Posts Tagged ‘change’

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.

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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.

I know it’s been a couple of weeks that I haven’t written here, but it’s not for want of reading. I have four or five books that I need to write about; I’ve been reading rather a lot. The problem is with my computer – it’s five years old, and they’re not built to last that long any more. It’s reached a phase where it crashes every time it gets jostled or tipped, and that doesn’t fit well with my computing style – I take the term ‘laptop’ seriously. I’ve put it on a desk for the writing today, so perhaps we won’t have any unpleasant interruptions.

Start with Shakespeare. The Winter’s Tale is one of those plays that people don’t always like to call comedies because some terrible things happen. A truly nice guy has to exit, pursued by a bear. It’s not always clear who’s good and who’s bad, though I suppose that’s part of the point. It’s a story of dissolution, followed by gathering and forgiveness. King Leontes is convinced that the second child about to be born to him is not his, so he has one of those huge operatic scenes with his wife and friends after which the lady is unconscious and everyone assumes she’s dead. He sends the baby off to his best friend, whom he believes to be the true father, but the baby gets lost because the courier is eaten by a bear. She gets adopted by a poor shepherd and his idiot son, and sixteen years later she does meet Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, but it’s because her boyfriend Florizel is actually the king’s son. The truth about her starts to come out, but in a distorted form, so Florizel and Perdita run off to Sicilia to get the real story. Leontes, after suffering in isolation for so long, takes back his daughter and his best friend, and they go to see a statue of his dead wife, but the statue comes alive because she hasn’t really been dead all this time. In the end, Leontes’s pain seems to have redeemed him because everyone forgives him, which makes the ending seem unrealistic to me. It’s not enough to suffer – everyone does that. The suffering has to change you so you’re not a jealous homicidal nutbag, and I don’t see enough change in him to warrant bringing him back into Hermione’s life.

The Winterson novel is a retelling of the Shakespeare play, brought up to our time. There’s a good bit of the weirdness of Shakespeare in her story as well, because I find the story inherently strange. Leo is a successful businessman, married to a famous singer, MiMi. Their friend Xeno has been staying with them, and Leo suspects the two of them of cheating behind his back. Xeno and Leo are so close that they fooled around together in their bicurious stage. Leo has stuck with women ever since, but Xeno identifies himself as gay, though he also admits to being strongly attracted to MiMi. He kind of wishes they could have a three-way polyamorous relationship, but that’s not really an option for anyone else. Leo accuses her and gets to raping her, but her water breaks and they have to rush her to the hospital to give birth. Leo sends the child away to New Bohemia (which feels an awful lot like New Orleans), but his messenger gets killed and Shep and Clo pick up the child and raise her. Shep is an older guy, maybe a little too old to raise a baby, and Clo is his grown son, not bright. MiMi and Leo divorce and she moves to Paris, spending the next twenty-one years in near-total seclusion. As in Shakespeare, their first child, a son, gets killed for no apparent reason except to punish Leo, who loves the boy.

Time passes.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter that there was any time before this time. Sometimes it doesn’t matter that it’s night or day or now or then. Sometimes where you are is enough. It’s not that time stops or that it hasn’t started. This is time. You are here. This caught moment opening into a lifetime.

Winterson often speaks of time as if it were a character, and she titles the book after one of the last lines of Shakespeare’s story. Leontes, newly surrounded by his loved ones, says they’ll all go off and discuss what they’ve been doing in “the gap of time,” the sixteen years that they were all out of contact with each other. The thing that fascinates me about this phrase is that time has no gaps. It just keeps moving on, one second at a time, and there’s nothing we can do to speed it, slow it, or skip over it. The only gap is in our experience as an audience. We don’t see the sixteen years in the middle of the play, or the twenty-one years in the middle of the novel, so we perceive it as a gap, but the characters do not. If Leo had really skipped over all those years of isolated pain, he’d be the same asshole he was in the beginning, and isn’t the lesson here that pain makes people less assholish, more deserving of love? Neither writer shows me convincing evidence that Leontes has changed, and I think that pain in isolation isn’t the best way to teach someone how to love. You have to practice, and that means not being isolated.

Xeno and MiMi talk a lot about Nerval’s dream – a French poet dreamt that an angel fell to earth, in one of those crowded back alleys of Paris. If he opened his wings, he’d destroy everything around him; if he didn’t open his wings and fly away, he’d be trapped and die. Xeno uses it as the basis of a video game he designs, The Gap of Time. It’s all about feathers falling and becoming angels, and deciding whether the angels are good or evil, whose side you want to be on. Of course he and Leo take opposite sides, though they both haunt MiMi’s virtual apartment, where he’s programmed her as a statue. Xeno’s portrayal troubles me because he seems like Winterson’s primary antagonist, but I don’t read him as one in Shakespeare. Polixenes seems a bit clueless, careless and thoughtless but not really bad. Xeno seems bent on making the people he loves unhappy. He’s the dark side of the moon, and Leo is the bright sun that burns. Leontes talks about adultery as the spider in the cup – if you don’t see it, your drink tastes normal; once you do see it, the drink tastes poisonous. But to me, the important part here is that there is no spider in Leontes’s cup – he’s seeing spiders that don’t exist, imagining his wine is contaminated when there’s nothing wrong with it. But Winterson keeps bringing it back, Xeno’s seemingly inherent arachnous nature. For her, Leo does have a spider in his life, even if it isn’t fucking his wife.

