2019 TBR Pile Challenge, coming out, Coming-of-Age, Lesbian Lit, LGBT, Poetry, pride month, Sarah Henstra, Young Adult

A Lesbian Classic & Walt Whitman

I wrap-up my Pride Month reading with two final pieces of fiction, one a classic adult novel of lesbian literature, the other a young adult novel inspired by Walt Whitman. Please feel free to check out the rest of my pride month reads. I had planned to read 5 LGBTQ books this month but managed to read 7, and I wasn’t disappointed at all!

Don Juan in the Village

Jane DeLynn’s novel, Don Juan in the Village (1990), is a classic of lesbian fiction. It follows the escapades and sexual conquests of its female protagonist, a lady Don Juan, as she travels the world and sleeps with as many women as she can. The narrative spans the course of 20 years, beginning sometime in the 1970s and ending sometime in the 1990s. There is a clear and stark, sometimes painful, contrast between the freedom of the post-1960s sexual revolution and the advent of what the narrator labels, “the plague.”

Each chapter is titled with the name of a different place to which the protagonist travels. Within, she describes not just the place she is visiting, but the women—and types of women—she meets there and makes love to. These experiences range from the soft and sensual to the nearly sadistic, but in any case, the narrator is almost always “very wet.” Yes, indeed, the story is that bold, that graphic, that open about sexuality, and female sexuality in particular. As a gay male, these experiences are about as far removed from my own as is possible, and yet the importance of this kind of text, particularly in the cannon of LGBTQ+ fiction, particularly in the canon of women’s literature, and particularly at a time when AIDS was devastating the gay community, is not lost on me.
So, while the writing style did not particularly appeal to me (rather dry, like a kind of Gertrude Stein meeting Ernest Hemingway at the middle of an intersection), it also makes sense: what better way to share taboo experiences to the widest range of readers as possible than in a clinically modernist way, as if “these are the facts, and if you can’t handle them, you’re the problem.” So, upon consideration, it’s an incredibly smart approach by an obviously talented writer. I think many readers will respond to this one, though it wasn’t right for me. That said, readers of LGBTQ fiction and those interested in LGBT literary history, as I am, should not pass it up.

This book is also one of my TBR Pile Challenge reads for 2019.

We Contain Multitudes

Sarah Henstra’s We Contain Multitudes (2019) is one of those rare novels that catches my attention right away, keeps it word-for-word, line-for-line, and page-by-page, and then upends everything just as I’m wondering if I could possibly love a book more. Somewhere about 75% into the novel (no, let’s be honest, I counted the pages and it was exactly 75% of the way in), the story takes an unexpected turn, one that I was not prepared for and one that I did not appreciate. It felt like my world was shattering. I understand how hyperbolic that must sound. IT’S JUST A BOOK, MAN, you’re probably thinking. Except that’s just it. This wasn’t just a book. This novel, these two young Whitman lovers, these two young Walt Whitmans, indeed, are much bigger than a story.

The novel is told in epistolary form, as a series of letters written between two high school boys, a sophomore and a senior. They are given an assignment to write to each other, typically with some kind of prompt from their English teacher. As they are in different classes, of different ages, and in wildly different social circles, they had never spoken to each other before, though they each knew who the other one is. This is because, in their own way, they are both wildly inconspicuous. What begins as a series of assigned letters, though, quickly drifts away from a mandatory task and into true, good old-fashioned letter-writing. Henstra adroitly creates two different styles and voices that match the two different teenage protagonists.

One struggle is that, given the design, the boys must re-tell each other the events to which they were both a party (otherwise, how would the reader know about them?) That said, even the author recognizes this complication and manages to address it through the characters’ letters as well. This is perhaps the only place where the author’s identity (or narrator’s, if we want to be more academic) can be felt. That said, a benefit to this is that the boys recount their shared experiences from their own perspectives, which turns out to be revealing to the reader, but also to the other person involved. A significant question that comes about, then, is how much can we really know another person?

