Book Review (SPARE by Prince Harry)

I was moved and impressed with Prince Harry’s new autobiography SPARE, a gripping and powerful read, thought not without its problems. I enjoy stories about under dogs, since I know that position well. I also like reading now and then about glamorous people, especially famous actors. While not a professional thespian, Prince Harry was born into glamour whether he liked it or not, and into a life where he was deeply pressured to act a certain way for the public. With the help of J. R. Moehringer, a skilled ghostwriter, Harry Windsor eloquently shares a fascinating narrative of privileged life, emotional (and sometimes physical) pain, and often dysfunctional family dynamics. After a tense prologue about the author meeting fairly recently with his father and brother in a last ditch effort to end his estrangement from them, the proper story begins with the morning he learned of his mother’s death just weeks before he turned thirteen. Prince Harry’s recollections about his dear mum (“Mummy”), Diana, Princess of Wales evoked my fond memories of her from afar, watching her in the news now and then. Like so many, including Harry himself, I was taken with her beauty and fun-loving, compassion-filled soul. In her innocence and kindness, she was too good of a person to be the wife of Prince, now King, Charles, whose love was always elsewhere and not for Diana. However, her radiant, all-too-brief presence in her two sons’ lives was a blessing, which Harry often conveys in this book. She seems to have helped make him into a far better person than how he would be if, say, his stepmom Camilla had actually been his mother.

I could not personally relate to the prince’s core identity of being a soldier but I did find myself relating to his feeling like a “naughty boy” outsider within his own family of origin (with the added layer for Harry of also being portrayed this way by the press or “paps,” as he calls reporters) and to coping with PTSD. Harry (and Mr. Moehringer) writes candidly about himself and those around him, such as his frequent substance abuse to numb his grief. I respect and admire the prince’s courage, balanced with compassion he expresses for his family, friends, fellow war veterans, and their families. I appreciate how he owns his vulnerability and (at least some) mistakes he has made and reflections on what he has learned from them.

The veracity of details in his life story is questionable in places. Apparently, assorted individuals, such as a former butler to the royal family, have publicly denied or contradicted some of the things Harry has written. We readers do not know the full truth of what happened in Harry’s life, and we probably never will, However, I think anyone will end up knowing more after reading this book. This is admittedly sad and problematic in a current age of people habitually distorting facts to garner sympathy, seek revenge, gain power, and/or earn money. Harry is no exception here. This is clearly a flawed text about a flawed, hurting human being sharing about their flawed family of other hurting humans. Many have said he has over-shared. And perhaps Harry has. So swings the pendulum after so much under-sharing and deception by those within the British monarchy and under-challenging its ancient status quo. Eventually, a healthy medium can be found, or so I choose to hope for. This book seems to be a contributing part to a longer term sea change that I believe is awkwardly, messily underway with institutions and their racism, sexism, and other inherent isms. Such deep shifts do not happen without incredible resistance and backward steps in reaction to forward ones. And those who rip the tops off of things to show what is wrong inside and needs to change are generally maligned, vilified, scapegoated. It takes courage and determination to protest for change. This book is many things, a kind of protest being one.

Harry confronts the racism, sexism, and classism of the British press and by members of his family, the latter group acting comparatively more covert with their racist thinking and treatment of his mixed Black and white wife Meghan Markle. His falling in love with and marrying her came across as a political act, which it was, unintended as this was for Harry and eye-opening that it soon became for him and the world at large. I felt for him and Meghan as they navigated a firestorm of hatred over simply entering a “mixed race” marriage. At least Queen Elizabeth II apparently took no issue with it while so many people sadly, frustratingly did. Their act of love was and is also an act of courage, particularly given the family and establishment they were and are up against. Their remaining loyal to each other and moving far away from Harry’s family was a mix of protest by them (their loyalty particularly) and punishment by the monarchy, who forced Harry to choose either complete duty to the Crown all year round or complete cut off of their financial and social support. While those choices may sound fair and reasonable on their face, the way the discussion of them occurred, according to Harry, was far from honest, respectful, or collaborative. This only served to reinforce Harry’s wish to leave his role of being the scapegoat, less valued “spare” to his older brother William’s golden child “heir,” a major theme Harry explores throughout the book.

