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review 2018-03-21 01:45
The Kennedy Brothers: The Rise and Fall of Jack and Bobby - Richard D. Mahoney,David Talbot

"THE KENNEDY BROTHERS: The Rise and Fall of Jack and Bobby" offers the reader various views and perspectives on the evolution of the relationship between John F. Kennedy and his younger brother Robert between 1951 and 1963. At the same time, it also provides, in a large sense, a living history of the Kennedy Administration; the challenges, setbacks and triumphs it experienced; and the roles Robert Kennedy played in that history as Attorney General (e.g. his relentless fight against organized crime and his moral support for the cause of civil rights) and enforcer and protector of his brother, the President. 

Then we also experience the inner struggles and agonies Robert Kennedy endured after his brother was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963. After years of supporting JFK through his various political campaigns and in the White House, he was faced with having to find his own voice and place. In the process, Robert Kennedy's humaneness and compassion for the poor and disenfranchised - coupled with his fearlessness and the spirit of his character - came to define him in the eyes of millions of Americans as he went on to win election to the U.S. Senate from New York in 1964 and embarked on the path that led him to his last crusade, his run for the Presidency in 1968. 

In the words of the author: "... the Kennedys, with all their romance and irony, finally unite in an aesthetic comparable to the Greeks that they read about and quoted: they were daring and they were doomed, and they knew it and accepted it. They would die and make their deaths into creative acts of history. They would be heroes. And they would give their country an imperishable poignancy in its heart."

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review 2018-03-11 12:11
I should have read the Crown Princess's actual memoirs instead.
The Red Queen - Margaret Drabble

Pretentious and self-centered.  Forget the book blurbs -- this actually isn't about the Lady Hyegyōng but about Margaret Drabble and the "connection" she allegedly feels with this 18th century Korean princess.


In fact, only the first half of the book even focuses on the Lady Hyegyōng's story at all -- and even that part is (1) almost all telling instead of showing and (2) clearly NOT told from a Korean (even if only a contemporary Korean) perspective but from the Western contemporary author's own perspective.  Then we get to the second part, where we're being presented with a Western POV stand-in character for Ms. Drabble, who (for reasons never satisfactorily explained) feels compelled to research and "keep alive" the Lady Hyegyōng's story after having mysteriously been sent a recent translation of her memoirs -- until, that is, during the Seoul conference forming the majority of the second part's backdrop, she embarks on a fling with the conference's star speaker / scientist / participant (or rather, throws herself at him with jet propulsion force).  And ultimately, Drabble doesn't even shy away from explicitly inserting herself into the book, as (you guessed it) the autor eventually tasked with telling both the Crown Princess's and the Western POV Drabble-stand-in character's stories.


If I hadn't been planning on using this book for the Kill Your Darlings game, I'd have DNF'd it -- at the very latest when the second part's supremely annoying Western POV character started throwing herself full-forcce at that star scientist (while at the same time being equally supremely rude to a Korean doctor who'd saved her skin on more than one occasion and who had even taken out time from his own busy schedule to show her Seoul's historic sites).


So, one star for the faraway glimpes at the Lady Hyegyōng provided in the book's first part, and half a star for inspiring me to seek out her actual story ... and her own point of view.


But if this is supposed to be one of Margaret Drabble's most celebrated books, I'm afraid I'm now going to need a truly huge incentive to go near her writing again any time soon.

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text 2018-03-03 06:46
Reading progress update: I've read 146 out of 282 pages.
The Collector - John Fowles

I am enjoying the book as a whole. I have just started Part 2 which is written from Miranda's POV which I am not liking quite as much. Still, it makes for a rivetting read to see the story from both points of view.

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text 2018-03-02 22:00
Reading Progress Update: A Cautionary Word on Cats
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - J.K. Rowling,Stephen Fry

(I'm about 35-40% in now, but going back to the very beginning -- I listened to this in the car today:)

"Mr Dursley blinked and stared at the cat.  It stared back.  As Mr Dursley drove around the corner and up the road, he watched the cat in his mirror.  It was now reading the sign that said Privet Drive -- no, looking at the sign; cats couldn't read maps or signs.  Mr Dursley gave himself a little shake and put the cat out of his mind."

So you think cats can't read maps, can they, Uncle Vernon?



(And her name wasn't even Professor McGonagall ... well, not that I was ever aware, at least!)


And yes, that is a map of London, too.

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review 2018-02-28 15:11
The Love That Dare Shout Its Name (and Boy, Does It Ever)
The Well of Loneliness - Radclyffe Hall


Stephen Gordon grows up in the Malvern Hills of rural Worcestershire, the child of a rich local landowner and an Irish mother, from early on learns to hunt, fence, and engage in a plethora of other outdoor occupations, experiences first amorous stirrings for a plump and pretty housemaid, upon reaching (young) adulthood and after an ill-advised, socially disastrous calf love affair with a married woman leaves home and moves first to London and then to Paris, serves as an ambulance driver on the French front in WWI and becomes a celebrated novelist, but plunges into despair (not for the first time) upon losing out to an erstwhile friend -- a Canadian -- in affairs of the heart.


