Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Jillian Keenan's Memoir 'Sex With Shakespeare'

Sex With Shakespeare: Here's Much to Do With Pain, But More With Love

I knew from the moment I laid eyes on the title of this book that I had to know more. When I spotted it on the autobiographies shelf at my local Barnes and Noble, I knew I had to buy a copy.

The author, Jillian Keenan, is a spanking fetishist. I am not. Despite the fact that I myself am not a part of the spanking sub-subculture of the BDSM subculture, I found that I felt a tremendous amount of sympathy with the author as she told her story.

This is, after all, a love story. All love stories are relatable, to some extent, to anyone who's ever been in love.

Each chapter is themed around a particular Shakespearean work. The first chapter centers on my favorite of the Bard's comedies, A Midsummer Night's Dream. Here Keenan addresses a topic also brought up by E.T. Malinowski in her romance novel A Midsummer Dream: Are Demetrius and Helena ever really in love?

Keenan thinks they are, as I do. But she adds an interesting new spin. She contends that when Helena says:

"I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you:
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
What worser place can I beg in your love,--
And yet a place of high respect with me,--
Than to be used as you use your dog?"

...she is being literal. She wants Demetrius to treat her like his dog. In Helena, Keenan sees a kindred soul, a woman whose sexuality is incomplete, virtually nonexistent, without her submissive, masochistic side being expressed. Keenan sees Helena as a woman embracing her emerging kink, while Demetrius is still coming to terms with his Dominant/sadist tendencies. Genuinely afraid he will hurt Helena, Demetrius turns his attentions to the woman he perceives as the safe, vanilla choice: Hermia.

Kinky headcanon accepted. Since I can't seem to stop crushing on Christian Bale as Demetrius, I want the interpretation that puts Demetrius in the most sympathetic light.

The second chapter deals with a character I find much less likeable: Caliban from The Tempest. Keenan has a special relationship with Caliban, but I can't get over the fact that he admits he tried to rape Miranda. Keenan doesn't excuse that, but she does remind us that Shakespeare was a humanist and even he, in the authorial voice, allows mercy for Caliban in the end.

There are a few plays mentioned in this memoir that I haven't seen or read yet: Twelfth Night, Cymbeline, Antony and Cleopatra, and As You Like It. By and large, though, all the characters with whom Keenan has a series of imagination conversations that help her find her way are all familiar, beloved characters to me.

Now, Keenan has a master's degree in literature that focused on Shakespeare and is recognized as an expert. Productions call her in when they have questions about interpretation of the text. I'm an amateur fan who fell in love with my fifth grade teacher cast me as Peter Quince. I don't know nearly as much about Shakespeare as Keenan does, but as a fellow fangirl, I can certainly appreciate her enthusiasm for the subject.

She writes with remarkable honesty and openness about matters both deeply personal and professional, and I felt privileged to accompany her on this inward journey. I may not share the specifics of her sexual orientation (and she does call spanking fetishism her orientation - in the more conventional sense of the term, she is bisexual, like me - and like Shakespeare, probably), but through this book, I have new insight into the experience.

One quibble: Keenan mentions that in Shakespeare's time, the liver and not the heart was considered to be the seat of love. However, it seems to me that I have seen references within Shakespeare's plays to the heart as the seat of love. Did she mean that the liver was considered to be the seat of lust?

Either way, I really, really enjoyed reading this memoir.

I purchased this book with my own funds and was not obligated in any way to review it.

Friday, October 14, 2016

#BookReview: 'The Invention of Wings' by Sue Monk Kidd

SPOILER ALERT: I'm going to spoil the ending!

I wouldn't say I "enjoyed" this book, since it made me sad and angry more than anything. For one thing, the Black men in this novel are treated brutally, and that would be bad enough if it were only historical, but obviously it's something that's a huge problem in the U.S. right now, in 2016.

That the Black women are also treated brutally is made even more unpalatable by the fact that our three main protagonists, Hetty, Charlotte, and Sky, are all such brilliant, likable women. Charlotte and Hetty are not only deeply intelligent, but also brilliant textile artists, as befits women of the Fon (also called Dahomey) people, who are known for their textile arts.