SPARE, with all its flaws of narration, is a cultural artifact of sorts, a window into the workings of a unique way of life within an ancient establishment and its traditions. I am not one to often read about royalty, especially royalty in current times. This is actually the first book I have ever read about a modern royal. Harry’s accounts of private schooling, living in assorted palaces and castles, initiations into manhood (namely learning to hunt game), funeral and marriage observances, military training and combat missions, and travels, among other things, all add up to a fascinating read, even though often what I perused was not congruent with my own values. However, reading about another culture and background so different from one’s own is educational, not always comfortable. While reading, I felt like a drawn-in observer, lead along by a very human-sounding tour guide who I felt I could approach and talk to. In short, through story, I learned things and, to a significant extent, got to know the storyteller.

Some best, deepest moments in this book are when Harry shares about his psychotherapy sessions, during which he uncovers memories about his mother that he had repressed after her death to shut down his grief within a family and culture so highly valuing stoicism. He goes against this value and attribute, embracing those of openness and emotional release instead. More courageousness. Accuracy to the truth is not such a relevant concern here as he movingly shares how much of a powerful, positive presence Princess Diana was in his childhood and even after she was long gone. Those reflections are his most genuine and sincere sounding, along with his love for and dedication to his wife Meghan. This comes through, for example, as Harry recounts being present at his two children’s births. I would have liked it if there were a few more accounts of his therapy sessions. But, then, I’m a psychotherapist by profession, so I’ll own that personal bias up front. He may well have had more session material to share but the editor(s) probably left it out for book length, pacing, and, perhaps, perceived lack of interest by the general public.

In many places, the narrative is quite raw in tone. Harry often grapples with much hurt and anger over problematic behavior of people in the British press, his older brother, his father, his stepmother, and some of the royal family’s staff. It is a rough piece of writing that is clearly part of Harry’s ongoing healing process, including an attempt to set the record straight, something partially accomplished, at best, in this book. The story is that of a trauma survivor, both in childhood and adulthood, with the British press a major abuser/perpetrator, starting with likely causing or at least contributing to Diana’s death in a car accident.

Among a handful of good causes Harry writes about, he advocates for the needs of veterans and validates the importance of distressed people receiving mental health care. His being a white male from such a position of privilege and soldierly machismo is great messaging for other white (and other ethnic background) males to allow themselves to introspect and seek out professional help. We need more men like Prince Harry encouraging this instead of keeping to maintaining rigid patterns of toxic masculinity.

It is obvious that Harry and Meghan have chosen to exploit their royal family privileges for their personal and financial gain. They have kept their main titles of aristocracy, fostered their public celebrity status, and have replaced his family and British government funding and security support with corporate business deals to maintain a very wealthy, secure way of life. Ah, the seduction of money, especially when one is used to having it, or being sheltered and somewhat coddled by it in Harry’s case, even when he himself earned nothing while in England (what he aptly refers to as “forced infantilization”). Harry may have broken the mold by leaving his family fold and the gilded cage of the British monarchy, but he has replicated his extreme privilege a la American style. A living saint or bodhisattva he is indeed far from being. But, like any of us uniquely is, he is a work in progress and has chosen to share some of that process to the public at tremendous emotional cost to himself and his family of origin. Time will tell how he further evolves and, by extension, his family members will in Britain. Will they mature through, say, opening up and challenging the British press and socially toxic aspects of the monarchy, like Harry has daringly, albeit often roughly, done? Will there be healing and reconnection between Harry and his father and brother? That all remains to be seen, though I am not holding my breath.

I’m all for breaking away from toxic family dynamics, challenging racism and sexism, and getting professional help, including psychotherapy, and support from friends along the way. Good going for Harry and his wife Meghan for doing all of these. Sadly but realistically, in their humanness, next to their courage and other positive attributes, the two are also rather greedy and vain because, in their high positions of privilege, they can be. We readers of SPARE must look elsewhere for better examples of generosity, non-materialism, and genuine, healthy modesty. That said, Harry’s autobiography is still a worthwhile read.

Book Review (PAUL NEWMAN: THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF AN ORDINARY MAN, A MEMOIR)

I just read THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF AN ORDINARY MAN, A MEMOIR (published in 2022 by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, U.S.A.) the new and fascinating life story of actor, director, champion race car driver, and philanthropist Paul Newman. This is his authorized biography, based on interviews and oral histories conducted and recorded from 1986 to 1991 by Paul’s long-time friend Stewart Henry Stern. After several years of the subsequent transcripts– which numbered somewhere over fourteen thousand pages– sitting in storage, a family friend and some of Paul’s close relatives (such as at least one of his five daughters) finally went through them. David Rosenthal then compiled and edited the chosen ones for this book. The narrative is interspersed with reflections by family members, friends, and work associates, such as Elia Kazan and Karl Malden, to name just two. This helped to enrich the reading and flesh out Paul the person from within his own thoughts and in those of others, making for a creative, robust approach to a complex human being. The several black and white photos throughout further enhance the reader’s sense and understanding of this wonderful, often self-deprecating, man through his lifetime.

