Category Archives: romance

Books about or featuring romance.

Review 173: Still Life With Woodpecker

Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins

When my brother gave me this book for Christmas, he told me to “drink in the writing.” Or something to that effect. Whatever it was, he heaped praise on Robbins’ use of language. Several people in my family had read this, or some other Tom Robbins book, and they all enthusiastically agreed that reading him was a pleasure unto itself, above and beyond the enjoyment one gets from reading the actual story. I was promised an actual Reading Experience, and that promise was fulfilled in spades.

Reading Robbins is like sitting through a storm. His words flow down the page like the acid dreams of a long-reformed hippie. They dance and spin, curling into strange and exotic shapes that you can’t quite take in on the first read, so you look at the page again, convinced that there must have been something there that you missed. You find yourself at the end of a section, convinced that you’ve read it, but not entirely sure what you’ve read. Or you go back and read it again just because reading it the first time was just such fun.

Just pretend I'm not here. (photo by DeathandDisinfectant on DeviantArt)

Most modern writers do their best to keep you involved in the story, to keep the writing from drawing attention to itself. Much in the same way that many filmmakers try to keep you from thinking, “Oh, I’m looking through a camera,” so do writers try to keep you from thinking about the words – their lens through which they transmit their message and images. Robbins completely eschews this principle – not only does he make sure you notice his words, he goes out of the way to make the words themselves more interesting than the story.

This is not to say that the story isn’t interesting, of course. It is a romance, albeit a strange and brambly one. A young princess, the only child of an exiled king and queen, has vowed to devote her life to the betterment of the Earth, to use her royal station to help the world and to absolutely never fall in love – or even have sex – again. For very good reasons, of course. Nothing like having a miscarriage while cheerleading for your college football team to dampen your reproductive urges. This plan works up until she gets to a ecology conference in Maui, where she meets the man of her nightmares – a notorious terrorist who is nicknamed the Woodpecker.

The Woodpecker (his real name is Bernard) is a self-professed outlaw, a man who takes joy in subverting order, thumbing his nose at authority and living with a complete disregard for legal niceties such as not blowing things up. He’s been in prison and escaped, and has only a short time until the statute of limitations finally runs out. This doesn’t stop Bernie from bringing dynamite with him to Maui, and under the influence of alcohol and lust and rage, he tips his hand too soon. The only thing standing between him and prison is the beautiful red-headed princess – Leigh-Cherie – who hates him at first sight and swears that there is absolutely nothing about him that she finds redeeming.

Yes, yes, you hate each other. GET A ROOM!

We all know where that kind of thinking leads.

They fall in love, of course, a whirlwind outlaw romance that is only put to rest when Bernie finally lands back in prison. As a show of solitude to her lover, Leigh-Cherie locks herself in her room, turning it into a cell to mirror that of her beloved, and swears not to leave it until he leaves his. The only things in the room are a bed, a chamber pot, and a pack of Camel cigarettes.

That’s where things start to get weird.

The nice thing about this book is that you don’t really have to ponder what the themes were – Robbins points them out quite clearly by the end of the book, so if you didn’t get it the first time, you’ll be able to get it the next time ’round. It’s a story about love, of course, and the irrational, weird turns it can take. It’s about history, about the great, never-ending “why” that drives us from one act to the next. And, interestingly enough, it’s about our relationship with the physical world, from the greatest of the Egyptian pyramids to the most mundane pack of Camels.

During her self-inflicted time in solitary, Leigh-Cherie constructs a vast universe inside the label of her cigarettes (which she never actually smokes) and it leads her to truths and realizations that would confound the greatest philosopher or the most devoted mystic. By contemplating the mundane, she finds the key to the universe.

Speaking of relating to objects, the story itself is a kind of romance between Robbins and his typewriter – a Remington SL3 – which doesn’t, insofar as I have been able to tell, exist. Theirs is a tumultuous love. It begins with a tentative love, a hope that the machine is The One for this book. It passes through admiration and infatuation, only to end with rejection as Robbins finishes the book in longhand.

Oh my god, I can see forever!! And a naked man, BUT MOSTLY FOREVER!!!

As Robbins relates to his Remington, and Leigh-Cherie to her pack of Camels, so do we have relationships with objects. We become familiar with our possessions, imbuing them with character and personality. Not only that, but once we give consideration to the history of that object – its design and manufacturing, where the idea and the materials came from – we find that we can read the history of the universe in something as simple as a paper clip.

