valuable tips. It also added quite a few titles to my wish list!

74661Feminism: A Very Short Introduction by Margaret Walters
YTD: 08

Goodreads Summary:
“This is a historical account of feminism that looks at the roots of feminism, voting rights, and the liberation of the sixties, and analyzes the current situation of women across Europe, in the United States, and elsewhere in the world, particularly the Third World countries. Walters examines the difficulties and inequities that women still face, more than forty years after the “new wave” of 1960s feminism–difficulties, particularly, in combining domesticity, motherhood and work outside the home. How much have women’s lives really changed? In the West, women still come up against the “glass ceiling” at work, with most earning considerably less than their male counterparts. What are we to make of the now commonplace insistence that feminism deprives men of their rights and dignities? And how does one tackle the issue of female emancipation in different cultural and economic environments–in, for example, Islam, Hinduism, the Middle East, Africa, and the Indian sub-continent?”

My Thoughts:
“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.” This quote by Rebecca West seems to sum up the history and mentality of Feminism; that is, by virtue of defining it, one practically undermines it. Labels are almost exclusively heteronormative and patriarchal, so to use them is to counter the work of feminist thought. All-in-all, I find the Oxford “Very Short Introductions” extremely helpful, useful, and accessible. Feminism was no exception. Walters outlines the history of feminist thought from the 11th Century and up to modern-day. The major theorists, such as Judith Butler and Mary Wollstonecraft, are given ample attention, as are more obscure writers and historical figures. Walters also includes many of the opposing forces as well as the “in-fighting” between different branches of feminism, all of which helps one to understand the larger theory and its place in time, history, and relation to other schools of thought. Highly recommended for those interested in literary and or feminist theory.

239907Queer Theory: An Introduction by Annamarie Jagose
YTD: 09

Goodreads Summary:
In Queer Theory: An Introduction, Annamarie Jagose provides a clear and concise explanation of queer theory, tracing it as part of an intriguing history of same-sex love over the last century, from mid-century homophile movements to gay liberation, the women’s movement and lesbian feminism, to the re-appropriation of the term “queer.” Carefully interrogating the arguments of supporters and opponents of queer theory, Jagose suggests that its strength lies in its questioning of the very idea of sexual identities. Blending insights from prominent queer theorists such as Judith Butler and David Halperin, Jagose argues that queer theory’s challenge is to create new ways of thinking, not only about fixed sexual identities such as heterosexual and homosexual, but also about other supposedly essential notions such as “sexuality” and “gender” and even “man” and “woman.”

My Thoughts:
Plenty of useful information and great discussion of various arguments surrounding gay/lesbian studies, feminism, gender, and identity – but the text seemed to be much more about those elements than about Queer Theory, specifically. Granted, there’s a history leading up to Queer Theory & the fact that Queer Theory is ever-changing (by virtue of its being “queer” and therefore resistant to definition, a characteristic it shares with feminism) would make it hard to write an “About Me” book on Queer Theory. Still, I was slightly troubled by the overwhelming amount of time spent on discussing lesbian(ism) and their perpetual outsider status (outside feminism, outside queer theory, outside heteronormativity, etc.), especially the arguments which made homosexual (or gay, or queer, depending on whom is identifying as what) men the greatest “enemy” to the lesbian woman. Those arguments were not the author’s (Jagose) but there was much attention paid to them by her. And I realize I’ve littered this response with pronouns and descriptors galore, which means I’m an enemy of the queer and the feminist schools, for sure.

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PhD

Spring 2013 Reading List (Ph.D.)

Last semester was my first in my Ph.D. in English program.  I was very excited about the reading list – and I wasn’t disappointed (just overwhelmed!).  For my two classes last Fall, I had to read a total of 24 required texts (and dozens of supplementary essays, texts, etc.)

 This semester holds a much more manageable (I hope) 11 texts.  I’m stoked about the two classes I’m signed-up for in Spring – they’re both relevant to my degree but also to my pursuit of a graduate certificate in LGBT Studies.  

The first class is History of Gender & Sexuality.  The second is Gender & Sexuality in Film and Literature.  Here’s what’s on the docket for both:

History of Gender & Sexuality

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1. 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 André Gide, and the historical situations which produced both the Europeans and their non-Western lovers.

