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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-05-01 19:24
Deliverance, by James Dickey
Deliverance (Modern Library 100 Best Novels) - James Dickey

The film version of Deliverance is known for "that scene," the one where Bobby, one of four city men traversing a wild river in Georgia, is raped by a "hillbilly." The scene is a bit different in the book--there's no "Squeal like a pig!" moment--but essentially the same. Before I even saw the film, I knew about that scene. Men as victims of rape (outside of prison as a context) in stories shock us; women as victims are so common, often serving as the impetus for a male protagonist to seek revenge, or to "develop" a female character, that it's rare for their victimization to become the talking point of a film or book, unless the scene is especially brutal (e.g. Irreversible) or unique (e.g. that turkey baster in Don't Breathe).


I mention this because I came to Deliverance as a reader who is now rarely interested in books with white masculinity as their subject. Its spot on the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century likely put it on my radar, and when I read a sample I was dazzled by its language. Dickey's prose is the best thing about the novel, for a reader like me. He has a way of describing moments of consciousness or states of being that is unlike anything else I've read. It carried me through the story, even as the book became what I feared it might. In essence, it's about using and relying on one's physical and mental resources as a man to make it through a dire situation.


The leader of this river expedition is Lewis, the most capable and masculine "man's man" of the foursome. He's what we would today call a survivalist; he has faith in himself and his body, first and foremost, and wants to be prepared for anything. There's Drew, the sensible, amateur musician, and Bobby, the smartass who's the least helpful on the river. The protagonist and narrator is Ed, Lewis's best friend. Ed is mildly dissatisfied with his work (in advertising) and goes back and forth about wanting to take part in the river trip. When Lewis is badly injured and another member of their party killed by the surviving local man who participated in the rape (Lewis killed the other), it's up to Ed to get them out of there alive. He does, though injured and obliged to murder (or kill in self-defense, depending on your perspective). The three survivors lie about what happened, concerned they won't be believed by local law enforcement. This experience will clearly haunt them always.


What troubles me is the way Bobby is characterized, especially after the rape. When reading, especially a violent and potentially offensive book like this, I try to separate characters' actions and attitudes from the author's. Immediately after the rapist is killed by Lewis, Ed thinks to himself that he doesn't want to touch or be around Bobby. This is a moment where you can distinguish between character and author. But Bobby is elsewhere characterized as weak by the author; his ineptitude makes him a hazard to his friends more than a help as they traverse the river and try to escape the situation. Bobby is, in effect, the least masculine and feminized. Drew had his sense of morality going for him; what does Bobby have except (useless) humor?


The few women in the book are wives or objects of a desirous male gaze. Ed has sex with his wife the morning he leaves for the trip, and when he returns, thinks he hasn't appreciated her enough. Drew's widow is angry and predictably points out how useless a death he suffered, adventuring on a river. Throughout the story, Ed thinks of the model who posed topless (back to the camera) and held her breast in a roomful of men, a gold tint in one eye. The women seem there to help define the men's masculinity.


Deliverance is tightly constructed, the type of book with symbolism to pore through, ready for a book group or class discussion. I've mentioned its stellar language and also gasped at several points. I can certainly understand its presence on the Modern Library's list, even as I struggle with some elements.

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review 2017-04-13 22:39
Lord of the Flies / William Golding
Lord of the Flies - William Golding

Somehow, I missed this book during my school years. I remember seeing stacks of them in our school, but it was never assigned in one of my classes. I can see why it is a staple of high school curriculums, however, since it’s themes are easily seen and interpreted. There is plenty to discuss.
I would have appreciated it in high school, having struggled with Orwell’s Animal Farm instead. Lord of the Flies is pretty straight-forward in its depiction of the descent of supposedly civilized British boarding school boys into “savages” when left without adult supervision. Perhaps it is also a comment on boarding schools in general, which a couple of my friends have experienced (and do not recommend).

I find myself wondering how Golding would have written things differently if there were girls in the mix. Would they have been considered a “civilizing influence”? Or would they have become prizes or hostages in some boy’s competition? How did the “Little’uns” manage to escape the worst of the mistreatment that can be dished out when group dynamics go awry?

I chose this book after reading Barrie’s Peter Pan last year, wanting to contrast the “lost boys” in both novels. Unlike Barrie’s Lost Boys, the boys in LOTF have to grow up. Golding makes them struggle with adult responsibilities that they really aren’t prepared for, like keeping a signal fire going and building adequate shelters. I was also reminded of Robinson Crusoe, but his journey was actually towards religion, rather than away from it. Many years with only a Bible to read turns him into a religious man, which at the time would be considered more civilized.

A worthwhile book, but not one that I will ever likely re-read.

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review 2016-06-13 21:50
Wide Sargasso Sea / Jean Rhys
Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys

Born into an oppressive, colonialist society, Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway meets a young Englishman who is drawn to her innocent sensuality and beauty. But soon after their marriage, rumors of madness in her family poison his mind against her. He forces Antoinette to conform to his rigid Victorian ideals.


The accepted wisdom of writing is to “write what you know.” And Jean Rhys knew the Caribbean area, about being a woman there, and about the effects of colonialism. Like Bertha Mason/Antoinette Cosway (the future madwoman in Mr. Rochester’s attic in Jane Eyre), she was a Creole woman from Dominica and she led a difficult life when she was sent to school in England. Did she feel like she belonged in neither the Caribbean culture nor in England, perhaps feeling mired in the seaweed of the Sargasso Sea which separates the two areas? Rhys certainly knew poverty, alcoholism, and struggling to survive in a system which favours men.

