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.

Contemporary American, E.J. Runyon, Ethnic American, Gender Identity, Gender Studies, Giveaway, Giveaway Hop, Giveaways, Latin American, Lesbian Lit, LGBT, Monthly Review, Regionalism, Sexuality, Short Story

Review: Claiming One by E.J. Runyon

14576593Claiming One by R.J. Runyon
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 23

Full Disclosure:  I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Inspired Quill, with whom I have a working relationship; however, I was not in any way involved in the editing, publishing, marketing, proofing, or submission review process for this book.  In fact, I only received a copy because the editor-in-chief mentioned that this writer comes recommended by Catherine Ryan Hyde, who is a favorite writer of mine, so she thought I might like to take a look.

The collection is made up of seventeen short stories of varying length, some of which deal with the same characters and all of which deal with the same general region (southwestern United States / southern California) and the same type of people (struggling poor/working-class ethnic and sexual minorities).  Most of the stories are incredibly interesting and well-written.  There were a few stories in the bunch which did sometimes feel stressed or project-like, reminding me a bit of a bad hair day (not that the stories were bad, but that one starts with a good head of hair and, no matter how you tease it, yank it, or play with it, it just will not do what you want it to do).  That being said, these few stressed stories were definitely the exception, not the rule.  In fact, I wrote a ranking next to each story in the index (Poor, Good, Very Good, Great) and of the seventeen stories, only two were anything other than Good.

What struck me first about the writing is the narrative voice.  It is distinct, commanding, and engaging.  The first story, “The Giant Rubber Gorilla,” opens the collection with a perfect sense of what is to come. The reader quickly recognizes these people who will be explored, the situations that might be examined, and the tone which can be expected throughout.  Similarly, the collection closes with “Dandruff as Tall as Donald Duck,” which, in conjunction with the lengthier story which immediately preceded it, was a great way of wrapping-up the collection, reminding the reader of its major themes and the general determination of these people to survive, despite the perpetual road blocks placed in their way.

Some of the stories went even beyond good story telling.  “Mother’s Tongue” and “Secrets of the Days and Nights,” for example, were stand-outs in their creative approach and in the slight inkling toward hopefulness they emulated, which is not an overarching theme in this collection.  The stories work together the way a great fashion show should:  The collection has a primary theme, it starts with bang, and then has its lulls and explosions throughout, and finally ends with a reminder of what the collection was all about, leaving the memory of it strong in the mind.  Each story, like each piece in a fashion collection, simultaneously stands on its own and fits into the larger theme of the work.  In this case, the theme is a restless disappointment among a class of people on the margins.  There is a small, flickering light of hope that blinks throughout, meek but ever-present.

My personal favorites were the stories about Duffy and her family.  They were the most powerful and seemed to work almost like the back-bone of the collection. It would be very interesting to see Duffy and the others in her life appearing again in future collections.

With this first collection, Runyon is following in the tradition of the great regional American writers.   Flannery O’Connor, John Fante, Bret Harte, and Sinclair Lewis all wrote stories about a particular group of people in a particular region of the United States, and their stories stayed true to the people and their particular plights and successes.  The triumph of their stories was due in part to the writers’ craftsmanship and vision, but also to the honesty of the narrative which grounded the fictive worlds deeply in reality.

If Runyon continues to write about this world and these people, we might be witnessing the start of a very special body of work.  E.J. Runyon is a new writer to watch, and I applaud Inspired Quill for recognizing this talent and taking a chance on sharing it with the world.