Colonial lands, which in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century included most of Africa, South and Southeast Asia and the islands of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the Caribbean, provided a haven for many Europeans whose sexual inclinations did not fit neatly into the constraints of European society.

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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2. How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States by Joanne Meyerowitz

How Sex Changed is a fascinating social, cultural, and medical history of transsexuality in the United States. Joanne Meyerowitz tells a powerful human story about people who had a deep and unshakable desire to transform their bodily sex. In the last century when many challenged the social categories and hierarchies of race, class, and gender, transsexuals questioned biological sex itself, the category that seemed most fundamental and fixed of all.

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.

In this story of transsexuality, Meyerowitz shows how new definitions of sex circulated in popular culture, science, medicine, and the law, and she elucidates the tidal shifts in our social, moral, and medical beliefs over the twentieth century, away from sex as an evident biological certainty and toward an understanding of sex as something malleable and complex. How Sex Changed is an intimate history that illuminates the very changes that shape our understanding of sex, gender, and sexuality today.”

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3. Sex for Sale: Prostitution, Pornography, and the Sex Industry by Ronald Weitzer

“This groundbreaking collection of essays on the sex industry contains original studies on sex work, its risks and benefits, and its political implications. Sex for Sale covers areas not commonly researched, including gay and lesbian pornography, telephone sex workers, customers of prostitutes, male and female escorts who work independently, street prostitution, sex tourism, legal prostitution, and strip clubs that cater to women.

Sex for Sale also tracks various trends during the past decade, including the mainstreaming and growing acceptance of some types of sexual commerce and the growing criminalization of other types, such as sex trafficking. Sex for Sale offers a window into the lived experiences of sex workers as well as an analysis of the larger gender arrangements and political structures that shape the experiences of workers and their clients.

This book contributes greatly to a growing research literature that documents the rich variation, nuances, and complexities in the exchange of sexual services, performances, and products. This book will change the way we understand sex work.”

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4. Sexuality in Europe: A 20th Century History by Dagmar Herzog

“This original book brings a fascinating and accessible new account of the tumultuous history of sexuality in Europe from the waning of Victorianism to the collapse of Communism and the rise of European Islam. Although the twentieth century is often called “the century of sex” and seen as an era of increasing liberalization, Dagmar Herzog instead emphasizes the complexities and contradictions in sexual desires and behaviours, the ambivalences surrounding sexual freedom, and the difficulties encountered in securing sexual rights. Incorporating the most recent scholarship on a broad range of conceptual problems and national contexts, the book investigates the shifting fortunes of marriage and prostitution, contraception and abortion, queer and straight existence. It analyzes sexual violence in war and peace, the promotion of sexual satisfaction in fascist and democratic societies, the role of eugenics and disability, the politicization and commercialization of sex, and processes of secularization and religious renewal.”

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5. Sodom on the Thames: Sex, Love, and Scandal in Wilde Times by Morris B. Kaplan

“Sodom on the Thames looks closely at three episodes involving sex between men in late-nineteenth-century England. Morris Kaplan draws on extensive research into court records, contemporary newspaper accounts, personal correspondence and diaries, even a pornographic novel. He focuses on two notorious scandals and one quieter incident.

In 1871, transvestites “Stella” (Ernest Boulton) and “Fanny” (Frederick Park), who had paraded around London’s West End followed by enthusiastic admirers, were tried for conspiracy to commit sodomy. In 1889-1890, the “Cleveland Street affair” revealed that telegraph delivery boys had been moonlighting as prostitutes for prominent gentlemen, one of whom fled abroad. In 1871, Eton schoolmaster William Johnson resigned in disgrace, generating shockwaves among the young men in his circle whose romantic attachments lasted throughout their lives. Kaplan shows how profoundly these scandals influenced the trials of Oscar Wilde in 1895 and contributed to growing anxiety about male friendships.

Sodom on the Thames reconstructs these incidents in rich detail and gives a voice to the diverse people involved. It deepens our understanding of late Victorian attitudes toward urban culture, masculinity, and male homoeroticism. Kaplan also explores the implications of such historical narratives for the contemporary politics of sexuality.”