Mr. Newman often self reflects quite deeply. He is someone I’ve long admired for his philanthropy, progressive political views, acting talent, and incredible pulchritude. To me, Paul Newman is still one of the most beautiful men I’ve ever seen in photographs and up on screen. He aged gracefully, both in appearance and, more importantly, emotionally and philosophically/spiritually. I did not know that The Economist recorded Mr. Newman as being the most financially generous person, relative to his income, in the twentieth century history of the United States. He also made the Guinness Book of World Records for being the oldest champion race car driver. These are two facts I learned from reading this book, the others being more juicy tid bits about certain movies he starred in, some of the people with whom he worked, and his experiences as a political activist and philanthropist. However, there is assorted other information that is not revealed, such as Paul’s cause of death being from lung cancer. He was a very private person, described by more than one individual he knew as being shy. The story bypasses much of the glamorous parties and red carpet events Paul attended, focusing more on his personal and professional life, such as his first marriage to Jackie Witt and second one of fifty years to actress Joanne Woodward. The latter comes across as a soulmate to Paul, the way he admiringly and lovingly talks about her, even though he never uses such a term to my recollection.

Other than the very end of the text, I found Paul’s childhood the most interesting and emotionally powerful to read about. The younger of two sons, Paul grew up in an upper middle income home in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a wealthy white suburb of Cleveland. His Jewish father Arthur Newman was alcoholic, working hard at a sporting goods store he cofounded with his brother Joe (a.k.a. J.S.), Paul’s uncle. Theresa, Paul’s non-Jewish, Christian Science member mother, was what I gleaned to be quite narcissistic, tending to fly into sudden rages, sometimes for no clear reason, and viewing and treating her younger son as a pretty “ornament” (Mr. Newman’s descriptor). He did not recall her ever expressing curiosity about him as a unique person with interests and feelings of his own. His parents often loudly fought, sometimes destroying property. With all this domestic chaos and tension, no wonder why Paul and his older brother Arthur, Jr. developed a habit of taking turns banging their heads repeatedly on their dining room wall. Paul described it thus: “We just knocked our fucking brains out. It was our own Wailing Wall. I couldn’t take my rage out on anybody my size, so I took it out against the wall [pg. 6 in the hardcover ed.].” It is sad how Paul’s incredible popularity over his physical appearance fed into the painful “ornament” status first imposed upon him by his problematic mother. I felt for him as he tried to escape this, which, it seems, he finally did (at least somewhat) later in life.

Like his father, Paul went on to heavily abuse alcohol for most of his adulthood, stealing beer where he could while serving in the Navy during WW II, drinking his way through college and, later, when acting in movies. The alcohol assisted Paul in maintaining a largely emotionally detached perspective, particularly due to his deep self doubt and tending to feel like an impostor in many situations. Towards the end of the narrative, he shares how he has “always been in pain, always needed help [pg. 280].” He sought out psychotherapy on “more than one occasion.” It is not clear how helpful he personally found it to be, except with a certain psychiatrist he saw early on after becoming a successful movie actor. He viewed these sessions with the psychoanalyst as not very productive, which Paul largely attributed to not feeling able to introspect well at the time. I’m certain that Mr. Newman needed a more developed type of trauma and recovery treatment, which, sadly, did not yet exist in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

Regardless of Paul Newman’s subjective experiences with psychotherapy, he lived long enough (eighty-three years) to become a more self-reflective, engaged father and husband, devoted friend, and giving individual. As a psychotherapist myself, I’m inclined to think that he eventually found one or more therapists who substantially helped him. More importantly, this man clearly held a deep curiosity about life and a drive to not only succeed but grow in his capacity for empathy and compassion, which he significantly, impressively did. Two of his five daughters basically state these last points in the book, one (Melissa Newman) in the foreward and another (Clea Newman Soderland) in the afterward. It is understandable and very moving, to the point of tears for me while reading the end, how and why his surviving children (having lost his oldest child and only son to suicide) continue to admire and miss Paul each and every day.