1001 Books, 2013 B2tC Challenge, 2013 Challenges, 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, Art, Book Review, British Literature, Classics, Classics Club, Feminism, Fiction, Fictional Biography, Gay Lit, Gender Identity, Giveaway, Giveaway Hop, Giveaways, GLBT, LGBT, Literary History, Literature, Monthly Review, Sexuality, Time, Virginia Woolf

Thoughts: Orlando by Virginia Woolf


Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 5

Orlando is Virginia Woolf’s sixth major work and was written in a year, between To the Lighthouse and The Waves. It is an epic novel and historical biography which follows the journey of one character, Orlando, over the course of about 350 years (1588-1928). It is a biography not of any one character, but of the nature and history of gender, identity, and sexuality through time. At the start of the novel, readers will encounter Orlando as a young boy of noble birth. His family entertains Queen Elizabeth I, who is the first to notice Orlando’s beauty and potential. As he ages (slowly), Orlando will spend much of his time with “low” people – those well-outside the realm of nobility, though he himself is a member of the court. He explores and enjoys sexual relations with women of varying types, though each of his three serious ventures into love soon goes sour. Orlando will twice mistake the loves of his life for the wrong gender, which is particularly complex after Orlando himself has become a woman, remembering himself as a man, loving a man who is actually a woman. Ultimately, after trips abroad and back home again, Orlando’s story is one of exploration and being open to the many possibilities of life. He is a writer, first, who spends hundreds of years working on one short poem called “The Oak Tree,” a strong symbol of nature’s presence and dominance throughout the passage of time. Orlando witnesses the world-changing, from the sexual freedom and marriageless years of the Elizabethan period, to the stringent, stuffy, prudish world of the Victorian age. At a certain point, he (now she) wakes up to “the present” and is terrified, realizing that she suddenly exists in the now, and it is a now that she no longer recognizes, where women are property, where love is regulated, and where art and literature exist only in the past.

There are two main characters in the novel; the first is Orlando, who changes from male to female throughout the long passage of time. The second is actually the narrator – a third-person, mostly omniscient but nevertheless unreliable “biographer,” whose tone and style change throughout the book, as Orlando and his life are changing. One could argue, though, that the true characters are actually gender (identity), sexuality, and time: these are the ideas explored most intricately and most often throughout the course of the book and they are certainly front-facing; the narrator/biographer views time and Orlando in opposition to how opinions and practices of sex and gender are viewed differently at various points in history. Other characters (of the usual sense) include Sasha, Orlando’s true first love, a Russian princess; Shel, Orlando’s husband who is actually a woman (or who, at least, has the qualities of one); the Archduchess Henrietta who is actually Archduke Harry (perhaps the only truly homosexual character, as the others whose genders bend throughout could truly be said to be of the opposite gender, psychologically and even physically, after their changes, while Harry is simply a man who cross-dresses as a woman and who loves Orlando as a man); and certain historical figures, like Nick Greene (poet/critic), Queen Elizabeth I, and Alexander Pope.

Orlando, though massive in scale, brilliant in conception, and beautiful in prose, was actually considered by Woolf to be a “writer’s holiday,” so to speak. She refused to allow gender nor time to constrain her writing, which is evidenced by the fact that Orlando, who begins the story as a man and ends it as a woman, 4 centuries later, only ages 36 years in the process. Woolf’s secondary aim, aside from bending time and gender, is satirizing Victorian biographies and novels which traditionally emphasize truthfulness and fact (though they are obviously fiction). What is most fascinating for me is the fact that the book was, for Woolf, a game of sorts – a lighter satire and departure from her more rigid works; yet, this one is incredibly important and speaks seriously, though fantastically, to issues of self-discovery, truth, art, and gender. The exploration of the many time periods, from Elizabethan to the early 20th Century, particularly in terms of the literary arts in any given movement, will be fascinating for serious readers, but the beautiful and sensuous prose (less explorative than other works, making it more accessible) as well as the unusual topic and uninhibited re-imagining of reality and time make this a unique, awe-inspiring read for anyone willing to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Gender, Sexuality, Time, Art, Literary History, Nature, Truth, Poetry.

Notable Quotes:
“Nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates happiness from melancholy” (45).

“Once the disease of reading has laid hold upon the system it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the ink pot and festers in the quill” (75).

“Bad, good, or indifferent, I’ll write, from this day forward, to please myself” (103).

“No passion is stronger in the breast of man than the desire to make others believe as he believes. Nothing so cuts at the root of his happiness and fills him with rage as the sense that another rates low what he prizes high” (149).