I won’t reveal what happens at that three-quarter mark, except to say that it crushed me. The book resolves in a mostly satisfactory way, in my opinion, but I personally had been so distraught over the major conflict, that I was—I still am—left reeling. In a way, this speaks to the brilliance of Whitman, first of all, and to the brilliance of this novel and its characters, too. Upon reflection, I realize that Adam Kurlansky is deeper and more complex than he is given credit, and far crueler than I am or could ever be. I realize that Jonathan Hopkirk is stronger and more flawed than he seems, and far more forgiving than I am ore ever could be. And so, in this way, the point is proven: they do contain multitudes. We all do. The poetry is the point, and the poetry is in us all.

I haven’t felt this connected to Whitman or to myself since, well, since reading Whitman. It is not without its pains, nor without its fearsome joys. When I finished reading, I could only think of Whitman’s poem, “To You,” which, unless I’m mistaken, does not make an appearance in this novel. And yet…

Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem,

I whisper with my lips close to your ear,

I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you. O I have been dilatory and dumb,

I should have made my way straight to you long ago,

I should have blabb’d nothing but you, I should have chanted nothing but you.

-Excerpt, “To You” (Walt Whitman)

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AIDS, coming out, Coming-of-Age, Gender Identity, Historical Fiction, immigrant literature, Iranian-American, LGBT, pride month, Sexuality, Young Adult

Thoughts on Two LGBTQ Pride Reads

Like A Love Story

Abdi Nazemian’s young adult historical fiction novel, Like A Love Story, is the fourth LGBTQ-themed book I’ve read this month. Like the others, it has not disappointed. Every good coming-out-story, like every good coming-of-age story from Little Women to The Catcher in the Rye, manages to do this, to balance a personal, individual story with a unique experience in time and place and the larger issues this entails. What the author does best in this novel is to integrate powerful and accurate portrayals of two difficult events, the Iran revolution and the AIDS crisis, into a story about an immigrant boy’s coming-of-age and coming out. Magically, it is all held together by the unlikeliest but most appropriate of figures: Madonna.

Reza is that immigrant boy. He arrives in New York City, by way of Canada, after his family flees Iran. Reza has always been the good boy, the one his mother can depend on, while his older sister has always been the rebel and troublemaker. But when Reza meets the beautiful punk photographer, Art, and his best friend Judy, everything changes. Reza is thrust into a world that values independence and individuality, and into a sphere that is fighting desperately to survive. Judy’s uncle Stephen is dying of AIDS, and through his example of activism, friendship, patience, and counter-pop culture, Reza, Judy, and Art learn to thrive, to live, and to love.

Like A Love Story is not only a beautifully-written young adult novel, but it is a historically and socially important one. Nazemian reminds the reader just how hard gay and lesbian people had to fight to win their freedoms and equal protections, a fight that continues to this day and that is constantly under attack. The author includes several important historical lessons, weaving them seamlessly into the story of these characters’ lives, so that readers who give this work a chance will find themselves learning critical history that is often overlooked, forgotten, or under-appreciated, while at the same time enjoying an excellent story. At the heart of it are themes of friendship, forgiveness, and first loves, as well as first losses and the reality of mourning. These very human themes are so universal that the reader, while connecting with the fictional of it all, might find themselves relating to a story well beyond their own lived experience.

This is one of the most important and illuminating LGBTQ novels published in recent memory.

Symptoms of Being Human

The fifth book I read for Pride Month is Jeff Garvin’s The Symptoms of Being Human, a young/new adult novel about a gender fluid protagonist’s coming-out experience. Riley Cavanaugh’s father is a conservative politician in a conservative Orange County, California district, in the middle of a re-election campaign. Riley’s mother is kind and well-meaning, but much of her time is devoted to her duties as a politician’s spouse. Just as the election season is heating up, Riley suffers a kind of panic attack at an important event, after which they are hospitalized for attempted suicide. To ease some of the tension, Riley transfers out of her private Catholic school, where they were tormented, to a public school, where they hope to be better treated. Unfortunately, high school is still high school, conservative areas are still conservative areas, and plans often go sour.

