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Apr. 28th, 2006 @ 07:04 am Book Reviews from April 2006
Baum, L. Frank. The Oz Chronicles. Vol. 1. Ann Arbor: Borders Classics, 2003.
-The Wonderful Wizard of Oz- (1900)
Summary: A cyclone sweeps Dorothy Gale from Kansas to Oz, where she befriends a Scarecrow, a Tin Woodman, and a Cowardly Lion, helps them achieve what they most desire and their own kingdoms, and defeats two wicked witches. Though the "Wizard of Oz" is actually a humbug whose balloon does not take her home, Dorothy, after traveling to meet Glinda, the Witch of the South, learns that her silver shoes, which she has had all the while, will take her home.
Comments: Thanks to the famous Hollywood adaptation, the plot of this classic children's tale is something that everyone already "knows." Sort of. There's a lot more traveling in Baum's original story--and a lot more adventures to boot. The story tosses about descriptions of the killing and destruction of monsters with an almost shocking casualness, especially given the humanistic, cooperative nature of the story and the Tin Woodman's one-time profession of non-violence. Slavery, interestingly, is so readily assumed to be evil that it barely merits further description, though I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. Though Baum professes not to be writing a moral tale, there are certainly lessons to be learned here about common sense, compassion, and courage, and it's always a pleasure to read a heroine on a hero's journey.
-The Marvelous Land of Oz- (1904)
Summary: The boy Tip escapes the evil witch Mombi and travels to the Emerald City, only to discover that it has been taken over by General Jinjur and her all-female Army of Revolt. With the help of new friends Jack Pumpkinhead, the Saw-Horse, and the Woggle-Bug, as well as the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman, enlists the help of Glinda to retake the city. Tip discovers that he is actually a she transformed into a boy by Mombi to hide her--the Princess Ozma and rightful ruler of the Emerald City and Oz.
Comments: Baum really starts to hit his stride with a world that is both fantastic, fleshed out, and a legitimate "character" in its own right. The tone of series grows noticeably lighter as well, with plenty of satire poking gentle fun at over-education, feminism, vanity, etc. Oddly, Tip has even less personality than Dorothy did in the first book; he just seems to passively flow along with events for the most part, even though he is Jack's "father." I suppose, in that light, it's fitting that the boy is actually a girl--a child's tale these days appropriate to budding transsexuals everywhere and oddly subversive in its implications, even today. No one would write a story about a spunky little boy growing up to be a beautiful fairy princess these days; it would be taken as camp, not seriousness. A shame, perhaps. I was also surprised by how thoroughly modern the prose was; without a personage from the United States to do a running commentary, there is little overt to betray the story's age.
-Ozma of Oz- (1907)
Summary: Dorothy is on her way to Australia with her Uncle Henry when a storm blows her overboard and washes her, along with Billina the yellow hen, to the shores of Ev. There, she discovers that the royal family of Ev has been sold into slavery to the Nome King, who has turned them all into trinkets, and, with the help of Princess Ozma and her entourage, endeavors to free them.
Comments: The most smoothly-narrated and beautifully-constructed yet of the Oz stories, bringing back Dorothy as the protagonist of the story. Interestingly, no one in the story is truly "evil," so much as vain, selfish, and/or fearful. The characters get more and more fascinating and creative, with notable entries such as the princess with thirty heads and the Nome King with his dastardly challenge to the Oz characters stoke the imagination. It's a shame that the Hungry Tiger isn't better-known (he's a great lesson in temperance), and Tik-Tok has got to be one of the earliest depictions of an android that I've ever seen anywhere.
-Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz- (1908)
Summary: Upon arriving to San Francisco, Dorothy and her new friend Zeb and the cab-horse Jim are swallowed up by an Earthquake. There, they are reunited with the humbug Wizard of Oz and journey through a number of strange lands, including those of plant people, invisible people, and wooden gargoyles, in their quest to reach the surface. In the end, though, Ozma rescues the group with her magic belt and they return for a brief stay in Oz, interrupted only by unreasoned fear that Dorothy's kitten Eureka has eaten one of the Wizard's piglets. The wizard decides to remain for good.
Comments: Not much in the way of a story, alas. The goal is simple: To get to the surface. Which, in fact, they are never able to do directly under their own efforts. Indeed, had they, they might not have visited Oz at all, and once they do get there, again, nothing much happens. It's like a utopian fantasy comedy of manners. Mostly, this installment was all about visiting strange new lands, some of which, admittedly, where interesting...especially the plant people world. The wizard proves himself to be a far more noble character than he first appeared, fighting enemies with his sword and whatnot. Also, with the inclusion of a human boy character, Dorothy's femininity becomes further highlighted...in a way that I don't necessarily think is positive or even especially constructive from a narrative perspective. Still, she's a wonderful character with a bit of a phonemic hick accent who's got her head firmly on her shoulders.
-The Road to Oz- (1909)
Summary: While helping a Shaggy Man carrying the Love Magnet, which makes everyone love him instantly, find his way in Kansas, Dorothy gets lost along with and the Shaggy Man and Toto. They find themselves in Fairyland, sojourning in the kingdom of the foxes and the donkeys, and learning from them that Ozma is preparing her birthday celebration. They are able to cross the desert surrounding Oz to join in the festivities, where all manner of strange and fantastical personages make their appearance.
Comments: Another placeholder volume that, once the party finally got underway, felt like an advertisement for all of Baum's other non-Oz children's novels in that all the other characters, including Santa Claus!, appear in cameo roles. I find myself a bit baffled by Oz's legal system. So, there are no laws because no one ever commits crime but there is a death penalty for murder? Huh??? Maybe I'm just too logical for Oz, but this makes no sense to me whatsoever. I'm even more baffled by the fact that Toto is the only animal that is unable to talk in Oz. How come? The love magnet, along with the possibility that one can be loved TOO MUCH, is an interesting concept. However, what really made this novel worthwhile at all was the organ man, whose internal organs played music with ever breath he took. What a delightful pun!
-The Emerald City of Oz- (1910)
Summary: Uncle Henry and Aunt Em are going to lose the farm and, meanwhile, the Nome King is plotting to conquer the Emerald City and reclaim his Magic Belt by tunneling under the desert. So, Dorothy brings her family to live in Oz permanently. While they are on tour through Oz, the Nome King's general is gathering allies for the invasion. Fortunately, though, the fight ends war ends without a shot fired when the Nome army is tricked into drinking from the Fountain of Oblivion. However, lessons are learned and Ozma decides that Oz must, from now on, be cut off from the rest of the world.
Comments: This is one of the most important Oz books, firstly in that it was INTENDED by Baum to be the climatic final installment to the series. Once the world is cut off from ours, Baum reasoned, he could stop telling Oz tales. (Fortunately or unfortunately, it didn't work out that way.) Secondly, more than any other so far, this novel outlines the functions of the utopian society and economy of Oz. It is a world that the author envisions as perfect in an American Transcendental fashion (the simple life, no scholarly pretensions, etc.)--indeed, perhaps even more real than our own world--and therefore must remain wholly unsullied by prosaic reality. So, forget "There's no place like home." Home isn't Kansas; it's Oz. I suspect that the anxieties of World War I was reverberating in this story, and I would guess that Baum favored American isolationism.
-The Patchwork Girl of Oz- (1913)
Summary: The Munchkin Ojo the Unlucky's encounter with the Crooked Magician is indeed unlucky--his uncle is turned to marble! So, with the Patchwork Girl and the Glass Cat, two new creatures brought to life by the magician, he quests to find ingredients for a cure for his uncle. Though, ultimately, the last ingredient proves impossible to acquire as it would require taking the wing of a yellow butterfly (therefore hurting it), Ojo in the process has many adventures around Oz and meets both Ozma and Dorothy. In the end, the Crooked Magician is straightened and stripped of his magical powers, and his wife and Unc Nunkie are restored by the Wizard of Oz.
Comments: Well, so much for saying goodbye to Oz! This is a standard boy's coming-of-age tale (complete with girl cheering him on), and it's particularly telling that all of Ojo's adventures were for naught save to make him a more mature Munchkin. This is the first Oz novel to be "graced" with song, most notably from the Patchwork Girl, hearkening (unpleasantly) to Tolkien conceits. Fortunately, though, the characters for the most part decry all "I feel a song coming on" manifestations, and some of it may well be parodic. The story also includes some mistrust of technology in the form of the anachronistic living phonograph, though, oddly, it's an equally anachronistic telegraph that allows the author to "communicate" with his Oz characters. The Patchwork Girl is one of the most interesting characters to appear in these books thus far, though I wonder how many readers today would know what a crazy-quilt is... (^^;
Notes: hardcover, Borders Leatherbound Classics edition, 3rd printing
Rating: 5.5, 6, 6.5, 5, 5, 6.5, 6/10 - A classic series of children's literature that continues to loom large in the popular consciousness. Some installments deserve the widest-possible readership; others are necessary only for those interested in American children's fantasy and/or pop culture.