Book Review (THE SILMARILLION by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien)

I just finished J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE SILMARILLION, published in 1977, four years after the author’s death, thanks largely to his son Christopher Tolkien, who edited the book and added in an appendix and an extremely helpful index of names. I read Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy many years ago. I intentionally took my time to get to this prequel to those four books, and I can see why. I had to ripen into middle age to have enough patience to read this ornately detailed text. This took me longer to read than Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA, which is more than double this book’s length.

THE SILMARILLION is a series of narratives about Tolkien’s make believe world of Arda and Middle-earth, the very beginning of the book a creation myth. Tolkien drew much of his inspiration from Norse and Celtic mythology respectively. His prose has a lyrical lilting quality to it, as if someone were speaking all the words aloud in any possible number of Gaelic accents, whichever happens to be the most musical in tone.

For more than half of the book, I felt a mix of fascination and irritation. The plethora of beautiful names of characters (Elven, Dwarf, human, dragon, and other fantastical creatures) and places and their colorful descriptions held my interest. But, having to constantly look so many of these up in the index in order to keep things straight in my head annoyed me for a good while. Eventually, I got used to doing this and found I didn’t have to refer to the index quite so frequently. Still, I continued to refer to it down to the last page of story. And since beings, places, and objects (especially buildings, rings, and swords) each tended to have two to three names, my reliance on the index was only further reinforced. Perhaps not everyone will need, or has needed, to refer to the index so frequently as I did while reading this tome, which is actually less than three hundred pages in length if you exclude the index and appendix.

I compare this book— especially the first half of it or so— to walking through a museum of ancient, fantastical history, filled with assorted artifacts and detailed descriptions about them. I only wish a map of Middle-earth were included. I would have constantly been looking at it to properly place in my mind where regions/countries, cities, and natural places, such as rivers and mountain ranges, all were in relation to each other. I vaguely remember some map(s) in the first part of Tolkien’s THE LoTR and THE HOBBIT texts, but this old copy of THE SILMARILLION had no such illustration. I made due and tolerated some confusion around what was where in relation to an event or other places because I preferred this over taking the time to get online and study a map of Middle-earth. After all, it’s not like I was going to be tested on this book in some class. I’m just not that geeky or obsessive and wanted to stay in the lyrical flow of the stories— and be done with the book without even more delays.

Eventually, the stories pick up pace with more action and an increase in focusing on individual characters, mostly concerning wars and battles fought, or situations somehow contributing to these, and always clearly between good and evil. Tolkien’s morality-filled universe is a simplified Manichean one, but still a relevant allegory, I find. His message of the need to be ever vigilant of greed and the thirst for power, in oneself and others, continues to be as crucial today as has always been the case with humankind. I appreciate how he includes the values of hope and perseverance, hope that the light within nature and societies can and will live on and, with individual and collective perseverance towards the light, will ultimately come through triumphantly for long periods, even as darkness ebbs and flows. It is a cycle, a cycle of life, as seen through cycles within cycles, such as the transitioning of seasons, of civilizations rising and falling, and of land masses changing. This all is expressed in a steady and beautiful rhythm in THE SILMARILLION.

The book is a worthwhile read if you are naturally patient or can muster up enough patience like I finally did.

Micro/Mini Book Review (THE ORACLE OF MARACOOR by Gregory Maguire)

I breezed through this brand new second book of author Gregory Maguire’s trilogy ANOTHER DAY. He has expanded his Oz universe to include this new series, which takes place across the ocean from Oz in a land called Maracoor. Last year’s prequel, THE BRIDES OF MARACOOR, picked right up from the conclusion of the fourth and final book in THE WICKED YEARS. Maguire continues to be nimble with words, including with description, imagery, and dialogue. This is good, solid fun.

Mini Book Review (KING OF BATTLE AND BLOOD)

I just finished reading Scarlett St. Clair’s erotic fantasy romance KING OF BATTLE AND BLOOD, which was a lot of fun and even— surprisingly— emotionally moving in a few places. I liked the author’s creative way of having vampire and human societies existing side by side and even mingling together. I only care to read about vampires on occasion. But, this written rendering of them was interesting, particularly of the leading male character. The heroine, who is human/mortal and narrates the story, is a kick ass warrior princess who becomes a gutsy queen. This book is very lesbian and gay affirming, and witch affirming as well.