It’s a weird and wonderful book. The characters are vibrant and real, in a kind of hyper-real way. It’s funny and bright, changing pace and rhythm from page to page and really is a delight to sit and read. Even more fun to read aloud, actually, so if you have a chance to do that, jump and take it.

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“Plato did claim that the unexamined life is not worth living. Oedipus Rex was not so sure.”
– Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker
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Tom Robbins on Wikipedia
Still Life With Woodpecker on Wikipedia
Still Life With Woodpecker on Amazon.com

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Filed under anarchy, fiction, humor, romance, terrorism, Tom Robbins, writing

Review 117: I Will Fear No Evil

I Will Fear No Evil by Robert Heinlein

One of the things I enjoy about Heinlein is that he likes to play with Big Ideas. While he did dip into the well of action and adventure, especially for his juvenile stories, he treated his readers like they were only slightly intellectually inferior to him, and so explored concepts that required a lot of heavy thinking. The need for war, the inevitability of messiahs, revolution, life, death, immortality – he’s not afraid to look at some of the greatest philosophical topics that reside in the human heart, and this book is no exception.

Johann Sebastian Bach Smith is a very old, very sick, very rich man. He built himself up from nothing and rose to financial prominence in what is a little more than a regular human lifetime. Smith had it all – a rich and exciting life, complete financial security, good friends and good memories in a world that had, frankly, gone to hell. He had very nearly everything a person would want to have.

Photo by openDemocracy

What he didn’t have was time. He lived in daily pain, kept alive by only two things: an ever-increasing number of machines and a plan to release himself from the geriatric horror his life had become. He knew that this plan would probably fail. He knew that he was facing death no matter what happened. He knew that it was crazy, and not necessarily crazy enough to work. But it was all that stood between him and suicide.

That plan was, in theory, very simple: transplant his healthy brain into the body of a healthy young person. By doing so, he would gain a whole extra lifetime to enjoy the fruits of his first lifetime’s labor. Not being a monster, he was prepared to do this in a legal and ethical fashion. With his legal, medical, and judicial contacts, he made arrangements with a medical advocacy group to get the body of a healthy young person who died due to some massive brain trauma. And – and this is important – who consented to having their body used for medical experimentation. Everything would be above-board, legally sound and ethically certain. All Smith had to do was stay alive until a body became available.

Now just put the two of them together... IF YOU DARE!

When it did, however, he was in for a double surprise. Not only was the healthy, youthful body that of a female, it was that of his healthy, youthful, beautiful secretary, Eunice Branca. Eunice had been murdered, but her body was in excellent condition. She had the right blood type, and had consented to have her body used for Smith’s experiment. The one doctor in the world who could perform the surgery was brought in to perform it, and against all odds, it worked. Johann Sebastian Bach Smith was reborn as Joan Eunice Smith, and her new life began.

But she was not alone.

By some means, Eunice’s mind survived to live with Joan, and tutor her in all the ways of being a woman. Joan dove happily into her new life, exploring her new femininity and sexuality as best she could.

In that sense, this whole book is an exploration of sexual identity. Here we have a man who is now a woman, even though that was never his intention. He soon finds himself thinking like a woman, though, bringing up the question of whether gender is determined by a person’s mind, or by the body it inhabits. If you put a male mind into a female body, with the vastly different hormones and sensory inputs, will that male mind start to act like a female? And even if it does, should it?

Smith makes a decision to, with Eunice’s help, be the best woman he can be, mostly because he feels that is what is expected of him. After a lifetime of conforming to male societal roles, Smith wholeheartedly embraces the female ones, up to and including seducing his best friend of many decades. Gender identity in this book is a tangled mess of biology and intention, and it looks at being female from a distinctly male point of view.

It was a different time....

Which brings me to my first problem with this book: the casual misogyny. I know it’s a pretty loaded word to throw around, and it’s not entirely accurate, but it was the one that kept coming to my mind. While Heinlein is certainly capable of creating strong and independent female characters, and emphasizes over and over again that both Eunice and Joan are actively choosing the lives they lead, those lives are almost entirely dependent on and revolve around men. One of Smith’s first actions when he goes from Johann to Joan is to latch on to a man – her old friend Jake Saloman. She views her identity as a woman as incomplete without a man to base it on, and spends most of the book trying to figure out who she is in relation to men – Jake, her security guards, Eunice’s widower, and more. She repeatedly mentions how helpless she is without a Big Strong Man in her life, and all of this culminates in what is possibly one of the most misogynist moments I have ever read in sci-fi: a spanking scene.