I’m troubled by Hermione. She seems like one of those Gothic heroines I enjoy so much, a beauty who falls in love with a beast. She’s an innocent, forced to suffer through the insanity of the men around her. As with Hero from Much Ado About Nothing, the most effective way for her to prove her innocence is by dying when she’s accused. Also like Hero, she doesn’t actually die because life doesn’t work like that, but she pretends to be dead so that the accuser she still loves will suffer. When he’s sufficiently proven his penitence, she takes him back as if that had been her plan all along. If a man is so irrational that he will only believe a woman is telling the truth if she’s dead, he’s not a person that woman should be with. Maybe he’s a murderer. Maybe he’s a rapist. Maybe he sticks with subtler forms of abuse, but that’s no reason for her to share her life with him. In both stories, she’s one of the least realized characters; more of an ideal than a human being. I’d like to read a story where someone really breathes life into her, but neither of these is it.

Winterson seems to connect most with Perdita, the adopted girl who finds out her birth parents are rich and famous. She also discovers that her boyfriend isn’t just a mechanic at the local used-car dealership; his parents are rich too. She’s literally the girl who grows up poor and turns out to be a princess. Polixenes and Leontes are both taken by her beauty, but there’s not really enough time in the story for them to build a relationship with her. Winterson’s Perdita makes the connection clear, but she’s a bit like Miranda from The Tempest. She grows up with a single father in relative isolation, and then she discovers that the world is larger and more beautiful than she had imagined.

Perdita heard his car. Perdita saw him across the fence.

She moved back. Her heart was overbeating. Why do I feel this way? And what is this way that I am feeling? How can something so personal and so private, like a secret between myself and my soul, be the same personal, private secret of the soul for everyone?

There’s nothing new or strange or wonderful about how I feel.

I feel new and strange and wonderful.

Perdita is a girl who loves. Her name points to her as lost, but that only describes her from her parents’ point of view. In herself, she seems to know who she is and what she wants in life, that identity not being solely based on her genetic background. She meets Leo, but still insists that Shep is her father, in all the important ways. And she loves Zel, even if his parentage is different from what she had assumed. Zel grows up knowing who his father is, and hating him. Polixenes spends a year on a visit of state to his best friend, but it’s assumed that he spends the sixteen-year gap with his wife and son. Xeno keeps wandering around the world with very little contact with his son, so Zel has reason not to value someone who shows so little value for him. When Xeno makes an effort, Zel resists, so there’s not a lot of hope for them. I grew up similarly, but when my father reaches out I try to reach back. I don’t think there’s anything productive to be had from being unkind to him. You could read this as contradicting what I said up there about Leontes and abusive relationships, but fathers are different from husbands. I don’t live with my father, and I make sure I filter and evaluate everything he says. I know he’s doing his best, even if I find that best to be wanting at times. The effort would be too much to keep up with a man I lived with. The marriage relationship makes the partners vulnerable to each other in a way that I’m not with my dad. The constant presence of the abusive man would erode his partner’s sense of individuality and freedom. As with MiMi’s interest in the Nerval story, the only way out is to destroy everything. That’s not the case with me, a man who lives independently of his father and only speaks with him occasionally.

Free will depends on being stronger than the moment that traps you.

Time seems to take on the role of Fate – it’s like people are stuck in a story that they’d rather not be living. I don’t believe it works that way. Leontes’s actions have disastrous consequences for the people around him, but none of that is inevitable. It’s not clear how much choice Shakespeare’s queen has, but in the twenty-first century we expect women to be able to choose their own husbands. MiMi didn’t have to marry him. It’s all a matter of accepting responsibility for choices. I think that twenty-one years of misery is a heavy penalty to pay, but that’s the story as Winterson gets it from Shakespeare. Leo has to accept consequences of his own behavior, but most of those consequences he’s forced onto other people as well. MiMi didn’t destroy her world by divorcing her husband – he did that by falsely accusing her and losing her children. Perdita and Florizel didn’t choose their circumstances, but they make choices, hopefully better ones than their parents made. If Winterson is correct, then I believe we are all stronger than time, we all have free will and are only trapped by other people, not by fate or moments or time.

Have you noticed how ninety per cent of games feature tattooed white men with buzzcuts beating the shit out of the world in stolen cars? It’s like living in a hardcore gay nightclub on a military base.

I love Winterson’s sense of humor.