While Riley struggles to figure out who they are, some days feeling like a girl and some days like a boy, and other days not like either one, they also navigate the process of healing from self-harm, dealing with anxiety, hiding a powerful secret from their parents and, let’s face it, an entire district that has the Cavanaugh family under its microscope, and trying to make friends, or at least avoid making enemies, at a new school. Any one of these conflicts would be difficult but trying to deal with all of them simultaneously is beyond unlucky. To help, Riley’s therapist suggests that they start a blog and share privately and anonymously what cannot be shared publicly. To write is Riley’s true therapy, and as it turns out, they are very good at it. Ironically, this talent is what causes the largest crisis of all.

Somehow, Riley finds themselves with a popular blog that only grows in popularity as its presence is picked-up by one of the largest LGBTQ community websites online. Riley receives thousands and then tens of thousands of followers and is bombarded with comments of praise, questions for advice, and plenty of hate mail, too. Eventually, Riley’s identity is discovered, right around the time some of the advice they have given to a transgender teen goes terribly wrong, and suddenly they are thrust, with their secrets, into the glaring spotlight that is a political election season.

The major climax itself did feel unnecessary to me, in an almost troubling way. In my reading, the event felt manufactured to fit a gap in the construction of the narrative, rather than necessarily and organically manifested by the sequence of the story itself. It is also a device so often used in stories of sex/gender diversion that, at this point, it has become cliché. This is not to say the problem is not real, because it is very real and all too common, but the introduction and handling of it (and particularly the “fall out”) are even more important for that reason. This is the one element that pulled me out of an otherwise truly engaging, interesting, and important work that deals with gender fluidity, family, hate crimes, coming-of-age, and mental health.

One of the most incredible things about Symptoms of Being Human is that the author manages to treat Riley Cavanaugh’s gender fluidity with complete honesty throughout the course of the narrative. It is never revealed whether the protagonist was born biologically male or female, nor what their parents assume to be Riley’s sex or gender. This is an impressive feat. The story is well-paced, moving slowly and thoughtfully through the complex areas, then speeding up rapidly during moments of intensity. I was able to read the entire thing over the course of one round-trip flight, and rarely did I want to stop to put it down.


I’m currently reading Jane DeLynn’s DON JUAN IN THE VILLAGE, which will be my 6th book for Pride month (this one features a lesbian protagonists sexual experiences around the world), completing my planned reads for the month, though I hope to get one more snuck in under the wire. DON JUAN is also a book on my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge List. Check out my thoughts on earlier Pride Month reads, ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS as well as GEMINI and HOLD MY HAND.

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LGBT, Mason Deaver, non-binary, Young Adult

I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver

Ben De Backer is your typical modern American teenager. They have a pretty good relationship with their parents, at least as good as a parent-teenager relationships tend to be. They have an estranged sister who they miss and close friends who they met online and dream of meeting in person someday. And they have a big, life-altering secret. Ben De Backer is non-binary.

The fallout from this confession, which seems like it will go well at first, is swift and severe. Ben is forced out of his house and must scramble on a late winter’s night to find somewhere to go. They reach out to the first and only person that comes to mind, a sister who left years ago, without explanation.

What transpires in the pages that follow is the story of Ben’s slow and painful coming out and coming to terms with what it means to be Ben-the-person. This is the kind of story that reminds me just how important the “own voices” movement is right now, especially in Young Adult literature, where so much powerful and significant work is being done to help readers (young and old) make sense of the ever-more complex world around us.

Mason Deaver’s novel is groundbreaking for its portrayal of a non-binary protagonist, but it is also simply a darn good story. The author crafts a complicated narrator with a difficult background and invites the reader to figure things out right along with them. We cannot always root for Ben, or at least this reader couldn’t, because they sometimes overreact and make mistakes, sometimes become too self-pitying or indulgent, and sometimes seem to judge others a bit too harshly even though they, too, are in pain for being judged by others. But that’s the beauty of it. Ben, the character, is a real person. We can all, cis or not, gay or straight, young or old, recognize a bit of ourselves in Ben’s coming-of-age, because none of us did it quite as well as we could have.

I first heard about I Wish You All the Best some few months ago and added it to my “to read” list right away. I knew that reading a non-binary character’s story as written by a non-binary author was going to be a powerful and enlightening experience, and that certainly proved true. While I sometimes felt like I was missing too much of the backstory, particularly regarding Ben and his sister’s relationship with their parents, I found the story enjoyable overall. It is also helping to fill in a critical missing piece in contemporary fiction.

