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 I was not obligated in any way to review it.

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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 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 and was not obligated in any way to review it.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Sunday, August 7, 2016

#CursedChild No-Spoiler Mini Review

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Parts One and Two (Harry Potter, #8)Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Parts One and Two by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So it's not exactly an 8th Harry Potter book - but so what? We still get a deep dive into Harry and Ginny's married life and the next generation, focusing on the middle Weasley-Potter child, Scorpius Malfoy (son of Draco and his wife Astoria Greengrass), and, to a lesser extent, Rose Granger-Weasley.

Remember when J.K. Rowling said she wished she hadn't paired Ron and Hermione? Well, she seems to have jettisoned that thought, because clearly, Romione is meant to be in every alternative universe.

And maybe Rainbow Rowell ruined me on this, but I can't help but think Scorpius's crush on Rose is only temporary, and that eventually, Scorpius and Albus end up together. I kept waiting for them to kiss. But hey, I won't rush them. Let them figure it out in their own time.

Major Voldemort bombshell? Oh, yes! Major, major, major. I won't spoil it.

This play gave me a lot of good feelings, and some bad ones. (There's mention of Molly Weasley, but not Arthur. Jo, did you kill Arthur?) It's well worth the read, since we can't all get to London's West End. Just read it.

Look, there it is on my night stand. Photo by me.
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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Tribute in Books to My Late Grandmother

As you may recall from my previous post, it hasn't been the happiest, most carefree of summers for me and my family. I wrote that post on June 22. On June 25, my husband had to take me to the emergency room. I had a 103-degree (Fahrenheit) fever. It was a kidney infection.

My 26-year-old cousin died of pancreatic cancer. Less than 3 weeks later, I was in the hospital with an inflamed right kidney and sepsis. With antibiotics and a few days of rest,  I got better. Things were starting to look up.

Then, on Sunday, July 3 - in the middle of the 4-day weekend, which should have been a welcome stress reliever - my grandma, Gloria Elaine Stevenson ("Irish Granny"), started having seizures. She ended up in the same hospice care center where my cousin Joe died, in the room right across the hall from where he breathed his last. She was in a medically-induced coma, but I spent time with her on the afternoons of the 6th,7th, and 8th.

She passed away at 12:20 a.m. on Saturday, July 9th, without ever having regained consciousness. She was my last surviving grandparent. Born March 19, 1934, she was 82 years old.

If you read the blog, you might recall I'd been in the habit of taking Irish Granny's TBR list to the local library's used book sale and picking up books for her. I now inherit her books, most of which I purchased from the library.

Here are a few of them, sitting in the window seat of my home library. On the bottom are her medical reference book (we used to use those before WebMD) and a Danielle Steel. I personally have never been interested in Danielle Steel. For me, the best prospect is Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. It's a crime thriller marketed to fans of Gone Girl.

Inside one of her Laura Lippman paperbacks, I found these bestseller list clippings from the local newspaper. This is how she used to decide what to read next. The fiction bestseller on the first list is End of Watch by Stephen King. On the middle list, Bay of Sighs by Nora Roberts is #1, and the blacked-out books are Foreign Agent by Brad Thor and Here's to Us by Elin Hilderbrand. Those were the two she wanted to read. She liked a combination of thrillers and literary fiction. On the third list, the #1 book is Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. Its film adaptation is currently in theaters, starring Sam Claflin as the doomed romantic hero.

Harlen Coben, James Patterson, and Laura Lippman were some of her favorite authors She had only discovered Lippman recently, within the past year.

More bestseller lists fell out of another Laura Lippman. On the first one, Harlen Coben's Fool Me Once is #1. (Danielle Steel is at #5 with Property of a Noblewoman.) The second also lists Fool Me Once as the #1, but Steel has moved up to #3. The third one also has Me Before You at #1.

Another bit of ephemera, one that she was probably using as a bookmark, was this Christmas tag from 2015.

I don't know if she ever read The Bourbon Kings, but if she did, she would have discovered one of the favorite authors of me and my mom. It's one of the few J.R. Ward novels I haven't gotten to yet. (The last one I finished was The Beast, which I did not enjoy as much as Blood Kiss.)

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware wasn't on her list. I picked it out for myself, but I thought she might enjoy it, too. I heard the author (who is English) discussing her book on NPR one morning while commuting. It's a mystery novel. I don't know if Irish Granny read it or not.

This last bit of ephemera came out of the James Patterson. I don't think it came from my grandma, but from a person who checked the book out before this particular copy was withdrawn and sold by the library. This person has $5.25 worth of library fines. I don't think my grandma ever owed the library any money in her life.

That may not be the end of the books coming my way from the late Irish Granny's house. There's still a lot of processing to do, physically and emotionally. Two deaths in the family in a space of 31 days have caused us all grief and stress. We are still accepting donations of hugs and warm beverages.

The good news is that my brother and his wife will have newborn twins in October. We can't replace Joe and Gloria, but we sure will be ready to welcome Henry and Andrew. Mentally, I'm already ready for summer to end and autumn to begin. I feel like the change of season will bring in a change of emotions. Things are tough all around this summer. I think I finally understand the words of the Green Day song: "Wake me up when September ends."