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REVIEW: “A Home at the End of the World” by Michael Cunningham

A Home at the End of the World

Michael Cunningham
Farrar Straus Giroux, NY, 1990

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Read the Movie Challenge.

Finished 15 Aug 2010

At last! The drought is over. I have finally finished another novel! Now I have to work hard and see how much I can catch up over the rest of the month. Oh yes, and post this review.

I picked up A Home at the End of the World because, as you will no doubt know, I recently watched the movie adaptation and completely fell in love. From the synopsis:

A Home at the End of the World is the story of two boyhood friends: Jonathan, lonely, introspective, and unsure of himself; and Bobby, hip, dark, and inarticulate. In New York after college, Bobby moves in with Jonathan and his roommate, Clare, a veteran of the city’s erotic wars. Bobby and Clare fall in love, scuttling the plans of Jonathan, who is gay, to father Clare’s child. Then, when Clare and Bobby have a baby, the three move to a small house upstate to raise “their” child together and create a new kind of family.

The story is told in four different voices, alternating between Jonathan, Bobby, Clare and Jonathan’s mother, Alice. Perhaps having seen the movie added to the text for me, because before I even opened the book the characters were already real: they had faces, habits, particular ways of moving and thinking which were already understood. The movie did half the book’s work for it. Still, I agree with those who have said that there was too little character definition in between parts: I couldn’t really get a sense of each character’s voice from their internal perspective, mostly because Cunningham’s style simply overrode any attempt at individuality between sections. Too, I found the sustained bleakness of the narratives depressing and quite stressful to read, to the point where I could only read it in fragments towards the end. It was as if there was no hope or love left in the world: the sheer loneliness of each of the characters was devastating.

However. These things aside, it is worth reading for the majestic prose and insightful observation it provides on the human condition. While it may have set out to be a story of three adults and their attempt to negotiate their own complicated love triangle, to me Home is really about the end of an era, the collision between the ‘free love’ attitude of the sixties and seventies with the hard realities of the 1980s and the start of the AIDs epidemic: “They looked like a pair of beatniks, sloppily dressed in a remote, unimportant place. In their sunglasses and T-shirts and unruly hair they looked like they were standing at the brink of the old cycle: the 1960s about to explode around them, a long storm of love and rage and thwarted expectations. Bobby put his arm over Jonathan’s shoulder. They both waved.” (p.327) It’s about being lost; it’s about growing up; it’s about never quite getting your heart’s desire. It is not a happy book, but it is a powerful one, because it tackles head-on those fears shared by the majority of the human race: of illness, death, loss and failure.

It is also well written enough that I would recommend it to anyone brave enough. Some of my favourite quotes, other than those I’ve featured in previous Teaser Tuesdays:

“How are you feeling, man?” he asks me.

“Great,” I tell him, and it is purely the truth. Doves clatter up out of a bare tree and turn at the same instant, transforming themselves from steel to silver in the snow-blown light. I know at that moment that the drug is working. Everything before me has become suddenly, radiantly itself. How could Carlton have known this was about to happen? “Oh,” I whisper. His hand settles on my shoulder.

“Stay loose, Frisco,” he says. “There’s not a thing in this pretty world to be afraid of. I’m here.”

I am not afraid. I am astonished. I had not realized until this moment how real everything is. A twig lies on the marble at my feet, bearing a cluster of hard brown berries. The broken-off end is raw, white, fleshly. Trees are alive.

“I’m here,” Carlton says again, and he is.

— pp.22-23

“I’m talking about a little truth-in-packaging here. To be perfectly frank, you don’t quite look like yourself. And if you walk around looking like someone other than who you are, you could end up getting the wrong job, the wrong friends, who knows what-all. You could end up with somebody else’s life.”

I shrugged again, and smiled. “This is my life,” I said. “It doesn’t seem like the wrong one.”

— p.148

Overall, a compelling novel but a bit too much on the bleak side to be comfortable. I feel a definite need to read something light and fluffy now, just to cheer myself up! The film is much better; I think if you combined the two of them – the movie’s rich depiction of love and hope in the face of adversity, the book’s sad but still beautiful ending – you’d have the perfect story.