Hardcore conservative Christians will want to stay away from this deliciously naughty page turner.

Mini Book Review and Rant (DUNE by Frank Herbert)

I never could get into Frank Herbert’s modern classic sci-fi novel DUNE, though I sure tried. I find his writing to be overly-earnest and lacking a focused elegance that, say, J.R.R. Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy conveys. And Tolkien’s work often expresses a lyrical levity, balanced with all that narrative’s seriousness. Yes, LoTR, like DUNE, is indeed heterosexist but not then also grossly homophobic like Herbert’s novel and its sequels so endemically are. Regardless of this “apples vs. oranges” comparison some may feel I am unfairly making here, I have come to accept that it’s not a reflection on me somehow “missing something” over not being able to fully appreciate DUNE, including all of the movie and TV adaptations. It is simply a cumbersome, tedious writing style and universe with some sensibilities that are not at all simpatico with who I am, but, rather, actually crassly insult who I am.

Book Review (THE AWAKENING by Kate Chopin)

Reading Kate Chopin’s THE AWAKENING (first published in 1899) was like sitting under a full oak tree with sunlight streaming through its leaves while one savors fine chocolate truffles and languidly pets the sleek, soft fur of a sleeping panther at one’s side.  Her writing is at once intriguing and blissfully mellifluous.

Through the character of Mademoiselle Reisz, a cantankerous woman in her sixties (if I remember correctly), the story’s main message is relayed:

“The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings.  It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.”

Much occurs in the narrative leading up to this foreshadowing quote and thereafter.

Edna Pontellier, aged twenty-eight and married to a respectable, social climbing Creole gentleman who works in high finance, is the story’s tragic heroine.  She is a woman stifled by the conventions of her day, filled with a longing to have an independent, more self-led life, free of social and marital-familial obligations.  Her meeting the attentive, amiable Robert Lebrun while summer vacationing at Grand Isle in the Gulf of Mexico, slowly awakens her repressed passions.  The story unfolds from there.

Back at home in her fashionable house in 1890s New Orleans, Edna becomes absorbed in portrait painting as a way to express her passion and sensuality while inwardly feeling consumed with her friend and beloved Robert.  There is some hopefulness for her future as Edna begins to sell some of her artwork along with setting up a plan to collect a small annuity inheritance from her deceased mother.  These and visiting with local friends she had met on Grand Isle sustain her, since Robert had left to try his fortune in Mexico fairly early on in the book.

Ms. Chopin’s descriptions of people, places, and feeling states often enthralled me.  Here are just a few of many exciting moments in the book:

“She felt somewhat like a woman who in a moment of passion is betrayed into an act of infidelity, and realizes the significance of the act without being wholly awakened from its glamour………He sometimes talked in a way that astonished her at first and brought the crimson into her face; in a way that pleased her at last, appealing to the animalism that stirred impatiently within her.”

And then a little further along:

“It was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded. It was a flaming torch that kindled desire.”

These passages are all in reference to Edna responding to the vain attentions of Alcee Arobin, a handsome playboy whose presence is a flattering yet frustrating distraction from the main character’s unrequited love for Robert, a man who remains off-stage for most of the story.

A sumptuous dinner scene, put on by Edna as her farewell from high society before transitioning into a more simplified lifestyle, away from her husband and two children, read like a three dimensional moving painting.  I felt like I was right there, watching and listening as Edna and her guests– all dressed as if for an extravagant ball– socialized.  Eventually, the gathering culminates in a crescendo of imaginative intensity, when the youngest guest, Victor Lebrun, aged nineteen and brother of the older, ever-absent Robert, drunkenly embodies Bacchus/Dionysus:

“As if a magician’s wand had touched him, the garland of roses transformed him into a vision of Oriental beauty.  His cheeks were the color of crushed grapes, and his dusky eyes glowed with a languishing fire.”

And, then, shortly, the hypnotic effect continues:

“The effect of the wine upon Victor was, to change his accustomed volubility into silence.  He seemed to have abandoned himself to a reverie, and to be seeing pleasing visions in the amber bead.”

The spell is broken when this youth tauntingly sings a song that reminds Edna of his brother, which jars her and– by extension– the other guests back into present-day reality.

The spell was also largely broken for me the reader after this turning point scene, which was most certainly the author’s intention.  The narrative proceeds to Edna leaving her old life of physical luxury and trying to make it on her own in the world while hoping to reconnect with her beloved Robert.  Therein lies one of her main inner conflicts:  on one hand Edna wishes to be self-sufficient and free while, on the other, she feels devoid of love and incomplete without her heart’s companion by her side.