And not a sexy one, either. In a moment of adolescent pique that Jake won’t sleep with her when she wants him to, Joan throws a fit, disrupting their dinner plans. Jake proceeds to throw her over his knee and give her a spanking because, and I’m quoting here, “You were being difficult… and it is the only thing I know of which will do a woman any good when a man can’t do for her what she needs.” Joan accepts the spanking meekly, not only thanking Jake for his spanking, but also claiming that she had her first orgasm while he did it.

Wow. That’s nearly as bad as the other major female character, Winnie, who talks about a gang rape experience with what can almost be imagined as fondness.

Oddly enough, this is not my biggest problem with the book. I mean, it was written in the late ’60s, and it reflects the thinking of that era. For all his progressive beliefs, Heinlein was still a man of his time, and it really shows here. Legend [1] has it that he was really sick when he wrote this book, and that may have had something to do with the fact that no matter how many complex hot-button issues he touches (gender roles, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, overpopulation, government overreach), the fact remains that there is no story in this book.

This picture contains more conflict than this book

Let me explain. A story needs conflict. It needs not only a protagonist that is trying to achieve something, but obstacles that impede that achievement. There were so many potential goals and obstacles to be explored in this story – a man’s brain in a woman’s body – but Heinlein manages to artfully dodge all of them. The story of Smith’s inner struggle to resolve the gender he grew up with with the gender he now possesses would have been fascinating. But it didn’t happen. Smith pretty much accepts the change right away, with few if any reservations. Even so, he could have struggled with how to live as a woman – should he adopt the identity that a patriarchal society would confer upon him as a woman, or forge his own as a uniquely gendered person who has gone from the privileged to the unprivileged sex? Unfortunately, the conflict doesn’t even occur to Joan. She decided to be the best woman she can be, constantly asking others what that entails, rather than asking herself.

Or how about the concept of Identity itself? Smith is an old brain in a new body, so is he legally the same person he was before the surgery? That would be an amazing story as he tries to prove that Johann has become Joan, and that even though Eunice’s body is still walking around, she’s actually dead. But no – Smith has some powerful legal friends with ironclad arguments, and the legal proceedings are pretty much a foregone conclusion.

Or how about rejection by society? Regular transgendered people have a hard enough time getting society to accept the modification of the body they were born with – what about when someone takes on an entirely new body? Joan could have struggled to get her friends and family to accept who she has become, to stand before the world with her head held high. But no…. She has enough money that she doesn’t really need society’s approval, none of her friends have any trouble with what she’s become, and even Eunice’s widower has only a moment of uncontrollable emotion before accepting that his wife is dead, but still walking around. And he might get to sleep with her again.

Imagine this in your head ALL the TIME.

One last one – the soul. Joan hears Eunice’s voice in her head, but it’s unclear whether it is really Eunice or if it’s just Joan’s imagination. What’s more, they never fight. They never have a serious disagreement and have to resolve their differences so that they can continue to occupy the same skull. Eunice and Joan live together like wisecracking sisters and never have to deal with the problem of living with someone you can’t get rid of, even if you’re not sure if they’re real.

In other words, there’s no there there. It’s a long, talky, philosophical exploration of some fascinating topics, but as a novel, it’s incredibly dull. You keep waiting for the blow-up, for the accident, for the Big Problem that Joan and Jake have to struggle to overcome, and it never arrives. Everything works out either through money or force of will or Heinlein’s trademark Sheer Damn Reasonableness. Between that and the constant thought of, “He did not just say that,” I found this book rather stressful to plow through. It offers up a lot of big ideas to think on, raises some very important questions, and Heinlein’s gift for dialogue makes some fun conversations, but I think I would have liked it more if it had been completely different.

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“Sir, if you want to give me a fat lip, I’ll hold still, smile happily, and take it. Oh, Jake darling, it’s going to be such fun to be married to you!”
“I think so too, you dizzy bitch.”
– Joan and Jake, I Will Fear No Evil by Robert Heinlein
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[1] Wikipedia

Robert Heinlein on Wikipedia
I Will Fear No Evil on Wikipedia
I Will Fear No Evil on Amazon.com
The Heinlein Society

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Filed under afterlife, bad, death, existentialism, friendship, gender, gender roles, ghosts, homosexuality, identity, Robert Heinlein, romance, science fiction, sexuality

Review 107: Wizard and Glass

Wizard and Glass by Stephen King

So. Now that we’ve put three books behind us, and sit at the pivot of the series, it is time that we settle down and have ourselves a little palaver about Roland, the Gunslinger.