RATING:

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REVIEW: “A Home at the End of the World” (film)

A Home at the End of the World

Directed by Michael Mayer
2004

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Read the Movie Challenge

I’m going to be honest here and say that I really don’t care what anyone else thinks of this movie: I loved it. I’ve read some fairly critical responses to it which more or less take it apart from a cinematic point of view, and for all I know they’re right, it’s a terrible movie. As I said: it really doesn’t matter to me. Something about the story and characters touched me personally, to the point where more objective/technical concerns ceased to be relevant.

From the blurb on the back cover, the film purports to be a story about three people – Bobby, Jonathan and Clare – and their attempt to form a highly unconventional family unit together. What I saw was more of a commentary on the end of an era; the children of the sixties and seventies growing into adults in a world that is much harsher and more dangerous than they were lead to expect – the loneliness that comes from growing up and realising the inherent bleakness of the human condition – the bonds that unite and sustain us, however unconventional they may be. The characters were beautiful, interesting, complicated people, their relationships believable and tender. All of them were lost in different ways, struggling to determine who they were and who they wanted to be. In this sense, they were perfect for each other, but inevitably doomed to disappointment as well.

I found myself extremely attached to all of them and very involved in their story. The parts were very well played by the actors, and although they did falter once or twice, I was never jolted out of the story by poor delivery or unbelievable reactions. Because of this, I was devastated by the ending of the movie: it was not only kind of predictable and vague but also utterly heart-wrenching. A film to open the soul, I think, even if it isn’t perfect – one of my favourites to date.

RATING:

REVIEW: “Sometimes in April” (film)

Sometimes in April

Directed by Raoul Peck
2005

CHALLENGE(S): Social Justice Challenge

Since I haven’t been so great at keeping up with the books I’m supposed to read for the Social Justice Challenge, this month I chose to watch a film instead. In retrospect, perhaps this was a mistake. I spent a large amount of the time (over 2 hours) blinking back tears and wondering what the hell is wrong with humanity.

Sometimes in April is the story of two brothers whose lives are torn apart by the Rwanda genocide of 1994. The narrative skips between their life in the present – one on trial for war crimes, the other struggling to move on with his life after the death of his family – and the events that led to their current state. I will tell you right now that those events were horrific. They were not skimped on. This is a movie with bodies piled in the street, with authorities who stand by and do nothing as people die, with no mercy whatever for any of those who played a role in the tragedy or for the viewers who are watching it unfold.

I don’t know that I can necessarily recommend it as far as entertainment goes. It’s incredibly heartbreaking, and who wants to put themselves through that if they don’t have to? But it was well done, well acted, and thoroughly terrifying. If you truly want to know what it was like in Rwanda, or indeed in any similar situation, then this is the film to see.

RATING:

REVIEW: “Maurice” (film)

Maurice

Directed by James Ivory
1987

CHALLENGE(S): Read the Movie Challenge

Let me begin this review with a frank and potentially hypocritical remark that summarises my initial reaction to certain parts of the film: HOLY GRATUITOUS NEKKID MEN, BATMAN. No, really. If you thought Brokeback Mountain was pushing boundaries, you have obviously not seen this movie.

This is not, I hasten to add, a prurient response (or at least, not merely), so much as one of complete surprise. It was not something I was expecting, in spite of the M rating (you know they’d have put that there just because the main character was gay, even if there had been no naked men involved whatsoever). To be honest, one tends to forget that men exist below the waist in movies generally, and after I got over my initial double-take I immediately found myself faced with the question of why it should be so surprising. I was under the impression that I had outgrown the prudish part of my nature some time ago, yet here I was, recoiling as if it were so completely shocking that oh my god, men were actually showing their naughty bits on-screen. Had either, or even both of them been a woman I probably wouldn’t even have thought twice about it. But in this case, it was like some kind of invisible line had been crossed and suddenly I was sitting back going, what am I watching?!

Talk about walking smack into your own subliminated prejudices. If there ever was a clearer demonstration of how the gendered gaze in cinema can structure your expectations…

In point of fact, though, I wouldn’t have brought it up except that it struck me as closely related to the main theme of the story itself. As I mentioned in my review of the novel on which it is based, Maurice is very much about the conflict between conventionality and personal liberation, and (perhaps because this is inextricably intertwined) about the gulf between words and actions, both of which I think played a significant part in the director’s choices when it came to creating the film. Most specifically, the story deals implicitly with ideas of masculinity and gender conformity as the titular Maurice grapples with society’s (and his own) disgust at his sexuality and the love that ultimately defines him, until he is forced to embrace exile and transcend that disgust to find happiness. Somewhat similarly, the director seems to have necessarily taken a step outside of the traditional, (heterosexual, white, middle-class, privileged, masculine…?) viewpoint in so much of mainstream cinema in order to shake up the viewer’s expectations and underscore this point.

