Posts Tagged ‘allegory’

That We May Be One: A Gay Mormon’s Perspective on Faith and Family (Tom Christofferson)

I wrote a 3500-word entry on this book alone, but after watching Hannah Gadsby several times I’m not convinced that I want to publish my anger. There’s a fury that I’m not really dealing with – when I came out, this church told me that I’d be better off dead, and my mother wants me to go back to it. The fact that I like having gay sex does not mean that my life does not have value, either for me or for the rest of the world. Christofferson decided that God was more important, so he dropped his partner of twenty years, repented of all his ‘sins’, and seems to be embracing a celibate old age. This is not the life I want for myself. I don’t want to trade abusive human lovers for an abusive divine lover; I want people in my life who show me love in ways I can understand it. This is a book for faithful Mormons who want to love gay people but don’t know how; it should not be read by gay people who have already been hurt by the church and are not interested in rejoining it.

Grave Sight (Charlaine Harris)

Grave Surprise (Charlaine Harris)

An Ice Cold Grave (Charlaine Harris)

Harper Connelly is a nice girl with a traumatic past and an upsetting gift. She was struck by lightning, and ever since she can sense the presence of dead bodies. When standing over or touching the body, she can experience the last few seconds of the person’s life. So, not content with giving her a nightmare of a childhood, the author also has her experience death over and over and over again. Harper travels around the country as a consultant for law enforcement and grief management. Her stepbrother Tolliver Lang manages the business aspect of her career, and she clings to him as the only thing steady and comforting in a world determined to keep retraumatizing her. One of the things I did not like here is the reliance on a negative stereotype about the South: that we all have fucked up families. I’m happy that Harper and Tolliver are happy at the end, but their quasi-incest is just the tip of a murdering iceberg of Faulknerian proportions (there’s no genetic link between them; when the children were teenagers, their parents married). I was also disappointed at the way that characters from Arkansas and Memphis had unmarked speech, but when the narrative came to North Carolina in book three people started saying you-all. I will admit that Doraville is set to the north of Asheville and I’m more familiar with the areas to the south and west, but I’ve lived in North Carolina most of my life and I’ve rarely heard anyone say ‘you-all’. ‘Y’all’, as one syllable, is more common, and in some parts you might hear ‘yuns’, but not a two-syllable ‘you-all.’ There has been a strong influx of people raised in other parts of the country, due to tourists staying and academics coming to work (there are a ton of colleges and universities in the mountains of North Carolina), so a lot of people just use ‘you’ as the second-person plural pronoun. Good fluffy little paranormal murder mysteries, but I may need a little space from the genre. Mysteries tend to find the worst in people, and I don’t want that in my head. The last one, about a serial killer, is especially harsh; it’s like Harris has to punish Harper for being happy.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Truman Capote)

It’s a bit like Goodbye to Berlin and The Great Gatsby had a literary baby. I don’t understand all the fuss, and I don’t understand why Audrey Hepburn would play the protagonist. Holly Golightly is a social climbing, gold digging woman who gets pregnant from a man who is not her husband. Capote does his best to present her tenderly, but I just don’t see the appeal. Is he fictionalizing someone he knew in real life? Is he trying to show how much harder it is for women to get ahead than men? I mean, Gatsby gets ahead by having money, and Holly Golightly gets ahead by having sex. She’s bisexual, which I guess is progressive for the time, but she calls all homosexual women dykes, and that’s a problematic term these days. I think it’s one of those words that you can use if you belong to the in-group, but that is very offensive if used by someone outside of it. I preferred the short stories included: House of Flowers, A Diamond Guitar, and A Christmas Memory. They felt more original, though Christmas stories generally feel overly sentimental to me, and this is no exception.

Games People Play (Eric Berne)

This is a popular psychology text from the 1960s, explaining the unhealthy ways that we act in relationships. I’ve taken some pride in thinking of myself as a straightforward person who doesn’t play games, so finding myself in this book was humbling and unpleasant. To roughly quote Elizabeth Bennet, “Until that moment I never knew myself, and I had no one to comfort me.” I recognize that these games are socially conditioned – my mom’s wooden leg is her divorce, mine is my mental illness – but I don’t want my adulthood to be controlled by my fucked-up childhood. I’m trying not to play these games anymore. Changing my conditioning is a challenge, but I think it’s worth it.

Trouble in Taco Town (Jordan Castillo Price)

Something Stinks at the Spa (Jordan Castillo Price)

Second and third installments of a series of novellas I began last month. I think that ‘Quill Me Now’ is the best of the set so far – these two lose their sense of direction. The first one is a gay romance with a bit of mystery, but what do you do with your happy couple when they’re already together? It is good to see Yuri reevaluating his expectations for the world because of his relationship with someone he can’t predict or understand, and it is nice to see Dixon continually finding new things to love about Yuri, but the author has placed them in a world where they don’t have to fight to stay together; they’re seldom even in different rooms for more than an hour. Their relationship has become the type of story that is only interesting to the people involved. The mystery part of the series is also a bit less interesting; there’s less a sense of dramatic irony or potentially unreliable narrators. These are stories about magic gone wrong, words and images becoming misinterpreted and altering reality in inconvenient ways. The problems are caused by Dixon’s Uncle Fonzo, and then Yuri and Dixon fix them. I’m hoping that when they catch up to him (maybe in the as-yet-unpublished fourth?) the stories will regain what I enjoyed about the first one.

The Goblin Reservation (Clifford D. Simak)

A sci-fi/fantasy mystery, from the late 1960s when people weren’t ashamed of their misogyny. Protagonist was duplicated in a transporter accident, diverted to a crystal planet of beings older than the Big Bang, while his other self went on an anthropological expedition in deep space, came back early, and was killed. I quite like the solves-his-own-murder plotline because it forces complacent protagonists to really examine their own lives and figure out the question that privileged people are still asking: Why would anyone want to hurt me? This book took a lot of work for me; even though these are genres I enjoy, this is still a fairly dull book, despite the goblins, trolls, banshees, Neanderthal, Shakespeare’s ghost, and a dragon.

The Damnation Game (Clive Barker)

A retelling of the Faust legend. I’ve been trying not to seek out so many mystery novels lately because I feel like they focus on what is worst in humankind, so it was kind of strange to me that I would dive right into (and devour) a horror instead. In thinking about it, I realized both why Barker’s horror isn’t a problem right now and why I love it generally. For Barker, humanity isn’t the source of evil. Evil comes from trying to become something other than human; the drive for supernatural power (especially the power to escape death) robs people of their compassion, pity, and empathy. When people strive to be more than human, they invariably become less than. Barker’s heroes tend to be the kind of people society ignores, the paroled convict working as a bodyguard for a wealthy eccentric, so even though people die in horrifying ways, there’s a paradoxical affirmation of the value of living an average human life. Barker’s novels help me to become reconciled to living the life that I have.

Upside Down (N. R. Walker)

The usual gay romance story is, boy meets boy, they fuck, something happens to separate them, they overcome their obstacles and live happily ever after. I enjoyed this book a lot because it’s not the usual gay romance. Jordan and Hennessy are asexual, meaning that they don’t use sex as a way of pair-bonding in relationships. I’ve had a few friends talk about this in their own lives: it’s not that they get bored with sex, or that they’re too religious to enjoy it, it’s that they don’t want it. My hetero friends don’t want to have sex with the same gender, my homo friends don’t want to have sex with a different gender, and my asexual friends don’t want to have sex with anyone. So in the book, the two guys meet each other, get to know each other, go out on dates, hug each other, enjoy kissing, but neither of them wants to have sex. This clearly does not describe me – my interest in other men is so explicitly sexual that I stare in public and make others uncomfortable – but it’s a style of relationship that I could learn from. My counselor has said that I should spend more time with the part of romance that isn’t having sex so that I can make better choices about whom to be involved with. I could use a bit more patience, finding out if I have anything in common with someone aside from being lonely.

The Throme of the Erril of Sherill (Patricia A. McKillip)

A very early novel. This is the story of a Cnite who gets sent on a quest to win the hand of his lady-love, but the narrative rejects the toxic masculinity that the fantasy quest story sometimes encourages. The Cnite loses his horse, his armor, and his sword, searching for a book that doesn’t exist. Eventually he has to sit down and write the story that he wants to see in the world. McKillip is acting out the rejection of some of the values typically found in 1970s fantasy, but the clearer sense of what she does believe and want to see in her imaginary world is still developing. I enjoy the later books more.