We know little about this man, the protagonist of our epic series. We know he’s a hard man, the kind of man who can cross deserts, brave oceans, and kill entire towns if need be. We know he’s a dedicated man, who will follow his quarry wherever they may flee to. We know he is single-minded, the kind of person who would allow an eleven year-old boy to fall to his death if that meant getting another foot closer to his precious Dark Tower. He is a hard man, Roland Deschain is. He is the Gunslinger.

But who is he really? Who was he before he started on this mad quest for something that may or may not exist? How did he get set on this path that could determine the fate of worlds, this quest that led to the deaths of everyone he ever loved? Who is he?

Blaine the Mono (art by Revenant42)

Well settle down, boys and girls, because this is where we get to find out. In between destroying a sentient monorail at a rigged game of riddles and facing off against the darkest Dark Man there is in a mock-up of the Palace of the Emerald City, Roland tells his ka-tet the tale that shaped him and set him on his path. It is a tale that begins with his entry into manhood – a trial by violence where he bested his teacher, Cort, in a duel to the pain, and ends with Roland’s soul nearly destroyed.

Roland and his companions, Alain and Cuthbert, have been sent by their fathers to the most out-of-the-way place they know – a small village called Hambry in the Barony of Meijis. Their alleged purpose is to count things, more as a punishment than a mission. They seem to be three boys who got into trouble, and who now must pay by spending their summer doing menial work. They don’t want any trouble, and they hope that no one will give them any.

They say there is a monster in the Citgo fields. Green, mayhap.... (photo by Cogito Ergo Imago)

That’s the story, anyway. In reality, they’re looking for evidence of the workings of John Farson, also known as The Good Man, who is leading a popular revolution against the established order in Roland’s home country, In-World. Hambry has an oil field, the work of the Great Old Ones, which is known to locals simply as “Citgo” Should Farson get enough oil – and the means to refine it – he will be able to revive ancient war machines and bring death to all of In-World. With Roland, Alain and Cuthbert as spies for the Affiliation, the Gunslingers in Gilead hope that they can stall, if not stop, Farson’s rebellion.

That would have been great if only Roland Deschain hadn’t met Susan Delgado, the daughter of a deceased horse-breeder and soon to be the promised girl of the mayor of Hambry. As soon as they meet, their destiny is clear: it is true love. No more able to stand against their fate than a tree in a whirlwind, Roland and Susan do as all young lovers have done, and risk discovery and death in the process. In every corner there are those who would stand against them: Susan’s spinster aunt, Cordelia, who hopes to make some money selling her niece off to the mayor; the Big Coffin Hunters, three mercenaries who work for Farson and who mean to see every last drop of oil gets in his hands; and Rhea of the Cöos, a horrible witch who possesses a crystal orb that lets her see all the malicious things that people do. Against these arrayed forces, Roland and his friends must not only foil the plans of John Farson, but also escape Meijis with their lives.

With the first, they are successful. With the second, not so much.

Dark Tower fans that I have talked to generally agree that this is the best book of the seven, for many reasons. First, we get to see Roland before he became all tall, gritty and scary. We see him as a callow youth, a boy of fourteen who is in way over his head, tackling responsibilities that would be better handled by a grown man. They’re on the losing side of a terrible war as it is, as they’re up against the combined cunning and guile of some very bad people. In many cases it is luck as much as skill that leads them to their eventual victory.

Roland and Susan (art by Jae Lee)

What’s more, we get to see Roland in love, and this is really where King shines in this book. He says in the afterward that he was dreading writing this book, mainly because he knew that he would have to portray teenage love – first love – in a realistic fashion, which can be hard to do when you’re several decades removed from being a teenager. All the madness that comes with teen love – the longing, the furtive trysts, the absolute certainty in what you are doing and that no one can stop you. The way that the person you’re in love with is all you can think about, and the only thing you want is to be with them again, if only for a moment. The way you freely and willingly lose your mind for love.

It’s something which, thankfully, we grow out of as adults. Frankly, if I ever felt like that again, I’d probably throw myself under a train.

King has done a fantastic job with the relationship between Susan and Roland – it’s as realistic as he can make it, without being mawkish and overly romantic. We are never allowed to forget that, like so many doomed lovers before them, they are risking everything with their love – their mission, their friends, and their lives – and we know that even the slightest misstep can mean disaster. Mixed with the other, more adventure-driven elements of the plot, it’s incredibly tense, and it’s handled very well.

The romance aside, there are some wonderful characters in this book, and as is the case with so many Stephen King novels, the best ones are the bad ones. Susan’s aunt Cordelia is a bundle of jealous paranoia, and you can feel her mainspring winding up every time she shows up on the page. Eldred Jonas is a laid-back killer, an old man who has buried countless young men, and means to bury Roland and his friends. And Rhea is just palpably foul. You can almost smell her when she shows up, which is a great accomplishment – and you can’t wait to see her again.