Of course, James Ivory also directed A Room With a View which, if I recall correctly, had a brief scene in it which also shocked me at the time, so perhaps this is just his particular style of unvarnished, unalloyed filmmaking: in which case, more power to him. On the other hand, there were instances in the first half (during Maurice’s relationship with Clive) that there were opportunities to do this if that was his sole intention, and he chose to refrain. It was because most of the nekkid men scenes came in in the second half (after the split with Clive, and particularly during his relationship with Alec) that I made the connection between the two aspects in the first place.

However. Setting my personal reactions and speculations aside for the moment, I will say that it wasn’t exactly what I’d call a good film. I blame Hugh Grant, although not so much because of his acting (or lack thereof) as by virtue of the fact that he was Hugh Grant, causing me to realise holy crap that’s what Hugh Grant looked like the year I was born, which was followed by the charmingly self-centered holy crap people really did exist before I was born, that is so weird and thus so distracted me to the point where I completely failed to be able to see him as anyone else, let alone the intellectual and weak-natured Clive Durham. His “romance” with Maurice (played by James Wilby) was wooden at best, and downright embarrassing at worst, which made it quite difficult for me to sit through the first half of the story. This unsatisfactory beginning was made up for, however, by the fact that viewing the movie helped me to fully process my thoughts about the novel and come to a place where I felt I actually understood it for the first time. Connections were made. Relationships dawned. I began to realise just how deviously, deliciously subtle good old straight-forward Forster could be.

And that, I think, was the chief delight of this film. It brought the novel to life for me, not least because it quoted virtually every other page. Wilby was perfectly cast, even if Grant was not, and a great deal of the symbolism was included or embellished upon, giving a person who has read the book a number of those in-jokes and moments of “Oh, I know what he’s doing there…” which so greatly flatter the intellect. The direction is perhaps a little too self-conscious and heavy-handed in parts – one might even call it overwrought: it is obvious when he wishes to make a point, for instance, or to impress upon the audience that this particular moment is poignant, and emotional, but the highlights of the novel were handled adequately (and the ending, where Maurice rubs Clive’s nose in the fact that he is over him now, thanks, is perfectly done) and as an adaptation it was not too shoddy – though I would love to see it remade and shiny for a new and perhaps more appreciative audience.

Definitely recommended. But read the book first, and, ahem, beware unexpected!naked!men…

RATING:

REVIEW: “Maurice” by E. M. Forster

Maurice

E. M. Forster
Penguin Books, UK, 1995

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Read the Movie Challenge

Finished 27 Jun 2010

I only really picked this book up because I got the movie out and thought it would make a good addition to the “Read the Movie” Challenge. The premise sounded interesting, but so much like Brideshead Revisited that I was sure it would suffer by comparison, and in some respects it did. However, as I should probably have expected by now, Maurice proved to be utterly different than I anticipated, and ultimately the better for it.

Set in Edwardian England, the novel follows the life of Maurice Hall, every inch an “average” English gentleman, who is being relentlessly groomed to take the place of his dead father as an average stockbroker with an average and thoroughly respectable life. Were it not for a chance meeting with Clive Durham at Cambridge, he would likely have taken his place in society without a qualm. But his love affair with Clive begins to break through the stultifying normality of his everyday life, introducing Maurice to feelings of joy he had never imagined, and spurring him to dream that two men together might just be able to defy the world.

I have conflicting feelings about this novel. E. M. Forster is an old favourite of mine; A Room With a View blew me away when I first read it several years ago, so I’ve had a soft spot for him ever since. I love the way he approaches things. His prose is direct, objective, and the detached detail with which he analyses his characters, their actions and interactions, the decisions they make and the way their lives plan out makes for curiously compelling reading. He is also extremely empathetic and skilled at dissembling psychological impulses and complexities.

At the same time, I felt somewhat distanced from the characters – at times I even actively disliked them. There were passages of prose which were fantastic (in particular, the brief scene in which Clive admits he loves Maurice was extremely moving) but others which were so obfuscating as to bewilder me completely. It is definitely a book which will require re-reading several times before it sinks in, and fortunately it is of a type which I would not mind picking up and perusing for new meaning from time to time.

