ElCicco #CBR5 Review #36: Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel by David Rakoff

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This final work from David Rakoff, who died from cancer in 2012 at the age of 47, is a beautiful novel written as a poem. You might be inclined to think that this would make it pretentious and dull (well, I did) but after reading a review that compared his style to Dorothy Parker’s or Ogden Nash’s, I gave it a go. The novel is told in rhyming couplets that reminded me a bit of Dr. Seuss. It’s fun, funny, sad, tragic. In just over 100 pages, Rakoff covers 100 years in the US in a series of vignettes that deal with rape, incurable illness, homosexuality, love, betrayal — the name of the novel says it all. And by the end you see how seemingly unrelated stories fit together. You could easily read this in one sitting and if you pick it up, you will probably want to do just that.

The novel starts with the birth of a redheaded girl in Chicago at the turn of the century and a mid-wife’s prediction that nothing good will come from it. Rakoff then takes us on a journey to California in the ’50s-’60s where a young man is discovering his art and his sexuality. We also see what happens to his lovely single cousin Helen, who puts on a brave face and demonstrates grace and strength in the face of judgment. Rakoff describes the AIDS crisis, Alzheimers, and marriages falling apart.

I found myself especially drawn to the cousins Cliff and Helen. Helen becomes involved in an office romance that ends badly and comes to see that:

Her presence, she thinks, is what’s

rendered him gladder

But really it’s just that he aimed for,

and had her.

After an embarrassing drunken display at an office party, Helen is ostracized but refuses to hide herself away. Her final exit from another office party several years after the event is just fabulous.

Cliff becomes a comic book artist in San Francisco, drawing “Captain Cocksure and Throbbin.” [Illustrations throughout the novel are by the very talented illustrator Seth.] When a homophobic critic named Blanche Tilley refers to the comic as “filthy, overt, immature,” Cliff responds:

How I wish you would stop up that

bile-spewing spigot

You use when you speak, you

rebarbative bigot.

After Cliff contracts AIDS and knows he is going to die, he offers this reflection:

It was sadness that gripped him, far

more than fear

That, if facing the truth, he had maybe

a year.

When poetic phrases like “eyes look

your last”

Become true, all you want is to stay, to

hold fast.

A new, fierce attachment to all of this

world

Now pierced him, it stabbed like a

diety-hurled

Lightning bolt lancing him, sent from

above,

Left him giddy and tearful. It felt like

young love.

This is pretty heavy stuff, and yet Rakoff laces his unflinching accounts of these tragedies with humor and spirit. His characters refuse to remain passive in the face of adversity, and I think the fact that Rakoff knew he was dying of cancer when he wrote this demonstrates his own powerful inner drive and his desire to leave having had his say. Rakoff has the last word against death and his message is beautiful and sad.

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Valyruh’s CBR#5 Review #37: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon

As a fan of Chabon’s most popular books, Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, I felt a certain obligation to check out his first novel when I came across it at the library. The same wit and freshness of language that makes Chabon’s writing so compelling kept me going through The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, but I have to say that the novel itself left me shaking my head in disappointment, until I learned that this was actually Chabon’s MFA thesis in creative writing, and I found I was somewhat able to forgive him for the sophomoric story and its rather stereotyped characters.

Art Bechstein has just graduated college, and is starting a final summer in Pittsburgh before he must face the real world. His mother died six months before his bar mitzvah at age 13, where he learned his father was a top level gangster in a DC-based mob family. By the beginning of the story, Art and his father have a tenuous relationship of occasional meals out at fancy restaurant when his father comes to town to do “business.” Usually, those meals end with Art reduced to tears by his father’s undisguised disappointment in his son’s aimlessness. Soon Art meets, in rapid succession, a girl named Phlox who tries on and discards identities and is enamored of Art, a boy named Arthur Lecomte who is handsome, debonair, dissipated, lives in other people’s homes as a house sitter, and homosexual, and Arthur’s large heterosexual friend Cleveland, a product of wealthy parents who has grown his hair long, spouts poetry, acquired a beer gut and a motorcycle, and is a low-level “collector” in Bechstein, Sr.’s operations.

Art spends the summer like the little ball in a pinball machine, bouncing between his newly-acquired friends, and getting his eyes opened not only to sexual experiences with both Phlox and Arthur, but also to the sordid world underlying his father’s illicit and therefore  somehow glamorous career. Eventually, Art’s affair with Phlox is revealed as more a refuge from the confusing and scary bouts of lust with Arthur than as love with Phlox. Cleveland exercises a different kind of hold on Art, the kind of larger-than-life, try everything, risk everything, fuck everything attitude that Art wishes he could safely dip into, but knows he can’t. Things come to a head when Cleveland demands to meet Art’s dad, who quickly concludes that his son is consorting with the very “low-life” types he had hoped to protect his son from, and decides to take action as the mobster that he is.  Tragedy ensues, and Art ends up fleeing the cops, his father, and the country.