Hector and the Search for Happiness (Francois Lelord)

An allegorical French psychiatrist travels the world, trying to understand happiness. Hector recognizes his privilege in many areas, but he has an essentialist view of gender that I find a bit outdated. While I do appreciate allegories, the way that Lelord keeps reviewing his main points makes me feel a bit too much like I’m reading a textbook. Ignoring the heavy-handedness of the didacticism, however, this is a nice story about a guy who wants to make people’s lives better and finds out that most people don’t need his help. People around the world have found ways of being happy, no matter what the external circumstances of their lives are. It seems to have a lot to do with positive relationships, though that’s hardly the only point he makes in the book. Happiness is most often found indirectly, as we feel effective in encouraging the happiness of others. Apparently there’s a film version starring Simon Pegg – I’d quite like to see it.

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May Books

Hello Down There (Michael Parker)

There’s a strong Faulkner influence here, but applied to the Piedmont of North Carolina in the middle of the twentieth century. I picked this up in the LGBT section of the bookstore, but there is no gay content (except for one homophobic joke). It’s more about drug addiction and (hetero) sexual mores. It’s a sad book, early in his career. I hope he has found happier subjects.

Basil (Wilkie Collins)

The story of a young idiot who gets deceived by a family of gold diggers. There’s some looking at the absurdity of marriage laws that prefigures Miss or Mrs?, and this also has what one of my professors described as the most graphically violent scene in Victorian literature, when Basil grinds his rival’s face into a freshly macadamized road. This is during the period when Collins rejects the marriage plot in favor of sibling relationships, but I hope that he’s not actually encouraging incest. The sister in this one is a real Angel in the House, so it’s frustrating – none of the women characters are believable. Collins will eventually get to where he writes complex, interesting women, but he’s not there yet.

Mr Wray’s Cash Box (Wilkie Collins)

This is a little Christmas novella. It’s not great, but it’s cute and heartwarming, though the ending gets a little capitalist for my taste. An aging actor sneaks into the church at Stratford and makes a mold of the bust of Shakespeare, but he’s too afraid to make more than one cast of it. He thinks the police are going to take him away for breaking copyright, but he doesn’t actually know the law. He’s fine.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne Bronte)

Anne Bronte was the born-again religious one among the Bronte sisters, so while all of them quote the Bible out of context all the time, she does it with a little more piety than her sisters. She also relies on some of Milton’s ideas, the importance of growing and changing one’s mind and the worthlessness of virtue untested. Her first novel, Agnes Grey, was seen as a little too sweet and innocent, especially when it was paired with Wuthering Heights, so this was her edgy follow-up. This book takes a hard look at alcoholism and its consequences. Some of her attitudes are surprisingly modern, as when Huntingdon talks about addiction as a disease and a compulsion rather than simply a habit. Also when Hattersley is helped out of it by strengthening relationships instead of being preached at. Some of the women are a little too Angel-in-the-House for me to appreciate them, and I question the wisdom of Helen’s returning to her husband after she left him for very good reasons, but as a whole it’s actually a really good book. Narrators reveal more of themselves than they intend, which is an effect I always enjoy.

Dangerous Personalities (Joe Navarro)

Navarro used to be a profiler for the FBI, so this book focuses on that sort of quick, targeted classification of people. He discusses four basic toxic personalities: Narcissist, Unstable, Paranoid, and Predator. At the end of each chapter there is a quiz to see if someone you know fits this type. The scoring leads to four divisions: safe, annoying, obstructive, and dangerous. I scored my guy as annoying in both narcissism and paranoia and obstructive in instability. It took me another month to get away from him, but I’m good now. I scored myself as annoying in instability, and it seems accurate. I can’t imagine what it would be like for someone to have tried to live with me consistently through the last seven years. Navarro’s examples tend to be serial killers, so he can seem a little over the top (as law enforcement officials tend to do), but if you remember to dilute his intensity, it’s an informative book.

If Nuns Ruled the World (Jo Piazza)

I got unexpectedly excited about this book. It’s not so much a story of faith as it is true stories of amazing women who do fantastic things with their lives. Most of them are activists – whether for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, human trafficking victims – and some of them are just doing extraordinary things in their old age, like the one who didn’t start running until she was older than I am now, but worked herself up to compete in marathons, and continues into her eighties. It is true that these are women from a shared, specific faith community, but the good work they do goes beyond that community. In fact, they sometimes end up in conflict with the male leaders of their church because of the work they’re doing to make things better for everyone. Their stories can inspire anyone who wants to make our world better, Catholic or not, particularly those who are interested in women’s political activism.

The Path of the Green Man: Gay Men, Wicca, and Living a Magical Life (Michael Thomas Ford)

This was a fantastic book. Ford introduces us to the basic concepts of Wicca and a little of their history, with ideas for meditation exercises. Along with the nonfiction, he also writes an allegory where the green man travels through the wheel of the year, hitting the eight celebrations commonly celebrated by modern pagans, and meeting gods from a variety of (mostly European) traditions. I loved this book and it meant a lot to me.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (J. K. Rowling)

The first time I read this book, I had a hard time staying with it because I couldn’t find the mystery that kept the story together. It’s so long and digresses into so many details, and it’s great that Rowling didn’t stop world-building after the first book (so many fantasy authors do), but at almost nine hundred pages I felt my attention wavering. This was the second time, though, and when you know that Harry’s emotional state is the mystery and not just an obnoxious by-product of being fifteen, the book makes more sense. Rowling really hits the connection between Harry and Voldemort hard in this one, and that focus will grow toward book seven. There’s a lot of conflict between Harry and society as a whole, not just with his friends, which we saw less of in previous books. The atmosphere of conflict extends to the Weasleys, as Percy cuts himself off from the rest of the family. There’s a general sense that everything is getting bad, so it’s easy to assume that Harry being a little bitch all the time is just part of the general malaise and not proof that Voldemort is taking over his mind. It’s a much more complex and abstract problem than we had before, and as the dumb jock, Harry isn’t really equipped to handle it. Oh, and while it’s great that Ernie Macmillan has finally developed a personality, I think it’s a shame that that personality is Pompous Ass. Luna Lovegood makes her first appearance here, and she makes me very happy. I’ve heard people complain about the worthlessness of wizards who never use magic unless it’s dramatically appropriate; the Hogwarts kids learn Cheering Charms in year three, get tested on them in year five, but never use them outside of class. They literally know a spell to make each other happy, and they stubbornly refuse to do it. I do not understand.

 

June Books

Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin (ed. Devon W Carbado and Donald Weise)

This was a strange anthology. The writings are grouped thematically rather than chronologically, and the divisions didn’t always make sense. Discussions of the United States government’s attitude toward African nations and toward Americans of African descent seem to me to overlap, so why not put them together? It also seems that the majority of Rustin’s work was in action rather than in writing or speaking. While his command of rhetoric is impressive, even he implies that he is most effective at organizing events and movements rather than speaking at them. Rustin’s style is highly educated, which can alienate his less-educated audience. He’s not as popular today, not only because he didn’t go down in a blaze of glory, but because people today aren’t impressed by erudition. People who seem smarter than others are feared and distrusted, not valued. It was probably the case at his time as well. Because my own education in twentieth-century history is not great, I hadn’t realized how much World War II had done for civil rights. The ground was prepared when all those soldiers were forced to mix together; knowing people of color helped whites to understand their value. Rustin started his work shortly afterward, in the late 1940s. The book focuses on the 1960s, as do the superficial discussions of civil rights movements in United States classrooms; it’s misleading because it ignores the gains of the 1950s as well as the fact that drinking out of the same water fountain doesn’t solve everyone’s problems. We’re still struggling with racism all over the world. The two crosses in the title refer to the fact that Rustin was both black and gay, but while he was an activist who was gay, he was not a gay activist. When Stonewall happened, he did not build on the momentum to organize a movement. His focus was on race, and dealing with that identity took up most of his time. He spoke about being gay some, but by the 1980s people only wanted to hear him talk about Martin Luther King. So yes, his sexuality and the prejudices about it (and the imprisonments because of it) were an obstacle to his visible participation in the civil rights movement, but even after twenty years he didn’t have much to say about it. I’ve been talking about those identities that make him similar to me, a gay man working on a second graduate degree, but I don’t want to minimize the importance of what he did for communities of color in the United States. He worked with the bus boycotts made famous by Rosa Parks, and he organized the March on Washington. He was an amazing person at the forefront of cultural change, and the improvements in our laws and culture toward ethnic differences are due to him and his influence. He didn’t do it alone, but what he did changed the course of history.

Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard (Isak Dinesen)

Confession time: I don’t remember a whole lot about this book. Dinesen’s stories are slow and beautiful, some are realistic and some are fairy tales, but I’ve had so much upheaval in the last two weeks that it seems like I read this book in another life. The most famous one from this collection is Babette’s Feast, due to the slow film that was made of it. It takes a lot of effort to stretch forty pages to fill that much movie. I watched it a few years ago with a friend who said it was her favorite, and we saw different things in it. The story is about a famous French chef who flees from war-torn Paris and finds shelter in an unusually conservative community of Lutherans in Norway. After several years, she wins a lot of money and spends it all preparing a dinner for her friends like the ones she used to make for the wealthy French. If I remember correctly, my friend saw it as a story of artistry and giving one’s best, even when people don’t appreciate it (or know enough to appreciate it). Reading the story, though, I agree that it has to do with the place of the artist in society, but it’s not about love and gratitude. Babette’s feast is a judgment. When she arrives in town, they teach her to make alebread and fish, like she doesn’t know how, and she is forced to kill her creativity for twelve years making these shitty meals for people that she really does come to care about. Someone who can make a turtle soup that people would die for can certainly make bread and fish a sight better than these unoriginal household cooks, but they don’t want her to. The story is about everyone ignoring and undervaluing her gifts, and her feast is a way of saying, “Look at what I can do! Look at what you’ve missed! Look at the talent that your stupid religion has hidden under a bushel!” It’s a story that condemns society for not giving artists free rein to express themselves. It’s a dumb religion that says, God gave you the ability to make the world vibrantly beautiful, but you have to keep making it greyly small because that’s what makes us comfortable.

Quill Me Now: The ABCs of Spellcraft (Jordan Castillo Price)

This is a short little novella, but I thought it was a lot of fun. In this world, magic requires two parts: a picture painted by a left-handed Seer and a saying written by a right-handed Scrivener. Dixon is from a family of Scriveners, though he isn’t really one himself, and he meets a sensitive Russian hunk with a real gift for painting Seens. I’m attracted to the idea that words have power, and that using them carelessly can have unfortunate consequences. Hurrah for paranormal gay romance. First of a series.

Ombria in Shadow (Patricia A. McKillip)

High fantasy. Ombria is a kingdom full of shadows, where people seem to drift through time. I deeply love Patricia McKillip, but I wasn’t as pleased with the ending of this one. The book starts with the death of the prince and the casting off of his mistress – she finds a way to sneak back into the palace to continue raising the prince’s son, whom she loves as if he were hers. Mistress isn’t a title that is often accorded respect, but she’s effectively the new ruler’s stepmother, and they have a close bond. The dead prince also leaves behind a bastard son, whom many people would like to see seize the throne, but he’d rather spend his time drawing the things about Ombria he doesn’t understand. The third candidate for protagonist is the witch’s foundling, a young woman raised on the idea that the witch made her of wax who is now trying to figure out what it means to be human. These three marginal figures work together to protect each other and the young prince, because getting him to the throne is what’s best for the kingdom. Then there are the two witches – the one who lives in shadow realizes suddenly she’s been a mother for twenty years and is confronted with her own love for her waxling, and the one who lives in the palace is caught up in political maneuvers to consolidate her power over the kingdom. While things are vague the book is mysterious and exciting, but when the mysteries are revealed the book just ends. I prefer the revelation to come at the end of Act II, where characters use their new knowledge to guide the community to a resolution (after some thrilling and climactic confrontation befitting Act III), but this isn’t a Victorian sensation novel. Nor is it a romance, or a Bildungsroman, or any other of the labels we use to simplify the discussions about stories. I don’t think it’s fair to define a book (or anything else) by what it isn’t, but that’s where I end up when I try to explain this one. Perhaps that’s the reason for all the shadow – this is a book that just isn’t.

Written on the Body (Jeanette Winterson)

The unnamed narrator tells us about her affairs with married women. This book is deeply and beautifully sensual without being pornographic. She tells these stories in no particular order, as we do when we talk about our past to someone we’ve met only recently. Things can get a bit jumbled up, even though she gives us names for all of these women. There are a couple of men, but they rarely get more than a paragraph. Halfway through, suddenly, this becomes a book about cancer and loss, and while I don’t know if I would make the same choices that these people do, I was really engrossed by their story. This is a fantastic book, where as usual, Winterson probes into the heart of what it means to love.

Zeus is Dead: A Monstrously Inconvenient Adventure (Michael G. Munz)

The Greek gods return to earth in a fun comic novel. Apollo tries to solve the mystery of Zeus’s murder with the help of a television producer, a lovesick anti-hero, and the muse of comedy and sci-fi. In the end they have to defeat the Titans, because apparently that’s the part of Greek mythology that captures the imagination of contemporary writers. Can’t we just leave the Titans in peace? In some ways I found the characters frustrating – Ares is a really unkind Southern stereotype with inconsistent dialect markers, and the anti-hero is harshly sarcastic at inconvenient times. I suppose I just get disappointed when characters don’t use their power for the good of others, and none of the gods do.

The Godmakers (Don Pendleton)

Do not confuse this with the Frank Herbert novel that came out a couple of years later, nor with the anti-Mormon film (and novelization) a decade after that. I will be the first to admit that many of the books I have read over the past few months have been a bit insubstantial, or fluffy. Life has been stressful and I’ve needed relaxation more than intellectual stimulation and growth. However, this is the only one that I would actually call trashy. This is shit science fiction at its shittiest, the type of story that makes Barbarella look like high feminist drama. Characters use heterosexual sex to access higher dimensions of psychic energy, resulting in paranormal abilities. It’s very sex-positive, but racist, homophobic, and misogynistic as well. Adolescent wish fulfillment for incels.

Time Must Have a Stop (Aldous Huxley)

A strange book. It sometimes seems a bit like Dorian Grey, the young man learning about life from older, wealthier friends. But while Huxley makes Sebastian the center of the book, he doesn’t seem to find him very interesting. Sebastian’s uncle dies of a heart attack partway through, but his presence lingers on as we see him suffer in the afterlife and experience seances from the ghost’s point of view. Uncle Eustace keeps trying to hold onto an individual identity even when the painfully shining light tries to absorb him into a universal consciousness. This is the part of the story that attracted me, much more than the privileged teenager whining about finding evening clothes (a symbol of respectability denied him by the father who insists on breaking down class boundaries). Women characters are there to support Sebastian, acting as mothers, lovers, or evil crones. One of the fascinating things about this book is the setting, written in 1944 but about 1929. We’re on the cusp of a crash that author and audience know is coming but the characters don’t. Death gives Eustace some prescience, and the epilogue flashes forward to Huxley’s present, but those fifteen years don’t actually change Sebastian all that much. More experience means that he’s a handsome womanizing poet, not a handsome womanizing poet wannabe. I guess Huxley is right; I mean, as I look over my own life, it seems like there’s a lot of change, but the person I am has actually been pretty consistent. There were things that I thought were important that turned out to be superficial, and I have improved dramatically in self-knowledge and self-esteem, but the self in question is still the same. I enjoyed Huxley’s poetry; putting it in the mind of a teenager in the process of thinking through his art gives him a chance to show the revision process and a bunch of half-finished fragments of thought. It might not be as interesting to people who don’t write or study poetry.