I applaud the real-life Sarah Grimke for speaking out against slavery and for the cracks she made in the glass ceiling. I really do. But the fictional version of Sarah comes across as a mediocre-to-bad abolitionist, since she can't even save her alleged "friend" from her sadist of a sister, Mary, until Hetty is 45 years old. It seems as if this novel is praising an ineffectual, if well-meaning, white woman while a brilliant Black woman languishes in captivity.

It's not exactly fair to judge women in the early Victorian period by 21st century standards, I know. But I can't really buy the story of Hetty and Sarah's supposedly deep and heartfelt friendship if Sarah is barely going to raise her finger to help her friend get free.

This book is really well-written and spellbinding, but with all the backlash against feminism and against the human rights of African-Americans that we deal with on a daily basis now, it's hard not to be angry that the wounds of the past have been festering for the last 200+ years. It's to Sue Monk Kidd's credit that she makes it so difficult to divorce fiction from reality, but my feelings are the way they are.

I checked this audio book out from my local library and was not obligated to review it in any way.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Erin Watches Movies

In March, I read The Big Short, and over the past weekend, I finally watched the movie version on Netflix. 

It’s a very good film. Although it's no secret I’m a big Christian Bale fan, and I really enjoyed his performance as Dr. Michael Burry, I thought Steve Carell’s performance was the best. (I did appreciate how Bale was framed so that the left side of his face was de-emphasized to help create the illusion that he had a glass eye, like the real Michael Burry. Good cinnamon tography.)

I didn’t realize it while I was watching it, but later when Tit Elingtin watched the movie at my suggestion, I noticed Tracy Letts in the cast list. As you may recall, I heard his name in “HardcoverBound 2,” first thought he was a female and probably quite feminist playwright, and then thought to associate him with the films Bug and August: Osage County

Tracy Letts has a small role in The Big Short. It makes sense. He’s a theatre kid, writing plays and acting in movies. Also, his mother was the writer Billie Letts, who wrote Where the Heart Is. It was turned into a movie starring Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd. (I saw it in the movie theater with my friend Jamie in 2000.) Judd, who was in Bug, has thus appeared in films by two different Lettses. 

I didn't read this.
But I digress. In trying to find out a little more about Letts’ acting career, I found upon a photo of Letts with Rebecca Hall and Michael C. Hall (no relation to one another). The Halls and Letts are involved in a film called Christine, scheduled to be released in October (next month).

I recently saw Michael C. Hall in Kill Your Darlings, the drama in which Daniel Radcliffe played Allen Ginsberg. I loved that movie. David Cross was adorable as Ginsberg’s poet father, Dane DeHaan* is dreamy even though Lucien Carr was a shit boyfriend to Allen (repressed much?), and Radcliffe is now my second-favorite movie Ginsberg after James Franco. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the Norman Reedus/Keifer Sutherland/Courtney Love film Beat, with my sweet sweet baby Kyle Secor as David Kammerer, Carr’s creepy stalker. The Kammerer character in KYD is much better written and sympathetic, and Hall does an excellent job playing him.

Rebecca Hall, of course, played the long-suffering wife of Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) in The Prestige. It’s one of my favorite movies, and I’m not the only fan. The Simpsons had its season premiere this past weekend. Mr. Burns re-instated a vaudeville-like stage show like he remembered from his childhood, including a magic act performed by twins Sherri and Terri that referenced The Prestige.

I DID read Christopher Priest's novel - after I saw the movie
I’ve also been watching Rebecca Hall as Edwardian narcissist Sylvia Tietjens, opposite Benedict Cumberbatch, in Parade’s End. She will play the title character in Christine.

Christine is Christine Chubbuck, a real person whom I read about in He Who Shall Remain Shameless

Sylvia Tietjens isn’t a very sympathetic character. One tends to feel more sympathy for husband Christopher, who is desperately in love with spunky suffragist Ms. Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens, a young Australian who played Myrtle Wilson’s sister in The Great Gatsby), but too old-fashioned to divorce Sylvia. I'm on episode 2 of the 4-part miniseries, and so far the most scandalous thing Christopher and Valentine have done is get lost in the fog and stay out together all night…sitting next to each other. Just sitting, physical contact at an absolute minimum. It’s like the opposite of Jane Eyre. Where Edward Fairfax Rochester was not concerned enough about pursuing the woman he loved while in a bad marriage, Christopher Tietjens was probably too concerned. Lots of unresolved longing and surreptitious eye contact ensue.