The endings interest me, primarily because of the difference between them. Shakespeare doesn’t show us the reunion of Leontes with Perdita and Polixenes; that’s narrated by an eyewitness to someone else. Shakespeare’s attention is on Leontes and Hermione, so restoring the marriage is the important thing for him. The other relationships seem harder for him to imagine, which is the explanation I can find for the indirectness of that scene. In Winterson’s story, the important reunion for Leo is with finding Perdita and Xeno. It’s the meeting of father and daughter and the repairing of the gay relationship that matters to her. She closes the scene with Leo and Xeno standing in the aisle of the concert venue, watching MiMi onstage, before they approach and talk with her. For a singer, MiMi has astonishingly little voice in the book, and here when she has an opportunity to talk to the man who hurt her and may or may not be forgiven, she is silent because she’s putting on a show for the larger crowd. Maybe it ends here because Winterson had a hard time facing the next scene, where she is supposed to forgive him and reunite. I’d have a hard time writing that scene, because in my imagination Hermione would not make that choice. I would have written her a community and a job and a life; I would have her prove to Leontes that she doesn’t need him. By ending the book where she does, Winterson doesn’t have to write MiMi’s decision to take him back or not, and we can choose to believe what we like.

I love reading Jeanette Winterson novels. I’ll admit to having found this one weird and a little hard, but I think the same thing about her source text, which means this is a good adaptation. This is dramatically more recent than anything else of hers I’ve read, so it’s good to see that I can enjoy books from different periods of her career. Her writing is beautiful and I get engaged quickly with her characters, even if they’re people I might not like in real life. And I still don’t know what to make of Autolycus, in either version of this story. But it’s a good book, and begins with a summary of Shakespeare for those who are unfamiliar with his telling.

It seems strange to admit that I hadn’t really heard of this book, when I consider how devoted its fan base is. In my studies, I’d run into Carmilla, but Uncle Silas is apparently not much considered in this country, not even in academia, not even in the small circle of literary scholars who study Gothic. The publisher and editor, of course, make a number of claims to the book’s singularity, but please, set those aside and remember that they’re trying to sell a product. Le Fanu is heavily indebted to Ann Radcliffe, which he acknowledges through several references to The Romance of the Forest, and he follows her strategies fairly conventionally.

Maud Ruthyn is a standard Gothic heroine. Probably beautiful, but that’s not really important. Brought up in isolation by an emotionally distant father, so most of her life takes place inside her own head. She narrates the story several years after it’s finished, so our experience comes through the lens of her perception and memory. They’re likely to be flawed, what with the constant gaslighting and other terrorist tactics used on her.

But the valley of the shadow of death has its varieties of dread. The ‘horror of great darkness’ is disturbed by voices and illumed by sights. There are periods of incapacity and collapse, followed by paroxysms of active terror. Thus in my journey during those long hours I found it – agonies subsiding into lethargies, and these breaking again into frenzy. I sometimes wonder how I carried my reason safely through the ordeal.

Maud’s father is a Swedenborgian, and the occult religion provides a rationale for the isolation so Maud doesn’t question it. Unlike most Gothic novels, though, this one doesn’t use religious difference as a sign for evil. The Swede club is composed of good guys who might be a little weird and antisocial but are also essentially kind and concerned for Maud’s well-being. The evil comes from someplace else.

Volume I is largely concerned with Madame de la Rougierre, Maud’s new governess. The book was written in 1864, so of course being French makes Madame evil. She’s drunk and careless about Maud’s education; her primary concern seems to be manipulating Maud’s father. She lies and steals and at a couple of points tries to put Maud in compromising situations. Maud’s good sense pulls her through, relatively unscathed.

Along with the bad female role model, we also have the good, Monica Knollys, a cousin of Maud’s father. Cousin Monica is older, but fun and affectionate and sometimes a little shocking. She doesn’t see through the conspiracy instantly, but she knows when things aren’t right. She doesn’t have the power to fix everything, no one person does, but she has a position in society that could really help Maud understand the social class she belongs to. The sight of Monica shocks Madame out of her French accent for a couple of sentences, so while we never explore her past, I’m inclined to think her nationality is not all it’s presented to be.

In Volume II Maud goes to live with her Uncle Silas, the secret head of the conspiracy. She’s never really met him before, but she spent her entire childhood in a house with his portrait, and as an isolated teenager she thought he was pretty sexy. There was also a mystery surrounding him, which Cousin Monica finally explains to her. It’s the now-classic locked-room mystery setup, where someone was murdered in Silas’s house but no one could figure out how. The official ruling was suicide, but everyone knows he did it, except his brother. Maud’s father thinks that he’s innocent, so Maud’s residence with him is intended to prove to everyone that Silas is no murderer, even though if she were to die he would inherit a fortune that would relieve his debts, because of which he’s about to lose his house and possibly end up in prison. In Volume II he’s rather similar to Frederick Fairlie of The Woman in White – of too delicate health to abide the stimulus of other people, so he isolates himself and throws occasional tantrums. There’s a marked change in Volume III, when he becomes more of the Count Fosco type.