Gender and Sexuality in Film & Literature

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1. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

“This is a record of hate far more than of love,” writes Maurice Bendrix in the opening passages of The End of the Affair, and it is a strange hate indeed that compels him to set down the retrospective account of his adulterous affair with Sarah Miles—a hate bred of a passion that ultimately lost out to God.

Now, a year after Sarah’s death, Bendrix seeks to exorcise the persistence of passion by retracing its course from obsessive love to love-hate. At the start he believes he hates Sarah and her husband, Henry. By the end of the book, Bendrix’s hatred has shifted to the God he feels has broken his life but whose existence he has at last come to recognize.

Originally published in 1951, The End of the Affair was acclaimed by William Faulkner as “for me one of the best, most true and moving novels of my time, in anybody’s language.” 

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2. Feminist Film Studies: Writing the Woman into Cinema by Janet McCabe

“An introduction to feminist film theory as a discourse from the early seventies to the present. McCabe traces the broad ranging theories produced by feminist film scholarship, from formalist readings and psychoanalytical approaches to debates initiated by cultural studies, race and queer theory.”

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3. Frankenstein, Original 1818 Text by Mary Shelley

“Mary Shelley’s deceptively simple story of Victor Frankenstein and the creature he brings to life, first published in 1818, is now more widely read and more widely discussed by scholars than any other work of the Romantic period. From the creature’s creation to his wild lament over the dead body of his creator in the Arctic wastes, the story retains its narrative hold on the reader even as it spins off ideas in rich profusion. Macdonald and Scherf’s edition of Frankenstein has been widely acclaimed as an outstanding edition of the novel for the general reader and the student as much as for the scholar. The editors use as their copy-text the original 1818 version, and detail in an appendix all of Shelley’s later revisions. They also include a range of contemporary documents that shed light on the historical context from which this unique masterpiece emerged. Macdonald and Scherf have now revised and updated their introduction, notes and bibliography, and have added new documents (including a review of Frankenstein by Percy Shelley).”

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4. Gods and Monsters (Father of Frankenstein) by Christopher Bram

“Previously titled Father of Frankenstein, this acclaimed novel was the basis for the 1998 film starring Sir Ian McKellen, Lynn Redgrave, and Brendan Fraser. It journeys back to 1957 Los Angeles, where James Whale, the once-famous director of such classics as Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, is living in retirement, haunted by his past. Rescuing him from his too-vivid imagination is his gardener, a handsome ex-marine. The friendship between these two very different men is sometimes tentative, sometimes touching, often dangerous—and always captivating.”

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5. Issues in Feminist Film Criticism by Patricia Erens

“”This anthology makes it abundantly clear that feminist film criticism is flourishing and has developed dramatically since its inception in the early 1970s.” —Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

Erens brings together a wide variety of writings and methodologies by U.S. and British feminist film scholars. The twenty-seven essays represent some of the most influential work on Hollywood film, women’s cinema, and documentary filmmaking to appear during the past decade and beyond.

Contributors include Lucie Arbuthnot, Linda Artel, Pam Cook, Teresa de Lauretis, Mary Ann Doane, Elizabeth Ellsworth, Lucy Fischer, Jane Gaines, Mary C. Gentile, Bette Gordon, Florence Jacobowitz, Claire Johnston, E. Ann Kaplan, Annette Kuhn, Julia Lesage, Judith Mayne, Sonya Michel, Tania Modleski, Laura Mulvey, B. Ruby Rich, Gail Seneca, Kaja Silverman, Lori Spring, Jackie Stacey, Maureen Turim, Diane Waldman, Susan Wengraf, Linda Williams, and Robin Wood.”

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6. A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

“It is a very short list of 20th-century American plays that continue to have the same power and impact as when they first appeared—57 years after its Broadway premiere, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is one of those plays. The story famously recounts how the faded and promiscuous Blanche DuBois is pushed over the edge by her sexy and brutal brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski. Streetcar launched the careers of Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, and solidified the position of Tennessee Williams as one of the most important young playwrights of his generation, as well as that of Elia Kazan as the greatest American stage director of the ’40s and ’50s.

