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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Last Century's Downton Abby - F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender is the Night" - A Book Review

The sentences, like in Gatsby, read like a patty of butter on a warm skillet ...

* * * * *

Like many classics readers, I truly enjoyed the F. Scott Fitzgerald's jewel, "The Great Gatsby", and after twenty years, two readings of that text (a decade apart) and seeing the 1970's and the 2014 versions on DVD and at the movie theater, I thought I owed it to the author to investigate some of his other work. A few weeks ago, I finished reading one of his other well known novels.

Not being too up on FSF, I chose to read, "Tender is the Night." I'm embarrassed to say I picked it chiefly because I had heard of it before--probably because it too had been made into a movie, though I'd never seen it.

I enjoyed the book immensely. It follows one of my favorite styles, the circular plot which spins off after the first lap into an unexpected tangent. The sentences, like in Gatsby, read like a patty of butter on a warm skillet i.e. smooth. Since I (like most of us) have heard bits about FSF's background, it was enjoyable seeing his characters develop on the page. They are the types of people he obviously had become familiar with over the course of his life (the psychologically frail - his wife; psychiatrists - her doctors; the ridiculously well-off by both birth, luck and hard work - his life in and after the Ivy Leagues; Hollywood personalities - his job, etc.). Similarly settings match what I can only suspect match his own travels to places like the south of Europe, the mountains north of there and the hotels catering to the visitors of the same. There is some action but the story is primarily a study of human character. Still, if you are patient you may find yourself caring about them as I did. One surprise to me is that the protagonist turned out not to be who I thought. Still I was not left disappointed.

While as I say, I enjoyed the book, what floored me was that it was not received well, despite FSF pouring more into it than any other novel in his career (nine years!). It was published in 1934, some years after "This Side of Paradise" and "Gatsby" came out. While it probably sold well, it didn't meet (or surpass) the critical expectations of those two works and thus it was dismissed by many. I for one do not share that critical sentiment at all (though I have yet to read "This Side of Paradise" ) and instead found it to be well worthy of my time. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys classics. The casual Downton Abbey fan may enjoy it as well as there are many parallels (in the luxurious lives of the well-to-do of days gone by and all their scandal).

I plan to read "This Side of Paradise" next. Since it was considered (at the time) the better novel, I'm looking forward to many more hours of this master class.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Sadly, this Brought the Sexual Assault Conversation Back to my Dinner Table … What Could Make It a Subject at Yours?

What we each think about sexual assault must become instinctive and of one voice. ... We will all—individually and/or together—act when we must, because we know.

If you are familiar with the OJ Simpson (football star) murder trial some twenty years ago and the media theater that played on living room TVs across the country each evening, this past week was a deja vu moment in Nashville, TN when two football players from the city's almost-Ivy university, Vanderbilt University, were tried for an alcohol/drug fueled gang-rape which occurred inside one of the school's dorms early one morning during the summer of 2013. The week-and-a-half long trial held many locals spell-bound as the court room trial was televised live, gavel to gavel, along with expert commentary and screaming newspaper headlines. In the end, two of the defendants were found guilty on all counts for, among other things, aggravated rape (of an unconscious female). Two other defendants who agreed to cooperate with prosecutors still await a decision between the state and their attorneys regarding their fate.

One sad fact (among many) that came up in the football players' trial was that while a number of knowing bystanders could have stepped in to stop the assault, or even simply render after-the-fact assistance, no one did. Oddly, the whole incident apparently only came to light to authorities after the victim was left out in the hall, the campus rumor mill got out of the assailants' control and evidence was seized, including cell-phone video, photography and text messages.

The defendants' attorneys blamed their clients' incontestably inappropriate behavior (remember it's on video) on the “culture” of excessive alcohol, youth and today's sexual mores (I paraphrase). “A perfect storm,” one called it. Outsiders have posited the “bro-code” had something to do with it as well. I might add another factor: the victim could not fight back. She was blacked out, totally unconscious—allegedly from too much alcohol (Caution dear reader, I'm NOT pointing my finger at the victim, nor should anyone!). Per testimony, the victim for some time blamed herself before she got her head around the pertinent facts and wisely realized she was not to blame. She's now rightly being called a survivor and a hero.