Lime Gelatin and Other Monsters (Angel Martinez)

Another short paranormal gay romance novella. I get on a kick sometimes, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Kyle Monroe is a police officer in Philadelphia’s paranormal division, and while everyone there has magical abilities, they’re all bad at them, like the guy who accidentally lights things on fire when he’s angry, but only achieves little smolders rather than large conflagrations. They’re kind of like X-Men who haven’t had any training, so they just flail about with their unusual abilities and try not to hurt each other. Kyle absorbs the powers of those around him and controls them even more poorly, kind of like what I do with picking up on other people’s emotions subconsciously and then inventing reasons for me to feel this way. He gets a new partner, a giant beautiful man of southern Asian derivation, so it’s all police procedures and Indian food, with some gay sex thrown in. It was a fun little story.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (J. K. Rowling)

The kids are sixteen, and romantic relationships are starting to take over the plot. They’re also swearing more often. Draco Malfoy and Professors Snape and Dumbledore play larger roles than they have heretofore, with Dumbledore taking a more active role in Harry’s education and the antagonists finally actually plotting to do evil things. We also meet Narcissa Malfoy, who is one of my favorites. There’s a big political storm brewing around her, but all she cares about is keeping her family safe and she will do anything to accomplish that, which makes her a lot more like Molly Weasley than people ever acknowledge. Mrs Weasley, poor dear, spends a lot of time worrying about everyone. Fred and George have become successful businessmen without having finished high school or attempted college, which is great to see, and people start to acknowledge that Ginny might be the most powerful witch of the series. The death at the end of this book always makes me sad, though I have plenty of other reasons for that just now. I’m glad I read it, but I’m also glad it’s over. One of the things that gets me about this series is that while Rowling is fantastic about retconning the Horcruxes and other plot elements, she does not do so well with retconning the school system. We seldom see students doing things that Harry and his friends can’t do yet, like trips to Hogsmeade or Apparating in the earlier books. We see adults doing serious magic, but there’s very little of the intermediate steps between where Harry is as an eleven-year-old and where his teachers are adults. Fred and George seem to represent the zone of proximal development for Harry, but even they are consistently more advanced than he is. It’s like, being raised by Muggles and not that good at academics, Harry isn’t really interested in doing magic, or he thinks that all magic is so far above him that he can’t even try. Finding the old Potions book in this story is the first time that Harry experiences magic as power he can access and not just a symbol of the social acceptance he was denied at his uncle’s house. Looking at Snape’s notes and revisions and experiments, he finally shows some actual interest and passion for something other than sports, so I’m disappointed in Hermione for trying to squash that. But she’s got enough of her own problems in this book, so I don’t judge her too harshly. A lot of people talk about the Slytherin House as being evil, but that’s not their defining trait. Think about Professor Slughorn as Head of that House. He’s not a bad guy, he’s just hyper alert to power and the way it moves. He likes it, he likes its benefits, and he likes being seen as close to people who have it. But he’s not willing to put others in harm’s way to get it, nor does he enjoy the suffering of the powerless. Slytherin isn’t about being evil or serpentine; it’s about understanding relationships of power and staying aware of how social structures affect people. Which is why I identify as Slytherin even a little more strongly than I do as Ravenclaw, the House of learning for its own sake where books are more important than people. This book is definitely building to the series finale/climax of book seven, much more strongly and intentionally than we’ve seen before.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Aimee Bender)

A little girl starts to taste people’s emotions in the food they make. She is exposed to a lot of adult emotion at a young age, particularly her mother’s depression. I was really interested in reading a kid trying to describe what anxiety tastes like. It’s a hard childhood, particularly with her brother melting into the furniture, but she seems to become a functioning adult with a strong sense of self-care. I liked this one a lot – a model for growing up to be healthy even with a childhood full of trauma.

The Long Walk (Stephen King)

This one was hard to read. At one point, a character feels like he’s in a Shirley Jackson story, and there are some parallels to make with “The Lottery.” Teenage dystopias have become quite popular, though, so I’d be more likely to connect it with The Hunger Games. Every year, one hundred teenage boys are selected to walk through Maine. If they stop moving, they get killed. There is, of course, one winner. I wonder if any of the winners survive; it is not good for the health to walk continuously for four or five days, especially not with Maine weather. It works as a sort-of allegory for the human condition and our walk through life, with the relentless grind of daily activity and a not-really-benevolent Major watching over you, ready to reward you if you win. The outlook is intensely bleak, as Ray Garraty makes friends and watches them all die. The only way this makes sense is as a form of population control, but really, there are more efficient and private ways of getting rid of ninety-nine teenagers. That’s not quite two per state per year; I’m sure more die from influenza or leukemia. A sad, sad book that grinds you down.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (J. K. Rowling)

Note the title – this is the original text, before it was Americanized as The Sorcerer’s Stone. The publishers thought that American kids wouldn’t know what the philosopher’s stone was, or maybe that they wouldn’t be able to pronounce philosopher. I think that changing it was insulting to the kids and dumb of the publishers, because it’s not like sorcerer is any clearer.

I think the plot is fairly familiar by now – Act I, emotionally abused child discovers he’s a wizard and prepares to go to a magical school; Act II, he makes friends with this year’s Weasley and gets through Christmas; Act III, he makes friends with Hermione and the three of them stop the most evil wizard ever from granting himself eternal life, just in time for summer break.

People talk about how revolutionary this story was, for a lot of different reasons, but I find revolutionary the treatment of Harry. He is essentially a dumb jock (excuse me, an athlete of moderate academic ability), which usually means he’d be the villain of the piece. Instead, Rowling puts him at the center – the protagonist of a book aimed at children is a child who doesn’t read for fun, which was really rare when I was a kid.

There are details that I didn’t notice when this was the only book I had read in the series – Bathilda Bagshot has been writing Harry’s textbooks since Year One, and he goes to visit her in Godric’s Hollow in Book Seven. Sirius Black is an important character in books three through five, but here he’s just that guy who lent Hagrid a flying motorcycle to bring Harry Potter to the Dursleys. I’m impressed with the way Rowling plants seeds for herself, in this book that was written before the others were conceived, and then she waters those seeds and they become fully realized characters and change the course of the series. I know that I’m going to forget the centaurs again – so many of the minor characters blur into the background for me – but maybe I’ll remember better this time. Even if I don’t, I know that I’ll enjoy continuing to read this story.

Raving Fans (Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles)

I hated this book so much. This is an essay on customer relations that could fit into fifteen pages at the most, but Blanchard dresses it up in the guise of poorly written fiction with an angelic fairy godmother (male) obsessed with golf and an unnamed protagonist called simply the Area Manager who seems most competent at avoiding work so he can spend time shopping and hanging out with his imaginary friend. There are some good points to be made, but if the TLDR version can be put on a one-page handout, I’d rather have the handout. Instead, my professor made me read a 130-page narrative that tries to be an allegory but doesn’t understand how.

Night Shift (Charlaine Harris)

I love Charlaine Harris. I really appreciate her portrayal of life in the South – her books seem natural, as if the characters live just down the street. This is the last of the Midnight, Texas books, and its storyline is covered in Season One of the television series. Fiji is back to her central role, and she’s great. She spends the book with her body image issues in the front of her mind, as a demon bent on taking her spreads death throughout the town. She’s a virgin, which supposedly makes her an incredibly powerful witch, and I have a hard time with the idea of sex weakening a woman’s power, but the townies hold a ritual where she loses her virginity with someone who isn’t a demon and drives the evil back to hell. When they decide on this, just about every guy in town offers himself. Several of them are genuinely excited about her, and even the two gay guys would consider it an honor. The only ones who don’t volunteer are the town priest and that one guy who’s married. In the end, it’s the guy she’s always loved who gets to fuck her in the town square while everyone else watches. The town secrets are all out, at least to the reader, and there are no plot hooks for a sequel. It’s a book with closure, which is another thing I admire. I had a writing instructor in undergrad who said that it takes talent to know where to begin, but I think it takes just as much talent for a writer of popular genre fiction to know where to end. These series tend to go on forever.

The World and Other Places (Jeanette Winterson)

This would be a fantastic introduction to Winterson for someone who isn’t familiar with her work. It hits all the right themes without taking the time for much other than theme, except maybe character. The writing is beautiful, as ever, but there isn’t time for a lot of world-building in a short story collection. I think that I’d read “The Three Friends” in one of the earlier novels, but I can’t say for sure. Love. Loss. Imagination. Dogs. Gender. Lesbians and other women. Winterson’s writing always makes me feel full, nourished, alive (while insisting that nothing alive is simple). Her books are always worth reading.

This book is ideal for those people who have left Christianity, but feel nostalgic about the shitty inspirational fiction.

“Cade, do you ever feel trapped in your life?” asked George instead.

Cade paused and smiled. “What do you mean?”

“I mean … I feel like I’m just headed down a path I can’t change. It didn’t happen all at once. It crept up on me. First you get a house, then the kids come along, and suddenly I’ve got major responsibilities. And one day I wake up and my life is half over. I mean, my life hasn’t been horrible, but I feel like I’m just along for the ride.”