Rhea of the Cöos (art by Jae Lee)

As an aside, Marvel Comics has been doing comic book stories of Roland’s youth, and the first one re-tells this tale. It’s called The Gunslinger Born, and while it’s not bad, there is a certain emptiness to it. It’s not easy to compress hundreds of pages of character and plot development into a seven-issue comic series. I don’t know how it would read to someone who hasn’t read this book, but to me it looked like it was missing a whole hell of a lot….

As I said, this book is the pivot on which the series turns, and it is essential to understanding Roland. We have to know who he was and how he became who he is. While there are still questions to be answered, and stories to be told, the big story is out. Now he and his ka-tet can continue in their quest for the tower, confident that they know a little more about this man who yanked them from their worlds into his. For us, the character and his world become richer, more full of meaning. Things that we might not have thought about in the first few books become more meaningful, and we can better appreciate the history of his dying world. Most importantly, we can begin to understand why it is so important that he find the Dark Tower, and we pray that he knows what to do when he gets there.

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“I’ll pay ye back. By all the gods that ever were, I’ll pay ye back. When ye least expect it, there Rhea will be, and your screams will break your throats. Do you hear me? Your screams will break your throats!
– Rhea Dubativo of the Cöos, Wizard and Glass

Wizard and Glass on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower Portal on Wikipedia
Stephen King on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower homepage
Wizard and Glass on Amazon.com

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Filed under adventure, coming of age, Dark Tower, death, fantasy, friendship, murder, quest, romance, sexuality, Stephen King, teenagers, witches, wizardry, world-crossing

Review 49: Comrade Loves of the Samurai


Comrade Loves of the Samurai by Ihara Saikaku

At last, the book you’ve been waiting for – a book of gay samurai love stories! Woo-hoo! Hot Bushido love! Awwwwww yeah…..

No, seriously, it’s short stories of gay samurai love.

You see, here’s the thing – prior to the modern era of Japan, the attitude towards gay love was similar to that of ancient Greece. Women were fine for having children and securing alliances and building property, but if you want real passion, real true love, you needed a bright-eyed young boy. This kind of relationship between an older man and an adolescent boy, generally known as pederasty (which is often wrongly confused with pedophilia), was considered a natural and healthy bond in those days, and assuming that both parties acted honorably and respectfully, it was mutually beneficial.

As in many other world cultures, this kind of bond was a common one, especially amongst the religious and ruling classes – people who were less interested in breeding large families and more interested in the aesthetic aspects of romance and eroticism. It wasn’t necessarily a lifelong bond, but it could be, and some of these pairings have inspired love stories as passionate and heartbreaking as any other.

This being Japan, of course, most of the love stories in this book don’t end well. About half tend to finish with seppuku, ending the lives of the lovers and, occasionally, other people who are unlucky enough to be in the area. The story All Comrade-Lovers Die by Hara-Kiri is a case in point – it’s the story of Ukyo, Uneme and Samanousuke, three youths bound together by a deep, passionate love. When Ukyo murders a romantic rival in order to prevent the deaths of his friends, he is ordered to kill himself to pay for it. His beloved Uneme joins him in death, and Samanousuke, unable to live without either of the men he loves, takes his own life soon after.

Then there’s Love Vowed to the Dead, in which young Muranousuke fulfills the dying wish of his best friend Gorokitji by giving himself to Gorokitji’s lost lover. In He Died to Save his Lover, young Korin allows himself to be tortured and executed by one lover to save the life of another, and of course, He Followed his Friend into the Other World, After Torturing him to Death, which is pretty much what it sounds like. Let it be said, though, that Sasanousuke didn’t mean for Hayemon to freeze to death, it just kind of happened that way.

In my favorite, The Tragic Love of Two Enemies, a man, Senpatji, falls in love with the young son of the samurai that he had been ordered to kill many years before. The boy, Shynousuke, is ordered by his mother to kill Senpatji, and thus avenge his father, but the boy cannot bring himself to murder the man he loves – especially since Senpatji had been acting under the orders of his lord. He convinces his mother to give them one more night together, which she does, because she’s not completely heartless. She finds them dead the next morning, both impaled through their hearts on Shynousuke’s sword.

Who says the Japanese aren’t romantic?