Budman, Matthew. Instant Expert: Collecting Books. New York: House of Collectibles, 2004.
Summary: An introduction to collecting books that covers the history of publishing, book collecting terminology, strategies for collecting, preserving, and identifying first editions and author inscriptions/signatures, discussions about what is and is not monetarily valuable, and buying/selling techniques. Also includes a handy glossary and annotated bibliography.
Comments: Budman has managed to cram a TON of information into less than 200 slim pages. Though all of the information provided here is awesome, I thought Chapters 1 and 3 were most useful to the casual collector. I especially liked the historical overview of publishing and the discussion of book club editions. Without much discretionary income or any particular desire to collect books in order to make money, Chapter 2 is less important--though I suppose it's all good to know in case I do by some miracle happen to stumble across something at an estate sale. I also note that the bulk of what stereotypically constitutes "book collecting" is WAAAAY too rich and pretentious for my blood; in fact, women's popular literature, memoirs of any sort of poltical and business figures, etc. are not considered valuable, and it's not difficult to figure out why, if we take into account blue-blooded (male) prejudices. Yet, even as someone who collects "moderns" and "hypermoderns" exclusively and cannot, for practical purposes, be too concerned about value in dollar terms, there was plenty of information for me to chew on.
Notes: trade paperback, 1st edition
Rating: 7/10 - The most well-thumbed "reference" book that I have purchased recently.