Blatant yet beautiful symbolism abounds in this story.  As a youth being introduced to literature, I would have puzzled over much of it, but I did not at this time in my life.  The first part of the narrative has the recurring presence of two young lovers and a widowed woman in black often near them, clearly foreshadowing a grim outcome for Edna and her love for Robert.  The sea itself surrounding Grand Isle is the subconscious and unconscious, sensuality and sexual desire, and the longing for and achieving a nurturing womb-like state (often briefly experienced during and after orgasm), all of which directly pertain to Edna’s psyche.  These are but a handful of the symbols presented throughout the book.  Some readers may find such abundance of this type of literary/plot device passé, uninteresting, over-the-top, and/or “overly” romantic, but I sure didn’t.

THE AWAKENING read like one long, exquisite build up of sexual and emotional tension, parallel to a symphony playing a classic piece of music crescendoing towards a grand finale of sorts.  That said, I felt somehow punched– or splashed with a bucket of frigid water– when I reached the last page.  My emotional and mental response was a complex one.  Ms. Chopin was working within a time period in which she was both ahead of and a product of.  So, while, days after finishing the novel, I continue to puzzle and even agonize a little over the ending, I also ultimately accept the author’s resolution to this overall deliciously-written joy of a book.

 

 

 

Book Review (THE LOVER by Marguerite Duras)

French author Marguerite Duras’ semi-autobiographical novel THE LOVER (L’AMANT) is a fascinating, sad, sometimes puzzling, short read about alienation, classism, colonialism, racism, sexism, and the human condition. Ms. Duras then shows how both lust and love serve as ephemeral ways around these socio-emotional and existential constraints.

I had to set my rigid thinking part of me aside while reading this book.  Specifically, I am more comfortable with a clearly non-stop linear narrative, as many of us are.  The author digresses at times, going off on tangents that do not always have an explicit link to the main story, which is about a French teenaged female (the periodic narrator) living in Indochina in the 1930s.  She embarks on a passionate, doomed affair with a wealthy Chinese man, her senior by twelve years.  I mention “periodic” narrator here because the point of view switches between first and third person.  I soon realized that Ms. Duras was basically thinking aloud on the page and reflecting, whereby thoughts naturally jump around a bit before eventually returning to a certain main subject of focus.  Clever and realistic.  The human brain is more than linear, and certainly so when impacted by childhood trauma.  The book’s impoverished young woman lives through the loss of her father and having a narcissistic, abusive older brother and a moody, depressed mother, all traumatic life disruptors to varying degrees.  The main character resides largely in her mind and through her writing, exploring different perspectives partly out of habit, as survivors can often do, and partly out of a longing to integrate her challenging, rift-filled life, find meaning in it all.

The determination of the main character’s intent to rebel via experiencing repeated fulfillment of her sexual desire with a socially forbidden lover (older and non-white) is compelling and erotically charged.  It has been a long time since I’ve read a novel so purely from a woman’s perspective that relays such believable immediacy of sexual longing.  And while her lover is able to match this urgency with his own, it is her libido that is the central energy or– ahem– thrust of the story.  The male lead is portrayed as sensitive, nervous, and love-struck, which I found refreshing and intriguing, whereby he is rendered just as vulnerable as she is if not more so.  On an emotional, psychic level, the gender roles of male and female are somewhat mixed up between them, unclear, which is wonderfully human.  On the surface, it seems that the man is the pursuer, per old convention, but she pursues him just as strongly, for experience and pleasure gratification, cutting off her emotions (many would say so “typically male”), per this being a protective pattern/defense for herself existing long before he came onto the scene.

The racism in THE LOVER saddened and angered me.  The book was published in 1984 and the author still was blatantly, unreflectingly racist, per, for example, her occasional reference throughout the story to “coolies,” the natives to Indochina (Vietnam).  Her guilt and despair over how her mother and brothers treat her Chinese lover, and the way she goes along with their awful behavior in their presence with him, is understandable.  On one side, the young woman uses her lover and allows her family to do so as well.  On the other, he also uses her sexually but with her full direct consent.  She requests that he treat her “like you treat all your women.”  This he does up to a point, but not completely, because he actually loves her.  It is unclear that she reciprocates this love.  Hence, like the land of Vietnam, colonized and exploited by the French, the Chinese man, also an exploiter of many Vietnamese, is in turn exploited, used.  There is a chain of hierarchy in which the young woman is close to the top, with her older brother, a white male, placed above her.  Then follows the rich, non-white lover, just below the narrator, and the colonized natives at the bottom.  The book is written by a colonizer, even if the main character’s own economic situation was fairly grim.  She operated from privilege, matching her lover’s access to money with her being white and not in love, or so she convinces herself of the latter during the affair.