At the novel’s close, a somewhat benumbed Art is sitting somewhere in Europe nostalgically contemplating  his lost summer and the friends he has left behind but feels he carries within himself.  I, on the other hand, was left contemplating what so many ecstatic reviewers have called a brilliant “coming-of-age” tale but which struck me as more a collection of aimless and sad indulgences by a group of very clever, very bored, and very damaged young people. If Art learned anything from his “coming-of-age” experimentation, it wasn’t obvious from his concluding musings at the book’s end.

loulamac’s #CBR5 review #12: Now is the Hour by Tom Spanbauer

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When I was about 18, I read Spanbauer’s The Man Who Fell In Love With The Moon. I was amazed, moved and startled, but I was at an impressionable age. Since then, I’ve read his other books with mounting embarrassment, and have never had the heart to revisit the one that got me started. I suspect it might be every bit as self-consciously ‘shocking’ and pretentious as his most recent effort.

Now Is The Hour tells the story of Rigby John Klusener. Just writing that is enough to make me want to throw myself off the roof. This is a Tom Spanbauer novel, so of course Rigby John is trapped in a stifling environment where he struggles to be understood (in his case a devout Catholic household in 1960s rural Idaho), of course has sexual awakenings with preternaturally attractive Mexicans and a cross-dressing American Indian, and of course flees to San Francisco to ‘find himself’. And yes, all of this is every bit as tiresome and affected as it sounds. The book is so explicitly gay and graphically sexual, that that’s all it is. In Spanbauer’s world, sexuality isn’t a part of people, it’s all people are.

And the writing! Give me strength. Main characters break down in paralysing fits of laughter at inappropriate moments (as the reader, you miss the joke), one chapter extols the virtue of the word ‘fuck’ (for fuck’s sake), and if you stripped out all the repetition of particular phrases (that are clearly meant to be deep and meaningful) the book would be 50 pages shorter.

Long passages are given over to descriptions of Rigby John masturbating, which is appropriate given that this book is a load of wank.

loulamac’s #CBR5 review #7: The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell

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The Folded Leaf tells the story of two boys growing up together in 1920s Chicago. Lymie is successful at school but quiet, shy and physically weak. Spud, on the other hand, is everything Lymie isn’t. Confident and detached, he more than makes up for his struggles in class with his athletic prowess. He’s never met a boy he can’t best in a fight, and more to the point he’s not scared to start one. From the moment their paths cross at a swimming class at school, Lymie is Spud’s devoted acolyte. As the novel charts their progress through high school to university, Lymie’s feelings for Spud deepen into an unnamed love, which manifests itself as an inseparable friendship. When Lymie introduces Spud to Sally Forbes and the two fall in love, almost unbearable strains are placed upon their relationship.

As a modern-day reader, it’s impossible to not to comment on the homo-erotic element of the story, although I understand this wasn’t a consideration when the book was published. While it is possible to read their friendship as just that, the worshipful and physical sides of Lymie and Spud’s relationship are undeniable. Part of Lymie’s routine is watching Spud work out in the college gym, patiently waiting to untie his gloves and unwrap his hands. This is a religious experience for him. They sleep together in their student house, ostensibly to save money and keep warm, but when Spud returns from an absence: ‘Lymie lay back on the wave of happiness and was supported by it. The bed had grown warm all around him. Spud’s breathing deepened and became slower…Lymie, stretched out beside him, wished that it were possible to die, with this fullness in his heart for which there were no words and couldn’t ever be.’

Maxwell’s writing is intelligent, thoughtful and accomplished. His descriptions of the insecurities and obsessions that plague the two young men are funny and pathetic by turns. And while Lymie and Spud are the archetypal Nerd and Jock, their characters never descend into cliché. Spud’s inner life is every bit as rich and complicated as Lymie’s, and part of the tragedy of the book is that as the reader you’re privy to thoughts and feelings you are desperate for them to share with each other. They never do.

The sacrifices Lymie makes in order to make Spud happy, the unquestioning devotion with which he accepts Spuds moods and the unconditional support he gives are revealed to the reader with heart-breaking simplicity. If you have ever been in the grips of an unrequited love, had a crush from afar, or loved and been let down by a friend, this book will make you smile and make you cry. It’s glorious.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #1: Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and Identity by Andrew Solomon

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My study is of families who accept their children, and how that relates to those children’s self-acceptance…. In turn, it looks at how the acceptance of larger society affects both these children and their families.

In this ambitious work, writer Andrew Solomon examines “horizontal identities,” i.e., identities that a person finds with some group outside one’s family (vertical identity). For the purposes of this study, those identities are with marginalized groups whom society might like to cure, correct or otherwise eliminate. Over many years and through interviews with hundreds of families, researchers and other professionals, Solomon identified several marginalized identity groups and raises provocative questions as to whether they should be recognized, accepted, and valued for who they are as opposed to working toward their correction or extinction.

Each chapter deals with one identity group, and the titles are deaf, dwarfs, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, disability, prodigies, rape, crime, and transgender. The book begins and ends with chapters on Solomon himself, as a son struggling with dyslexia and homosexuality, and as a father in a non-traditional family. Solomon provides an impressive, well researched, balanced and compassionate exposition on each topic. He does his background research into the science of his topics and lays it out clearly for the reader, but this is no dry psychology text. What illuminates Solomon’s research are the real people whom Solomon interviewed over the course of many years, watching family dynamics unfold and the real relationships of parents with their “different” children progress.