“Nothing can be more arrogant, though nothing is commoner than to assume that of Gods there is only one, and of religions none but the speaker’s” (173).

“Illusions are the most valuable and necessary of all things, and she who can create one is among the world’s greatest benefactors” (199).

“We write, not with the fingers, but with the whole person” (243).

“For it has come about, by the wise economy of nature, that our modern spirit can almost dispense with language; the commonest expressions do, since no expressions do; hence the most ordinary conversation is often the most poetic, and the most poetic is precisely that which cannot be written down” (253).

“Our most violent passions . . . are the reflections we see in the dark hollow at the back of the head when the visible world is obscured for the time” (323).

Orlando is Book 1 for my B2tC Challenge; Book 9 for my Classics Club List; & Book 3 for my 2013 TBR Pile.

AIDS, Edmund White, Friendship, Gay Lit, GLBT, Green Carnation Prize, New York, Sexuality

Review: Jack Holmes and His Friend by Edmund White (The Green Carnation Prize)


This is Book #1 for our Green Carnation Prize reading project.  For more information on the project and on the Green Carnation Prize itself, please visit This Post.

About the Book:

Format: Hardcover

Published: January 1st, 2012

Publisher: Bloomsbury UK


“Jack Holmes and Will Wright arrive in New York in the calm before the storm of the 1960s. Coworkers at a cultural journal, they soon become good friends. Jack even introduces Will to the woman he will marry. But their friendship is complicated: Jack is also in love with Will. Troubled by his subversive longings, Jack sees a psychiatrist and dates a few women, while also pursuing short-lived liaisons with other men. But in the two decades of their friendship, from the first stirrings of gay liberation through the catastrophe of AIDS, Jack remains devoted to Will. And as Will embraces his heterosexual sensuality, nearly destroying his marriage, the two men share a newfound libertinism in a city that is itself embracing its freedom.

Moving among beautifully delineated characters in a variety of social milieus, Edmund White brings narrative daring and an exquisite sense of life’s submerged drama to this masterful exploration of friendship, sexuality, and sensibility during a watershed moment in history.”

-From Goodreads.com.

My Thoughts:

Reading Jack Holmes and His Friend is, for me, like visiting an old friend who I haven’t seen in a while.  In years gone-by, I have read and enjoyed other White novels, including A Boy’s Own Story and The Beautiful Room is Empty.  As with any reunion, though, one notices certain differences.  For instance, the two books read previously are both semi-autobiographical (or, as I would prefer to call them, creative non-fiction).  This one, though, is a bit more difficult to figure out.  The primary character, Jack, is a gay man with aversions to homosexuality.  I actually saw quite a bit of myself in him (at first – but only at first!), which was fun, as I usually do not identify at all with fictional gay characters.

Jack has a difficult time coming to terms with is sexuality, though he does eventually accept himself, after attempting, through physical action, therapy, and other methods to “fix” himself and become heterosexual.  He also struggles his entire life with being in love with the man (Will) who becomes his best friend.  Some readers have found this relationship cliché, but I would argue that 1) something is not cliché simply because it happens often in real life and 2) White handles this yearning, in Jack, with a sense of realism that is not often found in these types of situations—it does not feel like a “puppyish” type of unrequited love, as might be found in YA books.

Readers should also be prepared for quite a bit of masterfully crafted erotic segments, both heterosexual and homosexual.  White has always portrayed sexuality and sexual situations in a naked (no pun intended) uninhibited way, and that certainly still holds true.  Readers who are expecting a purely “gay” tale, though, will be in for a surprise, as the heterosexual escapades seem, to me, just as accurately and intimately detailed as the homosexual ones.

What I find most appealing about the story, though, is its temporal reach.  The novel spans decades and it is fascinating to watch how the friendship between Jack & Will changes over time (as well as how they themselves change), but also to witness the important historical events and movements that take place, particularly the AIDS epidemic and how it impacted the gay community of New York.  I did find Jack’s “growth” a bit contrived and forced – I will leave the impetus for that growth out of this review, so readers can discover and evaluate it for themselves; but, I for one would have liked to see that development come from a “purer” place (if that can be said to exist).