Silas’s daughter Milly is Maud’s companion for most of Volume II. She’s been given almost no education, and while her father frequently insults her for her ignorance, he does nothing to remove it. She runs wild, wearing dresses short enough to climb trees in, and uses the broadest country dialect she can manage (Derbyshire).

‘Will you tell – yes or no – is my cousin in the coach?’ screamed the plump young lady, stamping her stout black boot, in a momentary lull.

Yes, I was there, sure.

‘And why the puck don’t you let her out, you stupe, you?’

Despite their obvious differences (the Gothic heroine is always dressed fit for an aristocrat’s drawing room and has a natural elegance of mind that makes her a welcome addition to the highest social circles, whether her education and experience make that realistic or not), Maud and Milly become close friends very quickly. Milly gets sent to a boarding school in France for Volume III so that the conspiracy can assault Maud more easily. If Monica and Madame are contrasting mother figures, Milly is Maud’s reflection, the example of what she could have become in different circumstances.

Silas also has a son, Dudley. He’s quite as rustic as Milly, but rather more threatening because he’s a man. As her cousin, he’s entitled to more intimacy than most men, but he’s also a viable marriage partner. His role in the conspiracy is to attract and marry Maud to save his father and himself from financial ruin, but unfortunately, he has no idea how to attract a girl like her. She’s not impressed with his bragging about himself, nor is she pleased with his prowess in fistfights or hunting. I mean, if a girl doesn’t swoon over your muscles, what else can you do? A hundred and fifty years later I can shout, You can get a job and pay your own bills, but Dudley doesn’t have the training to do any mental work, and he is too proud of his position in society to do the work he is fit for. He’s one of the idle no-longer-rich, an aggressively useless sort of person.

Rounding out the conspiracy are Dickon Hawkes and his daughter Meg, because apparently Le Fanu was caught up with alliterative names. Dickon is a one-legged abusive father; he’s the real muscle in the group. Meg gets sick and Maud takes care of her, so Meg’s loyalty to the conspiracy’s intended victim makes her the weak link. She does her best to warn Maud, even if she gets beaten for it later. She’s a good kid, but unused to kindness or even civility.

Some people have called this the first locked-room mystery, but I’m disinclined to agree – Maud is no detective. She makes absolutely no effort to find clues or solve the mystery; she only discovers the truth because the conspiracy puts her in the same locked room and tries to kill her the same way. Speaking of genre conventions, the Gothic is a bit different here than it was in Radcliffe’s time. Le Fanu spends dramatically less time describing the scenery, so I guess the picturesque nature books were out of fashion seventy-five years later. In No Name, written only a couple of years earlier than Uncle Silas, Wilkie Collins describes the scenery in the different places we go to, but it seems like he’s working for a tourist commission rather than being artistically Romantic. Le Fanu’s story takes place in more private places, but Radcliffe would have been much more rhapsodical. While there’s a general air of mystery and vague threat, the real standard plot points don’t really happen until Volume III – secret messages crying for help being discovered, servants disappearing, heroine getting drugged and taken on a mysterious journey that ends in being concealed and imprisoned inside her own house, threats of bigamy and murder, that sort of thing. In Volumes I and II there are other possible interpretations of events, but in Volume III we finally make it all the way Gothic.

Maud doesn’t go into this question, but the narrative makes me wonder: Is reform possible? Do people ever really change? It depends on what you mean by change. For example, in the last six years I’ve worked through a lot of emotional stuff, and I’m happier and more confident than I was. But I think that at bottom, who I am is still the same. I am the same person I’ve always been, but my expression of my self is less clouded by fear, pain, and shame. I am freer to be who I am. But what about murderers? I think it depends on who they are and what circumstances led to the murder. For example, I think the man who killed my uncle did it as a consequence of fear and desperation, not out of hatred or anger. They didn’t even know each other. Fear and despair can be healed and managed, so that killer learned to deal with the mess of himself before the state killed him – or in other words, they reformed him and made him no longer a murderer, and then they killed him for what he had been before. The fictional murderers seem entirely different to me. Silas spends fifteen or twenty years not growing or changing, so he deals with problems the same way he did before. Two locked-room murders in the same house, in the same room, might be a little hard to explain, but he’s not concerned about that. Hawkes doesn’t change either – some people are so self-justified that they don’t see why they should. His daughter’s bruises are no one else’s concern. Maud, on the other hand, frequently refers to her own ignorance and stupidity, leading us to believe that as an adult she’s a lot wiser and less Gothic-heroine-y than she was at seventeen. Maybe the capacity for growth is a signal for moral quality. After all, Milton’s Lucifer is defined by his refusal to grow or change, so Le Fanu made his villains adopt the same quality. In real life, people are seldom so easy to define and categorize.