Ben’s struggle to balance privacy and authenticity, to find and accept love when they haven’t yet accepted themselves, and to pursue a path of their own rather than the one laid out for them, is an inspiring journey, and the added reality that this is a non-binary person dealing with all these very human experiences made the reading experience even richer.

This is the kind of book to be enjoyed for its universal appeal and for its specific concerns, ones that very few people can fully understand, but from which we all can learn.

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Bill Konigsberg, LGBT, Young Adult

The Music of What Happens by Bill Konigsberg

Bill Konigsberg’s THE MUSIC OF WHAT HAPPENS takes its name from a Seamus Heaney poem, titled “Song.” In the final couplet of that poem, Heaney’s poet tells of, “that moment when the bird sings very close / To the music of what happens.” And, in a nutshell, this is the same song, the same spirit, at the heart of Konigsberg’s surprising young adult novel. 

I was not prepared to enjoy this new release as much as I did. Indeed, about 60-pages into the book, I wondered if it and I were ever going to “click.” And then something very strange began to happen. I started picking up the book more frequently. I started refusing to put it down again. I started sneaking in bits of reading between grading papers, running errands, or watching news segments, muting commercials so I could read for 90-seconds before Rachel Maddow popped back onto my television screen. The beauty of an experience like this is that it feels so natural. Without realizing it, I was myself immersed in the music of what happens in Max and Jordan’s lives, in their bumpy relationship, in their sometimes cozy but sometimes horrid home worlds, and in the circles of their friendships, which sphere separately and then converge. 

The two protagonists take turns telling their parts of the story, in an intercalary format that has become ubiquitous in the YA genre. Max is a handsome, popular, masculine latino teenager who seems to have everything going for him. He is gay but only selectively out. Jordan is quieter, a poet. He is gay and more openly out, though as an introvert, he doesn’t talk to many people besides his two best friends and his problem-ridden mother. They come from very separate households and backgrounds, but the magic of a 1980s food truck brings them together, and the rest is the music that develops as their two souls and experiences meet. They learn from each other; they learn how to be with each other and they learn to bring their two worlds into harmony. Like all good stories, and good romances, though, there are struggles along the way. Max must deal with an absent father and a painful secret. Jordan must deal with a single mother who acts more like a child, and with worldly inexperience that leaves him possibly unable to help Max when he needs it most. 

Race, gender, masculinity, friendship, family, economics, sex and romance, sex and assault, first loves, first jobs, first times. I’m not sure what else a novel could tackle, but this one seems to do it all. Yet, far from being overwhelming or overstretched, Konigbsberg allows Max and Jordan the time and space, the introspection and extroversion, needed to experience, process, and grow from all of these experiences. It’s a near-masterful coming-of-age novel in this way, and an equally delightful romance. A book I will hang on to, to learn from and to enjoy again someday. 

 

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Contemporary, L. Philips, LGBT, Mental Health, Music, Romance, Young Adult

Sometime After Midnight by L. Philips

Sometime After Midnight by L. Philips is a modern-day retelling of the classic Cinderella fairy tale, aptly sub-titled “A CinderFella Story” because the central romance is between two young men named Nate and Cameron. Nate is the orphaned son of a troubled but genius musician and Cameron a teenage millionaire, heir to a world-wide music empire, and a pop culture icon. When the two meet at the same obscure concert, it seems to be love at first sight, a true “Cinderella” story. Unfortunately for both of them, their identities and histories are soon to catch up with them, causing perhaps insurmountable obstacles.  

One of the achievements for Philips’s novel is its characterization. Each of the main characters, secondary characters, and historical figures (like Nate’s dad) have compelling and believable personalities and motivations. Nate’s best friend complements him as a heterosexual and somehow delightfully dangerous sidekick and Cameron’s sister likewise complements him as the supportive meddler, sometimes causing harm when she means to be helpful. As the story unfolds, most of the characters come to interact with one another and with other side characters along the way, such as a mentor musician whom Nate turns to for guidance. Something I truly cherish in any story is a cast of characters who are there to play a role and whose presence propels the plot forward; in Sometime After Midnight, each of the characters is important and is there for a reason, and the backstories—often delayed, creating intrigue and tension—add to this in significant and entertaining ways.