Some of the difficulty of this book is in its structure.  While the prose is beautiful, the back-and-forth narration, from Jack’s perspective (but in third-person), to Will’s perspective, and then reversed again, is a bit odd and distracting.  I understand that White wanted the reader to relate closely to both the gay and straight characters, to experience their world through the eyes of both friends, but I wonder if a simpler, consistent third-person narrator might have been more effective in serving this purpose.

Would I recommend this book?  I would, indeed.  Is it worthy of The Green Carnation Prize?  Well, fortunately, that is not for me to decide!  I do see how and why this book made its way onto the short list.  White might be breaking-ground with his look at adult male relationships, here.  Can a gay man and a straight man be best friends?  Absolutely.  But if that gay man happens to be in love (obsessed) with his friend?  Complications!  Those situations and complications do happen, though, and they have not yet been extensively explored in fiction.  Although its structure and style might leave a bit to be desired, Jack Holmes and His Friend absolutely has a place on the shelf and adds a certain something to the canon of gay literature.  It is also an interesting read for those interested in cultural studies (particularly 1960s/70s New York City), the nature of friendship, and sexuality.


Up Next in Our Series on the Green Carnation Prize Short-List:

December 4th: Scenes from Early Life – Philip Hensher (Ana of Things Mean A Lot)

December 5th: A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale (Mat of MatLee Reviews)

December 6th: Carry the One by Carol Anshaw (Cass of Bonjour Cass!)

December 7thMoffie by Andrew Carl Van Der Merwe (No review scheduled – please comment if you would like to read/review this book for our project!)

December 10th: Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Before he Stole Me Ma by Kerry Hudson (Jodie of Book Gazing)

Bisexuality, Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Death, Family, Fiction, Fictional Memoir, GLBT, John Irving, Literature, Sexuality, Transgender

Review: In One Person by John Irving

In One Person by John Irving

Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

YTD: 18

3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Irving is known for his bold approach to sexuality and the social/familial “other.”  This latest is no exception to that well-established reputation.   Meet William Dean Abbott, a teenage boy with a speech impediment.  And meet the first love of his life, Miss Frost, the town library.  William (or Bill, or Billy, depending on who we’re talking to) develops at a young age a love for reading and writing – the answer to that primordial question “What do you want to be when you grow up,” is, for Billy, “A Writer.”  He divulges this secret to just one person, Miss Frost.  It’s no wonder that a boy who loves to read and write might develop a crush on the town librarian, an attractive middle-aged woman.  Except, there might be quite a bit more to Miss Frost than meets the eye.  The story is essentially a fictional memoir, with Billy as narrator looking back on his life and works.  It takes us along Billy’s journey from boyhood to manhood and into old age.  We watch as he comes to terms with and explores his bisexuality and particular interest in transsexuals. Along the way, the reader is exposed to a variety of Billy’s friends, family members, and lovers – some male, some female, and some transgendered.  There are marriages and divorces, deaths and rebirths, supportive folks and terribly antagonistic ones.    

3 – Characters well-developed.

