Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Book Review: Myra Breckinridge (1968) by Gore Vidal

Raquel Welch played the title character in the (terrible) movie version of Myra Breckinridge.
Book Review:
 Myra Breckinridge (1968)
 by Gore Vidal

  I would expect more than one Gore Vidal novel on the 1001 Books list. Maybe if it was assembled by an American editorial staff.   Norman Mailer, another hugely popular American novelist from the same generation as Vidal, doesn't get a single book on the list.  In Vidal and the list's defense, he was better known for his non-fiction writing and general public/celebrity persona than any specific work of fiction.  However, to the extent that he did write a memorable novel, Myra Breckinridge is it, generally credited with the first literary depiction of a "post-op" (male to female) trans.

  Myra Breckinridge is a satire of "Hollywood culture,"  Myra arrives in Hollywood as the "widow" of her "dead" male persona (Myron.)   As the book is written, this fact is eventually revealed as a modest surprise for the reader.  For a contemporary reader, Myra's trans status is communicated before you start, either from a foreword designating Myra a classic of trans lit, or packaging Myra with it's twin, Myron, published several years later.

  To be clear, Myra Breckinridge is only revolutionary in terms of the explicit depiction of a post operative trans.  The literary theme of gender fluidity is as ancient as myth, and 20th centuries authors like Virginia Woolf explored related concepts a half century before Breckinridge was published in 1968.   Although it shocked when it was initially published, today the sexual material is best described as "mildly bawdy."  On the other hand, his jabs at left-coast culture are prescient, including the first mention of the California bred tradition of including "Like" before every statement.  "Like, I'm drowning, can you help me?" is one memorable quote from Myra in the book.

   There is also an early depiction of "60's style" orgy complete with weed and a lot of good lines about classic Hollywood film culture, again courtesy of Myra.  What there isn't is plot, or a deep understanding of the psychology of the trans protagonist.  In fact, Myra Breckinridge ends with an incredibly insensitive return by Myra to status as "Myron" after his fake boobs are removed while she is in recovery after an auto accident.   It's that ending that has likely diminished the reputation of Myra Breckinridge for subsequent generations of readers.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Book Review: All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch

The cover of All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch, set to be released on July 7th of 2016 by Penguin Press.

Book Review:
All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation
 by Diarmaid MacCulloch
Published July 7th, 2016
Penguin Press UK

   Diarmaid MacCaulloch wrote the standard one volume history of the Reformation, called The Reformation: A History, in 2003.  It was an immediate critical and popular success, and won a Wolfson History Prize and  a National Book Critics Award in the United States. A decade later, it's not only maintained it's position as the one book you read to get a sense of the Reformation, but it's also spawned a galaxy of historians seeking to fill in the gaps in knowledge he identified in 2003.

  All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation is his attempt to synthesize writings by himself and others which have appeared since the publication of his history.  In that regard, it functions best as a kind of coda to the history, and casual readers should be advised that reading All Things Made New without first reading The Reformation: A History, is likely to be infuriating.  However, if you have read The Reformation: A History, All Things Made New is a valuable update in terms of finding out what scholars who have been influenced by the first book have discovered.   Although the subject matter and general schematic of the book (several sections of loosely grouped essays about the Reformation in Europe, in England and in historiography) are not exactly user friendly, MacCulloch does do the reader the favor of keeping the copious footnotes at the end of the book, rather than interspersing each essay with it's accompanying information.  Like, The Reformation: A History, All Things Made New is also invaluable for the footnotes, which serve as a comprehensive guide to the literature surrounding the covered topic.

  MacCulloch's long term scholarly goal has been to rebut the Anglo-Catholic idea that the Reformation never really happened in England.  This is a debate with a long and complex history, by MacCulloch effectively cleared the field in 2003, and many of the essays in All Things Made New support his position.   While the early section on Europe has some appeal for a casual reader, the portions involving England more narrowly appeal to people deeply interested in this specific academic debates, or those with a genuine interest in English Church history.