What's so special about this tale, you're wondering?  Well, for one thing, Stephen is not a man but a woman, having been given a male first name by a father who had decided upon his heir's name long before the long-awaited child's eventual birth and not deterred by puny details such as that child's actual sex.  More importantly, however, Stephen is a lesbian; or, as she herself calls it (taking a term from early 20th century sexologist Havelock Ellis), an "invert". 


It's never entirely clear whether and to what extent the author, a lesbian herself, actually sought to portray her heroine's first name and upbringing, with its emphasis on (or at the very least, permissive attitude towards) Stephen's pronounced preference for masculine occupations and attitudes -- one prominently explored example being the fact that of course she does not ride side saddle but astride, which is what allows her to become such a superb hunter even before she has reached her teens to begin with; another equally prominent example being Stephen's insistence on wearing male clothes -- as a direct or indirect cause of her sexual leanings, or merely as a collateral effect: Hall does express unambiguously that Stephen is the way she is because God made her thus (i.e., a person's sexuality is a matter of nature, not nurture), which, though now the widely-accepted view, decidedly put her at odds with the beliefs and attitudes of her own time (of which more anon).  Yet, the suggestion remains.


Radclyffe Hall, ca. 1930

However, perhaps Hall was merely reflecting her own experience in that regard (or expressing a wish for the sort of tolerant and empowering childhood she would have wanted to have, but didn't actually enjoy herself) -- for unquestionably, she was speaking from her own experience: She, too, preferred male over female dress, dropped her female first name (Margaret) and adopted instead the male nickname (John) that one of her lovers had given to her, and like her heroine, she came to move in the Paris expat scene, including the salon of Natalie Barney (who inspired this novel's character of Valérie Seymour), and she, too, had visited the Canary Islands with her first llover, as does the novel's Stephen with her great love Mary.  (Noël Coward, incidentally, is given quite an extensive cameo in the novel as well.)


Radclyffe Hall stated that her intentions in writing this novel were:

* "To encourage inverts to face up to a hostile world in their true colours and this with dignity and courage",

* "To spur all classes of inverts to make good through hard work, faithful and loyal attachments and sober and useful living", and

* "To bring normal men and women of good will to a fuller and more tolerant understanding of the inverted."

A staunch Catholic and conservative in her politics, Hall was in no way prepared for her novel's reception in England, even though in hindsight at the very least, it can hardly be called surprising that, only a few decades after Oscar Wilde's infamous obscenity trial, a book explicitly describing its heroine to have "kissed [another woman] on the mouth, like a lover" and (though never sexually explicit) detailing at great length a woman's emotional trials, tribulations, and pinings for the various female objects of her desire, would have swiftly engendered the same response.  (In Paris and Brittany, on the other hand, the publisher Jonathan Cape, who had shifted printing to France, and Sylvia Beach -- owner of Shakespeare & Co. -- could hardly keep up with demands for copies of the novel produced on French soil.)  While Virginia Woolf's Orlando (published the same year), her own "love letter" to Vita Sackville-West, flitted through centuries and even underwent a mid-novel sex change with nary a critic's batted eyelash, and Djuna Barnes's Nightwood (published a few years later) was saved from censorship by T.S. Eliot's editorial hands, Radclyffe Hall and Stephen Gordon walked straight into early 20th century England's bigoted attitude; obscenity trial, public vilification and virtually every other form of state-sponsored discrimination included.  And this, mind you, over a book that is leagues from the brilliant writing of an Oscar Wilde, a Virginia Woolf, or a T.S. Eliot: Diana Souhami, in her introduction of the novel's Virago Press edition, rightly describes it as "unsensational" in both language and content and goes on to state:

"Radclyffe Hall was no stylist. Her prose is lofty and lacking in irony. She distrusted innovation in literature or art, and shunned what she saw as the modern heresies of Edith Sitwell, Virginia Woolf, Hilda Doolittle or Gertrude Stein.  In her writing she invokes the Lord with discomfiting frequency and uses words like 'betoken' and 'hath.'  [...]

The Well of Loneliness has aspects of a pathological case history, religious parable, propaganda tract and Mills & Boon romance."

Decidedly more blunt, Virginia Woolf even found the novel unreadably dull: "[O]ne simply can't keep one's eye on the page," she wrote to a friend, suggesting that the book's very dullness as such was apt to successfully mask any indecency actually lurking in its pages.  And while I wouldn't go quite so far as Woolf, I do agree with both her and Souhami on the nature of the writing -- oscillating between plain vanilla blandness on the one hand and excessively overwrought emotions on the other hand -- and on the elements identified by Souhami (equal parts pathological case history, religious parable, propaganda tract and Mills & Boon romance).  If this book hadn't set out to do what, in 1920s and 1930s England was a complete and utter "no-no" -- to not only topicalize homosexuality but to boldly put it forth as equally worthy and deserving of acceptance and respect as heterosexual love --, this book would be long forgotten.  As in so many similar cases, it is not this novel's literary merit that has bestowed on it its lasting impact, but its topic and, at least as much (or even more so), society's reaction to that topic.  For those reasons alone, it is still a worthwhile read all these centuries later.


I read this for the "H" square of the Women Writers Bingo / Challenge.

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