Review: Angels in America by Tony Kushner

Why hello there, lovely readers. I have to admit I'm pretty bashful about writing this post for the obvious reason that it's been a long time since a review has gone up under my byline. That's been due to a string of real life annoyances that I won't bore you with, but I'm thrilled to be back, if still a bit self-conscious about my prolonged absence.

Anyways, today I'm delighted to be reviewing the magnificent Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes by Tony Kushner. Angels in America is mega-play composed of two distinct, but complementary, plays, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Angels in America: Perestroika.

I first read Millennium Approaches back in college and loved it, so I jumped at the opportunity to re-read it and to finally tackle Perestroika, which has been on my 'need-to-read' list for quite a while.

Although I have to admit I've struggled with how to adequately review Angels in America for the last few weeks. Why? For the simple fact that Angels in America is a masterpiece. Period. It's one of the most ambitious, funny, thoughtful, profound, and provocative pieces of literature you'll ever read. It's also one of the most important works of American drama ever written. So, frankly, you just have to read it.

But if I left my review at that, I imagine you might have any number of rightful questions such as "Um, okay...what is this two-part play thingie even about and what makes it so good?" So come and follow me over the jump as I try to explain just what I find so special about Angels in America.

Review: Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

I read Giovanni's Room earlier this month, right after I finished A Single Man. I'll try to be honest with you: after Isherwood's airy, delicate prose, reading Baldwin feels like being hit by a ton of bricks. A ton of occasionally very beautiful bricks, but bricks nonetheless. When his sentences work, they achieve that sort of beauty that's almost indistinguishable from the effects of being hit in the stomach and left breathless. The world recedes, the rest of the book recedes; the sentences before and after blur out of focus. But the downside to this style is that, when it doesn't work, you'll know it doesn't. You'll have the metaphorical bruises to show for it. And I just wasn't sure whether, on the whole, Giovanni's Room didn't give me more bruises than moments of breathlessness. So I read it a second time and I think I figured out now what was good about it and what was...less than good.

Review: Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

Death in Venice is a story about Plato and Nietzsche and how wonderful and terrifying the world is through their eyes. I'm only half kidding. Consider our hero, Gustav von Aschenbach. He's a writer that made it to fame and greatness by exercising self-restraint and discipline, by fighting against his body's limitations and suppressing his baser impulses. He is a martyr for his art (and this is not just my metaphor, his brand of "active enduring" is compared to St. Sebastian's):
Once, in a less than conspicuous passage, Aschenbach stated outright that nearly everything great owes its existence to “despites”: despite misery and affliction, poverty, desolation, physical debility, vice, passion, and a thousand other obstacles. But it was more than an observation; it was his experience, the very formula of his life and fame, the key to his work.
If we follow Nietzsche's much-quoted dichotomy, what Aschenbach aspires to be is an Apollonian hero. And this works well with the classicism he seems to belong to as a writer, because the Apollonian is the element of form, rigor, rationality, distance from feelings, restraint (after the god Apollo, the god of sun and light). But, according to Nietzsche, throughout the history of humanity, this element of order battled an element of chaos, the Dionysian (after the god Dionysus, the god of wine, ecstasy and all sorts of good times). In the beginning of the novella, Aschenbach, who embraced the Apollonian both in his life and in his works, sees a red-haired man in front of a mortuary chapel one day, has a vision of a jungle, and is seized by a sudden desire to travel. Nothing good can come out of this and nothing good does.

And the winners are...

... everyone who entered! So Heather won Orlando, Carola won Maurice, and Karla and Jennifer won Death in Venice. (We've decided to give away two copies of Death in Venice so that no one is left out.) We'll be sending out emails in a moment, but if you ladies see this before getting the email feel free to send us your addresses at bloggeradmin[at]lithitchhiker[dot]com.

"We revere the novels of Eliot, Dickens, Hardy, and others, but..."

I'm rereading Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and my edition has a rather interesting introduction by Michael Cunningham. He's talking about the difficulties of any translation, of how writing and translating a text are very similar activities (writers "translate" the brute material of a novel into words), and about how a translation can alter the original atmosphere of a book. In this case, the current translation of Mann by Michael Heim gives Aschenbach a tragic and heroic edge that he lacked in the old Lowe-Porter translation. Now, the question is: which of these translations is more faithful to the author's intentions? 

