Archive for September, 2019

August

Hide and Seek (Wilkie Collins)

In this novel Collins starts his interest in writing about the disabled, with Magdalen as his deaf heroine. She’s a real angel in the house, and we conclude with the same brother/sister ending that we had in Basil. I’m kind of hoping that he gets off of this kick, because while I do acknowledge the validity of love between people who aren’t having sex, the fact that Collins keeps replacing the traditional married couple with a pair of siblings makes me wonder about the nature of the relationship, especially in a story like this one where the two kids don’t know about their consanguinity for most of the birth-mystery plot, so they toy with romance a bit before they realize. One of the strongest themes for me is the suspect nature of visibly excessive virtue – the people who are strictest with others have the most to hide, as in all those leaders of conversion therapy camps who later come out as gay. And not the quiet, domestic sort of gay that I am – we’re talking rowdy rent boys in loud techno sex clubs gay.

Sunjata (Bamba Suso and Banna Kanute)

This is a west African epic, in this edition transcribed from a couple of performances by famous bards. It is difficult to capture the magic of a live performance in a written medium, but the editor sure tries his hardest. I think this edition is useful for those of us who are interested in traditional stories but don’t have our own immediate access to traditional African bards.

Zeus is Undead: This One Has Zombies (Michael G. Munz)

The sequel to Zeus is Dead, which I read back in June. The characters who annoyed me in the first book are either absent or only appear in cameos, so I prefer this one. Instead of drifting around to several different characters, Munz keeps a much tighter focus on a single protagonist, Athena trying to win back her divinity by solving the mystery of the zombies’ origin. As with any good sequel, this book is about the consequences of what happened in the previous book, and you can’t just go around killing goddesses and expect nothing bad to happen.

Sugar and Other Stories (A. S. Byatt)

Reading this book, I was actually wondering what I was going to write about it here. I thought about aboutness, a real word/concept we use in cataloging. This book is about the emotional lives of intelligent women. [Find me a Library of Congress Subject Heading for that.] Like many of the women in this book, I was a smart child who grew up and wanted to be known for his heart rather than his brain. So many people treated me like a disembodied intellect, and I went along with it – it’s rather a job to make up for lost time and balance myself out now. I recognize that it’s easier for me to be smart because I’m a man and people either expect me to be intelligent or at least to believe in my own intelligence, which is the opposite of what they expect of women. Byatt’s argument, here and in many of her other early works, seems to be that women have both heads and hearts, and can use both effectively, even simultaneously.

The Lord Won’t Mind (Gordon Merrick)

Okay, so I recognize the groundbreaking nature of having written a gay romance in 1969. I know the cultural issues surrounding coming of age in the United States in 1940. But the protagonist of this book is so racist, so misogynist, so homophobic, so toxic that I had a hard time reading about him. Charlie is a terrible person who, when a girl sets boundaries about what he can do with her body, thinks that he ought to rape her because she ‘deserves’ it. There is a lot of explicit gay sex in the first part of the novel, and it’s really hot and really works for me, but then Charlie gets all stupid and breaks up with Peter and marries the first woman he can find. Then he gets abusive and breaks up with her, after he’s beaten her so hard that she’ll never act again, and go finds Peter again. Peter has been nothing but sweet, honest, and tolerant this whole time, so I really worry that Charlie’s going to beat the shit out of him too, leaving him too disfigured to turn tricks, so I don’t want to read the sequels. Charlie’s not anyone I want to spend my time reading about.

Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino)

A novel without a real plot. Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan about the cities he’s visited and heard of in his travels, most of which are impossible to really exist. They all have women’s names, so I wonder if he’s speaking metaphorically about people he’s met. As the stories go on, it becomes less easy to know what’s real and what isn’t, who’s speaking and who’s listening, and where the story is being created, if there even is one. It might be a bit destabilizing, but I thought it was very good.