This was a lot to absorb for this two-time alum of the same university. As such, the weeks' past events have gotten me thinking about the problem of sexual assault and what we can all do about it as a community.

I first visited this topic in my novel, Sleeping in Snow with Bears, published back in 2012. Even though a campus rape is a primary plot driver in my novel, I always had some misgivings about writing a blog-post about the topic—several years' of misgivings in fact. In part because rape is a real downer, but more importantly, I wondered, would it be acceptable to play off a theme that is so awful? Certainly not. So instead of focusing on rape directly when I pitched the novel, I talked around it, focusing instead on the victim's after-the-fact struggles and the physical and inner-strength her best (female) friend had in spades but could not, for innumerable reasons, teach. The rape and the inadequate response was brushed over, allowing other plot points to prevail whenever I spoke about the book.

But given recent high-profile discussions around the country about the right of all women to be safe from sexual assault (recall the mattress carrying women at Columbia University), this real-life assault which happened more or less in my own backyard, and the subsequent conversation in my immediate community—not to mention my own family's dinner table—I thought it might be acceptable now to post a piece (here) that pitches what I was trying to get across in the book all along.

Like the rape case I describe above, in Sleeping in Snow with Bears the rape victim also blames herself. It isn't for being unconscious and unable to fight back, but for not fighting back at all—more accurately, not knowing how to fight back. Was she correct in blaming herself? What difference might fighting back have made had she?

The novel deals in large part with the protagonist's conscious and unconscious life-long journey to learn to fight—both physically, emotionally and spiritually—after the fact. But in a perfect world, she never should have had to fight back in the first place.

In the case of the football players' trial, I side with the defense on one point; that being, the culture—I call it society—is to blame (and of course, as the jury unanimously agreed, so were the players). It is society's job to prevent sexual assault from ever being contemplated. If the bro-cod—to first support one another—the bro-code needs to change. There need to be obvious catalysts that trump it. Total success sounds impossible, but surely society could prevent many.

But how?
First, there must be a national conversation the result (second) from which we all come together with some general, ever-lasting agreement as to what defines inappropriate behavior. But besides just talk and finding a common definition that society as a whole agrees upon, it goes further such that society understands what to do—like communities who pull together and assist one another after a storm without being asked. What we each think about sexual assault must become instinctive and of one voice. The third point will then happen automatically. We will all—individually and/or together—act when we must, because we know.

So what exactly could kick-start such an important conversation? Sleeping in Snow with Bears offers one solution to bring about in-your-face national consciousness regarding sexual assault. It involves Hollywood and red carpets, a little bit of spirituality, and … I've said enough. It's fiction after all.

If you've read this far, you might be thinking, “So what? Sleeping in Snow with Bears is fiction, someone's dream, while sexual assault is real. We need a real solution.”

I agree. All I can argue is that enough fiction (think old science-fiction) has come true to life because of dreams, so why not try? The goal is worth it. Let's have that conversation. Perhaps it could work in real life too. It certainly will get more of us on board.



#VAW #Anitrape #Rape #YesAllWomen #AllMenCan #SurvivorPledge #HeForShe #EndVictimBlaming #SupportSurvivors2015

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Unspeakable Gentleman - A Book Review

If you read a lot of trash and would like to up your game to say a classic level without compromising your need for speed, may I suggest The Unspeakable Gentleman, an exciting novel published in 1922 by John P. Marquand. 

Believe it or not, this classic is an action/suspense piece with the what might be the first novel with spies, greed, gun-play, high-stakes poker and a beautiful unflinching girl who knows how to load a firearm during a high-speed chase.

It is set in early 1800's and concerns a young man who meets his estranged, much despised father--a man who describes himself with the title of the book--and learns there is more to the man than he's been led to believe. The plot revolves around securing a certain document penned with the signatures of traitors to Napoleonic France--the government of which is pulling out all stops to get their hands on it.

The occasional disparaging use of the "n" word in reference to a good-man-Friday, who is one of the men's slave, is almost shocking as were they not there I might have forgotten I was reading a book written nearly 100 years ago.

I recommend The Unspeakable Gentleman highly. It is a fast and fun read, comes in at about 250 pages and is available for free through Project Gutenberg at gutenberg.org.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Stover at Yale - A Book Review

That they called each other, “Old Sport” (whisps of Fitzgerald here) regularly, made it even more fun to read.