There were some things I did pick up on, however, which enhanced the reading experience considerably. When I first closed the covers, the ending bewildered me: I had been lead to expect a (spoiler!) happy reunion between Maurice and Clive, and had no idea why Alec was even involved. Clive’s attitude confused me, too, since he was the first to be so open about his homosexuality. It wasn’t until I referred back to an earlier passage in the book that some comprehension dawned:

“Everything I say is serious.” And somehow Maurice knew this to be true. It had struck him at once that Risley was serious. “And are you serious?”
“Don’t ask me.”
“Then talk until you become so.”
“Rubbish,” growled the Dean.
Chapman laughed tempestuously.
“Rubbish?” He questioned Maurice, who, when he grasped the point, was understood to reply that deeds are more important than words.
“What’s the difference? Words are deeds. Do you mean to say that these five minutes in Cornwallis’s rooms have done nothing for you? Will you ever forget you have met me, for instance?”
Chapman grunted.
“But he will not, nor will you. And then I am told we ought to be doing something.”
The Dean came to the rescue of the two Sunningtonians. He said to his young cousin, “You’re unsound about memory. You confuse what’s important with what’s impressive. No doubt Chapman and Hall always will remember they’ve met you – ”
“And forget this is a cutlet. Quite so.”
“But the cutlet does some good them, and you none.”
“Obscurantist!”
“This is just like a book,” said Chapman. “Eh, Hall?”
“I mean,” said Risley, “oh how clearly I mean that the cutlet influences your subconscious lives, and I your conscious, and so I am not only more impressive than the cutlet but more important.”

— pp. 32-33

The way I see it, Clive is all about words: he insists that their relationship may only be “excused” if it remains platonic – that is, unconsummated, in the realm of words and emotions only. Maurice accepts this because not only does Clive seem to know far more about it than he does but he is, as Forster puts it, “at this stage…humble and inexperienced and adoring, he is the soul released from prison, and if asked by his deliverer to remain chaste he obeys” (p.314). But the major difference between them, and that which ultimately destroys their relationship, is that Maurice is as much about deeds as he is about words, as evidenced by the excerpt above. He is not content to remain as a “friend” in name but not in action. As he repeatedly complains after their separation, Clive is willing to do anything for him except be with him, and he is incapable of reconciling the inherent contradictions this entails. He breaks away; acts, in this case by sleeping with Alec, and in doing so finally comes to accept himself and his true position in society, rather than that which he has been pretending to for so long.

As you can probably see, Maurice is a complicated novel that makes you work for comprehension, and is not what I would call a comfortable read. However, it is definitely worth it and ultimately I think one which should be recommended, if only for its unusual insight into a world seldom expressed in the prose of this era.

RATING:

CymLowell

REVIEW: “A Slant of Sun: One Child’s Courage” by Beth Kephart

A Slant of Sun: One Child’s Courage

Beth Kephart
W.W. Norton & Co. , 1998

CHALLENGE(S): Beth Kephart Challenge

Finished 25 Jun 2010

Wow, it’s been ages since I’ve posted a review. Sorry about that! I guess I’ve been a bit busy, as I haven’t finished many books lately either.

I chose A Slant of Sun as the final book for the Beth Kephart Challenge for the most arbitrary of reasons: it was the only other book of hers that our library currently possessed. I was hesitant to read it at first. Memoirs, like most non-fiction, do not tend to hold my attention with any kind of reliability, and as I expected it actually took me over a month to finish. However, once I got stuck in, the book surprised me.

A Slant of Sun is the story, as the title indicates, of a child: specifically, Beth Kephart’s son, Jeremy, a wonderful little boy who is diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDDNOS) at a very young age. What this means for his parents is what Kephart attempts to show us throughout her book. Special schools; obsessions; social phobias; language disorders; lack of interaction or interest. It is extraordinarily difficult and heartbreaking, and the way Kephart tells the story is both honest and elegantly written. Her love of and commitment to her son is obvious from the very first page and sustains what might otherwise be a painful and distressing narrative.

While I can’t say that I loved the book or even really engaged with it to a great degree, this was not for any real fault on the writer’s part. I was impressed both by Kephart’s honesty and with Jeremy, who by all accounts was an amazing child in spite of his differences. This is one memoir I can happily recommend to others and feel enriched for having read.