Crisp, Quentin. The Naked Civil Servant. 1968. London: Flamingo, 1985.
Summary: Quentin Crisp recounts his life as an ostracized, effeminate homosexual during the first half of the 20th century. Bouncing from flat to flat and job to job, he tries his hand at tracing, writing, commercial art, and theater, but eventually ends up as a nude model for art students--a "naked civil servant."
Comments: A disjointed narrative offering up insights both universal and particular to the time/culture (though the author does not know the difference) with impunity that is occasionally almost unforgivably funny. He was undoubtedly a most interesting character, wearing feminine clothing and makeup and chattering incessantly. Crisp seems to believe that the very fact of his body is instructive to the society, even if he does not actively crusade against its mores. (How casually cruel the English can be--unbelievable!) However, I couldn't quite envision him; lack of personal experience, plus temporal and cultural difference made it nearly impossible for me to "see" or "hear" him in my mind. Even so, this is an excellent document of queer life between the first two world wars, and the ways in which it documents changing English sentiment toward people who are different is invaluable. The one thing that I don't think (or rather hope not) is still true, though, is the fundamental, inherent sense of shame and sense of inferiority that all homosexuals nurture in themselves. Oh yes, and that is indeed the author himself photographed on the cover.
Notes: trade paperback, 17th printing
Rating: 5/10 - Worth checking out for those interested in memoirs, the time period, the subject matter (homosexuality and prejudice/tolerance), and/or dry British wit.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Hound of the Baskervilles. 1902.
Summary: Sherlock Holmes foils the plot on Grimpen Moor to use the legendary curse of the Baskervilles to commit multiple murders so that Stapleton could inherit that family's considerable wealth.
Comments: At once less interesting from a cultural-historical perspective than the previous two Sherlock Holmes novels as it does not overtly involve foreign personages, locales, or artifacts (and people from the Americas, as we already know, Doyle did not really consider "foreign"), and, at the same time, quite a bit more entertaining from a pure readerly standpoint. The gothic, dismal doings in a manor on the countryside reminds me of Jane Eyre, and it's quite pleasant to have only the normally-intelligent but uncomprehending Watson present for the majority of the story's action to make the mystery all the obtuse. That the hellhound is supposedly set upon ancestral Baskerville for mistreating a woman, and that Stapleton is proven to be abusing his beautiful wife, unifies the beginning and ending beautifully. And though what was going on isn't difficult for the reader to figure out, all of the clues leading up toward the resolution weave themselves most skillfully together. Oh, and I especially like how Holmes reappears on the scene; it's a great, dramatic moment.
Notes: Bantam Classic edition of Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories Volume II
Rating: 6/10 - Pure, escapist entertainment, even a hundred years later.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Sign of Four. 1890.
Summary: Sherlock Holmes in enjoined by a young woman to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding her father's death and the Indian treasure that she was supposedly to inherit. In the end, the treasure ends up on the bottom of the Thames, but she nets a husband in Watson.
Comments: What really strikes me, even more than the actually mystery techniques that Doyle is pioneering in these novels, is the tremendous racialization permeating the works. A Study in Scarlet had some serious Pan-Anglo thing going and was even advocating the union of the United States and Great Britain into a single nation (presumably in opposition to other, non Anglo-Saxon regions). This one's chock-full of Indian exotique, and the plot in its entirety revolves around a I will assume historical revolt against British rule and the corruption of good British morals that the temptation of of foreign treasure provides. Indeed, anything non-white, including treasure, is inherently debased, so it is fitting that in the end it is unrecoverable--and, by being discarded, a good English marriage is made. Moreover, Holmes peppers his deductions with discussion of "comparative" human anatomy, and the only murderer on actual English soil is a non-white "savage." In her Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison only addresses American literature, but I believe her theories apply to English literature of the colonial period and after as well; I hold up The Sign of Four as a prime example.
Notes: Bantam Classic edition of Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories Volume I
Rating: 5/10 - More intellectually stimulating to the modern reader than the mere escapist pleasure it was originally intended to be.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Valley of Fear. 1914.
Summary: A man pursued by a secret society that he betrayed to American law flees to England, where after more than a decade, they attempt to assassinate him there. However, they do not succeed, and Douglas fakes his own death, temporarily baffling Holmes. Unfortunately, he cannot escape his fate permanently, and eventually ends up dead at the hands of Dr. Moriarty.
Comments: Nowhere near as good as The Hound of the Baskervilles, Doyle is becoming visibly tired of Holmes at this point. The first few pages of the novel involve not-so-subtle jabs at Holmes's hubris, and nearly half involves the backstory of Douglas/MacMurdo/Edwards in America's coal miner, lawless, Wild West. Could it be that Brits are even more avid consumers of the American Western than Americans themselves? I wonder, sometimes. I'm sure that the American secret societies such as the Freemasons (called the "Freemen" in this novel) is likewise more mysterious and fascinating when you are not American yourself. (See American fascination with European secret societies in The Da Vinci Code. *bleh*) Anyway, this story otherwise revolves around a mystery standard--man fakes his own murder to escape detection, thereby confusing the investigating authorities to no end. And, because the ultimate whodunnit Moriarty of course gets of so clean that he's spotless, this novel is little more than a placeholder, anticipating their final confrontation.
Notes: Bantam Classic edition of Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories Volume II
Rating: 4.5/10 - Less historically interesting than the first two novels and less entertaining than the third. For the Holmes fan, only.