Christine Chubbuck, conversely, is a very sympathetic character. Life dealt her a hand so much worse than she deserved. Her severe depression cost her her life. Live on television. We can't see the actual footage, thank Something, but we will see a dramatized version. 

*I saw him in the trailer for Tulip Fever while waiting for Love and Friendship (a Jane Austen adaptation) to start in the movie theater. I want to see that. Christine might be too sad, even though I'm sure Rebecca Hall's acting will be great. Let's see Tulip Fever instead, As of this writing, its release is planned for February 2017. 

No, I did not read this book.

Monday, September 12, 2016

'The Lunatic, The Lover, and The Poet' by Myrlin A. Hermes

Let’s talk about The Lunatic, The Lover, and The Poet by Myrlin A. Hermes, because this book blew my mind. Be warned there may be SPOILERS in this post.

I learned about it from this post:

I couldn’t get it out of my head. Books that have well-rounded bisexual characters are few and far between anyway, and this novel’s locating its 2011 Lambda Literary Award-winning bisexual character within an exceedingly thorough re-imagining of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet made this a must-have inside my greedy little brain.

Hermes gives us a love triangle between Hamlet, Horatio, and her original character Adriane, Baroness of Maricourt. It’s not a love vee, in which Hamlet and Horatio are each separately in love with Adriane. Horatio is in love with Hamlet, Hamlet is in love with Horatio, Horatio is also in love with Adriane, and Adriane is using them both in an intricate chess game for her own literary and personal ends.

Adriane. Oh, Adriane. She’s a difficult woman, and she tries extremely hard to turn Hamlet and Horatio against each other (at the same time she’s trying to make their love immortal in poetry), but you can’t end up hating her. Like Lady Macbeth before her, she has to do what a woman has to do for her ambition’s sake. Unlike Lady Macbeth, she won’t have to live to regret it, and she won’t be punished by the author for it.

Recognizable lines from Macbeth are woven into the dialogue and narration of this novel, as are lines from a number of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets and other plays. Sometimes they’re consciously created by the characters as they’re creating art within the context of the novel, and sometimes they come up in more organic ways from the plot. Sometimes Shakespeare feeds Myrlin A. Hermes a straight line and she turns it into a dirty joke, in the same way that Shakespeare plays with his characters.

That’s some of the beauty and brilliance of Hermes’ writing. Although it’s written in prose, the whole thing feels like poetry in blank verse. This is astounding work.

Ophelia still gets the short end of the stick, alas.* She doesn’t drown, and she does live long enough to marry Hamlet and become Denmark’s queen. She even produces an heir, although the little boy dies from an accidental wound. It’s implied he may have hemophilia, which of course is something that historically affected the real royal houses of Europe, after too many centuries of intermarriage between cousins.

Incest is a creeping theme throughout the novel. Hamlet is rumored to have an incestuous relationship with his own mother, although Hermes never gives the reader any reason to believe this is true. Gertrude is certainly unsure which brother is Hamlet’s biological father – Hamlet the Elder or Claudius – although this doesn’t make any genetic difference, since they’re identical twins. The cheeky undertaker at the end of the novel tells Horatio, in unnecessarily vague terms, that the king is marrying his sister – what he means is that King Claudius is marrying his sister-in-law.

Yet it may actually be the case when Hamlet marries Ophelia that he is marrying his own half-sister. A small portion of this novel is told by Polonius talking to Laertes. Polonius – whose name literally means that he is a Polish guy – tells his son that he, Polonius, was a minor prince in his native land, although he was the youngest son who was never going to inherit any kind of throne. When Hamlet the Elder conquered Poland, not only did his men kill all of Polonius’s older brothers on the battlefield, but Hamlet the Elder also took Polonius’s wife, Aphelia. Polonius and Aphelia were married but, because she was still a young teenager, their marriage wasn’t consummated. Aphelia became Hamlet’s concubine, and it’s possible Laertes and his sister Ophelia are both Hamlet the Elder’s biological children.

Hamlet the Younger marrying his bio sister? Sounds like an acting job for Benedict Cumberbatch, who has both played Hamlet on stage and, as a character in the film version of August: Osage County, has unknowingly had a sexual affair with probable his half sister. (And not even in a bad way. Ivy and Little Charles and two of the only humane characters in that grim Tracy Letts play. ‘Tis pity they are whores*.)