Ms. Duras’ frequent references to death, including occasional thoughts of dying and committing violence on people she loves, were sometimes disturbing, at other times puzzling.  Given the lack of emotional connection between she and her mother, her father’s death from some illness during her childhood, and her raging, destructive older brother, it is no wonder she was occupied with death.  She suffered from depression brought on by both genetics, given her mother, who may have had an undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and painful circumstances.  The narrator writes in dramatic, absolutist statements, referring to herself as “dead” after the death of her younger brother, who she did clearly love.  The meaning behind such statements (among other ponderous passages in the book, such as musings about immortality) was not always clear to me.  Perhaps this is what Ms. Duras intended, since life often involves discerning meaning where it is not always apparent.

I would be remiss if I did not at least briefly discuss the writer’s description of the story’s surroundings.  The contrasts of city and countryside are stark and beautiful, such as how she describes light and shadow in each of these environments, or the uniqueness of the nights versus the sameness of the often brightly-lit days.  She sets a mood through her descriptions very effectively, which includes an overall sense of claustrophobia and isolation that come with the oppressive tropical heat coupled with her inability to leave her mother and brothers and their toxic ways of relating.  All that plus the repressive social norms she had to contend with as a young woman attending private, Western European-run schools during the first half of the twentieth century.  It is no wonder the main character is so fraught and seeks constant distraction and release the way she does.

I am glad I checked THE LOVER out of the library and read it, a modern classic for sure.  The one flaw I saw in it is a certain lack of awareness in the author’s writing of her own unresolved racism.  Somehow, it is doubtful if it dissipated much more by 1996, the year Marguerite Duras died.  For those readers with more of a literary education and background, I imagine other flaws about the writing come forth that I did not notice in this little gem of a book.

And, now, staying with little novels about precocious young women from another time and place, I have started on Kate Chopin’s THE AWAKENING.

(Semi)Book Review (GLORY AND THE LIGHTNING by Taylor Caldwell)

I had to stop reading the somewhat trashy GLORY AND THE LIGHTNING, by Taylor Caldwell. Since I have been on a roll with reading tales that take place in ancient Greek times, a good friend recently recommended this 1974 published book to me.

Set in 5th century BC Persia and Greece, this historical novel follows the lives of Aspasia and Pericles.  The former is a brilliant and beautiful hetaira (courtesan) who eventually meets and pairs up with the latter, the renowned general and elected leader of Athens for over thirty years, a time which saw the peak of that great city state’s flourishing.

I found both the characters and overall outlook and tone of the third person narrator to be deeply cynical, elitist, and often contemptuous. There was only one supporting character I could consistently sympathize with and like, that of a female physician friend and lover of Pericles’, who does the key transitional act of introducing him to Aspasia at a dinner party.  Unfortunately, this supporting character’s name eludes me now.  (I put the book down a few weeks ago.)  This left me feeling like a distanced observer most of the time rather than an emotionally engrossed reader. Granted, some passages of sexual intrigue were entertaining, along with the many descriptions of pretty women and men in their ornate clothing, jewelry, perfumes, buildings, and gardens, including when they ate exotic, delectable foods. I can appreciate abundant detail, though it was excessive in places even for me in this often indulgent yarn.

The first several pages of the book were devoted to laying out how Aspasia is a brilliant, challenging student to her teachers. I think one brief classroom scene would have sufficed, instead of three or so extended scenarios, to relay the author’s point of how exceptional, gifted, and strong-willed this woman was. Parallel to Aspasia’s teachers’ anger with her know-it-all argumentativeness, I honestly felt exasperated with the writer’s diarrhea of the pen.