Weight (Jeanette Winterson)

Yes, I’ve read this book before. I enjoyed it thoroughly; I’m allowed to reread. It’s easy to focus on Atlas, the man carrying a heavy burden who learns to let it go. This time I saw the story of Heracles, the bragging, self-centered idiot who is changed by carrying a weight too heavy for him that he dare not lay down. It’s not just the physical weight of the world; it’s the weight of being alone, afraid that the loneliness will never end. When it does end, he’s still changed by it.

The Invention of Heterosexuality (Jonathan Ned Katz)

If you will recall, a little more than a hundred years ago people in the United States created the concept of whiteness as a way to pacify the masses of poor immigrants, I’m thinking of the Irish and southern Europeans. Yes, your lives are shit and no one will hire you or speak to you in a language you can understand, but at least you’re not black. You’re white, and there will always be a place in our slums for you. Katz gives a similar historical survey of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, tracing the formation of the heterosexual identity. As gays and lesbians became more vocal about their existence, innate dignity, and basic human rights, heterosexuals began to examine their own sexual orientation identity and to codify what it means to be ‘straight’. In what situations is it acceptable for same-gender heterosexuals to express affection, and how should it be expressed? What habits of dress, mannerism, and behavior characterize the heterosexual American? The book is very interesting in looking at the changing nature of ‘normal’ and the codification of homophobia; I don’t think it should be labeled for gay/lesbian studies (eh-hem, publisher who printed that on the back of the book). I think that in some places Katz’s analysis is a little slap-dash, and his understanding of American history seems a bit incomplete (we didn’t all land at Plymouth Rock), but there’s still a lot of value here. I think this book is a good starting place, but that we need more granular perspectives, a closer reading of specific times and places. The United States is hardly a single monoculture, even today. Katz tends to homogenize the country as he decries the homogenization it performs on itself.

Let’s Talk About Love (Claire Kann)

YA asexual romance. Protagonist is a biromantic asexual college student, starting with the breakup from the girlfriend she loves but doesn’t want to have sex with and working through the friendship that becomes her next relationship. Our culture puts so much emphasis on sexual license for people in their late teens and early twenties that a young woman of color really has to fight for her right not to have sex. She works at a library, which makes me happy, and falls for the guy who volunteers for storytime. He’s straight, so when they do finally have the talk about sex (after having already broken several touch barriers), it’s a struggle for him to deal with the fact that they’re not going to do it. There’s a happy ending, where he says that all the passion and connection he looks for in a sexual relationship are already present with them, but I personally tend to doubt what he says. He loves her, yes, and he’s not a rapist, but I don’t think he’s going to be long-term happy with lifelong celibacy. It’s very much a happily-for-now, not a happily-ever-after.

 

September Books

The Hangman’s Daughter (Oliver Pötzsch)

Historical mystery. The author comes from a long line of executioners, so he did some research into life in small-town Bavaria in the seventeenth century and wrote a murder mystery featuring his however-many-greats-grandfather. Kids are being killed during the week of Walpurgisnacht, and when found they have alchemical symbols drawn on their bodies, so everyone assumes witchcraft. Despite the potential for emphasis on women’s wisdom (and the title referring to a woman), female characters are not really terribly important (the woman of the title is identified by her relationship to a man, not anything inherent in her). This is a book about the hangman and the doctor in love with his daughter, their interest in herbal medicine and modern surgical methods as opposed to the traditional four-humors style of healing by opening veins and forcing laxatives. When women appear, they are fantastic and strong and wise, but we spend most of our time in the heads of the men investigating and perpetrating the crimes. As with the witchcraft itself, women are a distraction or a misdirection, red herrings all. Some of the characters I read in the voice of angry Nazi officers in films, both American and German, which adds a layer of fear that I don’t know was intended. The fact that I can do this seems to point to the quality of the translation – I take it it’s very good.

