Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “homosexuality”

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #104: Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

While reading this book, I had to keep reminding myself that this was a memoir and not outrageous fiction, which made it all the sadder. While hysterically funny at times and morbidly depressing at others, Running with Scissors is in fact a story of child abuse not all that different from “A Child called It.” And while it was evident that the author wrote the book as humor in order to try to contend with his horribly abusive childhood, I am frankly amazed at all the reviewers who gave it a thumbs up for its “bawdy wacky humor” and did not simultaneously weep tears of outrage on behalf of poor Augusten.

Augusten is the child of a couple who despise each other. The mother is a self-absorbed Southern dilettante and would-be poet who is probably bi-polar, the father a cold-blooded alcoholic who is completely disinterested in his son. Both parents have spent years physically and verbally abusing each other, until he finally walks away and never looks back. She discovers her homosexuality and signs over custody of her 13-year-old son to her psychiatrist, freeing herself to indulge her lunacy which periodically devolves into full-fledged psychotic outbreaks (sometimes directed at Augusten himself) and confinement in a mental hospital. Augusten’s next three years are spent living in Dr. Finch’s household with a variety of mental patients, which include Dr. Finch himself (he reads the future in his own turds, hands out psychiatric meds like candy, and openly keeps several wives and mistresses), his wife, children—both biological and adopted—and several of Dr. Finch’s mental patients. The house is a collapsing, roach-infested Victorian pile, and everyone lives according to their own rules, or lack thereof.

Augusten is removed from school when Finch devises a fake suicide attempt for the boy, and his rape by a resident adult pedophile is viewed more or less benevolently as a “relationship” by his new guardian. Augusten reminded me of nothing so much as the ball in a pinball machine, batted back and forth between his psychotic mother, his obsessed pedophile lover, the lunatic Dr. Finch, and the crazy episodes of the Finch “children.” All the “freedom” he is granted to choose his own lifestyle and life rules equals so much chaos, and ultimately turns into boredom as Augusten discovers by age 16 that his lack of education, lack of life skills and lack of direction makes him unsuited to survive in the outside world. His mother’s sudden “revelation” that she has been raped, overmedicated, and manipulated for years by the man she had turned her child over to, creates a moment of crisis for Augusten in which he is asked to choose sides. How he resolves this and whether he emerges into adulthood intact is the subject of a second memoir.

While laughing aloud at some moments (he is a truly funny guy and writes a great turn of phrase), I basically found myself wincing and outright cringing through much of this book. The Glass Castle is a profoundly funny, insightful, and poignant memoir about a dysfunctional family; Running With Scissors, for all its “bawdy wackiness,” made me downright sick with anger at what this child suffered–and how society failed him. I can only wonder that he survived to tell the tale.

ElCicco #CBR4 Review #34: The Absolutist by John Boyne

Set in World War I, The Absolutist is narrated by Tristan Sadler, a 17-year-old Londoner off to war and feeling, like many other young men, that it’s the right place to be, the right thing to do, an adventure. Like all WWI literature, The Absolutist details the grim ugly reality of The Great War: life in the trenches; the fear, despair and madness of soldiers; and the public pressure to serve. Tristan, however, unlike other WWI narrators, is gay in a society that treats homosexuals the same as conscientious objectors and those who refuse to fight — as criminals, as aberrations deserving punishment, as embarrassments and stains on the family reputation.

Cowardice is a theme running throughout the book. Conscientious objectors were derided by society and branded “feathermen” — cowards who were afraid to fight, which was not always true. For conscientious objectors who were sent to fight anyway, the refusal to fight did not mean they did not serve in other capacities. Often these men were given dangerous non-combatant jobs — such as stretcher bearers, retrieving the dead from no man’s land — which lead to their deaths. An absolutist, on the other hand, was one who not only objected to fighting but refused to participate in the war in any way. These men could be shot for cowardice. But is it cowardly to take a principled stand knowing you will suffer for it? Is it brave to kill and follow orders in order to save yourself from scrutiny by the rest of the pack?

I found the story’s religious undertones to be most interesting. One of the main characters, Will, is the son of a vicar, and several characters question the morality of killing fellow human beings (Germans) who have done you no harm. But what I found of greater interest is that Tristan comes across as both a St. Peter in his denials in one section of the story and as a Judas elsewhere. At the end of the novel, the reader is left to wonder if, like Peter, Tristan deserves forgiveness.

Tristan is a complicated narrator. On one hand, his rough home life and his fruitless search for love make him an object of pity. His experiences at the front are harrowing, and he is one of only 2 from his original troop of 20 to survive the war. On the other hand, his desire to fly under the radar, not to make waves, and a horrifying confession at the end of the book make him somewhat despicable. I have mixed feelings about him –pity and disgust — but how many of us would be different under duress? We like to think we would be brave and stand up for what is right, but would we? One of the passages that stuck with me has to do with an “over-the-top” campaign in which a raw recruit standing ahead of Tristan refuses to go out of the trench. The sadistic and insane Sgt. Clayton orders Tristan to push the soldier up and out.