Ellis, Ian C. Book Finds: How to Find, Buy, and Sell Used and Rare Books. 3rd ed. New York: Perigee, 2006.
Summary: A book collecting guide that focuses particularly on the profit-motive end of things, with plenty of pointers on book "scouting," trading, dealing, and selling on the Internet. Less meaty chapters devote time to the history of publishing, collecting basics and terminology, and restoration.
Comments: Way, way, WAY to profit-focused to really be useful to me. I have more important things to do with my time than buy up every cheap book around that I think OTHER people and used bookstores will want--like reading more books. Still, given that people in my family occasionally aspire to deal more generally in antiques and collectibles, much of the information was obviously applicable in that case, and the economics of it all was regardless fascinating for me from a purely voyeuristic perspective. Even so, there were plenty of new and interesting factoid tidbits (though a picture is worth a thousand words, and there weren't any to be found in Ellis's book)--Did you know that you're more likely to find a new first edition on the East Coast than the West Coast? Did you know why books traditionally have two title pages? Also, the discussion of cleaning and restoration immediately inspired the mad scientist in me, and now I want to try some stuff out. Also, to Ellis's credit, he's most candid and quite funny, and you'll definitely get a good laugh or two.
Notes: trade paperback, 1st printing
Rating: 5.5/10 - Really only for the serious beginner (and I'm just not serious enough about things). Still, if you're a book lover, you'll find SOMETHING of at least vague interest here.

Gaiman, Neil. Coraline. 2002. New York: Harper Trophy, 2003.
Summary: Coraline steps through a door in her house that leads nowhere and enters a mirror world ruled by her "other mother," who has imprisoned other children in the past and Coraline's parents. With the help of a cat, Coraline frees them all, escapes, and insures that the beldam will never harm anyone ever again.
Comments: A finely-crafted, gorgeously atmospheric English children's story that reads like a darker C. S. Lewis. Even though modern era appliances like microwaves make their appearance, take away the Christian symbolism and add in a hearty dose of fantastic horror, and you've got Coraline. It all comes together beautifully, and there are no extraneous details with which to confuse a child. The black button eyes were an especially brilliant touch. Coraline's "trial" comes in three--there is the two old ladies, the eccentric upstairs, and the empty flat next door, and then there are three three children she must rescue. After that, come the big challenges--rescuing her parents, escaping, and defeating the beldam for good. Naturally, this is the kind of story parents will want for their child, showing Coraline growing up by learning to value and fight for what she has. Deserves to be on every child's literature list, even if (okay, okay, Jane Yolen, I agree) the Dave McKean illustrations don't add all that much.
Notes: children's paperback
Rating: 9/10 - Fulfills its ambitions admirably. I would've adored it as a little kid (in spite of weeks worth of nightmares), and it resonates even now for me as an adult.

Garber, Marjorie. Academic Instincts. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Summary: Garber describes and analyzes academic culture wars in three arenas: professionalism, boundaries between disciplines, and usage of jargon.
Comments: A quick, lively read from one of my favorite scholarly writers. Not nearly as ambitious as her other books, it nonetheless attacks its subject with thoroughness and vigor. Garber writes in a way I wish all academics would: Maximum clarity to convey complex ideas. Of the three chapters, the first resonated most deeply with me, perhaps because I myself am in immediate danger of becoming an eternal "professional amateur" in spite of my own preferences. It also explained several nuances of class and culture that I had previously not known. The subsequent two chapters left me with some questions, the first about conclusion and the second about premise. If solving the discipline/interdiscipline dilemma requires a totally new (re)vision, who is going to do that? Is that really practical? The discussion of jargon, though fantastic, seemed all premised on (what I believe to be) false assumption that what makes academic writing so dense and inaccessible is its usage of obscure vocabulary. See, now, as far as I'm concerned, it's that PLUS overlong sentences with too many clauses at least as much as it is vocabulary. Heck, coining new words may well be a biochemical addiction...given how easily we learn new words even into adulthood and old age. :P
Notes: hardcover, 1st edition
Rating: 6/10 - It won't change your life, but it'll have you thinking, at least briefly, and laughing. Check it out.