Shitty inspirational novels often follow a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress pattern, where Everyman is guided through the trials of life by someone who moralizes a lot and stands in for his conscience, or God, or the Church, or whatever is meant to guide people through the trials of life. Kuhn’s guide is Shiloh, a physicist with an intense aesthetic sense. While he sees beauty and wonder in everything, Shiloh’s biggest message is about order and chaos. He argues that we need both, and that life is all about managing the balance between the two. He talks about culture as striving for this balance: rock and roll music, soccer, science, whatever he likes he sees as having achieved the perfect mix. If there’s something he doesn’t like, it’s either too structured (like baseball) or not structured enough. The thing that irritates me about this guide, other than the condescending attitude all these guides take, is that he is so subjective. George takes him to a baseball game and talks him through the theme and variations, so he becomes a bit more reconciled to it, but who decides how much order is enough? Shiloh does. He doesn’t have a god to blame it on, but really, it seems that his main concern is teaching George about his worldview and insisting that his personal tastes have cosmic significance.

The protagonist is the other essential piece to this puzzle. George is represented as an Everyman, someone who staggers blindly through life, content to let entropy take over as he falls into deeply ingrained habits of self-centeredness and insensitivity, until he meets the guide. First off, I don’t believe that everyone is like George. He’s a cishet white male, so he has a lot of advantages that most people don’t. He’s also quite comfortable with regard to his income, so to me, most of his problems are illusory. Yes, bad things happen to him, but he has a much wider safety net than I do, wider than most people I know. This sort of protagonist in this sort of allegory always makes me wonder about the author. How much privilege is necessary to see George as representative of anyone?

As I implied above, things change when the protagonist meets the guide. He’s been insensitive to his own feelings and those of everyone around him for years, but suddenly he becomes unusually articulate about his emotions. Overnight he drops the mental defenses we all have and becomes able to say exactly what he is feeling and why, without disguises or misdirection, to a man he barely knows. This aspect of the books is in my opinion less realistic than the sci-fi elements we’re going to discuss in a minute. It takes a lot of time to work through the mental blocks we create to protect our innermost selves. In a society where vulnerability is harshly punished, especially in heterosexual men, this style of opening up takes a long time to achieve. If someone does open up suddenly, it’s usually a misdirect designed to gain approval. George has had the same best friend for twenty years or more, but after chatting with Shiloh on the train a couple of times it’s somehow easier to talk to the comparative stranger than to Cade, despite their long history. These protagonists turn into a bizarre mixture of petulant immaturity and intense self-awareness.

And speaking of privilege, how many first marriages last twenty years? His wife is presented as perfect, the exact combination of capability and submission that gives conservatives confidence in themselves and in the perpetuation of the human race. With women like that at home, we can move forward in business and politics, knowing that all failures at home will be made up for by the stay-at-home mom. She’ll take care of the house and kids so that the men don’t have to raise children or clean up after themselves. Since Everyman is supposed to be a good guy, he’s going to try to wash dishes or talk with his son, but he’s going to do it poorly because the penis disqualifies him from recognizing dirt or giving appropriate emotional responses. There’s a daughter too, with whom he does marginally better <sarcasm> because her needs are so much simpler. We all know that girls only need a few trips to the mall with their friends to make everything all right. </sarcasm>

Another vital component of the shitty inspirational novel is cartoonishly extreme suffering. George has some trouble at work and might get fired, but then his daughter is in a car accident where she breaks a couple of limbs and loses an eye. Then his son gets alcohol poisoning and major counseling. Then his wife gets cancer and dies. It’s a bad year, but no one has this many bad things happening to them in this short a period of time. I suppose it’s the intensity of the suffering that gives him all of those emotional breakthroughs, but it’s so forced.

The final element is the supernatural. Christian shitty inspirational novels focus on God, or angels, or Jesus, or finding a mystical shack in the woods. Here, the supernatural is replaced by technology. Shiloh gives George a watch that transports him between dimensions. He’s really interested in string theory and all that multiple dimensional stuff, which he claims is the only solution to some of the observed phenomena out in space. I guess loop quantum gravity doesn’t exist in Shiloh’s world (Leslie Winkle forever!). So, George gets a chance to travel back in time, to parallel dimensions, so that he can relive his days. At first he tries to recapture glory, but then he turns to fixing his regrets. The changes don’t affect his life, but they do change him, giving him more hope and a stronger sense of self-efficacy.

The moral of the story, because even agnostic shitty inspirational novels need a moral, is that we should all be kinder to one another, so I should probably stop calling these novels shitty. I mean, they are – about a quarter of the way in I asked myself why I was having such a hard time with this book, and I realized that it was because it’s poorly written – but it’s not kind to say so. I agree with Kuhn that being kinder is the best hope we have to make the world a better place, even if I have a hard time with his vehicle.

What really sparked my interest was at the end, when George has a chance to go back and live his whole life over. I would love that. I’d lose most of the people I care about because I would go back to before I met them and make different choices, but I would prioritize my happiness from an earlier point in my life. I would come out of the closet sooner, exercise more at a younger age, choose a new profession, and generally explore parts of myself that I’ve left neglected this time around. The chance to do everything over again, and do it differently, appeals to me strongly.

I’m an overly sentimental person when it comes to fictional characters, so I stuck it out and even got appropriately weepy at the end. Agnostic inspirational fiction is such a weird category, but that is definitely what this is. Perfect for people who can’t stomach Christianity but miss the poorly written novels. It’s like being uplifted against your own will.

During the course of his career, Forster published two collections of short stories, and then they were combined to form this volume. There were several other stories that he didn’t publish, and they came out posthumously as The Life to Come and Other Stories. The posthumous volume consists of stories that are overtly gay, and this one contains the stories that aren’t. In many of these stories, the gay content is still there, if you’re willing to look at it that way. I know I am.

My edition has no information about the writing of these stories, but if I remember the introduction to The Life to Come correctly, all of these were written before World War I, even though the second collection came out in 1928. If you’re accustomed to Howards End or A Room with a View, these stories are likely to strike you as strange. Many of them are allegorical fantasies, and while I love those, they don’t seem to be much in vogue at the moment. Critics pounced on Collateral Beauty, for example, because the personifications of Love, Time, and Death are portrayed differently than expected. I’ll admit that I had a hard time with Love the first time I saw it, but then you could argue that love doesn’t come easily to me in real life either. I idealize the concept based on the fictions I’ve read and watched, and then get upset when it doesn’t turn out the way I want. I guess that makes Keira Knightley better than I expect her to be.

THE STORY OF A PANIC

Of the supposedly not-gay stories, this one is probably the gayest. A conventional English family is on holiday in Italy, and during a picnic, everyone feels a rush of panic and runs from the scene, all but the teenage son. He feels a delicious languor and stays, but doesn’t talk about the experience. It seems like they’re running from a suddenly blossoming gayness, and he welcomes it. Their guide warns them to let him stay out at night so that he doesn’t die of unfulfilled longing, but of course they lock him up and he has to escape. His longing is for nature and privacy with a lovely Italian boy, so of course I see it as gay. It’s like he was touched by the god Pan, but it’s traditional society that starts to panic and constrain him. Life and health are to be found in the fulfilling of desire, while following societal conventions leads to illness and death.

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE HEDGE

Imagine life as a path we’re all walking down, bounded on both sides by thick hedges. We see the dusty road and the hedges look dying and wilted. Protagonist slips to the other side, and sees that reality is wider and more full of life than he had imagined. Of course the hedge is death and he discovers an atheist nature lover’s heaven, with grass and trees and streams. It’s nice.

THE CELESTIAL OMNIBUS

Does this sound like Hawthorne? It should. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a story called “The Celestial Railroad,” a parody of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. In Bunyan, the pilgrim has to travel a long and difficult road full of temptations to reach the Celestial City, the allegorical heaven. Hawthorne’s story is about taking the train instead of walking – you skip all those distractions (temptation, suffering, exertion) and go straight to the gates of the City. However, the train doesn’t go through the gate; it turns sharply down and drags you to hell instead. Hawthorne wanted people to understand that you can’t skip over the hard things in life, and there’s no way to keep someone both sheltered and worthwhile. Truly decent people have enough experience of the world to have compassion for others and the ability to help them in their troubles, so you can’t become decent by shutting yourself up and reading your Bible all day long.

