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review 2016-01-03 07:52
cultural relativism run amok
The People in the Trees - Hanya Yanagihara

People of the Trees is a memoir based account of a brilliant and Nobel awarded doctor/scientist who discovers an elixir for eternal life

a slight exaggeration, but something that would enable you to live 300-400 years

(spoiler show)

 and who is prosecuted and convicted of child molestation. Either one of those two themes is heady enough for it's own book, but Hanya Yanagihara is clever enough to role it all together into a single sordid tale. Where A Little Life is a tome on the victim, People of the Trees is a study of the victimizer. Both books are compelling and superbly written.

The format of the book is primarily a memoir told from the perspective of our anti-hero Dr. Norton Perina, a biased and highly unreliable narrator. To make things worse, there is another level of meta narration from the book editor (and writer of footnotes) a Dr. Ronald Kubodera who is a professional colleague turned friend of Perina, and all around toady. I found it interesting how Kubodera gushed at the importance of his friendship with Perina (to the point of creepiness) however, Perina never once mentioned Kubodera in his memoir.

After some childhood and family background, Perina focuses on his professional life. Soon after medical school, Perina travels to an island in Micronesia called Ivu'ivu where he encounters some forest dwellers who live generations beyond the expected life span (medical discovery) and some interesting commonplace cultural practices centered around boys coming of age and how they are prepared for marriage (cultural discovery). Perina is the teller of his own story, and as such, he paints himself in a favorable light, and it's up to the dear reader to suss out some of the fucked up practices, attitudes and arrogance relayed throughout. Needless to say, when Perina started adopting children from Ivu'ivu and taking them back to the US, he was convinced he was doing a noble thing. Perina's fuel is his arrogance, it serves him well in his professional endeavors but seriously misguides him in personal pursuits.

It must be said that Poeple of the Trees is based (inspired?) on the very real life of Nobel prize winner Carleton Gajdusek. Gajdusek worked in New Guinea, and linked a very debilitating disease called kuru

think mad cow disease

(spoiler show)

 to funeral cannibalistic practices. Brilliant mind, brilliant work and Nobel prize worthy. Gajdusek, a confirmed bachelor, also adopted some 40+ children, mostly boys, and brought them back to the US. Seriously, Mia Farrow and Angelina Jolie are in the farm leagues compared to this guy. I took the time to watch a BBC documentary about Gajdusek, filmed before he died in 2009, and it was terrifyingly enlightening. While the fictional Perina was mostly reserved in what he revealed about his personal feelings and actions, Gajdusek literally boasted about his relations with boys and felt there was nothing wrong with it. To paraphrase Gajdusek:

I have never once taken a kid to bed. If they come to my bed, I am no one to kick them out. If they hug me and I find them playing with my cock I say 'good on you' and I play with theirs. Of the 300-400 boys who had sex with me, 8, 10, 12 year olds, 100% have jumped into my bed and asked for it. I have never asked for it. Don't you realize, I was jumping into beds (as a kid) hoping they would take me. All boys want a lover. The idea that men go after it, you don't have any point in the world. That's the rule of the game.

There you have it, confessions of a pedophile and the twisted rules that make it ok. Documentary can be viewed athttps://youtu.be/4OxppDxzSww
Equally chilling to Gajdusek's confession are his defenders in the scientific community. They mostly wanted to ignore his conviction and focus on his scientific accomplishments. Et tu Mandelbrot? (weeps)

In general it's good to learn about distant lands and other cultures, to understand that you are not the center of the universe. However, People in the Trees is a cautionary tale of a toxic blend of arrogance, cultural relativism, and imperialism.

Book challenge note - satisfies 39. A book that takes place on an island

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text 2015-11-16 02:44
bi bi baby!
I Must Confess - Rupert Smith

While I really did enjoy this book (thanks Lena, you know how to pick them for me!) it took me a while to figure out what it was about. It has elements of humor, drama, romance, satire, and social commentary on celebrity culture. In short, it's a parody of the celebrity confessional memoir. Fans of the author's alter ego James Lear will be very familiar with this format, only this is smut free PG-13 version.