Who better than America’s elder statesman of the theater, Williams’ contemporary Arthur Miller, to write as a witness to the lightning that struck American culture in the form of A Streetcar Named Desire? Miller’s rich perspective on Williams’ singular style of poetic dialogue, sensitive characters, and dramatic violence makes this a unique and valuable new edition of A Streetcar Named Desire. This definitive new edition will also include Williams’ essay “The World I Live In,” and a brief chronology of the author’s life.”

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7. The Woman at the Keyhole: Feminism and Women’s Cinema by Judith Mayne

“[The Woman at the Keyhole is one] of the most significant contributions to feminist film theory sin ce the 1970s.” —SubStance

“… this intelligent, eminently readable volume puts women’s filmmaking on the main stage…. serves at once as introduction and original contribution to the debates structuring the field. Erudite but never obscure, effectively argued but not polemical, The Woman at the Keyhole should prove to be a valuable text for courses on women and cinema.” —The Independent

When we imagine a “woman” and a “keyhole,” it is usually a woman on the other side of the keyhole, as the proverbial object of the look, that comes to mind. In this work the author is not necessarily reversing the conventional image, but rather asking what happens when women are situated on both sides of the keyhole. In all of the films discussed, the threshold between subject and object, between inside and outside, between virtually all opposing pairs, is a central figure for the reinvention of cinematic narrative.”

So, those are the texts I’ll be working with this Spring.  Suffice it to say, I am incredibly excited about these two classes and the reading lists for each!  I’m also thrilled that some of these books have been on my “To read” pile/list for a while, so I am able to count them towards my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, too!  

If anyone sees something interesting here and wants to read along, let me know! When I have my syllabi, I can let people know when I’ll be reading which texts (I also post my reading updates on Goodreads, so feel free to follow along there).  

I’ll try to post thoughts and reviews on these as I go along – since it will help me gather thoughts for essays and research papers.  Aside from Frankenstein, which I have read before, all of these will be new reads for me.

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Book Review, Family, Fiction, Marriage, Memory, metafiction, PhD, Richard Russo

Review: That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

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That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 52

Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting and believable.

That Old Cape Magic might be one of my favorite reads of the year.  The main character, Jack Griffin, is the son of two Literature Professors – brilliant people, Yale educated, who never quite made it as far as they believe they should have.  Jack is a disappointment to his parents because he gives up on “important” writing and moves to Hollywood in order to write screenplays. Of course, they are also quite envious of him for getting out of “the mid-fucking-west,” as they call it.  Still, his parents are of the class of “academics” who find any popular writing – anything that anybody would willingly publish or find enjoyable to read- not at all valuable (don’t we all know those types of academics who think, “if the commoners are reading it, it must not be very good!”?). Griffin struggles against their influence all his life, only to realize very late that he has become exactly like them (even –gasp- a literature professor!).  Over the course of decades, as he slowly morphs into the very thing he was rebelling against, he loses his parents, his wife, and any sense of self he once had.  He, like his parents, seeks out Cape Cod in order to reclaim himself and remind him of what is truly important to him, and to set his parents to rest, at long last. Ultimately, Jack’s journey is to find happiness by accepting where he comes from, by letting go of pains from the past, and by acknowledging all the good things that he has – a lesson most of us could be reminded of from time to time.

Characterization:
4 – Characters very well-developed.

The characters in this book range from self-absorbed (most of them), to self-deprecating; from hilariously buffoonish (Jack’s brothers-in-law) to sensible and patient (Jack’s wife).  Although the main character’s parents are painted with a somewhat biased brush, the truth is that they are supposed to appear rather one-sided.  Part of the story is an exploration of memory and perception – when we remember events from childhood, when we think of our parents as they were when we were children- are we remembering things accurately?  Could we really have known what anyone was like, when we look back on a child’s perspective, thirty years later?  Jack looks at each character in the book a certain way, very rarely changing his mind about anyone, but readers get glimpses into different sides of their personalities, which tells us more about them but also about the narrator and his reliability (or not). Russo is adept at narrating small moments, such as a woman crying in the shower or a father thinking about his daughter, to illustrate and round-out even the more minor of characters in the story.  We learn that everyone has at least two identities, the way they see themselves and the way others see them, but two is just the minimum – most of us have many more.  Although the cast is rather sad and unlikable (his characters and plots combine in ways which create a sense of what Thoreau calls the “quiet desperation” of man), and though many of them have bloated egos and often lament the life they could have had, without making much effort to achieve it, still they come together to tell a story – they are believable, recognizable people in believable, recognizable families and situations. 