Forster’s omnibus doesn’t go to the Christian Heaven. The boy who rides the bus goes to the place where stories come from and live, so he meets Achilles and Tom Jones and all the other characters from the books he’s read. He tries to take his tutor there, but the older man insists that these stories should be kept separate and that these are good and those are not, so of course he suffers and can’t stay. The story is about leaving children free to find joy in literature where they can instead of telling them which books to appreciate and why. To some extent, this is why I wasn’t so great at teaching literature: I can’t always articulate why I love a book, or why students should. I don’t know how to communicate my own sense of beauty and wonder because I’m so frequently left speechless by them. It’s a bad idea to try to teach a book that leaves you without words. I also share the protagonist’s universal love of literature; I love all the wrong things.

OTHER KINGDOM

It’s a common enough story. A girl who is pretty and imaginative catches the eye of a man who is rich and conventional. He claims to value her for the wildness she brings into his life, but he immediately contains it and forces her into his own conventionality. It was never about valuing her sense of adventure; it was about taming her to prove his own power. It’s a sad story about a woman who wants a place of her own and the husband who ruins it for her.

THE CURATE’S FRIEND

I took myself in, and for a time I certainly took in Emily. I have never known a girl attend so carefully to my sermons, or laugh so heartily at my jokes. It is no wonder that I became engaged. She has made an excellent wife, freely correcting her husband’s absurdities, but allowing no one else to breathe a word against them; able to talk about the sub-conscious self in the drawing-room, and yet have an ear for the children crying in the nursery, or the plates breaking in the scullery. An excellent wife – better than I ever imagined. But she has not married me.

The curate meets a faun in the woods and gets blocked from the heterosexual marriage narrative. He took the girl and a neighbor boy on a picnic, and the faun (invisible to them) got the girl and boy together instead of helping the curate get the girl for himself. There’s a bit of Midsummer Night’s Dream in this. In the end, the curate realizes he’s happier without marriage, which has often been the conclusion of homosexuals who strike out with the opposite sex. As with the panic story above, proximity to nature and existence outside the marriage narrative seems to indicate there’s some gayness. Were I directing this as a play, the gayness would be more obvious, but a closeted first-person narrator isn’t going to slip up and reveal anything.

THE ROAD FROM COLONUS

This is the story I’ve seen anthologized the most, but I don’t see it as all that different from the others. I guess someone just picked this one (having an old man who changes might appeal to the old men who made the selections long ago) and then everyone else kept picking it because it was cheaper than asking the printer to set a different story.

Another conventional English family is traveling in Italy when their old man finds a spring of water bubbling up inside a dead tree. He stands inside the tree, in the spring, and feels a sudden restoration of youth and energy. He wants to stay, but his family insists he push on with them. They literally sneak up behind him, pick him up, and place him on the donkey when he tries to stay. With the best intentions, they ruin the end of his life. After they leave, there’s a natural disaster and the area is destroyed. Did nature throw a tantrum because he left, which he could have averted by staying? Did his children steal him from a happy death and force him into a miserable life? However you choose to interpret it, it seems that no one is free from the bonds of society – young and old, male and female, rich and poor, we’re all circumscribed by the people we live among. It seems so necessary to choose carefully whom we live among instead of accepting life’s default by living among our closest blood relations.

THE MACHINE STOPS

This begins the second group of stories, published in 1928. This also seems to be the story with the most scholarly work done on it. This is unusual for the collection because it’s high-concept science fiction, more H. G. Wells than D. H. Lawrence. It’s also very timely; people live in isolated, Matrix-like cells and communicate through the internet, constantly on a version of Facebook where they spend all day sharing their thoughts and watching videos. Forster makes them more like TED talks than like that one of the cat wearing a shark costume and riding a Roomba, but the concept is the same. The Machine feeds them and caters to their physical needs, except exercise and genuine human interaction. People are allowed to go outside, but they are discouraged from wanting to, and the guy who wants out eventually folds to peer pressure. Of course, what happens when the machine breaks down? They have to come up to the surface and try to live in the real world they’ve never seen. There are obvious ties to Huxley’s Brave New World.

THE POINT OF IT

The protagonist ends up in hell because he doesn’t understand the point of it. Forster’s Bloomsbury friends claimed that they didn’t get the point of it either. Scene 1: A sickly boy insists on rowing a boat across a difficult river, even though his companion is much more physically fit than he is. The effort kills him, but he dies happy. The friend doesn’t understand. Scene 2: The friend goes on to live a quietly ordinary life following the path of least resistance that his class privilege lays before him (also race and gender privilege), never making waves, always going along to get along. He never understands the point of doing otherwise. Scene 3: The friend is in hell, a bleak desert of prone figures. He eventually figures out that he can stand up, walk to a river, and cross it into heaven, but he first has to understand what the point of it is. It seems obvious to me, the point is that exertion is its own reward, that resistance is necessary to a life worth living, that we all need to see ourselves as heroes. The path society sets before us leads to complacency, tedium, bleakness, and hell. The Stonewall patrons weren’t trying to make history; they just got sick of being told they couldn’t choose their own identities. The point of it is to resist enslavement by society’s conventions, even if it kills you, because the alternative is a long, slow death and a longer, slower hell.

MR ANDREWS

Mr Andrews has died and is going on up to heaven. He meets a Turkish fellow who is doing the same. They find heaven to be exactly as their religions taught them to imagine it, but with enough space for them both to have the heaven they believe in. They both find it boring after a while, and decide to join the World Soul instead, which is a far more ecstatic experience than they could have dreamed. The forms of organized religion are so limiting, and can’t take us to ultimate happiness. For that, we have to let go of the forms and let reality take us where it wants us to go.

CO-ORDINATION

Protagonist is an unhappy music teacher. She has to teach pairs of girls the same duet all day long. It’s part of the school’s system of coordination, which means that everyone teaches the same topic in their different subjects. So, suppose this month the topic is Napoleon. The kids will read stories about the Wars in literature class, get the real history in their history class, see French armies in their word problems in math class, and study ballistics in science class. Some educators find it to be effective, but the forced conformity is here presented as stifling, and as with The Celestial Omnibus, Forster seems to advocate an educational system based on following the students’ interest, with the chief aim to provoke delight rather than correct test answers. Aesthetic sensibility triumphs over strict regulation, and if the teacher is released from her position, that’s really not such a bad thing.

THE STORY OF THE SIREN

As with many of the stories from the first half, we have a journey to Italy and a classical allusion. It starts with a young man losing his dissertation in the water (a similar thing happened in one of the stories from The Life to Come), and then he meets someone who tells him the story. You remember the sirens from the Odyssey; beautiful women who sing to men and lure them to their deaths. In this telling, you can only hear the song once, and if you’re prevented from following it, you spend your whole life wasting away from desire, likely to drown yourself to be able to hear it again. Being touched by magic unfits you for the life of society, and you have to plunge into nature like the boy who gets fucked by Pan in that Panic story. You don’t plunge, you die; you do plunge, you likely die anyway. Everyone dies; the question is, how? Do you live the life of daring and die reaching for a goal you can’t reach, or do you live a life of quiet desperation and die with the knowledge that your life was wasted? This seems the question the siren asks, as well as Forster, but people are obviously better off if the question never occurs to them. It’s easier to hate your life if everyone else does too; being called into a life of fulfillment is scary and could lead to death, but I think it might be better to taste fulfillment and die young than live to an old age and never feel complete or satisfied. Long and empty, or short and full? Realistically I know those aren’t our only options, but it’s hard to have a life you value if you don’t risk it every now and again.

THE ETERNAL MOMENT

An elderly author comes back to Italy, where she had fallen in love with the young local who inspired her first novel. They each followed the conventional paths society chose for them: she remaining single and virginal, he becoming vulgar and overweight. Athletes who let their figures go can be so disappointing.

For she realized that only now was she not in love with him: that the incident upon the mountain had been one of the great moments of her life – perhaps the greatest, certainly the most enduring: that she had drawn unacknowledged power and inspiration from it, just as trees draw vigour from a subterranean spring. Never again could she think of it as a half-humorous episode in her development. There was more reality in it than in all the years of success and varied achievement which had followed, and which it had rendered possible. For all her correct behaviour and lady-like display, she had been in love with Feo, and she had never loved so greatly again. A presumptuous boy had taken her to the gates of heaven; and, though she would not enter with him, the eternal remembrance of the vision had made life seem endurable and good.

Which is why it’s better to go ahead and enter the gates. A handsome man takes you off into nature and offers a pleasant, consensual experience, I say take it. I don’t regret the sex I’ve had, but I do regret the opportunities I let pass by.

I seriously loved this story collection. It’s weird and different and a little bit gay, and I think it’s great. As I said, not typical of the novels of his I’ve read, but I like them so much more. In a shorter form, he really hits the theme of resisting conventions because society strangles people faster and harder than in the novels. These are good stories, and should be read more often than they are.

