Monday, November 25, 2013

"Aedh wishes for the Cloths of Heaven" by W.B. Yeats (1899)


Aedh wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

W.B. Yeats (1865–1939)

The Wind Among the Reeds1899.


Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,              
Enwrought with golden and silver light,The blue and the dim and the dark cloths           
Of night and light and the half light,       
I would spread the cloths under your feet:                 
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;             
I have spread my dreams under your feet;        
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
 

Prayer for Thanksgiving by Joseph Auslander (1947)


Friday, November 22, 2013

The Misenchanted Sword by Lawrence Watt-Evans (1985)

I am really disappointed in this one.  I read a book by Lawrence Watt-Evans called Ithalin's Restoration nearly ten years ago, and really liked it - and then promptly forgot the author's name and title until quite recently.  It was the middle of a series, and I though, what the heck, I will go back and re-read the series. I had to BUY the first book (albeit a used copy), which is anathema to me (public library all the way, but my library didn't own it).  I was so excited to get my 1985 paperback - VERY 1985 cover - and even took it along on a plane trip.  I even gave this well beyond my 50 page rule, hoping I would like it better.

I remember Ithalin's Restoration being sparkling, fast paced, witty, and urban.  This was exactly the opposite.  For such a short book - not even 300 pages - it was so slow and ponderous.  What's the opposite of sparkling?  Dull?  Flat?  Heavy.  It's a military fantasy too.  With plenty of violence.  Violence that I guess moved the plot along, but seemed just gratuitous.  It's pure military fantasy too - not even any geopolitical scheming to make it interesting.  The main character is dull and stupid.  I wanted more from this.  Oh well, there are plenty of good books out there, waiting to be read!

The Misenchanted SwordThe Misenchanted Sword by Lawrence Watt-Evans


How can such a short book - under 300 pages - feel so long and ponderous and heavy?  It's like it weighed 300 lbs.  Very disappointed.  I gave this a good, fair shot too - over 100 pages.  And that was painful, with so many other good things to read.  Onward to something else.


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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan (2013)


Young adult literature can really be quite experimental in nature, more so than almost any other literary movement I can think of.  For whatever reason, YA authors seem to be given greater leeway in their writing and style by publishers and editors.  The various winners and honors of the Printz seem to bely this fact (Monster, Speak, how i live now).   YA writers are the only ones I can think of who consistently write novels in verse (which I generally despise).  They play around with setting, with gender, with the concepts of linear storytelling.  Dead characters tell stories, multiple characters tell the same stories.  Novels have been written using newspaper articles and text speak.  I don’t know whether teens are more accepting of this or not – some top teen novels I think can of in the last ten years or so have been pretty pedestrian when it comes to technique (although not when it comes to plot and character – think of The Hunger Games or even Twilight).  Two Boys Kissing certainly falls into the category of unusual storytelling, using gay men who have died from AIDs as a sort of greek chorus, relating for us and interpreting for us the day in the life of several gays boys in modern American, seen through both their eyes and our perspective.  It’s an incredibly moving feat of storytelling and writing, and being a part of that generation, some of the lucky, blessed ones at the end, I was moved to tears several times. Most of this really spoke to me – the seventeen year old closeted boy 25 years ago; the newly in love 20something kissing someone for the first time; the jaded, maybe a little sad, but also still hopeful 40 something watching a new generation come of age in a both easier and tougher time.  Those are the several themes going on here:  things have gotten better, things will get better, and some things haven’t changed and maybe will never (?) change.  There are still bullies, and hateful parents, and cutting and suicide and hopelessness.  But the chorus sings to us from death that things have changed, that boys today are so different and have such different opportunities than those boys of the 70s and 80s.  And yet so much the same too – still dancing.  I will quibble with the book, as I have to do – it’s heavy handed at times, and the literary language can make it sometimes pretentious.  I was afraid it would fall down upon itself.  There are some plot points that seem artfully lighted and carefully placed to prove a point rather than move the plot.  But at times, particularly when the chorus is moving us to tears, that’s it’s approaching the place of epic poem,  complete with warriors and tragedy (or maybe opera, albeit with a deus ex machine).  The boys aren’t perfect, and their lives aren’t perfect at the end, but (almost) everything seemed real, and the boys seemed like real 21st century boys.  25 years ago, there was no way I would pick up a book with two boys kissing on the cover.  But I wished it had been around.  Some boy may sneak this home in his backpack, and that fictional deus ex machine maybe will save his life.  And that’s a good thing.  

