Archive for the ‘ 4 Star Reviews ’ Category

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.



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

A Home at the End of the World

Directed by Michael Mayer

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.


REVIEW: “Sometimes in April” (film)

Sometimes in April

Directed by Raoul Peck

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.


REVIEW: “Thinking Straight” by Robin Reardon

Thinking Straight

Robin Reardon
Kensington Books, 2008


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.



REVIEW: “What Happened to Lani Garver” by Carol Plum-Ucci

What Happened to Lani Garver

Carol Plum-Ucci
Harcourt Inc., 2002


Finished 10 June 2010

What Happened to Lani Garver is a very complicated novel, so I suppose it’s only fitting that my response to it was equally complicated. The story revolves around the internal and external struggles of Claire, a cancer survivor in her last year of High School. Claire feels distanced from her friends by her illness, and is doing her best to pick up where she left off, but she can’t escape the fact that she is different — that there’s a darkness simmering under her pretty-cheerleader surface, struggling to come out. When newcomer Lani Garver comes to town, Claire’s reality starts breaking open. Lani is either a very feminine boy or a very masculine girl, nobody is sure which, and this ambiguity becomes the focus for so much anger and resentment in the people around him that Lani is ultimately swallowed up by it. But not before befriending Claire and helping her to find her own middle ground. And not before giving her – and the reader – the impression that he (as Lani is referred throughout the novel) might just be something more than a too-smart street kid of uncertain gender. He might just be a floating angel in disguise.

The main thing I took away from this book was a sense of deep disquiet at the extent to which people will go to keep their realities “convenient.” This is a recurring theme throughout the novel, and while at times I think it is a little too overdone – too bluntly stated – it certainly raises some very interesting points. Lani is the catalyst for Claire’s awakening, not only to parts of herself that she has been denying but also to the fact that she and the people around her have been looking at life through, if not rose-coloured glasses, then at the very least glasses which reduce things to problems they can deal with, rather than things they can’t explain. Lani, for example, becomes a perverted, drag-wearing gay kid who needs to be taught how to fit in, and by the climax of the novel they are so blinded by this conviction that they are driven to attempt to drown him. Only Claire looks beyond the convenient assumptions and prejudices to see who (or what) Lani really is.

The main thrust of the novel is therefore about tolerance, but it goes beyond merely “accepting” people for their differences and asks the reader to question the very basis of the assumptions they make about others and the world on a daily basis. We are presented with both sides of the story: Lani as Claire’s friend, innocent to the point of stupidity on some significant points, but blunt enough and crazy enough to see through a lot of human bullshit at the same time. On the other hand, we also see him as the others must have seen him; not quite normal, a little strange, not enough of one thing or another to decide what he is, let alone how to treat him — an unknown quantity and potential threat. Plum-Ucci plays on innate human fears of the unknown and unclassifiable, showing us what can happen when we are pushed out of our comfortable, known world and into a reality which is infinitely less convenient.

Coincidentally, I was recently talking to a friend of mine about boxes and labels, and how neither of us can understand why everyone is so intent on fitting everyone into them. This novel is pretty much my own objections writ large, and I enjoyed seeing things play out. I will say that the writing left something to be desired; there was a lot of repetition (especially of the word “spew” which was annoying) and some things felt a little flat, or a little too confusing. However, I found myself caring about the characters and became fully engaged in their struggles, to the point where I wanted to punch one of the characters (Macy) in the face a few times. Plum-Ucci has a gift for vivid characterisation and insight, which I very much enjoyed.

A very thought-provoking book, well worth a read for teens and adults alike.


REVIEW: “The Angel’s Cut” by Elizabeth Knox

The Angel’s Cut

Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University Press, 2009

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished 30 May 2010

It took me some time to finish this one, largely because I got sidetracked in the middle and didn’t really get back to it until yesterday. Fortunately, I took some notes as I was reading in the beginning, so I am able to put my thoughts on the novel into a more or less coherent order.