As one who likes novels about the social and academic challenges of high school and college, I recently finished reading Owen Johnson's 1911 work , Stover at Yale. Besides that the novel's subject matter fit well with one of my favorite genres, I was excited to read it because a close relative I'd never known attended another Ivy League school in the same general time period as the story in this book and I was hoping to get hints of what college life might have been like for him back then. I was not disappointed.

What probably hooked me was a quote that Andrew Delbanco in the The New York Review of Books refers to F. Scott Fitzgerald as having said about the book, (this is paraphrased, I assume) It is “the textbook of my generation.” That I could download Stover at Yale to my electronic reader for nothing, since its copyright had expired, was an added perk.

Reading Stover, what I learned was that while things were quite different back then, many things have not changed. Much of the text revolves around the protagonist's desire for the other students' approval, including decision to join a society club (aka a fraternity) or not, and his own youthful rebellion and epiphany. For many of us who went to college in the latter Twentieth or even early Twenty-first Centuries, those stories still relate.

Still there are some that do not, like trying out for and making the varsity football team; being seen with a low-class woman and having it splashed across the newspapers; and my favorite, smoking a pipe in your dorm room by the fireplace. That they called each other, “Old Sport” (whisps of Fitzgerald here) regularly, made it even more fun to read.

I'll recommend Stover at Yale to anyone who likes the genre as I do. It is well written and comes in at around 350 pages (my estimate). Be forewarned, it has some blatant unapologetic attitudes towards other classes of people that one can assume was commonplace for the time and place, but may be a bit jarring for the Twenty-first Century reader. If you can get past that fault—and let's all hope those days are past—and take it for what it is, symbolic of its era, you may find you enjoyed this book as much as I and perhaps even learned something along the way. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Steven King's Convenient Dilemma

Steven King has taken a brave step in publishing Doctor Sleep and I applaud him for it. He could have written a very different, very disappointing manuscript that just sucks off the aged-teat of a masterpiece for nourishment. 

Imagine you are one of the world's greatest living writers. You are still very productive and popular. Part of that popularity stems from a novel you wrote nearly thirty years ago, titled Book30+. Book30+ was so great that it was turned into a movie that even more people saw than read the book, making you even more popular. Both the book and movie had satisfying endings, but your fans, to this day, occasionally ask what happened to such and such character (in this case, a sweet little boy from Book30+), despite the novel's age and the strange logic—or lack thereof—of the question.

You know in your own logical mind, it was a book. The characters stopped there, on the last page. But in your heart, you know that's not true. Your characters were, in a strange way, writers know all too well—quite real. One day you catch your mind doing its involuntary writer tricks, imagining just this scenario—the ultimate fate of the little boy. You realize you know the answer! Do you write a sequel? Is it possible to satisfy those untold millions who intimately know the character? Is there a satisfying answer? Isn't it likely that a huge contingent of your most loyal fans will be disappointed?

If you are Steven King and the book in question is The Shining, the answer is yes, you write it. Published in 2013, Doctor Sleep, tells the story of the now adult, Danny, the little boy from the first novel with “the shine.

I just finished reading Doctor Sleep and came away quite content. While not as satisfied with Danny's character as I might have liked—he's not the sweet little boy from The Shining any longer but now a grown man, an alcoholic drug-user with a guilty conscious, who is less than careful with whom he sleeps. The story works well though and references back to many aspects of the original story in the old hotel on top of a mountain in Colorado. Readers will welcome hearing back from Tony, the invisible character who gave Danny advice when he wiggled his finger. Tony has a new friend, who you may like equally, though I must say she reminded me a bit of other protagonists from other King books. Besides Danny, other characters return too, including Dick Holloran and Jack, Danny's crazy father. On the disappointing side, I was sorry Jack didn't play more of a role in the new novel, but I don't imagine King wanted to overshadow his new novel with that old story.

Whatever the case, Steven King has taken a brave step in publishing Doctor Sleep and I applaud him for it. He could have written a very different, very disappointing manuscript that just sucks off the aged-teat of a masterpiece for nourishment. Instead he's presented readers with a whole new story that piggy-backs off the old but is fresh and new. May all writers have the fortune of facing a convenient dilemma like this one day.