There are happy(ish) tales, too. Tales of constant dedication, of loyalty and hidden desires in the courtly world of the ruling classes of Edo-period Japan. Men and boys endure great hardships and risk their lives to be together, and on occasion get to spend the rest of their lives together.

These stories were all written back in the 17th century and the author gained great notoriety writing these kinds of soft romances. One of his books was titled, Glorious Tales of Pederasty, which I would really love to see on a bookshelf at Borders someday. Just to see the reactions…. There’s a whole lot of, “They lay together through the night” kind of language, and a general avoidance of sordid detail. Still, they’re well-written, and well-translated, so you can get a very good sense, in these short, short stories, of the kinds of relationships that popped up among the samurai class way back before Western prudishness got its claws into people. In the preface to Glorious Tales, Ihara says:

Our eyes are soiled by the soft haunches and scarlet petticoats of women. These female beauties are good for nothing save to give pleasure to old men in lands where there is not a single good-looking boy. If a man is interested in women, he can never know the joys of pederasty. 

So that should give you an idea of the cultural divide you’re working against when you pick up this book. It’s tough for us modern folks, whose culture is dead set against cross-generational homosexual relationships, to really be comfortable reading stories like this. Usually when you hear stories about a grown man and a teenage boy, it’s immediately classified as “abuse.” Images of windowless panel vans, sweaty gym teachers, NAMBLA meetings rise up and…. Yeah.

Speaking from an American perspective, I can’t think of any situation where a relationship such as the ones in this book would ever be considered acceptable, despite the purity of the feelings involved. The characters in these stories, it must be noted, are not leches. They’re not Herbert from Family Guy. But no matter how pure my intentions might be, if I were to start hanging around the arcades, chatting up fifteen year-old boys, my life as a respectable citizen would be effectively over.

Even assuming that a relationship built on pederasty can be mutually beneficial – and it could be argued that it can – it’s still a) illegal in most places and b) massively creepy. So that makes it an interesting challenge to get into these stories. Life was different back then, after all. The extended childhood that we take for granted in our teenage years pretty much didn’t exist. As soon as someone reached the age of sexual maturity, they were basically proto-adults, rather than lingering children, and were therefore fair game. So as much as I hate to invoke cultural relativism (because I find it wishy-washy and noncommittal), I have to just say, “It was a different time.” In times gone by, pederastic relationships worked, but our culture has moved to a point now where even if it were legalized, the emotional and experiential gulf between the older and younger party would probably make it impossible to go beyond a relationship built on physical eroticism.

Still, the feelings in these stories are just as valid and pure as “traditional” romances, the obstacles they overcome and risks they take are just as real and just as difficult. If you can set aside your more judgmental self, you can appreciate the depth of feeling that existed in these relationships, and recognize the universal themes of all great love stories – discovery, love, loss, betrayal, redemption…. They’re all here. So get reading.

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“The fairest plants and trees meet their death because of the marvel of their flowers. And it is the same with humanity: many men perish because they are too beautiful.”
– Ihara Saikaku, Comrade Loves of the Samurai
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Ihara Saikaku on Wikipedia
Comrade Loves of the Samurai on Amazon.com
Pederastic couples in Japan on Wikipedia

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Filed under homosexuality, Ihara Saikaku, Japan, romance

Review 41: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies


Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Full disclosure: I have never read Pride and Prejudice. It’s one of those novels that you’re really supposed to read, and maybe I did read it back in high school English class, but if I did, my brain has scabbed it over. It’s a book that, for reasons which I don’t understand, is adored around the world.

The original book (according to Wikipedia and what I gleaned from reading this) is a tale of the Troubles of Rich People. It’s a novel of manners, in which the conflict centers entirely around the personalities of the people involved. The protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, is one of five daughters born to a house of moderate means. Since they’re growing up in a patriarchal society, the only way for them to be at all successful in their lives is to get married – especially so that they might have some chance of inheriting part of their father’s estate someday. Their father seems to resent that they were all born girls, and really wants nothing to do with the family at all. Their mother has but one wish, and that’s to see her daughters all get married.

So when a handsome young man – Charles Bingley – moves into the neighborhood, the Bennet household is all a-flutter over the hopes that he might pick one of their girls to make into an honest woman. Unfortunately he brings his friend with him, Fitzwilliam Darcy, who is immediately unlikable, especially to headstrong and opinionated young Elizabeth.

I don’t know if it was Austen who gave birth to this trope in fiction, but we all know what’s going to happen when two characters are introduced that hate each other from the start.