The heat of the tropical location matches well with the heated nature of Antoinette’s relationship with Rochester and contrasts nicely with the coldness so evident in Jane Eyre in both climate and people. Rochester, being young and used to emotionally controlled, cooler English women, has no idea how to deal with her. He truly only wants her money, not her person, so he uses his Victorian male prerogative to declare her mad, to change her name to Bertha, to force her to move to England and to be confined to the attic. She is in practical terms owned by Rochester, just as any slave would be, by virtue of having married him, despite where she may fall along the white/black continuum (too white to fit in to Caribbean society, not quite white enough for England).

Who wouldn’t go mad under those conditions?

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review 2015-09-29 22:54
The Magnificent Ambersons / Booth Tarkington
The Magnificent Ambersons - Booth Tarkington

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize when it was first published in 1918. The Magnificent Ambersons chronicles the changing fortunes of three generations of an American dynasty. The protagonist of Booth Tarkington's great historical drama is George Amberson Minafer, the spoiled and arrogant grandson of the founder of the family's magnificence. Eclipsed by a new breed of developers, financiers, and manufacturers, this pampered scion begins his gradual descent from the midwestern aristocracy to the working class.


While reading The Magnificent Ambersons, I couldn’t help but compare Tarkington’s work to that of his fellow Hoosier, Kurt Vonnegut. I know, completely unfair, as they are of different generations. But I think they share a certain desire to demonstrate the necessity for kindness in an industrial world.


Interestingly, the other writer that I kept thinking of was Robertson Davies. Seeing the world from the view point of George Amberson Minifer was a little like looking at Canada through the eyes of Boy Staunton of Davies’ Deptford Trilogy. I could just envision Boy Staunton, as the rich young ruler in Deptford (as seen through the eyes of Dunstan Ramsey) and he blurred with Georgie from time to time. Especially since both Boy Staunton and Georgie Minafer were very concerned with appearances, etiquette, and properness. The convolutedness of the family relationships also reminded me strongly of Davies (Francis Cornish’s relationship to his aunt in What’s Bred in the Bone, for example).


But enough comparing Booth Tarkington to other authors! I did appreciate his clear-sightedness with regards to human behaviour and our remarkable capacity to misunderstand what is motivating other people. How strong is our tendency to attribute our own reasons to the actions of another! And how completely inaccurate that can be—it’s a wonder that there aren’t more serious differences among family and friends than already occur. Ah, family relationships—the refusal to talk about money is a deadly sin, laid out here in dissection.


Recommended for those who are overly concerned about the opinions of others.

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review 2015-04-27 15:58
The Ginger Man / J.P. Donleavy
The Ginger Man - J.P. Donleavy

First published in Paris in 1955 and originally banned in America, J. P. Donleavy's first novel is now recognized the world over as a masterpiece and a modern classic of the highest order. Set in Ireland just after World War II, The Ginger Man is J. P. Donleavy's wildly funny, picaresque classic novel of the misadventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, a young American ne'er-do-well studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Dangerfield's appetite for women, liquor, and general roguishness is insatiable--and he satisfies it with endless charm.


Before starting this novel, it would be helpful to review two definitions:

1. Satire: the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

2. Picaresque: of or relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero.

I started reading The Ginger Man without reviewing those principles and nearly quit in disgust. Even after getting those concepts clear in my head, I was able to merely tolerate the main character. Sebastian Dangerfield is truly a bastard, totally consumed with drinking, smoking, eating, and seducing women, all while doing absolutely no work (or study) and paying as few bills as possible. In other words, I had great difficulty with seeing him as an appealing main character.

You’ve probably run into one of these characters at some point in your life—if he would just put as much effort into a job as he puts into avoiding getting a job, he would have the money that he so desperately desires. Those of us who live responsible lives watch these cads with fascination and revulsion—most of us wouldn’t be able to withstand the mental strain that they navigate on a daily basis, leading me to believe that they are either narcissists or sociopaths, who simply don’t feel the responsibilities of civilized life in the way that most of us do. [Wikipedia informs me that this book is reputedly semi-autobiographical for Donleavy, making me wonder what kind of person he is].

I’ve also read a later book of Donleavy’s, The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, which is somewhat different in tone. Balthazar is a somewhat more sympathetic character, portrayed as a confused victim in life, manipulated by those around him (somewhat like O’Keefe in The Ginger Man). But Balthazar’s friend Beefy is another version of Dangerfield. I’m also curious about the title, The Ginger Man. It is never explained and Dangerfield doesn’t refer to himself as the ginger man until page 255 and not again until the very last page. If the cover is any indication, it refers to Dangerfield’s hair colour, as he is illustrated as a red head. So that remains a bit of a question in my mind.

Part of my issue, I am sure, is that I am female and tend to identify with the women in the novel. I was frustrated with their behaviour as well. Why in the world would his wife leave Sebastian a forwarding address the first time she left him? And those single women whom Sebastian seduces—what in the world do they see in him? I want to shake each and every one of them!

One of my female friends recommended Donleavy’s writing to me and I chose this book because it was on the Modern Library’s list of 100 top novels. Obviously other people find it amusing and worthwhile to read. I cannot count myself among them, however, despite the skillfulness of the writing. I think this is the last Donleavy work that I will read. There are too many books that I’m sure I will enjoy to spend my valuable reading time on this author.


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