The Mill on the Floss (George Eliot)

“If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie?” Maggie Tulliver is a girl who holds tightly to the ties of mutual history that bind her to her family, no matter how miserable they make her. Eliot spends a good bit of time setting up the tug-of-war tragedy of Maggie’s adult life, so it can seem a bit slow at the beginning, when everyone is talking about the future. The foreshadowing is heavy, and then the reflection on the past is heavy as well, and the weight of all that is not present tense crushes her. I really want Maggie to focus on right now for a few minutes, but when she does she breaks convention so strongly that she’s shunned for the rest of the book. I identified very closely with Maggie on this reading; my family vexes, ignores, and intolerates me, but I feel equally unable to cut the ties, no matter how loose they have become, no matter how many Stephen Guests tell me it’s okay to do it. Sometimes I feel so distanced from them that my own last name seems foreign to me. Spending time with them feels like I’m complete, as if I’ve misplaced a part of my identity that only lives with them, even though/even while they constantly reinscribe my role as Lost Child, the tabula rasa who hides his own personality like a palimpsest, wanting to be valued but afraid to be seen.

Where Angels Fear to Tread (E. M. Forster)

This is a story of cultural contact, looking at the way Englishpeople respond to Italy. The fools rushing in, implied by the title, are the English family who seem determined to destroy the life of a handsome young Italian. All the English know that while Italy is beautiful, both by nature and as home of Renaissance art, actual Italian people are dirty and evil, no matter how sexy (probably because they’re so sexy – there’s no way someone that pretty and that dark could be good). It’s easier to stay racist at a distance, so when the English come to Italy they can’t hold onto their resolutions, leading to blunders and foolishness and ruined lives. It’s not always clear when Forster is speaking in his own voice or narrating the inner monologues of his characters, so it’s not always clear where the racism is coming from, but the broad strokes make it clear that the English are idiots and the Italians are better off without their meddling. Misogynistic philanderers, maybe, but also close to nature, closer to the marrow of their own lives. If you can stop thinking of love as monogamous and possessive, then modern Italian culture as Forster portrays it can be really beautiful as well. They just experience chivalry differently than the English do. There’s a strong sense that the English experience goodness as passivity and part of Italian evil is the willingness to act, but I think that good and evil are not easily mapped onto passivity and activity – I don’t think either of these binaries actually exists except on a spectrum from one extreme to another, and that inherent nature (which I perceive to be good, distinct from the dominant culture’s perception of good) always lies somewhere in the middle.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury)

Another book about Man’s relationship to Time. I use Man in the gender-specific sense because women are not prominent in this story. They can act as ideals for men to practice their chivalry upon, but if they take up any space in the narrative at all it’s as the fallen woman or the evil witch. It’s a story of men learning to accept the aging process, not trying to speed it up when we’re younger or reverse it when we’re older, not placing sole value on our existence between the ages of twenty and thirty-five. Will and Jim are thirteen-year-old best friends, and in one of the easily-forgotten-yet-foundational early scenes, they watch while a couple has sex with the window open. I guess pornography wasn’t readily available in Bradbury’s Illinois, so Jim is continually drawn back to staring in the window of adulthood while Will keeps pulling him back toward childhood. The dark carnival arrives almost immediately, turning the literal growth of sexuality into surreal metaphor. Will’s father Charles occupies the opposite end of things, older than most first-time parents, so much older than his wife that people mistake him for her father. Realistically, she’s probably only ten or fifteen years younger, but Charles looks old for his age. He’s the janitor at the library, which I find interesting because (a) there’s no stigma attached to his work, and (b) there are no librarians. Librarians were mostly female at this time, and the profession was consciously trying masculinize itself in its rebranding as library SCIENCE. Charles Halloway manages to use the library resources in the absence of the trained library employees, as if to point out that all that education women get in organizing and providing access to resources is unnecessary to a man who is determined to root out evil. The book has a way of erasing women, ethnic minorities, and sexual minorities, leaving us with a world of ‘straight’ white men eradicating evil through the power of their contempt and desperate self-control. I do appreciate the lesson that we see later on in Harry Potter’s boggarts, that the best way to deal with fear is to laugh at it, but Green Town is such a restricted view of the United States that I find it claustrophobic, creepy even without Cooger and Dark’s. Bradbury’s writing is beautiful, but very firmly rooted in the conformist part of the early 1960s.