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This definitely falls into the category of unusual storytelling, using gay men who have died from AIDs as a sort of greek chorus, relating for us and interpreting for a day and a half in the life of several gays boys in modern American, seen through both their eyes and our perspective.  It’s an incredibly moving feat of storytelling and writing, and being a part of a generation before these boys, I was moved to tears several times. Most of this book really spoke to me personally – the seventeen year old closeted boy 25 years ago; the newly in love 20something kissing someone for the first time; the older but wiser and also still hopeful 40 something watching a new generation come of age in a both easier and tougher time. The book is a little heavy handed at times and maybe a wee bit pretentious (the language is very in your face literary).  There are some plot points that seem artfully lit and carefully placed to prove a point rather than move the plot.  But then there are those times, particularly when the chorus is moving us to tears, that’s it approaches  epic poetry,  complete with warriors and tragedy (or maybe opera, with a deus ex machina). That's when it smacks you right in the heart.    25 years ago, there was no way I would pick up a book with two boys kissing on the cover.  But I wished it had been around back then.  Some boy may sneak this home in his backpack, and that fictional deus ex machine maybe will save his life.  And that’s a good thing.  Go read this book now!



The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood

Berlin Stories is made up of two novels, Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye To Berlin (1939).

I've always had it in my head that Christopher Isherwood was unapproachable and difficult.  Not true. I wouldn't call  Mr. Norris Changes Trains an easy reader, but it wasn't stream of consciousness or punctuated strangely, or literarily verbose or anything like that.  Essentially, this English guy named William living in Germany in the early 30s (a stand-in for Christopher Isherwood, I assume), who meets Mr. Norris on a train, and becomes entangled in his wild, criminal life.  Norris is into S&M, which is described in light detail, something I thought sort of eye opening, risque and shocking for 1935.  I don't know why, but I thought everything written before Valley of the Dolls was Victorian literature.  I guess not.  A baron makes a pass at William at one point, which Norris orchestrated, leaving William amused.  His sexuality is never made clear, but reading between the lines, everyone in the book is gay (I guess that was still verboten in 1935).  A very humorous book, but the end is really dark; the final pages have  Hitler and his gang taking over the country, and there are definitely darker times ahead that Christopher Isherwood probably couldn't even fathom happening (or perhaps, having lived there, he could).  Really quite enjoyable.  Mr. Norris seems so familiar, and I think every young gay man either has had a Mr. Norris in their life at one time or another. He says stuff like this:  “I always say that I only wish to have three sorts of people as my friends, those who are very rich, those who are very witty, and those who are very beautiful,” which to me marks him out as stylishly gay.  Maugham had a similar character in The Razor's Edge, only he was good (albeit a snob) rather than decadent and deliciously bad.   Those young gays who never knew a Mr. Norris missed out on something.  

“I put my genius into my life, not into my art.”   

I loved this one:  “I do and always shall maintain that it is the privilege of the richer but less mentally endowed members of the community to contribute to the upkeep of people like myself.”  

Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood.  So "William Bradshaw" is Christopher Isherwood.  Duh.


__________________

The latter half of The Berlin Stories, Goodbye To Berlin, features the more familiar novel that is the germ of Cabaret.  Taken together a whole, the entire book was quite good.  Knowing at least something about Christopher Isherwood in advance meant that the scent of homosexuality that pervades the whole book is much more than just a hint; once you are on to it, there is no more reading between the lines; rather, between the lines becomes the entire story.  I'm not sure a blatant gay gay gay pride parade sort of story would have been nearly as interesting or fascinating, and certainly not a period piece.  I wonder what they thought of the book in the 1930s?  Was the homosexuality as obvious to them back them as it is now?  We have hindsight about Isherwood's life that they did not; but it seemed to me that the relationship between Peter and Otto was obviously a homosexual one, and that Christolph and Otto had a similar relationship (they were naked together in bed several times).  Note:  Otto was 16 years old; at the oldest 17, and quite aware of what he was doing.  Boys will be boys, huh?  Sally Bowles is a great character, and it's not wonder she became the star of the later play and musical - she couldn't not be.  



The Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris & Goodbye to BerlinThe Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris & Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Pleasantly surprised at how fun these stories were and how much I liked them; Isherwood’s seedy, dirty, sexy Berlin is still as crisp and witty today as I’m sure it was when he first published these two novels in the 1930s.  Of course, Isherwood was prescient about what was to come, and the doom of the Holocaust swings back and forth over the book like a pendulum.  We have the hindsight of 75 years and know what’s coming for the Nowaks and Landauers and the prostitutes and Frau Schroeder and the pretty boys.  I think if this book were written today, that pendulum would be more of a sledgehammer, knocking Nazism into our face; in The Berlin Stories, the Nazis are more ambiguous (as they probably were in the early 30s), and all the more scary for being so ambiguous and unknown and stealth.    Another sledgehammer today would be the homosexuality of Christopher and his friends, which would be spelled out for us.   Isherwood is still hardly subtle and the lines are pretty easy to read between (in fact, that’s where the entire story lies for much of the book, between those beautifully and carefully written lines).  I’m sure Isherwood had to be careful back then, and you know what – that’s sort of what made this book fun to read.  It certainly lent some romantic mystery to the book, allowing some several “eureka” moments regarding the sexuality of various characters.


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Monday, November 18, 2013

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (1996)

Neverwhere was apparently Gaiman's second book, after Good Omens with Terry Pratchett.  Interestingly, he wrote to accompany the BBC movie (which I've never seen) and has revised it twice (according to his Wikipedia page).  I'm not sure which version I read, but I imagine it's one of the revisions.  I've read Neverwhere once before, and remember enjoying it immensely - unable to put it down.  It's been long enough that I remembered very little of it, so it was like reading it for the first time. I was unable to put it down again, although I think I enjoyed it slightly more the first time.  Just slightly.  It's a tremendously fun book to read, very urban fantasy, and very similar to Charles deLint - substitute London for Toronto.  It don't think Gaiman's style has changed - it is still dark, mysterious, and full of allusions to other books in a very cool, smart way (Neverwhere is like The Wizard of Oz on crack).  But he's definitely honed that Gaiman style; Neverwhere sits on a lower rung than the Ocean at the End of the Lane or The Graveyard Book.  The Big Bang of the Gaiman universe happens with Neverwhere; since then, it's evolved into something sharper, the planets have all aligned.

It helps to know something about the London underground, or at least be aware of it.  Or on second thought, maybe not.  Just knowing it exists perhaps.

The book reminded a little bit of the seventies gang movie The Warriors.  Neil Gaiman's books always remind me a little bit of something else, or more often, a patchwork quilt of many something elses, which is probably why I like his work so much.

"Jack Ketch" makes a passing appearance in Neverwhere, as an oath ("Say the word," said Mr. Vandemar... "and it'll be off his neck before you can say Jack Ketch."  Of course, he's a minor character in The Graveyard Book.  The Hempstocks do no appear.

Gaiman always throws in good stuff, and Richard remembering and reflecting on snatches of the Lyke Wake Dirge is one of many instances of good stuff - I had to do some research on it; according to the great and powerful Wikipedia, at its essence the ballad is about being charitable in life and how that effects your journey after death; an allusion to Richard's old life dying because of his act of charity toward's Door.  Cool stuff.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

I don't think I'd ever read a book before about Jesus as a revolutionary before, but the idea certainly isn't a new one.  Aslan is a good author though, although I think the subtitle is disingenuous:  the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.  It's some of that, but quite a bit more too.  Particularly as most of the book describes a time after he died.  

I finished this about a week ago - and the perils of not immediately blogging about it are now apparent.  I don't have much to say about it, other than it was good.

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