 

Many of you will recall Hoffmann’s name from the Offenbach opera, or from the opera that he himself wrote. Others may recall comments about German ghost stories of the Romantic Era, and you’ll want to connect those with Hoffmann’s name. It seems strange to think that these stories were published at the same time as Jane Austen’s, though a trifle less strange to think of them as contemporaneous with Frankenstein, Wordsworth’s Prelude, and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Another thing to think of as strange is the fact that the editor chose this group to package together. He wasn’t looking for a broad sampling of Hoffmann’s work; he put together the stories that were the most similar, that all have pretty much the same central idea. These are allegories of thought, intuition, and inspiration, and therefore of identity and art.

If there is a dark power which malevolently and treacherously places a thread within us, with which to hold us and draw us down a perilous and pernicious path that we would never otherwise have set foot on – if there is such a power, then it must take the same form as we do, it must become our very self; for only in this way can we believe in it and give it the scope it requires to accomplish its secret task. If our minds, strengthened by a cheerful life, are resolute enough to recognize alien and malevolent influences for what they are and to proceed tranquilly along the path to which our inclinations and our vocation have directed us, the uncanny power must surely perish in a vain struggle to assume the form which is our own reflection. Lothar also says there is no doubt that once we have surrendered ourselves to the dark psychic power, it draws alien figures, encountered by chance in the outside world, into our inner selves, so that we ourselves give life to the spirit which our strange delusion persuades us is speaking from such figures. It is the phantom of our own self which, thanks to its intimate relationship with us and its deep influence on our minds, casts us down to hell or transports us to heaven. (The Sandman)

So, unlike a lot of supernatural stories, these are deeply humanistic – it’s always ourselves, our divided selves, that control our lives and destinies. We make choices, so responsibility is never assigned to external forces like God or Fate. We each make our own world.

Nor do I quite see what you mean by wonders, my excellent Mr Peregrinus, or how you contrive to divide phenomena into the wondrous and the non-wondrous, since the reality they manifest is the same as ourselves, and we and they determine each other reciprocally. If you wonder at something because it has not yet happened to you, or because you think you cannot perceive the connection of cause and effect, that simply shows that your powers of perception are limited by the deficiencies of your vision. Whether your vision is naturally deficient, or sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, I cannot say. But, with respect, Mr Tyss, the most comical aspect of the matter is that you are trying to divide yourself into two parts, one of which perceives what you call wonders and readily believes in them, while the other wonders at this perception and this belief. (Master Flea)

As in this quotation, all this is often tied into vision and perception. Characters look through magnifying glasses or spyglasses or into mirrors, and their value is often determined by what they are able to see, which could also be named how they see, which is informed by their beliefs. Worth is conferred upon those who see wonders in the midst of everyday life, who know that the world is a miracle and more fantastic than we can imagine. Those with this gift are often found to belong to the world of fairy more than the world of work – these are stories like those of Diana Wynne Jones, where characters have more than one identity, so a bratty little brother can become a legendary hero, or an unemployed Welsh uncle can really be a powerful magician.

You are now, kind reader, in the fairy realm of glorious wonders, whose mighty strokes summon up both supreme bliss and extreme horror, and where the grave goddess raises her veil so that we may fancy we see her face – but her grave expression often breaks into a smile, and that is the impish humour that teases us with the bewilderment of magic, as a mother often teases her dearest children. In this realm, which our spirit often reveals to us, at least in our dreams, try, kind reader, to recognize the well-known shapes that, as the saying goes, cross your path every day. You will then believe that this magnificent realm is much nearer at hand than you had previously thought; and that is what I heartily wish you to believe, and what the strange story of Anselmus is supposed to convey. (The Golden Pot)

I do love narratives that teach this concept, that this is a world of endless wonder, that the bird that flew against my window this morning was a miracle of life trying to get into my apartment, and that by keeping it shut out I lost something more than the opportunity to clean bird shit off all my stuff.

At this point, my kind reader, you must be prepared to hear a story which seems quite unconnected with the events that I have undertaken to recount and is thus open to criticism as a mere episode. Sometimes, however, it happens that if you resolutely follow the path that seemed to be leading you astray, you suddenly find yourself at your journey’s end. And thus it may also be that this episode only appears to be a false trail but in fact leads straight to the heart of my main story. (Princess Brambilla)

These are also stories about storytelling, because the mythical aspects of the stories are told explicitly as stories, which then bleed into the supposedly realistic portions of the narrative until actual reality is compounded of both.

There are other ways that these stories speak to me, as in pieces of advice like this:

I tell you again, give up your solitary life. You’ll feel much better if you do. If you knew any other girls, you’d hardly think Dörtje the most beautiful of all; and if you had made advances to any other woman, you wouldn’t think that Dörtje was the only one who could love you. Come, come, Peregrinus, a bit more experience will teach you better. You’re a good-looking man, and I wouldn’t have to be as intelligent and perceptive as Master Flea is, to foresee that you’ll enjoy happiness through love in a quite different way than you now imagine. (Master Flea)

Which is advice that I’ve needed at some points in my life. As things are now, I’ve been pulling toward hermit-ness more than is needful. It made a little sense in the Midwest because I didn’t feel a connection with either the people or the place, but now that I’m back home in the midst of people who love me, I would be happier if I made more of an effort to spend time with those people. Then there’s the him from the Midwest, the memory of whom is keeping me from actively looking for the romance my heart cries out for. He was going to come down for a visit this weekend, but ran into some administrative difficulties – an ex had rented a car under his name a few years ago and not returned it on time, so there was an unpaid charge for a few hundred dollars attached to his credit card number, which they didn’t bother telling him until he showed up to pick up the rental he had ordered for Friday morning. He paid it off and is postponing the trip for a few weeks, which is frustrating for the both of us, but what lends poignancy to the situation is that I’m planning to tell him that long-distance is not working for me, and he needs to either commit to leaving his family for me or let me go. I think that if I phrase it that way he’ll pick the option I think would be best for us both, which is breaking it off. I don’t think he’ll be happy far away from his family, and if it takes this long and this much trouble to schedule a visit to see me, it’s going to take just as much time and effort to go back to see them, and before I left he had been talking about moving down here and getting up there twice a month. I think his expectations (for the world, not necessarily for me) are unrealistic. I also think that he loves me because I try to make people feel safe and comfortable (in real life, not necessarily on the blog), not because of who I am. He likes the feeling of security, and frankly, any gay man who thinks monogamy is important could fill that role, and most of them would fit his lifestyle and tastes more easily than I would. As for my own happiness, I haven’t felt fulfilled in the relationship for a long time; as The Ex did, he made me feel loved in spite of my weirdness and not because of it, as if I needed an interpreter to interact with real, normal human beings. I’d rather not be with someone who encourages my sense of isolation or alienation. It’s strong enough without the help. Which is sort of why I want him to come down here for the conversation instead of trying it over the phone – I don’t think he’s ever really seen me happy, and seeing who and what does this for me could be a good education for him. If you’ll excuse the cliché, an eye-opener.

All this stuff about identity doubling is not where I needed to be this week, which is why I was reading so slowly. About ten days ago, my car had serious trouble on the way to work, so it’s been parked at the college ever since. A week ago, my good friend (who comments here as Scribble Feather) took me to a car dealership to look into buying a new vehicle, but I was denied financing because of my income and credit score. Granted, I know my income is low, but my credit isn’t bad, so I checked the credit report. Apparently someone stole my identity and ran up three credit cards in my name – they applied for a fourth, unsuccessfully. I’ve been calling around to these different financial companies and declaring fraud, but it’s going to take some time before it’s all cleared up. Just thinking about finances is enough to give me the shakes, so it’s been an unnerving experience, the type where I have to shove all my emotions into a back room so that I can take care of what needs my immediate attention. I stayed with the good SF for a few days, and now I’m borrowing a vehicle from another friend, so we see how important communities are, and how grateful I am to be in the middle of one. And now that I’m done with a lot of that, the depression I’ve been delaying is starting to seep in. It’ll get better, though. The day the car gave up on life was the day of a job interview, which was successful, so tomorrow (Monday) I’m starting a new position, Library Clerk. This is in addition to my position as a part-time English instructor, and in the new year I’ll shift the schedule around so that the library job will be my main focus and I’ll only have one class. The new schedule will also make it easier to find a third part-time job, which I think will be necessary.