The story goes on, propelled forward by the ever-evolving relationship between Darcy, whose brusque and unmannered exterior hides a deep and compassionate soul, and Elizabeth, whose independent and free-thinking nature is reined in by the discovery that what she assumes to be true very seldom is. It’s a book about relationships and about passions, about manners and status and about 300 pages too long for me to deal with.

I like to think that I’m a cultured, intelligent person, but there’s only so much I can take of this kind of thing. I find it really hard to care about people I have so little in common with – I have no property to protect, I don’t really care about social class or about artificially inflated systems of manner. I don’t come from a family that is concerned with marriage or status, and so I don’t identify with the characters. In works of this nature the world is alien to me. I can’t relate to the story and, more importantly, I don’t want to relate to the story. I hope that I have better things to do with my life than worry about who has fallen in love with whom and who is hiding dark secrets from their past.

And so, the addition of zombies to the tale is just fine with me.

According to the co-author, Seth Grahame-Smith:

“You have this fiercely independent heroine, you have this dashing heroic gentleman, you have a militia camped out for seemingly no reason whatsoever nearby, and people are always walking here and there and taking carriage rides here and there. It was just ripe for gore and senseless violence. From my perspective anyway.” 

Smith saw a great opportunity, which I’m sure many other people will follow. Since Pride and Prejudice is a book in the public domain, anyone can do whatever they want to it without having to worry about copyright laws. If you want to make a movie or a play or a comic book or a porno movie out of it, you’re free to do so. Smith saw a chance to create, for lack of a better term, a literary mash-up, bringing two types of story together into something completely new.

Now, the Bennet daughters are five of the fiercest fighters in England, devoted to holding back the zombie menace that has gripped the country for five and fifty years. Trained by the greatest Chinese masters in all the killing arts, the Bennet Sisters are famous for their merciless dealings with the unmentionables that roam the countryside, looking for fresh brains to sate their unnatural hunger. Elizabeth Bennet not only has an independent and free-thinking nature, but she’s also not above killing ninjas, ripping out their hearts and eating them.

The combination of the two styles – the regency romance and the ultra-violent zombie mayhem – works rather well. Smith has done a fine job in not just shoehorning the zombies into Austen’s tale, but making sure that the new version of the story is internally consistent. The zombies are a real and present force in this story, waylaying people on the road, occasionally delaying messages and causing very dramatic misunderstandings. And in this new and deadly environment, the dance of misunderstandings between Darcy and Elizabeth goes on, eventually – of course – ending up in the union of two of the greatest zombie hunters in England.

The best part, by the way, is the Readers’ Discussion Guide in the back. In case you want to read this with your book club, the authors have included some ideas for discussion, such as “Does Mrs. Bennet have a single redeeming quality?” and “Some scholars believe that the zombies were a last-minute addition to the novel, requested by the publisher in a shameless attempt to boost sales. Others argue that the hordes of living dead are integral to Jane Austen’s plot and social commentary. What do you think? Can you imagine what this novel might be like without the violent zombie mayhem?” It’s a very nice touch, I have to admit.

With some fantastically period illustrations of zombies, brain-eating and ninja-baiting (as well as a rather odd one of the Bennet sisters’ favorite game, “Kiss Me Deer”), the book is kind of surreal, and I reckon it is one that will entertain a good number of readers, though certainly not all of them. For me, I found that the altered parts of the text – the zombies and the occasional ninja – were the most fun part. The characterization of the Bennet sisters as hardened warriors occasionally given over to fripperies was strange, but entertaining, especially since Graham-Smith made sure to keep the characters consistent. Elizabeth’s thoughts and actions are primarily dictated by her Shaolin training, and many of her decisions are rooted in a deep sense of a warrior’s honor, rather than a society girl’s manners.

Furthermore, this strange new England was well made. It’s a place where the zombies were a threat, but after fifty-five years, they’ve been downgraded to more of a dangerous annoyance. Kind of like FOX News. The zombies are a seasonal menace, less prevalent in the winter when the ground is hard, but like cicadas they burrow out of the ground in the spring to menace travelers and (unlike most cicadas) eat their brains.

The problem for me wasn’t so much the zombies part of the book as it was the Pride and Prejudice part. As I said above, I don’t really identify with what the characters care about, and once they got off the topic of the zombie menace, my eyes started to glaze over a little. Fortunately I knew that there would be another bit of mayhem on the way to perk me back up.