The characters in this book are one of its greatest charms and, simultaneously, one of its greatest issues.  While one can expect, from Irving, a blunt and over-the-top approach to any sensitive topic (in this case, bisexual & transgender people), what I found disturbing was the overabundance of both.  Billy, for instance, is a bisexual who finds himself attracted primarily to transgender women (“the best of both worlds”).  As it turns out, Billy’s father just happens to be gay – the effeminate kind, and Billy’s grandfather also thoroughly enjoys dressing up as a woman.  Billy’s mother, too, has sexual peculiarities of her own, though I will leave those for the reader to discover, since they are a particularly interesting aspect of the back-story which is revealed later in the book (it’s not the biggest mystery in the world, but it’s fun to let it unfold naturally).  One could say this might just be an odd family, but considering Billy’s best friend, Elaine, their mutual love interest, Jacques, others of their schoolmates (revealed later in the book) and the town librarian are all either bisexual, gay, or transgender – well, maybe there’s something in the water in First Sister, Vermont! The plenitude of sexually “other” characters was not wholly believable and, for me, even detracted from Billy’s journey a bit (the main theme seemed to be about a bisexual writer calling for tolerance in a world of normalcy, yet most elements of his world, with the exception of a few people whose negativity seems less than bothersome to Billy, are largely the “other” world rather than the “standard” – so where is the conflict?).  That gripe aside, the majority of the characters are more than interesting – as Irving’s characters usually are.  There are a plethora of personalities, from the butch lesbian to the effeminate old man, to the teenage boy trying to figure out what he is.  There are overbearing mothers, alcoholic uncles, and hilarious foreigners who can’t pronounce anything right, especially when they’re excited.  Although one might find it hard to believe that virtually every person Billy meets could actually be in some way queer, the journey itself and Billy’s interaction with all these people are still worth the ride.   

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

As with characterization, the overall experience with Irving’s prose was positive, but there were some elements which irked me, two in particular.  First, the narrator had a penchant for repetition.  He would re-tell certain parts of the story multiple times, like an old man reminiscing with his friends or grandchildren about life-gone-by, sometimes forgetting that he had already told parts of the story twenty minutes ago.  The second issue was his tendency to skip around in the timeline.  The narrator is writing this as a memoir, looking back fifty or sixty years, but rather than following a clear trajectory through boyhood, the teenage years, manhood, etc., he often skips around so that one moment he is a college student in Europe, and the next he is a boy again, getting ready for his school play.  This, at times, disrupted the flow of the story so that it was difficult to relax and sink-in completely.  That being said, there was also an endearing quality to it, when all was said and done.  The language and prose itself matched the characterization in that it was clever, witty, and sharp.  The dialogue was often the most interesting element of the story, and Irving’s ability at description certainly shows – it is perhaps the glue that holds the entire novel together, when it seems to be jumping around.

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

What I found most difficult about this novel is that it is written by a heterosexual man who seems to be trying too hard.  Granted, Irving certainly has a history of exploring sexuality and human nature; still, because it was so over-the-top (almost every character had to be at least a little “gay” in someway) it almost felt like Irving was pandering to a particular audience.  That being said, Irving is also doing what his narrator is accused of doing by some of the more bigoted characters: He is demanding tolerance.  This I respect to the utmost and, in the end, I was able to put aside the fact that almost everyone in the book carries a “Different and Proud” card because so many moments in the book were pure, sensitive, and hopeful.  The story tackles the specific difficulties that bisexual men and women face, separate from general homophobia; for example, that they are distrusted by the gay community and treated with prejudice by the straight community.  Ultimately, this book puts bisexuality and transgendered people on center stage in the literary world, in an empathetic and intelligent way.  There are very few examples of high literature approaching these topics (few examples even in the YA or other genre categories, to be honest), so Irving’s In One Person is a welcome addition both to the LGBT canon but also to contemporary literary fiction in general. 

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Gender, Sexuality, Coming-of-Age, Transgender, Transvestite, Cross-Dressing, Family, AIDS, Death & Dying

 Notable Quotes:

“We are formed by what we desire.”

“Before you can write anything, you have to notice something.”

“All I say is: Let us leave les folles alone; let’s just leave them be. Don’t judge them. You are not superior to them – don’t put them down.”

“Don’t forget this, too: Rumors aren’t interested in the unsensational story; rumors don’t care what’s true.”

“Your memory is a monster; you forget – it doesn’t. It simply files things away; it keeps things for you, or hides things from you. Your memory summons things to your recall with a will of its own. You imagine you have a memory, but your memory has you!”

Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Drugs, Epistolary, Favorites, Fiction, Giveaway, Giveaway Hop, Giveaways, Monthly Review, Psychology, Sexuality, Stephen Chbosky, Young Adult

Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

YTD: 15

Disclosure:  This is a book that I have read five times, now, but have yet to review.  The first three times I read it were in the pre-blogging days, so naturally I could not have posted any thoughts about it.  The fourth time, I wrote a brief comment but could not bring myself to write anything constructive. This time, I set out to read the book with the intent of reviewing it. 

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

Fifteen-year-old Charlie is a wallflower.  Like a wallflower, there is something strangely beautiful about him.  He is silent but observant; shy but determined to please; introverted but filled with love and compassion.  His story starts in August, 1991, just as he is about to begin his first year of high school, and it ends almost exactly one year later.  He has lost someone close to him and is clearly confused about how to deal with his feelings about this loss (amongst the other complicated growing pains he experiences); so, he decides to begin writing letters to a stranger – someone who he once overheard a mutual friend talking about.  The recipient of Charlie’s letters is never disclosed – we do not know his/her name or age, his/her profession or relationship to the people in the story, just that s/he is considered trustworthy and addressed by Charlie as “Dear Friend.”  This friend becomes the unwitting conduit for Charlie’s coming-of-age.  In this year of his life, he builds and compromises friendships; he is exposed for the first time to some of the darker elements of life; he learns to drive and to dance; he goes to parties and reads books. Most importantly, though, Charlie becomes Charlie.  He blossoms from a wallflower into a “participant” – and he learns how to feel infinite.  

4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

Since the entire book is comprised of letters written by one character, to one person, it would be easy to question the narrator’s reliability and to wonder about the development or accurate representation of the other characters involved.  Charlie, however, seems to have only one major fault, and that is honesty (as when he is dared to kiss the prettiest girl in the room and doesn’t kiss his girlfriend).  While Charlie certainly seems to have mental issues – possibly a mild form of schizophrenia (many other reviews seem to think he is Autistic, but I would disagree) – he never comes across as the type to mislead his audience, particularly as the audience is, for all intents and purposes, just one person, his “Dear Friend” and the only one in whom Charlie confides everything.  The narrator’s reliability being established, then, allows the reader to believe Charlie’s story and to watch as he grows through experience and heals through memory, acceptance, and forgiveness.  While other characters in the book, including Charlie’s family and friends, and his favorite teacher, Bill, do not evolve as much as Charlie, they are, however, natural characters, believable in every way.  The situations these people find themselves in, from first loves and broken romances, to family holidays and personal tragedies, are written with a realistic passion, as one who is watching and engaged in the drama but who has nothing to gain from sensationalism would write them.  This makes the events, though not experienced by each of us, relevant to all, because they are facts of life. In the end, these characters are just people and these people are just living.

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

At one point in the story, Charlie’s teacher, Bill, tells him that some books are “very easy to read but very hard to ‘read well.’”  This book just happens to fit that mold – its language is simple and straightforward, but it is littered with sub-context and deeper elements which are introduced at the start of the story, nursed throughout, then, finally, come to fruition at the end. 

The novel is structured in a one-way epistolary format.  It is almost a diary, except that each entry is a letter to an unknown stranger, and that stranger never responds.  Because these letters are being sent off to someone who is not expected to reply, and because (we can assume) no copies of the letters are being retained by Charlie, they tend to be much more personal and provocative than even a diary or journal might be (because, subconsciously, we all worry that someone might find our diaries and expose our secrets, or at least confront us with them – which is of particular concern when the writer is a teenager living at home with his parents and siblings).  For this reason, because the letters are assumed secret, they are simultaneously simple but revelatory. 