Thomas Mann lifts an eyebrow at your translation

And here is where it gets tricky. In order to answer that question, Cunningham tries to characterize Thomas Mann independently of these translations. He claims Mann was one of the last writers of his kind, that even though he was the contemporary of Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, he was quintessentially a 19th century writer, not ready to give up the authority of his writer's voice. And also not using language the way "proper" 20th century writers would: 
Language itself, in fiction, would become a more fluid and vital part of the whole [after Mann].  We would, for the most part, dispense with the notion of the author as architect, carving sentences out of granite and setting them one atop another in support of a great theme. We revere the novels of Eliot, Dickens, Hardy, and others, but we do not remember and cherish individual lines, not the way we do lines from Joyce or Woolf. We aren't meant to.
My first reaction to those sentences in bold was "But no, that can't be." Theoretically it should hold, because there is a more conscious focus on language in 20th century literature. But does this really translate to us cherishing or revering individual lines from these writers in a way we didn't lines from 19th century authors? I'm not convinced, because on one hand I'm not sure how representative someone like Joyce is in this context. I think his love of language games sets him apart not only from previous generations, but also from his own generation and almost everyone else in the history of English literature. Joyce is very quotable. Others aren't, even when they do play with language. And on the other front, I don't know about Hardy, but Eliot, and Dickens in particular did produce memorable individual lines. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...", no?

So what do you make of this? 
And by the way, if you're curious about the problem of translation, Cunningham concludes that Heim gives us a more humane perspective on Aschenbach than Mann probably intended, and that this perspective turns Aschenbach into a modern hero in the line of Gatsby and Mrs. Dalloway, which is rather cool in itself.

Review: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

I shouldn't have liked this book. Consider the following:

1. I don't like Virginia Woolf. It's weird, since "modernist" and "feminist" are THE two words that I would have sworn can make me automatically like someone, but there you have it. I'm aware of the qualities of her writing intellectually, I realize they're qualities I usually appreciate in other people, but I can't help it. I get zero pleasure from reading her. And because I know I should like her, this makes me feel inadequate. Virginia Woolf makes me feel like I'll never be mature enough - or smart enough, or sophisticated enough - to get her.

2. I don't like magic realism. (And I would classify Orlando, anachronistically or not, as playing in magic realism.) I like my fictional worlds to have clear rules. I don't particularly like fantasy either, but at least there you know where you stand. Breaking the laws of nature and having a very matter-of-fact tone about it makes me... twitchy and unhappy. I might still like or even love the books (I did go through a Read All The Rushdies phase as a teen), but my enjoyment of them will be inevitably marred to an extent.

And yet I loved Orlando. I loved it because it was like a cavalcade through history and that more than made up for the fact its hero(ine) inexplicably took more than three centuries to reach the age of thirty, while kings, queens and poets flitted in and out of hir life. I loved it because each century had its own atmosphere, and the Victorian and Edwardian periods in particular were so strikingly captured. I loved it because it was clever enough when it played with and gently mocked the conventions of the biography in the first part, but it got almost unbearably clever once the great twist took place and Orlando, so far a handsome and accomplished young man, became a woman. I loved it because it went there. I loved it because it was a sharp critique of gender roles. I loved it for its wit and humor. I loved it for the way said wit and humor didn't seem to completely demolish their targets. This was a satire of so many things, and yet it never left a bad taste behind, which satire sometimes does.

Were there still moments when my old problem with Woolf came back? Yes. There were moments when I felt bored and totally disconnected with this book and wished I were reading something else. But unlike my previous experiences with Virginia Woolf (hi there, The Years, did you know you made me give up reading for a whole year after abandoning you in the middle?), there always came something that made it worth it. Sometimes it was a cutting comment about women's position in the Victorian society. At other times it was some impressive description, like the moment black clouds cover the sky at midnight and we're told that "All was dark; all was doubt; all was confusion. The Eighteenth century was over; the Nineteenth century had begun." But most often it was some patch of pretty writing, like this:
Every single thing, once he tried to dislodge it from its place in his mind, he found thus cumbered with other matter like the lump of glass which, after a year at the bottom of the sea, is grown about with bones and dragon-flies, and coins and the tresses of drowned women.
Orlando is above all a playful book and a book that exudes a love for words and for writing. It seems wrong to dissect it, wrong to label it, especially when one isn't very eloquent to begin with. It is against its spirit. So these impressions are all I have. This is a book to be savored. I enjoyed it much more than I expected and I encourage you to do the same.

Don't forget that we're offering this book in our giveaway. If this review made you curious, you can still enter here for a chance to win Orlando.