It made me think, though – there must be something that I’m missing. Not only has the book been around and popular for two centuries, but it’s beloved enough that even a drastic modification of it would draw in readers. P&P&Z was a bestseller on the New York Times list and the mere announcement of its existence sent the blog world into an utter fangasm. The addition of zombies to an otherwise beloved tale was met with open arms, a sign that Pride and Prejudice held an honored place in the literary heart of the world. So if I don’t get it, then there must be something wrong with me…. Ah, well. As I said of War and Peace, I’m not in this game to score points. So don’t expect me to try and slog through the original just to see if it holds up to the zombified version.

The big question, of course, is What’s Next? There are so many pieces of classic literature out there, all in the public domain and all just ripe for this kind of treatment. Tom Sawyer and the Wizards of the Mississippi? The Shape-Shifting Alien of Monte Cristo? Anne of Green Gables and the Robot Hordes from the Future? Mark my words, this book is only the beginning….

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“No ninjas! How was that possible? Five daughters brought up at home without any ninjas! I never heard of such a thing. Your mother must have been quite a slave to your safety.”
– Lady Catherine, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
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Pride and Prejudice and Zombies at Wikipedia
Seth Grahame-Smith at Wikipedia
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies at Amazon.com

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Filed under classics, horror, Jane Austen, parody, romance, Seth Grahame-Smith, zombies

Review 05: The Princess Bride


The Princess Bride by William Goldman

If you haven’t read this book, then all I can tell you is to go out, get it, and read it. Now. Don’t bother with the rest of this review, you’ll thank me later. It has:

Fencing.
Fighting.
Torture.
Poison.
True Love.
Hate.
Revenge.
Giants.
Hunters.
Good men.
Bad men.
Beautifulest ladies.
Snakes.
Spiders.
Beasts of all natures and descriptions.
Pain.
Death.
Brave men.
Coward men.
Strongest men.
Chases.
Escapes.
Lies.
Truths.
Passion.
Miracles.

For a start.

It’s one of the greatest love/action/revenge stories ever abridged by a modern author. Well, it seems that Mr. Goldman felt that the original story, as written by the immortal S. Morganstern, was a little too dry for public consumption, as well as damaging to treasured childhood memories, so he went through it and put together this “good parts” version, and the world is a better place for it. [1]

Of course, the big gag is that there never was an original version of the book. There never was an S. Morganstern, the greatest of the Florinese writers. Goldman’s father may have read books to him as a child, but he never read this book to him. The entire thing is a fiction, beginning to end, but Goldman sells it really well. He tells the tale of how he blossomed as a boy – going from being a sports-obsessed disappointment to a ravenous bookworm, all thanks to this book. He talks about trying to give the same gift to his son, who manages to make it through one chapter before giving up in exhaustion. He talks about the great shock of discovering that his father had done something utterly brilliant – he had skipped the dull bits and left the exciting parts intact.

Knowing that all of this is false certainly doesn’t detract from the story. It’s a story about a story, and the effect that a story can have on a young mind. Or any mind, for that matter. It’s about how stories can teach us lessons that only later we understand – such as how life is not fair – and how stories can change us in ways that we never expected. It’s about our relationship with fiction, and with the world around us. In his fictional childhood, Goldman learned more about the world from the process of watching the story unfold than he did from the story itself. And so this book is a story about stories. The actual story is just bonus.

Which brings me, of course, to the film. Let me say that this is one of the very, very few instances where I will put the movie up on par with the book. 99.9999 repeating percent of the time, the book is better than the movie. This is one instance where they are equal in nearly every measure. I’m sure a lot of this has to do with the fact that Goldman wrote the screenplay for the film, so not only is the story intact, but a great deal of the dialogue is almost verbatim from the book. It was gold in print and gold on the screen. The hardest part about reading the book is trying not to hear Andre the Giant, Christopher Guest, Robin Wright and all the other fine actors and actresses in your head as you read.

So, whether you read the book or see the movie, you’re in for a treat. And as you read, just remember the books that molded you into who you are today. Think about the stories that taught you life’s lessons before life got around to doing it. Think about them and appreciate them, and remember that every book is a lesson, one way or another….

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“I’m so stupid. Inigo has not lost to the man in black, he has defeated him. And to prove it he has put on all the man in black’s clothes and masks and hoods and boots and gained eighty pounds.”
– Fezzik, The Princess Bride
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[1] This is a fun type of meta-fiction, writers writing autobiographically about writing about books that never existed. I find it interesting that The Princess Bride can sit comfortably shoulder-to-shoulder with House of Leaves.

The Princess Bride at Wikipedia
William Goldman at Wikipedia
The Princess Bride at Wikiquote
The Princess Bride at Amazon.com

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Filed under adventure, fantasy, humor, made into movies, meta-fiction, romance, William Goldman