While researching other thoughts and opinions on the book, I have found that one of the primary points of contention for many readers is the underdevelopment (so they say) of the main character, Charlie.  Throughout the book, we discover that Charlie is considered to be a rather smart individual.  He is given extra projects by his English teacher and he regularly receives perfect scores/grades on his schoolwork.  Some have wondered, then, why Charlie writes in such a simplistic way.  Looking back, though, and reading critically, there are two things to keep in mind: first, that Charlie is considered to be smart for his age; he is at no point called a “genius” or “brilliant” or any other superior term- just smart; second, Charlie himself admits early on to preferring common vocabulary, as opposed to loftier language (which he finds pompous and pointless).  In contemporary Young Adult fiction, a trend has developed wherein teenage characters are given the narrative or dialogic voice of Ivy League college graduates.  This is, I think, unfair to the readers and, though it might make the characters more interesting and the story more edifying, it does not represent the typical teenage voice.  Chbosky, on the other hand, aims to depict an honest teenage writer, one who is not composing essays or communicating with scholars, but who is simply writing letters.  These letters allow him to release emotion and, eventually, to reconnect him with some deeply-buried, painful and important memories.  His writing allows him to heal – it is simple but poignant and, most of all, it is real.

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

This is absolutely a story which tackles many issues, from rape and abortion, to teenage sex, drugs, and suicide.  Some readers might find the amount of dramatic material overwhelming or off-putting, but when one compares this story to others which approach teenage life in a similar way, such as Go Ask Alice, it is clear that The Perks of Being a Wallflower aims to be nothing but honest.  Charlie is an unconventional narrator and his story is composed in an unconventional way but, ultimately, he is just a confused American teenager trying to find himself in a world that seems to be always changing.  Not every one of us will have dealt with all (or any) of these issues, in high school or as adults, but these things do happen and wishing them away –ignoring them- will not change their reality.  Charlie, like some readers, does sometimes disengage himself from the more disturbing things that have happened to him, or around him – but the moral of the story is that growing-up means learning to live and learning to live means participating in what goes on around us.  Ready or not, life happens – there is good in it and there is bad in it, but the meaning of life is in how we live it; it is whether we choose to navigate our own way or to get lost in the current; to be the wallflower, or the participant.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Young Adult
Interest: Coming-of-Age, Family, Friendship, Identity, Sexuality, Abuse, Drugs, Psychology

Notable Quotes:

“Things change.  And friends leave.  And life doesn’t stop for anybody.”

“I just need to know that someone out there listens and understands and doesn’t try to sleep with people even if they could have.  I need to know that these people exist.”

“So, this is my life.  And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.”

“I really think that everyone should have watercolors, magnetic poetry, and a harmonica.”

“What’s the point of using words nobody else knows or can say comfortably?  I just don’t understand that.”

“We accept the love we think we deserve.”

“I know that things get worse before they get better because that’s what my psychiatrist says, but this is a worse that feels too big.”

“I am very interested and fascinated by how everyone loves each other, but no one really likes each other.”

“Sometimes people use thought to not participate in life.”

“Everyone else is either asleep or having sex.  I’ve been watching cable television and eating jello.”

“So, I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons.  And maybe we’ll never know most of them.  But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there.  We can still do things.  And we can try to feel okay about them.”

“And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.”

Related Links:

Smash Attack Reads, Reviews The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Movie Information

Shooting Stars Mag Interviews Stephen Chbosky

Book Review, Coming-of-Age, David Levithan, Drugs, Family, Fiction, Friendship, Gay Lit, GLBT, Sexuality, Young Adult

Review: The Realm of Possibility by David Levithan


The Realm of Possibility by David Levithan

Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

YTD: 09

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

“There’s the girl who is in love with Holden Caufield.  The boy who wants to be strong who falls for the girl who’s convinced she needs to be weak.  The girl who writes love songs for a girl she can’t have.  The two boys teetering on the brink of their first anniversary.  And everyone in between.” This is The Realm of Possibility, as described by the Knopf paperback edition’s book blurb.  “One school. Twenty voices.  Endless possibilities.”  At the core of this collection are the separate but equal themes of independence and necessity.  As we grow up, as we create our own identities, we must learn the balancing act of individuality and belonging.  We must learn how to be strong and capable, but we also must learn how to be pliable and vulnerable.  The twenty interconnected stories in The Realm of Possibility explore all the different aspects of growing up and coming of age – from dealing with a loved one’s illness, to committing to a serious relationship; from learning what it really means to be strong, to allowing one’s walls to come down – taking a chance at loss, in order to gain.  For this group of teenagers, life has just begun – and the possibilities are endless.  