Someday I’ll discover why Letts keeps setting his plays in the Plains States, which he is from and seems to hate.

Hamlet isn’t my favorite of Shakespeare’s tragedies – I understand and enjoy Macbeth better. (I recently saw the 2015 film adaptation with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. I thought she was gorgeous and brilliant as Lady Macbeth, but I didn’t want Duncan to die, not only because he doesn’t deserve it but also because he was David Thewlis, the actor who played Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter movies. I still have issues with Remus and Tonks’ sad deaths.) That said, I found myself heavily invested in the romantic relationship between Hamlet and Horatio. I’m glad they got to be together long after Ophelia’s unprocessed grief over her child’s death sent her to a nunnery for long-term mental health care.

At first Horatio is conflicted about his own bisexuality. He’s wildly attracted to Hamlet when Hamlet dresses as a female character in the play Horatio has written, but rejects Hamlet’s amorous advances out of deference to his upbringing in the church, even though Horatio is not a religious man. Later, when he believes Hamlet has drugged them both with belladonna and intends to kill them both, sex becomes a lifeline for them. Horatio eventually has to admit he loves Adriane physically, but the lifelong commitment of his heart he reserves exclusively for the Danish prince. Lady Adriane is Horatio’s first love, but Hamlet is his true love. Hamlet, surprisingly (for he is infamously fickle with Ophelia, including in this version), reciprocates the depth of Horatio’s feeling.

Get that: They are two bisexual men who commit themselves to each other, and neither one of them has to be killed off violently and tragically. See, TV? Writers can do that. It’s possible to let same-sex lovers grow old together and die of natural causes.

This is a beautiful, poetic, and sexy book, with complicated characters we think we know exposed from entirely new angles.

The titular allusion, by the way, is to a line spoken by Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

*That’s supposed to be remedied in a film starring the English actress Daisy Ridley, who stars in the most recently released Star Wars film.

*I'm not really judging them. That’s me showing off that I know the plot of the 17th-century John Ford play ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore includes a brother-sister pair who commit intentional incest. In August: Osage County, only Ivy knows her cousin is probably also her brother.

John Ford is probably not related to Ford Madox Ford, the English poet, novelist, and critic who wrote Parade’s End, a novel series turned into a Downton Abbey-esque drama for British television. The protagonist, Christopher (“Chrissie”) Tietjans, marries a monumentally inconsiderate woman who is pregnant with a child that may or may not be his, then falls in love with a saucy Women’s Suffragist. It’s an Edwardian disaster and possibly semi-autobiographical. I’ve been watching it in small doses. 


Because Benedict Cumberbatch.  

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

'A Midsummer Dream' For Late Summer (M/M Romance)

A Midsummer DreamA Midsummer Dream by E.T. Malinowski

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a short book and a quick read, so I finished it in an afternoon. I love everything to do with my favorite Shakespeare comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream. I love romance novels in all the genres, with all the possible gender combinations, and I especially like contemporaries. It was a no-brainer that I had to read this one.

I was not disappointed. The writing wasn't perfect, but I really didn't care, because I was heavily invested in the characters. I always like the heroes who are a little bit damaged, and Arik Blackbourne is a classic example of this. He has a tragic past. He's estranged from his sister and niece. He harbors a longstanding crush on a fellow actor who barely knows he exists.

Donovan Montgomery is that actor, and he's a little clueless. He needs to work on his communication skills. But as he performs the role of Demetrius, opposite Arik's gender-swapped Helena ("Helenus"), Donovan is increasingly smitten. And this seems increasingly familiar...

Like Shakespeare's play, this gripping romance proceeds, with much confusion, toward a happily-ever-after ending. The involvement of fairy royalty and their retinue is not even required.

The novella does raise an interesting Shakespearean question, though: At the end of the original play, are Demetrius and Helena really in love? Or is she in love with a guy who's still stuck under a fairy love spell, but deep down he's not even interested in her anymore?

I tend to think that at the end of the wedding scene, when Oberon bestows his blessing upon the marital beds of the three couples, he's also undoing all of his mischievous magic, and at this point, Helena and Demetrius are truly in love. Christian Bale and Calista Flockhart look pretty lovey-dovey at the end of the 1999 movie (which I saw in the theater when it came out, because that's the kind of literature geek I am). But I suppose the Shakespeareans are welcome to debate that point.