Another strength for the novel, in my opinion, is how unbelievably romantic it is, but in a realistic way. Yes, the story wraps-up in a tidy little bow, but it is no easy task getting Nate and Cameron to that point. There is a lot of drama, a lot of anger, much confusion, and several misunderstandings that must be overcome before the two young heroes can reach their happily ever after. None of these dramatic elements, though, is overwrought (something I tend to complain about in drama-for-drama’s sake young adult romances.) The pacing and plot structure are also balanced incredibly well; there is just enough forward motion (just enough pay off) to make the struggles bearable. At some points, it seems like it will be impossible for Nate and Cameron to reconcile their differences, and for good reason; but the two, surrounded by their supporting cast, work hard at it because they feel it is worth it, and isn’t that what a healthy and respectful relationship usually needs?

Finally, I enjoyed how complicated but realistic these characters are drawn. Neither of the protagonists is perfect, nor are the supporting cast members. Nate’s anger issues seem sometimes frustratingly self-indulgent, and yet one can understand why he feels so much pain and mistrust given what he knows (and discovers) about his father. Cameron’s privilege often manifests in typically obnoxious ways and is highly reminiscent of the way privilege of wealth/fame often manifests in real life. Similarly, Cameron’s sister’s involvement balanced between helpful and harmful. She sometimes seemed downright villainous in her disregard for others, and yet without her help, the two might never have made it.

If I have one complaint, it is simply the alternating narrative perspective. Like many young adult novels published in the last 10-15 years, the author segments the chapters into smaller parts, labeled with the name of the protagonist currently narrating his side of the story. While this does open several opportunities for the story, such as allowing a kind of omnipotent first-person narration that would otherwise be impossible, it also seems to me a kind of cliché at this point. It is well done, though, and I did enjoy witnessing both Nate’s and Cameron’s perspectives, seeing their thoughts, feeling their emotions. It made me root for the relationship rather than rooting for one character or the other, and that might have been the point. I only wish there would have been a reason for the dual narration, something at the end which explained to the reader how and why we are getting both perspectives (a realistic opportunity for both Nate and Cameron to be reflecting on this time, perhaps?) In fact, I think the story was set up for that quite nicely, and it would have taken just a simple epilogue explanation to pull it off.

All-in-all, this book is exactly what I needed at exactly the right time. It was sweet. It was a little bit dark. It was entirely realistic. And it was a darn good gay romance, without too many of the tired old tropes. It’s also steeped in music—the industry, the mood, and the power of it—which is something that speaks to me very intimately. Sometimes, you just want all the sugary goodness! If you’re in the mood for that, this is your book.


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Book Review, Classics, E.H. Gombrich, Fiction, Historical Fiction, History, Mario Puzo, Non-Fiction, Potpour-reads, S.E. Hinton, Young Adult

The Outsiders, The Godfather, and A Little History

In this fourth “potpour-reads” post, I put together some thoughts on three classics, including two works of fiction and one of non-fiction. The first fiction classic is classified by Penguin as a “modern classic” and is sometimes categorized further into “young adult,” although I don’t think that is necessary. The second fiction classic is notoriously known for being simultaneously the author’s least successful stylistically but also the most successful commercially. Finally, the non-fiction classic is an adult adaptation of a history book that was originally written for children, then updated many years later. Each of these books was read in June, 2018, and the covers shown are for the editions that I read.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