In some ways, you could argue that Uncle Silas is transitional, looking both backward and forward, like Disney’s Little Mermaid. There are some allegorical touches in the film that hark back to Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, but there’s also a psychological realism and a modern representation of the female protagonist that foreshadows Beauty and the Beast and Mulan. Uncle Silas relies heavily on the Radcliffe tradition, but that wave of Gothic fiction belonged to the 1790s and was pretty much finished by 1820. The locked-room mystery aspect also looks forward to Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and the modern mystery writers. There were other Gothic heroines after 1864 (I’m thinking of Gwendolen Harleth and Mrs de Winter), but Le Fanu’s book occupies this weirdly anachronistic limbo, of not being quite one thing nor quite another. It is very enjoyable, for those of us who enjoy the Gothic fiction of previous centuries, but not as easy to categorize as scholars might desire. The strange thing is that it is so determined not to be a sensation novel, even those were so popular at the time. I think it’s better than East Lynne or Lady Audley’s Secret, but why insist so hard on not being Wilkie Collins that you end up being Radcliffe instead?

I read the back of the book to a friend, and she described it as adorable, which kind of fits. Tom is a regular guy, Canadian, but all his friends have superpowers. As with all good superhero stories, their powers are an exaggeration of relatable real-life situations.

The Sloth hated himself. He considered himself lazy. He had a dead-end job and no plans to get a better one. His relationship was on-again-off-again, and he never got to the gym even though he kept paying the membership dues.

There was mould in his refrigerator and he watched reruns on TV. Sometimes he wore the same pair of socks twice in the same week.

The Sloth would sit on his couch, paralyzed by all the things he wasn’t taking care of. Then one day, a Wednesday, he just said, ‘Fuck it!’ He threw his hands up into the air and said, ‘Fuck it!’ This was the day that the Sloth discovered his superpower, an amazing ability to say ‘Fuck it’ and really, truly mean it.

For example, my superpower seems to be giving others permission to do or be what they really want. I haven’t been with that many guys, but three of them have quit their jobs when they were with me, and at least three men have seen me as the guy to bring them back to gay dating (I didn’t date all of them). I’m sure there are other ways I’ve catalyzed change for others, but it’s all sort of accidental. I try to love and accept the world around me as it is without changing it because I really want to love and accept myself without changing me, and all that love and acceptance leaks out and other people feel it and I guess it shows them how they want their lives to change and gives them confidence to do it. That being said, some of the people who are dearest to me are the most stable – they’re already happy with their lives and themselves.

The final stage of finding your superhero name is accepting how little difference it really makes. Okay, there’s this thing you can do, a thing you can do like no other person on the planet. That makes you special, but being special really doesn’t mean anything. You still have to get dressed in the morning. Your shoelaces still break. Your lover will still leave you if you don’t treat her right.

Which is the big difference between American and Canadian superheroes. Here in the United States superheroes wear flashy costumes and run around saving people, usually from supervillains who are dark reflections of the heroes themselves. In Canada, why would the fact you’re a superhero make you different from anyone else? What’s the big deal? So you can stretch your body far enough to wrap around an entire city. Who cares? What is the practical value in that, aside from reaching high shelves? Why would you wear a cape for that?

Tom is in love with the Perfectionist. She loves him too, but her ex Hypno is still angry at the breakup. Hypno had hypnotized her into thinking that sex with him would be the best of her life, and while she did believe that, eventually she wanted more than just amazing sex. On the day of the wedding, Tom gets into a fistfight with Sitcom Kid – Tom had been a horrible boyfriend to his sister, TV Girl – and in the confusion, Hypno sidles up to the Perfectionist and asks what she sees in Tom. When he tells her he doesn’t think she sees anything at all, Tom goes invisible to her. After several months of not being able to see her new husband, she decides to pack her life up and move to Vancouver. Tom gets the airplane seat beside her and has to spend the course of the flight trying to make her see him. And that’s the frame as we dig through exposition and short descriptions of extra heroes that didn’t have a good place in the narrative itself.

This book is a candy bar. Sweet, fun, short enough to finish in one sitting, and a little nourishing. It’s a good snack for when you’re on vacation from work or otherwise have a couple of hours free.

What a disappointing experience.

The textual history reveals a lot: Dumas published The Black Tulip in France in 1850, at a time when international copyright laws were either nonexistent or poorly enforced. The book was immediately translated into English in New York. In Belgium, the original French text was slightly abridged, cutting roughly 5% of the text. The Belgian edition was then taken to England. Therefore, the American edition is more authentic than the British, but Oxford UP chose to use the British text (the only reason I can think of to do this is nationalistic fervor). The editor of this edition seems to have a lot of doubts as to which text to use: he seems a little snarky about having cut some parts, and also a little snarky about the Romantic excesses that were cut. I got the impression he wasn’t happy with the project or the finished product. And one of the important things is, I like the Romantic excesses. The longwinded descriptions of the setting, the melodramatic situations and speeches, the weirdly out-of-place moralistic commentary, all of these are reasons I like to read nineteenth-century novels, but they are the parts of the book the Belgians excised. The book was already noticeably shorter than Dumas’s previous novels, so why cut anything?