Hartnett, P-P. Call Me. 1997. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. (First UK Edition: 1996)
Summary: Mourning the death of Ray, the love of his life that he met while in cancer treatment, idle photographer Liam becomes obsessed with the personals, first taking one out himself as "Bike Boy," and then answering dozens more under different personas. Which leads to close encounters with nearly every imaginable homoerotic kink...and a stalker. Liam's father dies shortly after his is able to shake his stalker, and Liam, irrepentant, goes right back to personals.
Comments: Okay, so this novel was SUPPOSED to be funny. Maybe I wasn't in the right mood, maybe not, but I wasn't laughing. At all. The various personalities were pathetic, not funny, and Liam's own paranoia (leading him to carry a knife and worry about drugged cups of tea) was sorely misplaced, given the more realistic threat of STDs (and I'm not just talking HIV). I feel like Hartnett was, to some extent, channeling the thematic concerns of 70's gay fiction with its obsession with sex and lack of interest in greater meaning/higher sentiment--and, quite frankly, I think there are more interesting things to talk about, especially in the mid-90's. The novel provides a fascinating first-person view of the culture of the personal, which, as this was before the super-duper rise of the Internet, was conducted almost entirely via telephone and snail mail and seems rather quaint these days. Ah, how time flies when you're...err...having fun.
Notes: trade paperback, Stonewall Inn Edition, 2nd printing
Rating: 3.5/10 - Neither destined to be a classic nor even particularly entertaining. Boo. Hartnett should stick to photography.

Huo, T. C. A Thousand Wings. New York: Dutton, 1998.
Summary: Successful Southeast Asian cuisine caterer Fong Mun befriends fellow Laotian Raymond, who is too young to remember his heritage. Fong Mun recalls his childhood, fleeing Laos to Thailand and eventually the US in the wake of Communism, indelibly linked to the food he ate and longed for.
Comments: I'm still waiting for a chef novel that's actually INTERESTING. If Huo weren't a gay Asian-American of rather unusual ethnicity, I doubt he would've gotten published at all--that a publisher as prestigious as Dutton picked up this debut at all baffles me. The prose is inelegantly simple, uncharismatic, and, at times, awkward, and you will find yourself unable to give a cracked penny for Fong Mun's rather banal childhood tribulations. He, in comparison to other people of his time and location, I would imagine, was never in much danger, and a decent portion of his malnutrition seems self-inflicted. We get a little bit of angsting about how he is often mistaken for a girl and derided as a katoy (sissy), but even bigotry lacks resonance here! Shyam Selvadurai does a much better version of a similar narrative in Funny Boy. Really, the only parts I enjoyed at all were the all-too-brief chapters of Fong Mun and Raymond's first day together; it all would've worked SO much better had Huo simply scrapped all the heavy-duty coming-of-age subplots and written a sweet, run-of-the-mill romance.
Notes: hardcover, 1st edition, out-of-print
Rating: 4/10 - Skip it. The best part of this novel was simply knowing that it was over and done with.

Leavitt, David. The Body of Jonah Boyd. New York: Bloomsbury, 2004.
Summary: Secretary to Dr. Ernest Wright Judith "Denny" Denham is, during one fateful Thanksgiving in 1969 at the Wright House, unknowing witness to events that would reverbrate nearly thirty years later. Nancy Wright's friend Anna, eager to get even with her husband, the novelist Jonah Boyd, entrusts his manuscript after he mistakenly leaves it behind to the youngest son Ben Wright. As an adult, Ben publishes the novel of the now deceased Boyd as his own, and it launches his literary career and allows him to reclaim his family's home. After learning his secret, Denny marries Ben.
Comments: As a general rule, I'm not a fan of domestic white-people dramas, and whatever I thought this novel was going to be, it wasn't what I expected. Still, I must give Leavitt his props--he has written a MAGNIFICENT novel. Though it begins with almost agonizing slowness with belabored descriptions of the Wright House that only a realtor could love, the story slowly but surely builds momentum until it rockets to its end with truly meteoric power. Everything comes together with seeming effortlessness; nothing is unnecessary. I was particularly astonished by how well Leavitt inhabits the voice of a (heterosexual) woman. That's new and improved. He's never done women's literature (and I don't mean chick lit) before. If I didn't know better, I would've assumed that this novel was written by a woman...even though there are clever acrobatics regarding authorship at the end to monkey about with if the reader is so inclined. Just. WOW. Though there is something of the disaffected young homosexual of Leavitt's earlier novels in Ben, this masterpiece is the production of a mature writer who, at last, knows exactly what he's doing.
Notes: hardcover, 1st edition
Rating: 8.5/10 - The best David Leavitt novel that I've read thus far. Deserves--and is bound to attract (since it is not gay fiction)--a very wide audience, especially among mainstream women readers.