This is a book that I have had on my “TBR” shelf for probably 20+ years. I honestly have no idea what took me so long to read it, especially considering how many people love it. Perhaps that was part of my apprehension, actually, because who wants to be “that guy” who hates a book everyone else finds so amazing? Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case. The story takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1965. At the heart of the story is its narrator, Ponyboy Curtis (yes, that’s his real name) whose parents have died and left him and his elder brother Sodapop in the care of their eldest brother, Darry. The three teenagers are members of the lower-working class and belong to a type of gang called “Greasers.” Their rivals are the wealthy gang from the better part of town, called the “Socs” (short for “Socials”). One of the more gripping elements of the novel is the intimate look at family and friendship, and especially the way that young men take care of each other when they have no parents or guardians willing or able to do the job. The boys often refer to each other with terms of endearment usually restricted to romantic partners, which provides insight into how close they are and how much they would be willing to risk for one another. They are “boys,” though, and masculine stereotypes abound: duty, honor, manhood, etc. These “values” get the young men into plenty of trouble, from gang fights to murder, to a questionable suicide. What makes the almost clichéd nature of it all (a girl named “Cherry”?) worth it is the complexity of character that so many of the Greasers have, especially the sensitivity of the poet and the artist, Ponyboy and Johnny. By the end, almost without realizing it, I had begun to root for these kids, just as many of the townspeople do. This is a book that has certainly “stayed gold” after all these years. (I’m killing myself after learning that Hinton wrote the book when she was in high school and published it when she was 18 – my god!)

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

This is another book I have been meaning to read for years, ever since I discovered that it was a book and not just a movie. The Godfather trilogy is my favorite film series of all-time; so, much like The Outsiders, I suppose I was subconsciously reluctant to read it because I wondered if it would withstand my close scrutiny. I mean, I basically grew up on this movie! Unlike The Outsiders, though, Mario Puzo’s book was just “okay,” for me. It is one of those rare instances where the film really outdoes the original material, and I think a lot of that is thanks to the genius of Francis Ford Coppola and the many incredible actors hired for the film(s). The novel itself is interesting and I did enjoy it, and probably would have even if I weren’t already so familiar with the story. Some of the positives, in fact, include the detailed sub-plots that did not make it into any of the movies, such as the storyline for Johnny Fontaine. At first, I wondered why he was getting so much page time since his character was so insignificant in the film, but the book does more than make it work. I also enjoyed reading this as an American immigrant story. Even though Vito Corleone’s back story does not get nearly as much attention as is provided in The Godfather II, there are enough recognizable bits of it. I was reminded, while reading, that this is one of the few books in college I was assigned to read but never did. The point was to read it as an immigrant novel, and I think having done so (in an academic setting) would have been interesting. Instead, I focused on other things while relying on my knowledge of the film to get me through discussions. Whoops! I did find that the book was fairly well written, though not the kind of evocative prose or description I was expecting. Puzo himself expressed that he wrote this book for money and in desperation, so I’m confident that he would agree with me that this isn’t a stellar work. Still, it’s a good one and it lent itself perfectly for the franchise it would birth.

A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich

This book is, well, how can I put it other than to say, it is darling. Who knew a history book could be precious? As it turns out, Gombrich originally wrote the book in German and for children, and it was a wild success, until World War II happened and the Nazis banned it. Many years later, he rewrote and expanded the book for adults and translated it himself into English for a bigger market audience. One can tell by much of the phrasing that it was originally written for children, but I did not find this a distraction. The history is accurate and thorough enough (though very concise) for an adult reader to appreciate it, and yet there is a strong sense of wonder and awe in the prose and style. Gombrich invites the reader to engage with multiple historical events as they happen concurrently, which has always been my favorite way to approach the study of history (otherwise I can never remember what was happening at the same time as whatever else). In this way, it is one of the favorite pieces of popular history I have ever read. That said, it is clear that Gombrich studied art (his doctorate was earned in art history), because he spends a lot of time focusing on the artistic elements of each event and looking at what was happening in history through an artistic lens. Many of his analogies have to do with art or music. This style might not work for everyone, but it was fine for me. I also appreciated two important features: first, Gombrich writes about the many religions with equal respect and detail. This is really uncommon in many popular histories, and even academic ones, so call it a pleasant surprise! He also treats religion as the historical feature it is, within the context of each culture, yes, but also in relation (drawing the lines between Christ and Mohammed, for example.) I found this beyond helpful, and so fascinating! The second important feature is that he corrected information in previous editions. Where he had made an error, he explicitly pointed it out and amended that information for the new edition. In both ways, he demonstrated a trustworthy ethos–always important, but even more so these days. This is a book that will remain on my shelf permanently.

 

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

Lincoln, Socrates, and A Funeral

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

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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

Socrates Café by Christopher Phillips

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

I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain by Will Walton

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

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