dumas

But, focusing on what we do have. Like A Tale of Two Cities, this is a historical novel that deals with the danger of crowds in foreign countries. We begin with the murder of the De Witte brothers in 1672 (I’m using Dumas’s spellings, which are different than the original Dutch). To refresh your Dutch history, the De Wittes were prominent figures in national politics. Cornelius (the older) was involved in some important naval victories, and John (the younger) became the Grand Pensionary, a high government position that some claim is very similar to Prime Minister, and others claim is nothing like. However, they were republicans, which made them very popular with Dumas and other Frenchmen a hundred and fifty years after their deaths, but not so popular with the people of their own time. The wealthy were in favor of a republic, but the middle and lower classes preferred a monarchy under the House of Orange. William, chief representative of the family, was still a very young man at the time, and had even been tutored by John De Witte. The first four chapters tell about their deaths – Cornelius was imprisoned for treason and sentenced to a life of exile (not convicted because he didn’t confess on the rack), but when John was taking him to the carriage to leave the country a mob pounced on them and killed them both. They were hanged by their feet, disemboweled, and cannibalized. Dumas’s descriptions are graphic but economic.

When the evil spirit has once taken hold of the heart of man, it urges him on without letting him stop.

Our real main characters are Cornelius Van Baerle, Cornelius De Witte’s godson, and Rosa Gryphus, the jailer’s daughter.

He was one of those choice spirits who abhor everything that is common, and who often lose a good chance through not taking the way of the vulgar, that high road of mediocrity which leads to everything.

Cornelius is one of those unworldly characters who seems to have money without knowing where it comes from. He’s obsessed with tulips, and when the Horticultural Society offers an obscene reward for cultivating a black tulip, he gets right to it. His next-door neighbor is also obsessed with tulips, but Van Baerle is so successful that Isaac Boxtel eventually gives up growing anything on his own account and just stares at his neighbor through a telescope. When Van Baerle has the bulbs that will grow the black tulip, Boxtel denounces him to the Orangist government and he’s imprisoned. Van Baerle and Rosa fall in love, though she gets jealous of his flowers. She finds a way to grow his black tulip, and when it comes to flower, Boxtel steals it and passes it off as his own. She proves her ownership, though, as well as Van Baerle’s innocence, and they two live happily ever after while Boxtel falls dead for no apparent reason as soon as his guilt is proven. It’s a short, syrupy little story, about an extraordinary woman raised in ordinary circumstances who proves her own worth to the highest personage in the land.

I’ve heard that the protagonist is really the person who changes the most, and while Van Baerle does learn to love a woman more than a flower, and Rosa gains confidence and freedom through literacy education, I think the biggest change is in that shadowy character William of Orange. Initially he engineers the mob’s murder of the De Wittes (that’s not historical fact, by the way), but by the end he orchestrates Van Baerle’s public exoneration. He goes from villain to hero. Because of this radical change, I want to see more of him. Can I have at least one interior monologue about his remorse and desire for redemption? Apparently not. These characters are more puppets than people, and we don’t look for emotional depth in a Punch and Judy show.

If you read this book, please keep in mind that Dumas did not care about historical or scientific accuracy. The historical events didn’t quite happen the way he writes them, and his botany is atrocious. Do not use this book as a manual on how to grow any tulip, black or otherwise. Don’t even look for verisimilitude in his scientific methods. All he cares about is the story, and everything else can go to hell. If all you want is a short fluffy romance with a sprinkling of historical flavor, then go ahead and read this one. If you’re deep into Victorian novels, you’ll be as disappointed as I was.

 

lighthouse

This weekend I went Down East to see my family, and on Friday afternoon it struck me that it was precisely the sort of experience that Virginia Woolf would write about.

In spring the garden urns, casually filled with wind-blown plants, were gay as ever. Violets came and daffodils. But the stillness and the brightness of the day were as strange as the chaos and tumult of night, with the trees standing there, and the flowers standing there, looking before them, looking up, yet beholding nothing, eyeless, and so terrible.

After having spent so much time away, I was a little apprehensive about seeing them all again: my oldest brother, who is getting ready to go back to school for a degree in divinity; the older brother I was very close to fifteen or twenty years ago, but whom I now seldom think about from one year to the next; the younger sister who has been reaching out to me more in the last year or so; and my mother, whose affection is linked to how much we fit her ideals for us. I got a flat tire Friday morning, so the public interactions of going to three different tire places (one closed for renovation, one made me wait an hour before discovering they didn’t carry the right size of tire, the third was great) and delaying my trip for a few hours would be a better fit for Mrs Dalloway than To the Lighthouse, but put me in the proper Woolf frame of mind nonetheless. The way I get self-conscious about how others perceive me, whether strangers or family members, and analyze past interactions to prepare me for the evening, is all very similar to one of her characters. To the Lighthouse is about a gathering of academics and artists, staying with the Ramsays in Scotland for the summer. I forget which island group, Orkneys, Shetlands, Hebrides, one of those.