Lee, Lilian. Farewell My Concubine. Trans. Andrea Lingenfelter. 1993. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. (Original Chinese Edition: 1992)
Summary: Documents the lives over a tumultuous half-century of two Peking Opera stars Cheng Dieyi, a female impersonator, and Duan Xiaolou, the male lead, and the Juxian, the former prostitute who loves Xiaolou and competes with Dieyi for his affection.
Comments: Though this novel documents the cruel excesses of the wealthy patrons of the opera, the Japanese, and the Nationalists, it saves its harshest indictments for the Communists--for it is the Communists who hammer in the final nail of the coffin of the opera stars' careers and bring out Dieyi's cruelty to the point where he takes the opportunity to break up Xiaolou and Juxian's marriage and thus drive her to suicide. The Chen Kaige film is generally true to the original story...except for the ending. The film emphasizes the tragedy of Dieyi's suicide as the death of a "true" China that the Chinese themselves failed to appreciate, while the novel ends in a nihilistic denial of the possibility of high ideals or true love. (Notably, what Dieyi wants is not to be a woman but rather to be a beloved idol.) Otherwise, though the narrative jumps around a bit unexpectedly at times, and saying that the characters are one-dimensional would be generous, the story is a joyously entertaining one, even for a layperson who doesn't know the first thing about Chinese culture and history.
Notes: trade paperback, movie tie-in edition, 10th printing
Rating: 7/10 - So compulsively readable that, even if you notice its flaws, you just don't care. Highly recommended to everyone.

Pratchett, Terry. Equal Rites. 1987. New York: Harper, 2005.
Summary: A wizard bestows his power upon the eight son of an eight son. Only there's one problem. The "son" is a daughter! Eskarina Smith challenges gender divisions, and with the help of the witch Granny Weatherwax and her "trusty" wizard's staff, she travels to the Unseen University and proves herself worthy of enrollment there.
Comments: This is the first Discworld novel I've read to feature a female protagonist (not to mention a central female supporting character). Though ostensibly this novel is a parody of feminism, Pratchett addresses Esk's quest for equality in magic with surprising seriousness; it's mainly the wizards and witches who are stuck in their exclusive gender roles that get the most ribbing. Indeed, what results at the end is an almost utopian magical/theoretical union between Simon and Esk. If only real life were so easy to resolve! In any case, I was rather underwhelmed by the end; there had to be some better resolution that rescue of Simon from some esoteric demon world. Of course, we get appearances from the simian Librarian (Ook!)...and is it just my imagination, or does the staff evince a personality strikingly similar to a certain magic chest belonging to Rincewind? I suppose cranky inanimate objects are a standard comic device.
Notes: trade paperback, Thud! tie-in edition, 1st printing
Rating: 6/10 - Quite enjoyable, though I admit that I did not laugh aloud at any point.

Price, Reynolds. The Tongues of Angels. 1990. New York: Scribner, 2000.
Summary: Set in the South during the 1950's. College student and aspiring artist Bridge Boatner becomes a camp counselor. While in the mountains, he paints a beautiful landscape and meets Raphael Noren, a troubled boy disturbed by family tragedy who secretly idolizes Bridge and who, by the end, dies of a brain aneurysm. Bridge carries the memory of "Rafe" with him throughout his life.
Comments: A gorgeously-written, gentle-souled Southern novel chock-full of messages of spirituality and life affirmation that reminds me in places of E. M. Forster and Edmund White. Despite the author's evident skill, a few things irritated me: The constant references to how things back then were different (and, by implication, better) and the self-contradictory stereotyping of "Yankees," for example. Kevin doesn't volunteer information about himself, and that's "Yankee," but when Bridge calls up inquiring after his girlfriend and is told too bluntly that she isn't around and cannot be contacted, well, TMI is "Yankee" too, apparently. Yeah. Whatever. I also could not help but note that Bridge, and perhaps even Reynolds himself, didn't quite know what to make of the message that Rafe's life and death conferred onto him. I guess I'd remember fondly the boy who had a crush on me and then died so tragically, but I'm not sure if there's any greater religious meaning to be derived from it. After all that build-up, the novel is, by the end, reeking of triviality dolled up as profundity.
Notes: trade paperback, 1st printing
Rating: 7/10 - An intensely beautiful, if deeply flawed, novel. Well worth the time it takes to read, nonetheless.

Simak, Clifford D. City. 1952. SFBC, 2003.
Summary: Eight interlocking Doggish "legends" chronicle the decline of mankind and the rise of intelligent, talking dogs and their loyal robot companions. These non-violent dogs have been made to forget humanity, and they eventually leave Earth for another dimension, leaving ants to inherit the planet.
Comments: Well, it was original, at least, and it definitely combines sci-fi staples of space travel, other planets, robots, high-technology, bioengineering, and dimension-hopping into a coherent narrative. The first two stories were by far the least enjoyable of the bunch, hinging as they did upon false premises about the form the near-future would take. Only a man of the 50's would believe that the suburbs would destroy all other modes of human cohabitation. I also rather resented the idea that the Websters (the name may be a pun on "web," since their presence weaves the stories together), a well-to-do Southern family, complete with dialect, plantation *coughs* I mean MANOR house, and robot servants at their beck and call, would be the dynasty chosen by Simak to represent the sweep of human history in the book. And where in the heck are all the women, anyway? Doesn't it just figure that humanity's downfall was mistakenly engineered by a bunch of (most likely inbred) Southern white men? Jenkins was a great character, but there was something disturbing about his "I live to serve the Websters" attitude that lasts for thousands of years. In addition, I was disappointed that the dogs weren't particularly, well, doggish--you're not going to convince me that, even if given voice, they would have very intelligent things to say, and there's no evidence WHATSOEVER that dogs are psychic in any way. Weak on the science but stronger on the fiction, needless to say.
Notes: hardcover, exclusive BCE
Rating: 5.5/10 - Has some fascinating moments in the latter 3/4ths or so, but it might be a bit too weird if you're not in the mood for weird.