“I do it. I don’t even think of the consequences of my actions, but between us Clayton and I push the boy to the top of the ladder and there’s nowhere for him to go now but over and he falls on his belly, the possibility of a return to the trench out of the question. I watch as he slithers forward, his boots disappearing from my eye line, and I turn to Clayton, who is staring at me with insanity in his eyes. We look at each other and I think, Look at what we have just done, and then he returns to the side of the lines as Wells orders the rest of us upward and I don’t hesitate now, I climb the ladder and throw myself over and I stand tall, do not lift my rifle but stare at the chaos around me, and think, Here I am, take me now, why don’t you? Shoot me.

Boyne’s plot and writing are riveting. This is a book that, once you start, you don’t want to put down until you finish. If I were still teaching Western Civ. II, I would offer this book as a resource for WWI, along with All Quiet on the Western Front, the war poets and Peter Weir’s brilliant film Gallipoli.

ElCicco#CBR4Review#28: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles is the poignant, tragic love story of Achilles and Patroclus, and you need to read it this summer. Classics scholar Madeline Miller imagines the backstory of two characters made famous in Homer’s Iliad — Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior and Aristos Achaion (“best of the Greeks”), and Patroclus, his closest friend and, as some scholars speculate, his lover. The Iliad doesn’t provide much of Achilles’ personal history and virtually nothing of Patroclus’, but Miller’s vibrant imagination and her knowledge and devotion to the classics allows her to create a beautiful story of two young men coming together as friends and then lovers against a backdrop of war.

Patroclus serves as narrator, giving his background and how he came to meet Achilles. Patroclus was a prince of limited skill and ability (based on warrior skills, which were vitally important to Greeks). His father, king of one of the many Greek city states, found him to be a disappointment and when Patroclus accidentally killed another boy, he was exiled from the kingdom to keep peace with powerful noble families. Patroclus ends up bound over to Peleus, father of Achilles, known for his excellence in battle and fairness with his people. Peleus takes in many boys as foster children to train to serve as his soldiers. Initially aloof, Patroclus attracts the attention of Achilles — a truly “golden boy” whom all the others try to impress. Achilles’ mother Thetis is a sea nymph, and prophecy says her child is destined to become the greatest warrior the Greeks have ever known. Achilles possesses god-like skills even as a child, and while aware of his own amazing talents, he can be kind and down to earth, especially with Patroclus. Everyone is surprised (including Patroclus) when Achilles names this quiet and undistinguished boy his therapon, a “brother-in-arms sworn to a prince by blood oaths and love.” The therapon has great prestige as one of the prince’s closest advisers and a member of his honor guard.

Patroclus was initially jealous of Achilles but soon became enthralled by his beauty, his ability to sing and play the lyre, his physical prowess.  Achilles treats Patroclus as an equal and with respect. The two boys’ love for each other grows with time and becomes a mature adult relationship that they must hide from their peers. The Greeks accepted homosexuality only between a man and a slave or boy, and it was expected that the man would still have a wife and have heirs. It was not acceptable for two men of similar class to have such a relationship. Thetis is especially repulsed by it (although she finds all mortals repulsive, including her own husband Peleus who raped her at the gods’ urging) and tries unsuccessfully to keep the two apart. Thetis’ focus is on making sure that Achilles fulfills his destiny and wins greatness and honor, and she will let nothing get in the way. Achilles, however, does not back down before his mother or popular convention. His love and devotion to Patroclus are strong and true.

The tragedy, as we know from the Iliad, is that fate has decreed that Achilles will die after achieving glory and renown for defeating the Trojan hero Hector. Achilles, Patroclus and Thetis all know of this prophecy, and the knowledge of impending death brings a special poignancy to Achilles’ and Patroclus’ relationship. Achilles desires fame and glory but he does not want to be parted from his love. It is Achilles’ hubris, however, his arrogance about his own reputation and worth, that ultimately leads to tragedy for the Greeks, Patroclus and himself.

Knowing how this will end does not diminish the power of the story, and Miller’s imagining of Patroclus’ activities during the Trojan War is brilliant. Despite the fact that he avoids battle, he becomes “best of the Myrmidons” (Achilles’ men) by saving lives as a healer and by saving women of the conquered tribes, in particular Briseis, who becomes his devoted friend. Patroclus also saves Achilles’ reputation at great personal risk at a critical point in the war.

It’s pretty risky to take a classic of world literature and try to build upon it, but Miller succeeds and creates a beautiful story of friendship and love that never dies.

The enhanced edition for iPad, Kindle Fire, etc. includes audio recordings of chapters; links to descriptions of the characters (plus gods, goddesses) with cartoon pictures of them and biographical information; information on ships and armor/weapons; and video clips of Gregory Maguire (author of Wicked) interviewing Miller on a variety of topics.

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