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

Perhaps Russo’s greatest strength, at least in That Old Cape Magic, is his storytelling ability.  He understands people and their complexities.  He is sensitive and observant, which is appropriate when considering that this is really a story about stories and a tale about telling (one would expect a writer to be almost obsessively observant – and we surely recognize this in ourselves). His prose is light but serious – it’s a bizarre way of reflecting real life, where most of our thoughts are on the surface, yet powerful and sometimes dangerous emotions are always at work, deep in the undertow.  Russo drops philosophical tidbits here and there throughout the book – little life lessons about understanding people, living with compassion, questioning (and even doubting) our own memories.  The fluid prose, the welcoming language (drawing us into the story even when the characters might be repellant), and the oftentimes hilarious reflections and dialogue all make for an enjoyable and satisfying reading experience.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements are present & enhance the story.

There are two primary subjects in That Old Cape Magic.  The first is family and relationships; the second is writing and, more specifically, popular writing vs. academic writing (what is “valuable?”).  For the first, Russo explores an idea that his main character, Griffin, inherits from his parents – that happiness, and home, is “a place you could visit but never own.”  For his family, that place is Cape Cod, but the reality is that they are never truly happy there, either.  The second theme, academic versus popular writing, and what matters, is especially fun and interesting for students of English/Literature, particularly those familiar with academic department politics (groan).  Russo’s book is clever in that it is written as popular contemporary fiction, but he is clearly aware of the academic side (and likely reception by academics to this, his own work) and of the prejudices and pretensions that come with “literary” scrutiny.  Who are these people who get to define what is “good” and “important,” he seems to be asking.  Russo drops-in references to Melville, Faulkner, and other canonical writers, which is clearly a “poke in the eye” to the prestigious readers, indicating that he knows what he is talking about; but, he also manages to make the story his own, modern and readable, so that really anyone (particularly fans of fiction that explores families, memory, and writing) can enjoy it.  I would not go so far as to say that this is a brilliant work, but Russo is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and That Old Cape Magic helps to explain why.  It is fun but powerful, light but deep, easy to follow, yet deceptively layered.  A great read, especially for the well-trained reader who will pick-up on subtle literary references (they are not as in-your-face as Jasper Fforde’s, but they are there).

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 14+
Interest: Family, Marriage, Adultery, Academia, Metafiction, Literature, Memory

Notable Quotes:

“For a moment it seemed as if Bartleby might offer an observation of his own, but he apparently preferred not to, though he did sigh meaningfully.” (8)

“Stories worked much the same way . . . A false note at the beginning was much more costly than one nearer the end because early errors were part of the foundation.” (67)

“Only very stupid people are happy.” (195)

“Late middle age, he was coming to understand, was a time of life when everything was predictable and yet somehow you failed to see any of it coming.”

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American Lit, Anne Tyler, Book Review, Family, Fiction, Literature, Multiple POV, PhD

Review: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 46


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

Anne Tyler’s 1982 novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award (1983), and it is not difficult to understand why.  The story revolves around the Tull family, which consists of Pearl, an overbearing, somewhat (okay, very) imbalanced mother, and her three children: Cody, Ezra, and Jenny.  The father-figure, Beck, abandons the family when the children are still quite young and Pearl spends her life trying to protect her family’s image.  She is not in denial about Beck’s abandonment, but she refuses to admit it to her children, to her friend (yes, just one friend) and to her extended family, because that would upset the image that she has cultivated, one of a perfectly ideal family and one which her own family never expected her to achieve.  The narrative is told in alternating viewpoints, with a third-person narrator who is, chapter-by-chapter, closely engaged with either Pearl, Cody, Ezra, or Jenny.  The narrator remains relatively unbiased, but each chapter does reveal certain of the family members’ own biases, particularly through memory.  Cody, for instance, looks back on his childhood as largely traumatic – he felt slighted by his mother, who clearly favored his younger brother, Ezra.  Meanwhile, Ezra looks back on his childhood fondly and can’t seem to understand why his family was never able to function well together.  Jenny hovers somewhere in-between, clearly troubled and damaged, yet still able to recover – after time – to achieve a somewhat normal life, with a decent family (eventually) and a great career.  Ultimately, the story is about the “new normal” of American culture, where women go to work, children begin to fend for themselves, and everyone is dysfunctional in some way or another. 


Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily well-developed.

The characters in this book are drawn so well that, even in their horribleness, they are still believable and oddly loveable.  At times, their selfishness, lunacy, and anger felt so real as to be laugh-out-loud funny (haven’t we all been so mad, or so sad, that all we could do was laugh about it?).  Pearl is an American “Tiger Mom.”  She demands perfection from her husband (which drives him away) and from her children (which creates other problems).  She is clearly bipolar, at times claiming that her family is the most important thing in the world and then, minutes later, smashing bowls of peas over her daughter’s head.  Cody is selfish but in a way that is clearly resulting from jealousy over his brother’s relationship with their mom.  He is competitive in everything he does, so much so that he even plots to steal his brother’s wife.  Jenny is self-loathing and self-conscious.  She is clearly intelligent and capable, but always doubts herself.  And Beck, the absent father, is juvenile and self-indulgent.  He does send money home for his family on a regular basis, but he leaves them because he cannot bear the pressure of living with Pearl, he cannot live up to her expectations (nor suffer through her very troubling O.C.D.) and, really, just wants to be free to move around, and sleep around, as much as possible.  It’s such a small cast of characters, but they are written so well that the story is enlivened and enriched beyond what one might come to expect from a story with such limited focus (one family).   


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

This is the only Tyler novel I have read (and, in fact, this is the second time I’ve read it), and I’m having a hard time figuring out why that is.  She’s such a good story-teller; she knows characters and can develop them incredibly well; she has a masterful sense of tone, mood, and pace.  On top of all this, her language, prose, and style are almost refreshing in their ease of movement.  Although this story is intense at times, the prose moves it along, matching the mood of each scene, adjusting as needed to fit the scenes of suspense, humor, etc.  The structure (and the already-mentioned narration) of the novel, alternating viewpoints in every chapter, can sometimes come across (in other works) as pretentious, simplistic, or lazy, but here it is clearly necessary toward achieving Tyler’s end, which is honestly and accurately relaying the “truth” of each character’s reality and memory.  Set up in this way, the reader understands the family as a whole, but also how each character fits into it – how they see themselves and how others see them. 


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements are present and enhance the story.

The primary themes in the novel are this idea of the “burden of a person’s past,” and also the “family meal.”  To this first point, we see that there are multiple histories being examined, one for each of the characters, one for the family, and then the history of each of the family members as seen through the eyes of the others.  Needless to say, this book is about personal and familial histories, there’s a lot of it, but it is explored creatively, intricately, and with a remarkable reality.  To the second point, the family meal, we see this as a recurring scene throughout.  Some of the most touchingly warm and heartbreakingly sad moments in the book occur when the children are eating meals at others’ homes.  They see, when having dinner at a friend’s house, for example, how “normal” families function – how “normal” families show love and tenderness toward one another.  These scenes are contrasted with ones at the Tull house (I use the word “house” instead of “home” on purpose), where the family meals always seem to start out with the best intentions, but soon go sour.  Violent fights, shouting matches, angry insinuations – these are the characteristics of the Tull family meals.  From childhood and well into adulthood, Ezra Tull, the family’s most sensitive member and general caretaker, tries his best to get the family to have “one good family meal” – but he never succeeds.  In addition to these two main themes are those of alienation and loneliness.  Pearl spends her life insulating herself, and her family, from the rest of the world.  On the surface, this book seems like just another book about family life, but it’s so much more than that.  This is a book every serious reader should experience.   


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest:  Family Dynamics, Sibling Relationships, Single-Mothers, Dysfunctional Families, Comfort Food, Multiple POVs


Notable Quotes:

“When you have children, you’re obliged to live.”

“You think we’re some jolly, situation-comedy family when we’re in particles, torn apart, torn all over the place, and our mother was a witch.”

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