Oh, it might be helpful if I were to list the stories in the volume:

  • The Golden Pot, in which Anselmus writes his way into the heart of a snake
  • The Sandman, which has very little to do with sand and is part of Offenbach’s opera
  • Princess Brambilla, where Carnival goes on for far too long thanks to the commedia dell’arte
  • Master Flea, where a man learns confidence when he’s given the power to read others’ thoughts
  • My Cousin’s Corner Window, which is much shorter than the other stories and which fits almost nothing I said here

As is implied, this is a collection of stories that would be better read one at a time instead of all at once, and in truth, it was never the original author’s intent that they should be combined like this. Despite my disagreement with that editorial choice, I will say that Ritchie Robertson’s 1992 translation is a good one and feels very contemporary, even though the stories were written two hundred years ago.

There comes a time in a person’s life when he realizes that he is collecting the complete novels of Milan Kundera, and he decides to embrace it as a conscious decision. The local bookshop has two more (the two that I haven’t pursued as steadily because I read them first, fifteen years ago), and then it’ll be off to find the either more elusive or more recent books. When you shop primarily in used bookshops, recent novels are rather elusive.

Kundera didn’t publish any novels until he was about the age I am now, and this one, the second, still has a strong focus on youth. It seems a little allegorical, and I wonder if it might not be a little autobiographical as well. It’s about a young poet who comes of age during the Communist Revolution. While there are several important characters, they’re only named according to their function in the poet’s life, so while he is Jaromil, they are the janitor’s son, the artist, the redhead, the cinematographer, the silver-maned poet, etc. The janitor’s son becomes a policeman and a reminder of how far Jaromil is from the stereotypical adult masculinity he wants to achieve, but he only gets called the janitor’s son, even though his father isn’t in the story. This is indicative of Jaromil’s extreme self-centeredness. The ending makes the Narcissus metaphor explicit, but long before that I was sickened by Jaromil’s contempt for other human beings.

In some ways this book feels like a rewrite of Sons and Lovers – Jaromil’s mother is a little too close to him, and he has a relationship with a shopgirl that he knows she will disapprove of. Maman is imaginative, in the sense that she creates a mental reality when the perceived reality is unpleasant, but not in the sense that she is in any way unconventional. Jaromil (Communist poetry) was conceived by an engineer (the educated working class) out in nature, according to his mother, but it was more likely in a disgusting bachelor apartment borrowed from the engineer’s friend. Indeed, nature as landscape or unenclosed space has very little place in this book at all. Nature exerts itself over Jaromil as weather or as disease, or the idiosyncrasies of human biology. Maman was never that crazy about her shotgun husband, so she liked to pretend that a figure of Apollo (classical influences) conceived the boy without the father’s intervention, despite the obvious limitations of such a fantasy. This reading might seem facile and forced, but issues of artistic inspiration, expression, and responsibility are at the center of the book.

World War II figures largely in twentieth-century Czech history. German occupation and redrawing of boundaries is big on a national scale, but in the daily lives of people, particularly children, it seems to have had little effect. Jaromil’s father was killed in a concentration camp because he was having an affair with a Jewish girl, but his father was mostly absent anyway. This lack of a strong masculine presence in his life, coupled with soft delicate features, leads to his preoccupation with his inferiority as a male human. He does have an art teacher, but the teacher is concerned about the philosophy of art changing under Communism, and Jaromil tries to assert his independence by disagreeing with him, which damages their friendship. Jaromil never tries to build up the rest of his body, so he’s a spindly little artist who isn’t brave enough to talk to girls. Eventually he does find someone, and losing his virginity is a huge milestone for him, but his masculinity has turned toxic by this point. A sexual relationship doesn’t relieve his insecurities; it makes them worse. It leads to sexual violence, which brings up some unpleasant memories for me, and reading this part might explain why I’ve been so anxious and angry these last few weeks. Partially, at least – I have good reasons in my real life, too.

The book reaches a crisis at the end of the fifth section, and it seems like Kundera is about as sick of this kid as I was, because there’s this violent wresting of the narrative at the beginning of part six.

Just as your life is determined by the kind of profession and marriage you have chosen, so our novel is limited by our observatory perspective: Jaromil and his mother are in full view, while we glimpse other figures only when they appear in the presence of these two protagonists. We have chosen this approach as you have chosen your fate, and our choice is equally unalterable.

Still, every person regrets that he cannot live other lives. You, too, would like to live out all your unrealized potentials, all your possible lives. (Alas, unattainable Xavier!) Our book is like you. It, too, yearns to be all the other novels it could have been.

That is why we are constantly dreaming about erecting other observatories. How about putting one in the middle of the artist’s life, or perhaps in the life of the janitor’s son or that of the redheaded girl? After all, what do we really know about these people? We hardly know more than does foolish Jaromil, and he knows precious little about anyone. What kind of novel would it be if we followed the career of the janitor’s son, and Jaromil would appear only once or twice in the course of brief episodes about a poet and former schoolmate? Or we could follow the artist’s story and learn at last what he really thought of his beloved Maman, whose belly he had used like a piece of canvas.

And I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was so great to get away from Jaromil for a while, even if only for twenty pages. There’s a middle-aged man, widower, who likes to have a sex life but doesn’t like to get attached, so he sees a girl only once in a while, and he has several girls. One of them is Jaromil’s girl, and they discuss him briefly, but this section is a few years after Jaromil’s death, so he’s seen at a great distance, as one who ruined the girl’s life but now has no more power to hurt her.

But who is this unattainable Xavier? Jaromil dreamt of becoming this guy, young and smart and strong and sexy, like a younger Czech James Bond-Indiana Jones hybrid, but there’s more than that. Xavier only exists in dreams – things get tough, he falls asleep and is instantly in another, equally real reality. He works through problems from one reality in the next, possibly nesting several dreams like in Inception (oh, how I love this film), and ultimately wakes back up to solve his problems and escape, even if only as a dream hiding in dreams. Xavier is Jaromil’s ideal self. But much as the poet dreams of freedom, he is continually caged in by his mother’s vampiric love. This is a trope I see in media a lot, and I suppose is relevant to my own life as well, the mother that wants her children to be strong, brave, confident, and successful, but constantly shelters them from experiences that will allow them to develop strength, bravery, self-confidence, and the other qualities that lead to success. Yes, it’s important for parents to show love to their children, but it’s also important for parents to know when their children can handle things on their own, and to sit back and let them do it. I have a lot of animosity built up toward The Ex, but I admit freely that she is an excellent mother, and I see my children growing up as intelligent, confident, capable boys. I know that living with her is the best choice for them. Perhaps not for always, and I keep hoping that I will be geographically close enough to have an emotionally close relationship with them, but for now they are having their best possible life, and I wouldn’t take that from them.

Today is Mothers’ Day in the United States, and while I have some animosity built up toward my mother as well, it’s the day that I pretend that doesn’t exist and call her. Sometimes she feels abandoned, which Jane Austen would call “the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning”; my mom was emotionally unavailable during my childhood because she was coping with the divorce and her own anger issues, and the work of repressing all that kept me at a distance. In my roving life I often regret the type of relationship we have, and I wish I could be closer to my biological family, but the bottom line is that I don’t miss them, the actual people that they are, very much. There’s a big family thing this summer that I’ve been planning to go to, but these days I’m thinking of skipping it. I miss my kids, and I’d rather put my time, energy, and money into seeing them rather than into seeing people that I’m really angry about.

Art and revolution. Poetry seems to have been at the forefront of the Communist Revolution, at least in Czechoslovakia. The arts were bent toward propaganda, which leads the artists in the book to ask the question, How do I adequately express myself? In modern abstract experimental forms, or in the more mimetic forms that will appeal to the uneducated masses? With the Party taking a strong interest in the arts, the question also becomes, How do I adequately express myself without getting arrested? A lot of artists and thinkers seem to have been sent to do manual labor on farms (I’m thinking forward to the guy in Slowness, as well as back to the teacher from The Joke), and while there is value in that sort of life, it’s not the life that they chose for themselves. So, it’s either follow the unstated, unacknowledged rules of the establishment, or be forced to give up art altogether. It’s a dangerous gamble/game.

This was a hard book for me. I’ve got my own issues with mothers, though, and with governments, and this troubled relationship with the idea of being a writer and whether or not that makes me an artist, so it may not be for you. Happy Mothers’ Day.