I Must Confess falls into the fake memoir genre, as it follows Marc LeJeune through his sometimes tacky, sometimes desperate and sometimes brilliant entertainment career. It takes place mostly in London during the late 1960s through the early 1980s and many historical events and people are featured. Much of this so called confessional is treated as revisionist history, setting the record straight and damage control from bad press, a constant thorn in Marc's side. Marc is terminally torn between embracing his free and fun loving self and a having a carefully curated self image required to sustain an entertainment career.

Marc's life intersects with many cultural touchstones of the 60s, 70s and 80s as he pursues artistic endeavors in rock & roll, modeling, brand ambassador, experimental theater,

gay porn

(spoiler show)

 films and television. There is a bit of Forrest Gump vibe as Marc crosses paths with Andy Warhol, Elizabeth Taylor, and mentions David Bowie (pronounced "bau-ie" by the narrator, unclear if that was intentional). He even gets involved with a commune living arrangement with his wife 

in an unconsummated marriage

(spoiler show)

 and conveniently realizes the root of his issues with his relationship to men 

repressed memories of being sexually molested by his father

(spoiler show)


Much is made of the fact Marc LeJuene is self professed to be bisexual. Marc couldn't deny that he had sex with men, but coming out was not an option at the time. So bisexuality was the slightly naughty, slightly titillating compromise. Never mind that Marc only had sex with men and only fell in love with men. We live in a time where bi-erasure awareness is important, and so it feels sickly ironic that bisexuality was used to deny being homosexual. But so it went for Marc LeJeune. Denial was not just a river in Egypt for Marc, it was an essential ingredient to his fighting spirit and being a SUPERSTAR...

While Marc's carefully orchestrated self portrayal ends on a high note, the astute reader will have learned to read between the lines as we watch life imitate art imitating life.

A note for James Lear fans... there is a shout-out to The Back Passage. In this case it's a reference to a gay porn film. I Must Confess has minimal on-page sex, consistent with a Rupert James title. However, I can envision how the author might think, wouldn't it be fun to fill it with lots of graphic sex, and then some?

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review 2015-07-13 07:17
what happens to the great grandchildren of really bad people?
A Reunion Of Ghosts - Judith Claire Mitchell
A quirky family tale that mixes real historical characters with their fictionalized descendants that asks the question what is the statute of limitations for the sins of our father?  
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review 2015-01-20 03:03
3 anthropologists walk into a bar...
Euphoria - Lily King

Adventure, romance, love triangle, despair, intellectual, feminist…  Euphoria bundles many themes that appeal to me and I was swept away.   Very loosely based on the lives of anthropologists Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson while doing field work in 1930s New Guinea.   It seemed like a magical time, when there were non-western cultures to be explored, and a few open minded western anthropologists who approached the study without the rubric of western superiority or righteousness.  Such adventures do not come easy, they are fraught with disease, pests, bad food, danger and incredible loneliness, but this is not a tale of triumph over adversity.   Instead, it’s clever blend of character and anthropology, of how three people are trying to figure out how to do their work while doing their work, each with a very different approach.   


It is also very subtle, maybe a bit too subtle; there is much that the author leaves unwritten. Written in the alternating POVs of Nell Stone and Andrew Bankson (with Nell’s husband Fen in the middle), it took a few chapters to get the cadence.   Author, would it kill you to introduce the narrator and/or setting in each chapter? (this was my only niggle)


One thing I really loved about this was the portrayal of Nell, a complex character and feminist.  Specifically, it wasn't a story of her liberation, which was stipulated.  Rather, it was how she went about her work, her live and her loves.  


Now, I really need to read up on the real characters.  This is not a memoir or biography, and the author makes radical departures from the real characters.  I think that's a good thing as I thought the ending of Euphoria was just right.



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