2 – Characters slightly developed.

The structure of this work automatically places characterization at a disadvantage.  Because the book is made up of twenty short segments, written by twenty different narrators, there is not much room for growth or development of any single character.  There are a few reoccurring characters (those who write one segment and who are then included as a main character in someone else’s segment), but, because the sections are written like diary entries, each portion still says more about its narrator than about anyone else, which means there are only 10 or so pages for each of the twenty important people. This is a difficult for me, personally, because I am a reader who truly enjoys rich, deep, whole characters.  That being said, the characters and their stories work together very well and, despite being flashed at the reader in short bursts, they are certainly interesting and emanate all the emotions that Levithan intended them to: fear, courage, love, abandon, despair.  While I cannot applaud the characterization in this book (simply because it was not a main element) – I can adamantly suggest that the lack of character development in this book was no disservice to it, because the rest of the elements – particularly the exploration of individuality and “possibilities”- are the core of this book and hold everything together quite nicely.  

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

The stories are written in free verse of various forms and the prose, in this way, adds a certain element of characterization which is generally lacking (as mentioned above), because each narrator has his or her own physical and emotional voice – distinguishable from the other stories in the timeline. One item I take issue with is the many instances of whole pages left nearly blank, with just a few words or sentences.  This is something I have come to expect from young adult novels of a certain type (and from certain authors).  At first, it was charming, but the more often I encounter it, the more it starts to feel like a clever ploy to make extremely short books lengthier by page number, if not by word count.  This does not mean that the stories which are structured in this way are ineffective (far from it, in most instances), but it does sometimes leave me wanting more.  In this book, where the stories are so interesting and the language so engaging, it was frustrating to oftentimes have so little to revel in.  Other than that minor irk,  Levithan captured me with his prose and language the way he always does: completely.  His narrative voice(s) are so pure, so believable, and so welcoming – it is impossible not to sink into these stories and enjoy yourself, simply because the language is just so comfortable.  Most of us have been in these situations, or ones similar to them – and whether the reader is still in high school, just out of it, or finding high school a distant memory- the language coupled with the messages and the familiar feelings drawn from each story, will ring bells for nearly everyone. 

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

The Realm of Possibility is a sort of short story collection whose overall narrative revolves around a group of students from the same high school.  Some of the stories are directly interconnected, while others are only slightly related.  It is similar in structure to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, in that all of the stories are connected because their primary characters exist in the same place and time, often with overlapping elements throughout the larger work.  Setting up the narrative this way allows Levithan to explore twenty different personalities existing (and co-existing) at the same time, but with very different circumstances, situations, and messages. The two strongest segments, in my opinion, are “Escapade” and “Possibility” – which are, incidentally, the last two stories in the collection.  These two drive home the message of friendship and future –the messages of hope and individuality that have been developing throughout the entire book.  Ultimately, reading this book was a delight.  It is a quick, simple read, but one which evokes real emotions and memories because the various situations described are so relatable and the people so believable.  Although the characterization section of my review brings the overall rating down, the book feels much more, as a whole, like a “4” than a “3.”        

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: MG, YA+
Interest: High School, Coming-of-Age, Interpersonal Relationships, Family, Mental/Physical Health and Coping, Sexuality (Heterosexual & Homosexual).

Notable Quotes:

“There is certainty in a ring.  The non-ending, the non-beginning.  The ongoing.  The way it holds on to you not because it’s been fastened or stretched or adhered.  It holds on because it fits.”

“…the things that hold us are only as strong as the faith we have in them – you go on the bridge because you trust it will not fall.” pp

“My parents are okay with me being gay but they would kill me if they saw me with a cigarette.”

“Getting what you want is just as difficult as not getting what you want. Because then you have to figure out what to do with it instead of figuring out what to do without it.”

“You will always be my always.”