Walker, Kate. Peter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. (Original Australian Edition: 1991)
Summary: 15-year-old dirt bike aficionado Peter meets David, his elder brother's gay friend, and, in his burgeoning attraction to David, starts to become confused about his own sexuality.
Comments: Apparently, the author won all sorts of awards in her native Australia for this young adult novel...but, quite frankly, I don't see what all the hype is about. Boy discovers that he's attracted to other boys--or, ONE particular boy, at least. I hope you don't mind a view of my tonsils while I yawn. Not to mention that the usual adolescent fears about not wanting a girl RIGHT NOW, being labeled a "poof," and contracting AIDS through sharing dinner with a gay man struck me as half-hearted young adult writerly conceits at best. I'm reminded quite a bit of the later Clay's Way (except with dirt bikes instead of skate and surfboards), but at least Blair Mastbaum wrote with a bit more personality and attitude. The great majority of Walker's novel is unadorned dialogue, and the characters' aren't exactly the most scintillating of personalities. I found it a bit surprising that Vince, despite familial influence, was so easygoing about having a friend who is gay. Everyone else was so intolerant. Who would've thunk it? I'll bet it was the only thing Walker could think to do to get her protagonist in contact with an older yet attractive young gay man. Anyway, feel free to hand this book over to your kid--there's nothing even remotely offensive. Problem is, they're likely to find it even more boring than I did.
Notes: trade paperback, 4th printing
Rating: 4.5/10 - Yet another earnest young adult novel with a homosexual/coming out theme that isn't worth the paper it's printed on.

Wells, H. G. The Invisible Man. 1897.
Summary: The albino Griffin discovers a way to turn himself into an Invisible Man. While trying to find a way to reverse the procedure, he terrorizes a small English town and is discovered, and, after fleeing, reveals himself to his friend Dr. Kemp, who, recognizing his madness, betrays him to the police and to his eventual death.
Comments: So maybe the antics of the common people and an amoral Invisible Man are supposed to be funny...but, really, they're so NOT, and Wells's attempts to make it so fall flat. I have trouble laughing at other peoples' stupidity, I suppose. Moreover, Griffin is really not, after all is said and done, a very original character; he shares Dr. Moreau's at-any-cost scientific ambition, and crossing that with unexplained short temper and megalomania does nothing to make him more three-dimensional. I was also underwhelmed by Griffin's (and thus Wells's) analyses of what advantages and disadvantages being invisible confers. So much for ninja, eh? :P Really, the only interesting stuff here is Griffin's own account of his discovery and subsequent transformation (though if someone could explain to me how someone who is invisible can see, I'd be eternally grateful)--the rest was surprisingly uninspired.
Notes: trade paperback, Dover Thrift Edition
Rating: 4.5/10 - A wish-fulfillment premise but lacks rather in imaginative possibilities.

Wells, H. G. The Island of Dr. Moreau. 1896.
Summary: Edward Prendick is shipwrecked and rescued by Montgomery, an assistant to Dr. Moreau. Left behind on Moreau's island, he comes to realize that the doctor is conducting horrific experiments of vivisection on animals, making them to some extent human--with laws and "religion," worshipping real humans. However, the man-animals come to realize that the humans are mortal, and Dr. Moreau is killed. Montgomery commits suicide. Prendick lives for a time among the animals as they revert irrevocably to their bestial natures until his escape.
Comments: Okay, okay, so we all know that interspecies grafts don't work, and vivisection isn't gonna give an animal a conscience, but the ethical and moral issues--namely, how far is too far?--that this novel raises are perhaps even more relevant today than they were in Wells's day. However, even barring that, this novel is a lot more fun to read than Frankenstein, to which it bears a more than passing resemblance (right down to the narrator who is an observer of the story), and combines elements of adventure, horror, and science fiction. In short, something for everyone. I was most struck by the last chapter, in which Prendick describes seeing bestiality in humanity wherever he went. That must've rankled readers in Victorian times.
Notes: trade paperback, Dover Thrift Edition
Rating: 7/10 - Though the science is unquestionably fiction, the larger concerns are all too factual.

Wells, H. G. The Time Machine. 1895.
Summary: A scientist invents a time machine and travels far into to the future to 802,701 A.D. and discovers that humanity has (d)evolved into two races: the vegetarian Eloi and the carnivorous Morlocks who feed upon the Eloi. Though the nocturnal Morlocks confiscate his time machine, after setting fire to a forest and frightening them, they reveal it to him in the hopes of entrapping him. He then travels even further into the future and sees the sunset of all life on Earth.
Comments: I must admit that I was eating up the psuedo-scientific theorizing that time is the fourth dimension, but the actual evolution of mankind, while a fine fantasy, was not even remotely convincing. The Time Traveler's first theory, that humanity discovered perfect Communism and then devolved, was no less likely than the upper class and the lower class diverging biologically. Both subscribe to purely economic, Marxist paradigms that simply aren't realistic, and it seemed unspeakably myopic to me for Wells to assume that Londonites are representative of the trajectory of the entirety of humanity. Never mind how the disparity in number between the upper and lower classes reverse to sustain a prey/predator relationship. Still, if you don't question, it's an interesting bit of Gulliver's Travels-esque speculative fiction--I wouldn't mind a brief sojourn into Wells's future myself.
Notes: trade paperback, Dover Thrift Edition
Rating: 6.5/10 - Diverting bit of a novel, provided that you suspend your disbelief.