You probably already know that I consider the prequel to this book, The Vintner’s Luck, to be one of my favouritest books ever. It’s kind of hard to explain why I love it so very much, exactly, but I was aware from the beginning that it’s the sort of magic that can seldom be repeated. And I will say that, much as I love Elizabeth Knox’s writing, Angel didn’t grab me quite as much as Luck did. It involved different characters and a different, more modern world, not as magical, not as closely woven (though that may be the fault of the format; curse unnecessarily large print and childlike covers). However. While I may occasionally have felt as if I didn’t quite understand, couldn’t quite follow, didn’t quite love it as much as I wanted to – it always managed to pull me back in.

From the front flap:

Boomtown Los Angeles, 1929: Into a world of movie lots and speakeasies comes Xas, stunt flier and wingless angel, still nursing his broken heart, and determined only to go on living in the air. But there are forces that will keep him on the ground. Forces like Conrad Cole, movie director and aircraft designer, a glory-seeking king of the grand splash who is also a man sinking into his own sovereign darkness. And Fiona McLeod, film editor and maimed former actress, who sees something in Xas that no one has ever seen before, not even God, who made him, or Lucifer, the general he once followed – Lucifer, who has lost Xas once, but won’t let that be the end of it.

With Knox’s fiction, I find myself having to stop and think about the weight of things. She will introduce characters, words, symbols, and twine them all together so subtly that I frequently find myself asking, what is the import of this? What does it mean? I have to be in literary analysis mode as well as readership mode, because things often have more than one meaning, and will usually contribute to an overall picture that is grander than you originally expect. This is something I’ve been trying to do with my own writing, so it’s wonderful to sink into her mind and try to follow the trails of inspiration; it gives me some sense of how to go about it myself.

At the same time, there were parts I found difficult – specifically, I kept confusing the two different characters named Conrad. One was Conrad Cole and the other was Conrad Crow, and I kept mistaking one for the other. I am guessing – since Knox is not the type of author to do something like this without reason – that this was perhaps an extension of the ideas that are entangled throughout the plot: that of imitations, echoes, originals and whether Heaven is such a wonderful place if it means leaving what makes us human behind. If that is the case, then it’s really quite brilliant, but I’m afraid the overall effect was one of confusion and irritation rather than a deeper insight into the novel’s themes.

Confusion aside, however, by the time I reached the end of the book I found I had folded down the corners of nearly as many pages as with Luck to mark passages I particularly loved. Every so often I would come across a piece of description or dialogue that hit me right in the heart and made me go, “Oh” in that way that you do when something stirs you deeply. One favourite passage:

Lucifer said, “Listen,” then was quiet as though they were both supposed to be listening to God.

No,” Xas said, refusing again.

“No,” Lucifer mimicked, and moved the angel back and forth above him as fathers fly their babies. Xas had always liked the look of that. He knew that parents only did it to make their babies laugh and-instinctively-to rock their infants’ senses of space, motion and position into health and capability. But to him it had always looked as if those parents were saying to Heaven: I hold this happiness between me and You, and, if they were, then that was instinct too, the instinct humans must have, despite all their ideas about a just and loving God, to preserve themselves from that God’s unloving love of perfection, His exacting beneficence.

— p.179

And its echo at the end of the novel:

She ran into his arms, giggling, still hot from sleep. Xas straightened and raised his daughter up into the air, over his head. She shrieked with happiness. Xas spun, flying her about, holding her up between himself and Heaven.

— p. 433

As well as the writing, I enjoyed the complexity of the new characters, particularly Flora, whose pain I could almost feel through the pages, and Captain Hintersee. Knox has a real gift for creating vibrant, living people out of words. Ultimately, however, I have mixed feelings about the novel. Vintner’s Luck was a book I could happily inhabit for the rest of my life; that I want to snuggle to my chest like a baby or a soft toy and love. I am still waiting for my opinion of Angel’s Cut to resolve itself. Perhaps it can best be summarised with a quote from the novel itself:

And then Xas thought, ‘I did love him, after all.’ Sure, he’d made a mistake with Cole, and had given his heart where he stood to lose it. But that was good, it was right, it was what should happen, it was the way faith worked, it was the proper use of love.