  Many of the essays here have appeared in various publications over the last decade.  Readers in the U.K. may recall many of them, while writers outside the U.K. are unlikely to have encountered any of the source material before.  Thus, this book may be more worthwhile for readers outside of the U.K.

  Throughout, MacCulloch maintains his customary wit and verve while he is covering dry subjects like the History of the King James Bible, or the relationship between Protestant Reformers and the Virgin Mary. Ultimately, All Things Made New is a companion volume to the magisterial history published in 2003.  Readers would be advised to read that book before this one.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Nice and the Good (1968) by Iris Murdoch

Book Review
The Nice and the Good (1968)
by Iris Murdoch

    So much Iris Murdoch on the 1001 Books list.  The Nice and the Good is her fourth novel on the list, following Under the Net (1954), The Bell (1958) and A Severed Head (1961).   As her excellent wikipedia entry says she is, "best known for her novels about good and evil, sexual relationships, morality, and the power of the unconscious."  She also fits the classic profile of an author who was over represented in the first edition of 1001 Books.   She landed six titles in that first edition, cut to four in the second edition.  The Nice and the Good was one of the two books to get the ax.

   That is a decision that makes sense to me.  My sense is that The Nice and the Good made the list in the first place because it represents a thematic departure for Murdoch.  The Nice and the Good is part relationship drama and part spy/detective novel.  It's almost like she had been reading a lot of Graham Greene right before she sat down to write this book.   The protagonist is called John Ducane or "Ducane," a 40ish single guy, carrying on a relationship with a young art teacher in London and a strange, platonic relationship with the wife of his best friend and boss.  Working for the government in London, a colleague mysteriously commits suicide.

   The investigation quickly leads to exotic topics like black mail and Satanism and The Nice and the Good even includes a brief appearance by a flying saucer.  All of this is essentially window dressing for what is at heart a classic Murdochian tale about "sexual relationships, morality and the power of the unconscious."  

Monday, May 09, 2016

Belle du Seigneur (1968) by Albert Cohen

Book Review
Belle du Seigneur (1968)
by Albert Cohen

  Belle du Seigneur is another one of those novels where the publication date is deceptive.  Belle du Seigneur was published in it's original French edition in 1968, but not translated into English until 1995.  Despite it's obvious literary merit, the delay in translation is understandable considering the bulk of the volume- 971 large pages with narrow margins, and the fact that almost all of the "action" of the book takes place inside the rooms of hotels and private residences in Geneva in the 1930s.  Arguably, there are only two characters in the entire book.  Other humans exist in those claustrophobic pages, but this is the story of Solal and Adriane.  He, a French Jew by way of Greece, Under Secretary of the League of Nations in Geneva in the 1930's.  She, a poor-ish Swiss aristocrat, married to one of his subordinates at the League of Nations.  

  It is clear, from page one, that Belle du Seigneur is to be an extended riff on the portion of Anna Karenina where Karenina and Count  Vronsky slip away to Venice in an attempt to escape their Russian fate.   It's like that, although instead of it being a hundred page portion of a seven hundred page book, it takes up about 700 pages of a thousand page book.  Stylistically, Cohen blends Joycean stream of consciousness prose with a sharp first person narrator, Solal, who is obviously a stand in for the author himself.  The stream of consciousness technique embraces many different narrators, Ariane, her husband for almost a hundred pages at the beginning and Ariane's maid.

  Even accounting for the fact that Belle du Seigneur is backward looking in time, the ability for Cohen to transcend the limitations of the publishing industry circa 1968 is totally amazing.  Belle du Seigneur isn't just a thousand page novel, it's a thousand page novel about to social pariahs who have literally no friends for almost the entirety of the book.  Although the opening chapters take us all the way back to the beginning of life for Adriane, by the end I could think of nothing else but the two lovers, locked in their love shack on the outskirts of Geneva, Solal cutting his hands with glass, just to make things interesting between the two of them.

 That's a universal statement about the effect that time and proximity has on the love between two peoples and it's fair to say that identified more with Solal and Adriane than with any two characters I've read recently.


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