Wells, H. G. The War of the Worlds. 1898.
Summary: Technologically advanced, bloodsucking Martians invade England and wreak havoc in robotic tripods until they are laid low by Earth bacterial infection.
Comments: Even though we know now that Mars is bereft of high life forms, this novel strikes me as surprisingly modern in its conception. Though the story is told by a narrator (most likely an incarnation of the author himself) who witnesses most of the pertinent events firsthand (and is even, in a sentimental subplot, able to reunite with his estranged wife in the end), I found the descriptions of the humans' various reactions to the alien threat and generalized mass exodus and hysteria, to be more interesting and relevant than invasion from outer space. Not to mention the likelihood of England being target Numero Uno on the Martian's hit list! The assumption that one's own homeland is the center of the world often shows up in popular fiction and media; I wonder if it speaks to fear of immigrants and miscegenation...? Also, the artilleryman's fantasy of humanity in rat-like resistance resonates with the passions of guerrilla movements the world over and had me rolling my eyes exactly as Wells intended. I saw echoes of The Time Machine in the narrator's speculation that the Martians were once more humanoid and of The Island of Dr. Moreau in his constant anxiety that invasion might recur, though this novel is more skillfully written and more coherent than previous endeavors. Although, how an alien world could NOT have any microscopic symbiotic organisms fails to compute in my brain.
Notes: trade paperback, Dover Thrift Edition
Rating: 5/10 - If you're not a fan of the war novel (with emphasis on the plight of civilians and refugees), give this sci-fi classic a pass. You already know the plot, after all, right?

White, Edmund. Forgetting Elena. 1973. New York: Vintage International, 1994.
Summary: Billy lives on an island, attempting to navigate, with mixed success, its alien conventions, manners, and social paranoia, which appear to be newly in flux. Then he meets a woman, Elena, who rails against the island's absurdity and encourages Billy to do the same. In the end, however, we discover that Billy is the returning prince and that a part of the ceremony is the erasure of his past--namely Elena, who supposedly kills herself in the end.
Comments: This novel is weird, and you start out with absolutely no clue just HOW weird. At first, you think everything is to be taken literally, that this is a real island, somewhere in Europe, perhaps, and that there is a normal reason for Billy to be boarding with Herbert on somewhat uncertain ground (Kept Boy??? There is of course some subtle homoeroticism here...) and not knowing the customs of the place. But, as it turns out, this is fantasy, allegory, a comment on a society that is attempting egalitarianism but it instead just creating a new form of tyranny, a society that is morally bankrupt, empty at the center. Indeed, Billy's story is a failure to rebel and spark revolution, and, after his failure, he becomes the epitome of the reigning (in this case, literally) order. I'm not a fan of 70's gay fiction such as Andrew Holleran's Dancer from the Dance with its nihilism and failed search for greater meaning, but White's debut novel is, admittedly, the most unusual and creative entry of the type that I've seen thus far. Still, I didn't enjoy it anywhere near as much as A Boy's Own Story.
Notes: trade paperback, 1st printing
Rating: 5.5/10 - This novel sports an aesthetic that not everyone will appreciate, but you may want to check it out anyway for the careful construction of its narrative.

White, Edmund. Nocturnes for the King of Naples. 1978. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.
Summary: Approaching middle age, a gay man recalls his life up until that point--his mother's death, his father's escapades in Spain, his many subsequent lovers--through the lens of a much older man that he loved and left and who later died.
Comments: Yet another "searching for meaning amidst pointless hedonism" entry into 70's gay fiction, this prose poem is at once more personal and sentimental than Forgetting Elena...and also more pretentious. Thankfully, it's significantly shorter, as well. White is always, at the best of times, channeling the Victorian and European, but this novel in particular meanders about in almost abject devotion for a lost love in a very un-American way (though it does NOT, as far as I can tell, actually take place in Naples, despite the title), not to mention the way that he meanders about idly with enough money so that he doesn't have to work. I positively adore some of the imagery of love and its manifestations--to the point where I've paged around this novel for a couple of years now, memorizing sentences but never actually reading from cover to cover. White's descriptions of love as nostalgia are something that has touched me deeply ever since I was first exposed to his writing.
Notes: trade paperback, Stonewall Inn Edition
Rating: 6.5/10 - Positively gorgeous, but if you don't appreciate devotional prose poems, don't even consider it, even if you have the necessary cultural background to even get a cognitive toehold on this novel in the first place.
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