Then there is all the blatant sexism, classism, and racism. How one chooses to write about two inherently classist, sexist, misogynist cultures (Greek and Persian) in an ancient time period takes great thought and skill. I myself prefer the inclusion of a more informed, modern perspective that integrates understandings gleaned from discourses of feminism and anti-racism/egalitarianism, among others. Unfortunately, Ms. Caldwell’s avowed conservatism shows through in this tale. Bound by reductionist conventional thought along the lines of “men are from Mars, women are from Venus,” the author has all of her characters existing and operating from this tired old paradigm, with the partial exception of both Aspasia and Pericles’ physician and socialite friend.  Aspasia’s courageous attempts to live and succeed in a man’s world, surely parallel to what the author was doing during her lifetime through most of the 20th century, come through as often admirable (while other times not) in the narrative, and for that I am appreciative. I admire and respect anyone who can succeed against great odds, so long as minimal harm is done to others along the way.

So much reliance on racist stereotyping of the “dark” and “mysterious” Persians and “Easterners” lends a very dated, often irritating feel to the writing. If this book is out of print, I won’t be at all surprised.

I looked forward to Ms. Caldwell’s descriptions of Athens and rendering of Pericles, a historical figure I’ve read about elsewhere with a mix of admiration and sadness. Well, Pericles is portrayed as an often quiet (i.e., “strong silent type”), arrogant ass, surrounded by elitist and petty people even worse than he.  Clearly, the author did not like the actual concept of democracy and found every moment of digression in the story to criticize it as “feminine” and unreliable, preferring a more fixed laws republic.  Hmmm, since human needs evolve somewhat over time as technology progresses, how can all laws remain completely unchanged?  She never answers that question.  Caldwell has her characters even pragmatically think and suggest that “benign” tyrants or dictators heading up governments are perhaps the best solution, albeit not a realistic one.  Her contemptuous attitude about the “rabble,” i.e., the peasant/working class was distasteful to me.  Caldwell did not believe in the possibility that a critical mass of people in a civilization could govern themselves and others fairly and effectively.  And while that is a topic open to debate, I do think the author used this position as an excuse to portray most of humanity in her book as petty and unsympathetic.  Sadly, Pericles comes across as cold, calculating, elitist, and cynical with– sure enough- contempt for the “plebeians” and “peasants,” who are all “less” than “superior” men.  And while Pericles undoubtedly was likely largely this way in actuality within such a misogynist, classist culture and time in history, I found his actual humanity in this novel present but often lacking, certainly not enough to connect me, the reader, with him.  The writer’s repeated description of Pericles as being like a statue did not help warm me to him in the least.  He often seemed two dimensional and overly extreme.

Caldwell’s blatant touting of Christian monotheism in the book annoyed me to no end.  She had Pericles agreeing with a few of his friends’ endorsement of the “Unknown God,” and largely reduced the Greek pantheon to being symbols of and for a corrupt, petty bureaucrat priesthood that was going out of style.  Lovely.  Granted, the author did allow for some beauty of the ancient and sacred to come through via some descriptions of picturesque scenery and the artful practices of courtesans.  This was a nice reprieve here and there from her otherwise constant return to polemicizing against democracy, polytheism (via touting monotheism instead), and the working class “rabble.”  She just could not help herself.  This diverted away from the flow of the narrative of people and place.  Personally, I do not read novels to be lectured at again and again about the writer’s political, spiritual, and philosophical views, even if I happen to agree with them.  It’s like watching a movie on television interrupted with too many commercials, only perhaps even more bothersome.

By the time I got to the third and final section of the book, in which Pericles and Aspasia are together as a couple, I lost patience and interest.  It starts out with an overview of Pericles’ narcissistic former stepson’s cruel and criminal acts, including his killing of two slaves, a child and an elderly woman.  I briefly thought of Donald Trump as that character and started to shut down a bit, an indication that I really could not be aggravated further.  Besides, now that the two main characters were together, after an admittedly intriguing and sexual-tension-filled scene (minus the author’s usual inserted- in polemics via conversations between the guests, including Socrates) towards the end of the novel’s second part, I no longer cared much about the story.  Also, Pericles mother had long-since died, another somewhat sympathetic side character, albeit a very sad and often helpless one.

I hope this will be my only “semi” book review, as I do prefer to write about texts that I’ve actually finished from cover to cover.  GLORY AND THE LIGHTNING had some beautiful, thought-provoking moments of description and human feeling here and there. But, I found the tale generally frustrating, unsatisfying, and alienating due to what felt like constant, long-winded interruptions of the author’s obnoxious personal views.  These coarse interweaves into the narrative I could have done without.  With them all removed, the novel would have been far shorter, faster moving, and more relatable.