At last they had shoved her off, they had launched the lifeboat, and they had got her out past the point – Macalister told the story; and though they only caught a word here and there, they were conscious all the time of their father – how he leant forward, how he brought his voice into tune with Macalister’s voice; how, puffing at his pipe, and looking there and there where Macalister pointed, he relished the thought of the storm and the dark night and the fishermen striving there. He liked that men should labour and sweat on the windy beach at night; pitting muscle and brain against the waves and the wind; he liked men to work like that, and women to keep house, and sit beside sleeping children indoors, while men were drowned, out there in a storm. So James could tell, so Cam could tell (they looked at him, they looked at each other), from his toss and his vigilance and the ring in his voice, and the little tinge of Scottish accent which came into his voice, making him seem like a peasant himself, as he questioned Macalister about the eleven ships that had been driven into the bay in a storm. Three had sunk.

I do get irritated with the archetype of the Angry Academic. Mr Ramsay is insecure about his professional success, so he’s overly critical of his children. Byatt picks up this archetype as well, which got me thinking that there must be something wrong with British academics, but then I remembered Albee as well, and then I thought that since his play is called Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he’s probably influenced by her, as I’m sure Byatt is as well. The thing that bothers me about it is that I have spent most of my life around academics without finding these Angry White Men. In thinking about this anger, it seems like these men question their masculinity because they work with the mind instead of the hand. The men I’ve met feel no such contradiction. They don’t seem bothered with the question of whether teaching is a gendered activity or whether reading in a library is less inherently masculine than shooting rabbits or repairing cars. I’m not saying we don’t have sexism in academia, but the friends I’ve made are comfortable being who they are and not haunted by their perceived inadequacies. Which frees them up to be genuinely kind to their partners and children, unlike Mr Ramsay.

The first part of this book focuses a lot on the relationship between the Ramsays, and what they mean when they think that they love each other. It makes me think about that idea of chivalry that so many people claim to feel the lack of in our modern society, and the way that chivalry is a two-way street. These days people discuss it as a condescending attitude that men used to have for women, but this separateness goes both ways. Chivalry demands that each person have an ideal for the opposite sex, and that when persons of opposite sexes interact they each treat the other as if they see the ideal inside of them. It was a matter of kindness and respecting femininity and masculinity as concepts, doing honour to the Goddess in every woman and the God in every man. Of course there were abuses, on both sides, and even in Woolf’s novel we can see that traditional pattern of etiquette breaking down. Seven-year-old Cam dashes about and never sits still in a “properly feminine” way; Lily Briscoe doesn’t marry and feels no shame or lack in this; Charles Tansley openly expresses his belief in women’s inferiority because as a poor man he needs to put down someone to make himself seem higher and there is no racial diversity to give the opportunity for racism. Chivalry breaks down because people don’t live up to each other’s ideals, and we lose the sense that other people’s ideals matter. In the twentieth century we learned to embrace our own ideals – I live according to my own sense of what it means to be a man, not my mother’s or my ex-wife’s or my sisters’ or any of my female friends’. Chivalry seems to have been about this shared construction of gender identity, and it passed away because we stopped sharing in identity construction. After all, this is in many ways a book about the inability to communicate.

But nevertheless, the fact remained, it was almost impossible to dislike any one if one looked at them.

My two oldest brothers have never much liked each other, so it was genuinely odd to see them talking and laughing apart from everyone else. I joined them (all the men in one group together, women in the other room), and they were bonding over videos of standup comedians they both enjoy. I did my best to participate, but not enjoying videos of standup comedians, I didn’t have much to say. It was strange to see how little my brother and I have in common now, when we once shared so much that we even took the same classes at uni. He studied English alongside me, but now he speaks disparagingly of working in a library, as if what I find exciting would bore him to death. I was always the most serious of us, but in isolation I have become more so, and he (who was once enraptured with reading Thucydides and Beowulf) has joined the mass culture in devaluing academic pursuits. There was some overlap in his behavior throughout the weekend – a discomfort with silence, a compulsion to keep everyone laughing and happy, as if he were carefully avoiding talking about something and equally carefully avoiding letting anyone know there was a topic to be avoided. While he was there in front of me, I was glad to see him, but on reflection I’m concerned. He and I have never even mentioned the fact of my being gay, so I wonder if that’s what he can’t talk about, but it could also be something in his home life that isn’t what it could be. Both of my brothers were performing The Hen-Pecked Husband, which is a posture that always makes me uneasy but enabled them to bond with each other (while excluding me, the no-longer-hen-pecked). I didn’t get to talk with the oldest, but the other one and I got to spend some time watching The Crimson Pirate and laughing at the poor costume choices and other ludicrosities. I sent him home with a flash drive of older movies that he and his wife could enjoy, because at least we have that one interest still in common.