This post is part of The Literary Others: An LGBT Reading Event hosted by Adam of Roof Beam Reader. If you're curious about what other people are doing for this event go here. If you want to see what else we read or will read for this event, keep an eye on our Literary Others tag.

The Woolf-Forster-Mann Giveaway

Hello, everyone, and welcome to our first ever giveaway. As you know, this month is LGBT History Month in the USA and we're participating in Adam's LGBT Reading Event: The Literary Others. In honor of this event and since we mainly read and review the classics here at Lit. Hitchhiker, we've decided to give away three classic titles that have an LGBT theme/component. These titles are Virginia Woolf's Orlando, E.M. Forster's Maurice and Thomas Mann's Death in Venice (in a volume that also includes other stories). We'll be giving away one copy of each, preferably in the editions featured below.

Thomas Mann, Death in Venice
Virginia Woolf, Orlando
E.M Forster, Maurice

So what do you have to do in order to enter this giveaway? First of all, you have to be a registered participant in Adam's event (i.e. you must have left a comment on this post). Secondly, you need to live in a country that Book Depository ships to. And then you just have to leave a comment on this post, saying which of the books above you'd like to win and where we can contact you if you do win (in case this information isn't easily available on your profile). We'd love it if you also suggested an LGBT title we might enjoy, but that's not mandatory.

You can also win additional entries by a. following us on twitter or b. spreading the word about this giveaway on twitter or elsewhere. If you choose b, please let us know either by tagging us on twitter or by commenting here, so that we don't miss your extra entry.

This giveaway will end on October 20. The winners will have 48 hours to respond to our e-mails or we'll pick someone else.

That's about it, rules-wise. We're very excited to be sharing these books with you, as we know and love two of them - Orlando and Death in Venice (expect some reviews this week) - and have heard good things about the third. We hope you'll love them as well. Good luck!

This post is part of The Literary Others: An LGBT Reading Event hosted by Adam of Roof Beam Reader. If you're interested in signing up, you can do it here. If you want to check out what other people are doing for this event go here. If you want to see what else we read or will read for this event, keep an eye on our Literary Others tag.

Top Ten Tuesday & Our New Project

Today's Top Ten Tuesday won't be entirely on our blog and here's why. A few weeks ago, the topic on TTT was Bookish Confessions. We had an idea for that topic, but we were too late to actually put together the post that week. So we decided to do it for freebie week instead, and also launch a project related to it. You see, our idea was to put our bookish confessions in the form of notes like the ones they use on Dog Shaming (or if you want a site that's actually about humans, Philosopher-Shaming, that Claudia can't find enough good words about). We asked around and it turned out some of our friends had their own bookish confessions to share, so we decided to start a tumblr and call it - you guessed it - Reader Shaming.

So here are some of our confessions and some the pictures we have some far. We would love it if you submitted our own here:


You can find the rest on tumblr. More pictures to come, as we do have a bunch of bookish secrets. And we would love it if you submitted your own "reader's shame note." The more, the merrier.

Race in A Single Man: A Passage That Made Me Very Uncomfortable

What's a footnote?
I have mixed feelings about the way race is portrayed in A Single Man. On one hand, it is clear that Isherwood is trying to present sexual orientation as something that turns you into a minority much the same way race does. George, privileged on numerous axes (class, race, gender), is nonetheless a minority because of his sexual orientation. I'm not sure how groundbreaking this was at the time this novel was published, but I'm inclined to think it must have been, because thinking of sexual orientation in these terms dismantles narratives that present it as a sin or a crime. And this is very obvious when George has his terrorist fantasies about the oppressing majority, including people who want to tighten the laws against "sexual deviates." He's quick to think that Mexican and black people never figure into these violent scenarios, because they're not The Enemy:
Mexicans live here, so there are lots of flowers. Negroes live here, so it is cheerful. George would not care to live here, because they all blast all day long with their radios and television sets. But he would never find himself yelling at their children, because these people are not The Enemy. If they would ever accept George, they might even be allies.
On the other hand, George is not entirely at ease among people you'd classify as minorities. (And we won't include women here.) It's fair to say that every time someone who is not white appears, George thinks of them primarily in terms of their race. Asian people are enigmatic, but "by far the most beautiful creatures in the class; their beauty is like the beauty of plants, seemingly untroubled by vanity, anxiety or effort." And they continue to be enigmatic and plantlike every single time they make an appearance. The brightest black student in his class intimidates him because he "suspects her of suspecting him of all kinds of subtle discrimination."