For each identity group, there is contention within and from without as to whether the difference should be eliminated or accepted and accommodated. Is it an appropriate goal to make everyone the same? The Deaf, for example, have their own culture and, as Solomon points out, it is stronger now than ever, but due to technological advances such as cochlear implants, that culture is threatened as hearing parents decide to provide implants instead of embracing their children’s deafness. Does it make sense to try to stop this from happening? Due to prenatal testing, parents can select out Down syndrome and many choose to abort a fetus at risk for Down syndrome. Is this desirable, or would it be better to welcome the difference and create a better environment for the success of those with Down syndrome? Conversely, if parents are able to select out “defects” in their children, would it not be understandable that deaf parents or parents who are dwarfs would want their children to be like them? Society cringes at the notion of purposely choosing deafness or dwarfism for children as if it were cruel and sick, but what makes us think that the lives of these people are of lesser value than any other life?

Much of this book revolves around the families telling their stories, and that is what makes it so very compelling to read. Even though they are dealing with problems that they didn’t foresee and that they cannot eliminate, most present positive attitudes and resilience. Many become advocates for their identity group. Solomon does provide examples of families for whom the problems are too much, who are struggling and don’t necessarily see the life before them as a “trip to Holland” (a reference to a famous essay by Emily Perl Kingsley regarding the birth of her son who has Down syndrome). But he does so with compassion and little in the way of judgement. The two chapters that I was most interested it were “crime” (because I had read that he interviewed Dylan Klebold’s parents) and “schizophrenia” (because I know little about it and it seems so scary). I received an education on schizophrenia. While it is a horrible burden for those who have it and for their families, there are a lot of misconceptions about it in society at large. We should have compassion instead of fear for those who have it. The chapter on crime and the interview with the Klebolds (only a few pages in a very long chapter) reveals how kind they are and how devastated they were by their son’s actions at Columbine. There was more to that story than most people know, and I feel bad for ever blaming parents like the Klebolds for the crimes of their children.

As the parent of two children with autism spectrum disorders, I must comment on the autism chapter. We in the autism community are a divided and contentious bunch, but for the most part, I think Solomon managed to present the issues we face and our differences accurately. He starts this chapter with a heartbreaking story of a family he has known for many years now. The daughter, at the age of ten, was institutionalized because she was becoming dangerous to her family and her parents were at a loss as to how to help her, given the severity of her behaviors. Throughout the chapter, Solomon presents several stories of families struggling to help their children who are not independent and display troubling behaviors, and he recognizes how difficult the struggles are for the child and the family, especially when there is little to nothing in the way of community supports for those families.  Towards the end of the chapter, Solomon highlights the tragedy of parents murdering their autistic children and essentially getting away with it. I was stunned at the evidence he provided regarding the number of murders that have happened and the lenient sentences that parents received. The life of a child with autism is somehow less of a life to the judges who sentence. It seems “understandable” that a parent would get frustrated and kill the child, and that is sickening.

My one criticism of this chapter is about this statement of Solomon’s: “The increased rate of diagnosis is crucial to the claim that there is an epidemic — critical in lobbying for resources for research. But the higher functioning people whose inclusion has brought up the numbers are often the ones who advocate against some of that research.” That second sentence needs some evidence to back it up. I am unaware of any research that shows the higher rates of autism being related more to “higher functioning” people getting diagnosed. “Higher” versus “lower” functioning is a minefield in and of itself and is not an official part of any diagnostic criteria for autism.

Having made that criticism, I should note that others will have many more complaints about this chapter. Those in the autism community who are sure that vaccines cause autism and who are anti-Neurodiversity will hate it. Solomon wrote about Neurodiversity for New York magazine several years ago and is sympathetic to the movement. Many adults with autism have a chance to speak up for themselves in this chapter and many do so with intelligence and conviction. They like who they are and do not want to be “cured.” They want to be accepted and valued as equal members of the community, which I think parents of children with autism the world over wish for as well.The ND alienate some in the autism community, however, by taking an “anti-cure” stance (which seems to stand against scientific advancement) and criticizing interventions such as Applied Behavioral Analysis, which is the go-to intervention for autism and is only now being recognized by insurance companies as a coverable expense. Parents are made to feel that the interventions they choose are self serving for the parent and harmful to their children. Solomon quotes a parent who says,

The fact that my children have an abnormality of development does not meant that I do not love my children for who they are. As with any other condition that would threaten their future and happiness, I do as much as I can to help them be functional and as normal as possible. And no, “normal” to me does not mean “a cookie-cutter robot-child trained to do my will.” It means: “able, like most people without autism, to lead an independent, purpose-filled life — able to speak, able to communicate, able to form and keep relationships.

Far From the Tree is an ambitious, unique piece of research and reflection on identity. It should be required reading for policy makers and would be a great choice for a community book read. Each chapter could provide hours of discussion.