Somewhere in the annals of my family history, I have an Uncle Wirt. This is about a hundred years ago, the time that Woolf set the earlier part of the novel. Wirt took himself very seriously, while all his brothers were fond of joking and playing and taking life easily. As a result, Wirt was the butt of all the jokes, and he never really got on with his brothers. When it came to courting, Wirt found it easier to make love in writing than in speaking, so he corresponded with an English girl and eventually invited her out to the Finger Lakes to marry him. When he introduced her to his brothers, they could not stop laughing they thought she was so ugly. He quietly and seriously cut them out of his life. In this iteration of those genetics, I’m Uncle Wirt, but I don’t get picked on like I used to. When our parents split up, my older siblings lost interest in casual cruelty, and as adults most of us try to be kind to each other.

Always, Mrs Ramsay felt, one helped oneself out of solitude reluctantly by laying hold of some little odd or end, some sound, some sight. She listened, but it was all very still; cricket was over; the children were in their baths; there was only the sound of the sea. She stopped knitting; she held the long reddish-brown stocking dangling in her hands a moment. She saw the light again. With some irony in her interrogation, for when one woke at all, one’s relations changed, she looked at the steady light, the pitiless, the remorseless, which was so much to her, yet so little her, which had her at its beck and call (she woke in the night and saw it bent across their bed, stroking the floor), but for all that she thought, watching it with fascination, hypnotised, as if it were stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight, she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough!

Sunday morning I woke up early and came downstairs, and read my book until I was sleepy again. I nodded off for half an hour or so, and in that time I saw/felt someone come over and kiss me on the cheek. I reached up and pulled him in closer, for a real kiss, the type that tells the other just how much I care about him, but it was just a dream. It’s like when I’m dancing to the music in the kitchen and I wrap my arm around No One’s waist and pull him close and rest my head on the air where his shoulder would be. It seems sometimes like life is preparing me for this great romance that hasn’t happened yet, and other times it seems like life is teaching me to be content with fantasy because I’m never going to have a love that satisfies me.

She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child. Such she often felt herself – struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say: “But this is what I see; this is what I see,” and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her.

Typically when I read this book I see it as being primarily about Mrs Ramsay, what she means to the people around her, how they react when they lose her. This time I think that the protagonist is actually Lily Briscoe, the marriage-resisting painter. The difficulty she has with her art feels a bit like Woolf peeking out through the character and talking about writing. It does seem indicative of what happens to me when I sit down to write.

The urgency of the moment always missed its mark. Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low. Then one gave it up; then the idea sunk back again; then one became like most middle-aged people, cautious, furtive, with wrinkles between the eyes and a look of perpetual apprehension. For how could one express in words these emotions of the body? express that emptiness there? (She was looking at the drawing-room steps; they looked extraordinarily empty.) It was one’s body feeling, not one’s mind. The physical sensations that went with the bare look of the steps had become suddenly extremely unpleasant. To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have – to want and want – how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again! Oh, Mrs Ramsay! she called out silently, to that essence which sat by the boat, that abstract one made of her, that woman in grey, as if to abuse her for having gone, and then having gone, come back again. It had seemed so safe, thinking of her. Ghost, air, nothingness, a thing you could play with easily and safely at any time of day or night, she had been that, and then suddenly she put her hand out and wrung the heart thus. Suddenly, the empty drawing-room steps, the frill of the chair inside, the puppy tumbling on the terrace, the whole wave and whisper of the garden became like curves and arabesques flouring round a centre of complete emptiness.

In thinking about this loss, I don’t really have this continuity of memory and essence of the dead. The people I miss are still alive, but far away, and no longer the people I knew. Seeing my brother makes me wonder if I had been lying to myself before, if he had always been this frantic entertainer hiding ‘a centre of complete emptiness,’ but that thought goes against one of my most important beliefs, in the mutability of mankind. People grow and change; he and I grew in opposite directions. I saw some other friends this weekend too – in Brazil, I would call her my concunhada, but in English we don’t have a good word for the friend whose sister is married to my brother – but without this sense of loss. The things I have always loved about them are still true, even after three kids and thyroid cancer. Yes, they grow and change, but I guess we’re moving in a similar direction. Whatever the cause of it, I can return to them after years away and feel as natural as if I had seen them last week. I always feel loved and welcomed, even though they still embrace that church that denies my right to a romantic relationship. [I was looking through the hymnal and realized that with their emphasis on right behavior and embracing truth, a great many of their hymns are still meaningful to me.] I may get back to them in a few weeks, or it may be a few years, but no matter how we grow, I am certain that they will always love me.

I love this book. I will be the first to admit that nothing happens, that this book takes place inside the mind and not in the outward world, but it is no less beautiful for all that. I love my family too, not for their beauty or poetry, but because they are mine, including the fact that I don’t get close because I know the ways their love falls short. I also love my friends, the family I choose, because their love never does.