I checked this e-book out from the library via HooplaDigital.com. I was not obligated in any way to review it.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Thursday, September 1, 2016

"Death in Venice" #ebook Review

Death in VeniceDeath in Venice by Thomas Mann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first heard of Thomas Mann in a literary calendar, via a quote from his son-in-law, W.H. Auden: "Who's the most boring German writer? My father-in-law."

In a 2012 episode of The Simpsons (as I wrote about here), Bart's fourth grade class is about to read "Death in Venice" with their substitute teacher, Waylon Smithers. This was what caused me to wonder what the short story was about. I read about "Death in Venice" years ago, but I never actually got around to reading it until now.

It's really inappropriate for average fourth graders; the dense prose is difficult even for adults. According to the end notes, it's quite a challenge to translate from the German.

I enjoyed this highly symbolic and sensually detailed sketch of the last days of a highly honored German literary figure, largely based on Mann himself. Gustav is a Capital-A Artist, and his last (and, perhaps, greatest) artistic act is a dance of chaste but erotically charged poetic interaction with the 14-year-old son of an aristocratic Polish family. (In my earlier post, I referred to Tadzio as "an Italian boy." I misspoke.)

Tadzio is physically perfect, like a statue of antiquity, and Gustav philosophizes grandly about whether his swiftly-kindling love for the boy makes him more or less of an Artist, whether it makes him moral or immoral. As the title gives away, the relationship - never consummated with anything more intimate than eye contact - ultimately takes Gustav's life.

This is hardly a surprise, since foreshadowings of death have stalked Gustav at every turn of the Venetian canals. Even the coffin-black gondolas warn him that Venice is a tomb. The hush-hush cholera epidemic that stalks the city may or may not directly contribute to Gustav being found slumped in the beach chair where he had settled to watch Tadzio play on a sand bar. Truly, Gustav died for love. The prospect of Tadzio leaving his life and returning to Poland made Gustav's continued existence in the world unbearable.

I didn't get quite all of the allusions to the philosophical circle of Socrates or of the Greek mythological stories, although the broad strokes are not too hard to infer from context. Fortunately, the Dover Thrift Edition explains these references in the end notes.

I checked this ebook out of the library at HooplaDigital.com. I was not obligated in any way to review it.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

August Mini Book Reviews

The Last Sherlock Holmes StoryThe Last Sherlock Holmes Story by Michael Dibdin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is so suspenseful, it caused me some degree of anxiety. It was worth it. This story is quite the opposite of boring; it is a thrilling tale, well told. John Watson is somewhat unreliable as a narrator, but not nearly as unreliable as...he...could be. (That's about all I can say without spoiling the whole thing.) It's fascinating and horrifying and I'm glad it's non-canonical.

I checked out this audio book from my local library and was not obligated in any way to review it.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's BerlinIn the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


William E. Dodd never set out to be an ambassador, yet he ended up representing the U.S. in Hitler's Germany from 1933 to 1937. He tried to warn America of the horrors to come, but very few listened to him.

I have one remaining question: What happened to Dodd's unfinished history of the Southern U.S., titled 'The Old South?' I hope someone preserved it somewhere, even though it was nowhere near to being finished.

I purchased this hardcover book with my own funds (secondhand) and was not obligated in any way to review it.

Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation's LeadersDead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation's Leaders by Brady Carlson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is really fun if you like U.S. history and presidential trivia. Who knew that Teddy Roosevelt's oldest daughter Alice had a pet garter snake named Emily Spinach? Or that Franklin Pierce, when he didn't get re-elected, responded with "The only thing left to do is get drunk?" I do, now.

My only caveat is that if you have a very weak stomach as concerns the remains of the dead, there are a few passages that may make you wince. On the whole, though, this fascinating slice of Americana is more about the presidents' lives than their deaths.

I have been to Mount Rushmore Rapid City, South Dakota, but not since 1989. I never saw the presidential statues. Now I'll have to go back one of these days. Put it on my bucket list.

I checked this digital audio book out through HooplaDigital.com and was not obligated in any way to review it.

View all my reviews on Goodreads