I can accept this hyper-awareness. It's believable. I can accept the rambling discourse about minorities he delivers to his students when they ask him if Huxley was anti-Semitic. It makes a couple of good points: how minorities are not automatically angels just by virtue of having been oppressed or persecuted, how color-blindness is bullshit etc. But it also gets into very muddy waters (we'll call these muddy waters Godwin's Creek, colloquially known as "Ah, if only the Nazis were more frank about their feelings"):

Review: A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

It's been a few days since I finished this book and I couldn't find the words to review it. To tell you the truth, I only felt the need to say two things: 1. that this is a beautiful novel and everyone should read it and 2. that Isherwood has a wonderful ear for dialogue. But if this didn't make you close the window immediately and go hunt down a copy of A Single Man, I suppose I could find another thousand words or so to say about it. 

In the spirit of Mrs. Dalloway, which partially inspired it, A Single Man chronicles a day in the life of one character. This character is George, a middle-aged professor at a university in Southern California. George is British and George is gay, and these two aspects, but particularly the latter, make him something of an outsider. We see him alone, getting ready for his day: a succession of little domestic acts interspersed with his thoughts. He misses Jim, his partner, who's been dead for a year. He reflects on the suburban community from which he's an outsider. We see him on the freeway driving to the university. He has violent fantasies about various categories belonging to "The Establishment": thoughtless modernizers of the California landscape, homophobes, politicians eager to escalate the Cold War. (This takes place in 1962, right after the Cuban missile crisis.) We see him teaching and interacting with his students. We see him discussing the prospect of nuclear annihilation and contrasting, facetiously or not, the American and European ways of life.

Canon B

We have been thinking about the Canon, the Great Western Canon, quite a lot lately.

Part of it comes with our Classics Club member cards. Being a Classics Clubber seems to involve thinking about the classics - about what makes a classic classic, about our relationship with these books and why they still have the power to affect us - quite a lot. We know we're not alone in this because we've read a handful of very insightful posts on this topic lately, all from fellow Classics Clubbers. And this is the part that makes us grateful that we have the classics, that, no matter their faults, they still have something good and beautiful to give.

Part of it is the discomforting realization that our map has a lot of uncharted territories in it. Like a medieval map, it is full of "Here be dragons," "Here be lions," "Here be writers we never heard of." We had this feeling reading Martina's excellent post about Polish literature. We have it every time we read a book that seems to have slipped through the cracks of the Western Canon. We even have it reading less known works from famous authors. It's like a feeling of vertigo. It's not that we had missed something - we will never read all the famous works, anyway - it's that no one told us there was something to miss. And this is the part that makes us crave more than the Western Canon, that makes us want to discover new books and new authors.

And, finally, part of it comes from an occasional desire to throw away maps altogether. There was this paragraph recently on Electric Literature's tumblr that made us nod in approval. It's from Michael Cunningham recommending a neglected classic:
I’m urging you to experience something like what I did, in consenting to read an obscure novel, an experience that involved not only the discovery of the novel itself but the attendant realization that the world is host to such novels—call them the “invisible classics.” Call them “Canon B.” It makes for a richer, more fabulous sense of what might be out there, beyond the titles one read (or pretended to have read) in college.
We read this and we thought to ask you: do you know any invisible classics? Do you know any works that should receive more attention than they do? Any works that are from foreign literature and receive little or no attention in Canon A? It doesn't have to be that they are completely neglected (an academic out there is surely writing articles about them as you speak), but that you feel they are not popular enough. I myself wish that more people read Boris Vian and more people read James' The Ambassadors (which, admittedly, doesn't lack for critical acclaim).

So please share your favorite invisible classics with us. We're taking notes and building A Hitchhiker's Guide to Canon B (also known as a to-read list). 

Review: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Internet, I cheated. I wanted to wait until October to dive into the titles for Adam's LGBT reading event, The Literary Others, but brain is flesh and flesh is weak. So I caved in and the last two days of September saw me reading my first book for this event - Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. And I have no regrets.

To start by addressing the most obvious question - yes, the book's title is a metaphor. Yes, it is exactly that transparent metaphor you're thinking of. Acting as if oranges are the only fruit and trying to impose that belief on others is the equivalent - in silliness, not toxicity - of acting as if only one set of values and one way of life are the right ones. And yes, oranges and all the ways in which they're really Symbols for Something Else (mostly traditional-to-fundamentalist Christian values and heterosexuality) feature quite heavily in the narrative. The effect is not as bad as you might expect.