— p.444

Not easy, and perhaps not what I originally expected, but nevertheless a highly recommended read.



REVIEW: “Maus” by Art Spiegelman

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale
I – My Father Bleeds History
II – …And Here My Troubles Began

Art Spiegelman
Penguin Books, 2003


CHALLENGE(S): 451 Challenge, Book Awards Challenge, Graphic Novels Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished 25 May 2010

I have read Holocaust stories before. Like most people, I am familiar with the Diary of Anne Frank, and I have both read and watched several World War II novels and movies. There is something about such large-scale, institutionalized violence that makes me go back to that period again and again, trying to make sense of it – to really feel what it must have been like, on both sides. As Spiegelman himself notes, it is not something that you can easily get your head around, and in general I have come away from such narratives without really understanding.

That is, until Maus.

I was rather reluctant to begin reading it at first. The art is not a style I find particularly prepossessing, and in the beginning it seemed off-putting; oddly childish for such a serious subject. Spiegelman has drawn each character as a particular animal loosely corresponding to their race – the Germans are cats, the Jews mice, the Poles pigs, the Americans dogs, and so on. All of the panels are in black and white, and to my mind they are over-filled, which made it slightly tiresome to read. However, this is personal preference, and once I began reading my lack of affection for the aesthetic style simply ceased to matter.

Maus is the semi-autobiographical memoir of one man’s survival, from pre-war Poland to the dreaded Auschwitz to his final escape at the end of the war. It is also the story of one man’s conflicted relationship with his father, his guilt for his own lack of understanding, and the way the effects of the Holocaust have echoed for generations. The first part of the book covers from the mid-1930s to the winter of 1944, during which time we follow Vladek Spiegelman as he meets and marries Art’s mother, gets called up to the army and becomes a prisoner of war. The second part begins after his escape from the POW camp, when he is betrayed to the Germans and taken, with his wife, to a concentration camp. The narrative switches neatly and seamlessly from past to present, following the story of how the book was created as well as the tale of Vladek’s experiences.

From the beginning, Vladek is not what you might call an easy man to like. He is difficult, suspicious, money-oriented and perhaps a little bit arrogant. He is also resourceful, brave and intelligent. His character is written large across every page, in many ways – as Art himself later remarks – a Jewish caricature, and he only grows more cantankerous as the book winds on. Art’s narrative here is unflinching: he writes with compassion, love, and impatience, a conflicted mixture that any adult child of aging parents can identify with. It is clear his father drives him crazy – it is also clear that he loves and wants to understand him. He is forced to act as both the loving son and the objective chronicler, and this dual role is very difficult to handle, particularly after his father’s death. Nevertheless, he incorporates his personal struggles into the story with an honesty that is as surprising as it is touching.

The memoir itself is vivid and nuanced. There is no attempt to set this up as merely a victim-and-oppressor narrative; we meet Jews who are not necessarily nice people, such as Vladek himself, and his millionaire father-in-law – good people who nevertheless come to horrible ends – Poles who will help them, but only for a price – even one German shell-shocked by the extent of the brutality he encounters in Birkenau. Nor does the Vladek survive through a mixture of luck and his own good nature, as is at times too common in fictionalized accounts: Vladek takes an active part in everything that happens to him, always aware, always looking for a way to escape and to survive. Those attributes which make him manipulative and annoying in the present are the same characteristics which kept him alive in the past, and thus the relation of his experiences serves as an explanation for the current story as well as a story in itself. In short, Art Spiegelman gives us the real story of his father’s life, unencumbered by attempts to simplify the conflict or diminish the pain it inflicted.

I am fairly confident that Maus will continue to haunt me for a long time to come. It is a compelling, amazing read that ends on a beautiful note which (I confess) almost brought me to tears. It is also painful, shocking and uncomfortable: like seeing all the negative parts of human nature on display in excruciating detail. In spite, or possibly because of, this, I found it deeply moving and difficult to put down. Highly recommended.