RATING:

REVIEW: “Thinking Straight” by Robin Reardon

Thinking Straight

Robin Reardon
Kensington Books, 2008

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge

Finished 12 Jun 2010

I initially started this book with a hefty dose of skepticism, I will confess. After The God Box, I’ve learned to treat YA novels involving homosexuality and religion with some caution, lest they attempt to beat me around the head with a message I already agree with. Me and message fiction, we tend to not get along so well.

However, I am pleased to say I think Robin Reardon pulled it off beautifully in Thinking Straight. The novel revolves around Taylor Adams, a young Christian teen who also happens to be gay. His parents are, predictably, completely horrified when he eventually comes out to them, so they ship him off to a local camp called Straight to God, where the leaders promise to pray away the gay – and any other problems the teens sent to them might have, including drugs, drinking and premarital sex. Taylor is forced to leave his new boyfriend, Will, and spend six weeks in a world full of teenagers who are, to put it frankly, screwed up, both by their own problems and by the supposed ‘cure’ they have to endure.

Taylor is an amazing character. He’s confident, intelligent and loyal to a fault. His voice comes vividly off the page and I quickly became engrossed in his struggles to hold onto who he was without endangering his future with Will and his love of God. If you’ve read my About page, you’ll know that I am an atheist. And, truth be told, I did find some of the religious aspects of the novel cloying. However, the best part of it was that 90% of the time, Taylor was right there with me, fighting back, arguing and making his own way through an extremely frightening situation with strength and grace. While I did not always agree with him, I did find his philosophy one I could accept and even respect, which made it much easier to cheer him on.

I did find him a little too good to be true in some aspects; perhaps a little too mature for his age, too sure of himself. The same with some of the other characters. However, Reardon seemed to be aware of this and managed to temper it before it became too annoying. I also found the use of “IM” terminology and acronyms jolting. Perhaps I am simply out of touch, since I am no longer a teenager, but I didn’t recognise half of them and found it irritating to have them explained to me every couple of pages. This was probably part of the narrative voice, but I think it would have been easier to stick to a few fairly obvious ones and/or leave them out altogether. Most people, as far as I know, do not typically use them in their everyday speech.

The supporting characters were believable and endearing in their own right, even (some of) the antagonists, and I found it interesting that Reardon chose to make Taylor an unreliable narrator in some respects, imputing different motives to their actions than was later revealed to be the case. While I am not entirely sure I buy that so many people could be covertly working towards the same goals without knowing it (it felt somewhat convenient), I did like the complexity and depth that they developed as characters. It underscored the main theme of the novel as well, which was generally about the assumptions we make about others and the reasons why we shouldn’t necessarily take our knee-jerk response as the truth.

With regards to the main ‘message’ of the novel, what helped this succeed for me was the fact that Reardon built a framework in the story itself which made the occasionally preachy passages about homosexuality and acceptance less of an “here we go again,” eye-rolling speech to the choir and more a part of the evolution of the story. Taylor’s personal growth, and the growth of those around him, was quite fascinating to watch, and I think got the point across very effectively. I’m not sure I quite liked the (spoiler!) part about the abusive pastor – it was well done, but it still felt like a bit of a cliche, albeit one I wasn’t expecting. That combined with the unexpectedly explicit sexual content struck me as a little too mature for the age level of the characters (and readers!), and I kind of felt the relationship between Taylor and Will was a little too rushed to be believable. However, none of these problems really detracted from the overall enjoyment of the novel.

One of my favourite books as a young adult was Fleur Beale’s I Am Not Esther, a story about a teenage girl in a very similar environment. She gets sent to live with her aunt and uncle, who are part of a religious cult and do everything they can to take away her identity and make her ‘obedient,’ including give her a new name – Esther. While Straight to God didn’t go that far with Taylor, there was always a sense that they wouldn’t be above it. Reardon did a great job conveying the helplessness and paranoia that a young person might feel when put into a situation they literally cannot escape from. There is a darkness underlying the apparent love and acceptance in the camp which is slowly unfolded throughout the story; I was honestly scared for him a lot of the time, which shows how caught up in things I became! And my inner writer was very satisfied with the way all of the elements worked in together.

Ultimately a very endearing book. I don’t necessarily agree with all the points raised, but it clearly has good intentions and carries it off well. Definitely recommended.

RATING:

CymLowell