Monday, April 21, 2014

Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie (And How This Book Forced Me To Rethink Homophobia And Racism In Older Fiction)

Normally, I would start off the review by providing the synopsis from either the dust jacket or the back cover, but that's not going to happen this time around.  For those of you who still want to see it, I'll put it at the end of this post.  The reason for change is pretty simple, I could not start off as if this was going to be a normal review.  It's actually going to be a rather rambling, hopefully coherent, thought process put down on paper, albeit it's a computer screen this time around.

It's never easy making a moral judgement about a book, or even part of a book, let alone one first published in 1939.  Making those judgement based on the way a reader thinks in 2014, is especially difficult. I try to not do it, and for the most part I've succeeded, but the older I'm getting, the harder that is becoming.  Blatant homophobia, racism, and sexism, blanket earlier works of fiction, even by those authors you try to ignore it from.  For me, one of those authors has always been Agatha Christie.

I was able to ignore the racist language in And Then There Were None, despite the tinge of remorse I felt at ignoring it.  It's the same sense of  remorse I feel when I choose to ignore the lawn jockey furniture that peppers some of my favorite movies, The Thin Man and The Women, being two examples.  The mere idea that I'm able to brush early examples of racism aside in early works, annoys the hell out of me.  I feel as if it should be a bigger deal to me, and that I should feel some sort of outrage and shock by such ignorance.  Be that as it may, as uncomfortable as it makes me,  I can brush it aside, and explain it away.

You see, it doesn't affect me personally.  As an Italian American, who looks German, I've never been personally affronted by such behavior.  I've been called a wop and a dago before, but it was by someone who didn't understand what the hell they were saying, and despite their word choice, there was no hostility behind it.  I've seen it directed at my friends, and I'm offended for them, but it still doesn't wound me personally.  The few times I have had comments directed towards me, it's because I mainly date men who are not white.  I've been called a traitor to my race, and as uncomfortable as that makes me, I've chalked it up to ignorance and have been able to ignore it.  I don't have to live with racism every day of my life.  I'm offended by it, it angers me, it makes me uncomfortable when I see it from others, but it doesn't wound me the way it would someone whose skin pigment, makes them a target.  And because of that, I'm able to brush aside examples of racism in early fiction and movies, I blame it on the times, and allow myself the knowledge that such examples would never happen today, at least I hope they wouldn't.  I would like to think that if And Then There Were None was written today, Dame Agatha would not have used the N word, nor used some of the imagery she did.

What I can't brush off so easily, what does wound me to the bone, is the homophobic way gay men, and lesbians, were portrayed by most authors or directors.  I still try to blame the era the book was written in or the film was produced in, but the older I'm getting, the harder that's getting.  I find myself taking those portrayals personally, as if they are directed towards me.  I know it doesn't make sense, especially since Murder is Easy was written in 1939, I wasn't born until 1976. But when the only gay character in the book, despite that word never being used, is an effeminate and creepy Satanist, it's hard to to not be bugged by that.  It's even harder to forgive it when there are no positive portrayals in the book, or in any other book by her.  When you add in the fact that every gay character I've run into, from any author writing a book in the same era, runs to type, it is offensive.

Sometimes, despite the hostility that is still directed at gays and lesbians in this country, and lets not even talk about other countries like Russia and Uganda, it's hard to remember that it wasn't that long ago that almost every doctor in the country considered homosexuals to be insane, or mentally depraved at best.   That you could be locked up in an asylum, against your will, and left to die because you were gay.  And that was if you were lucky in the asylum, if not, it was much worse.  You would have been subjected to horrific medical castrations, and even the occasional lobotomy, making you less than yourself.  But that was the point, much like racism, homophobia is meant to reduce someone to less than human, the other.  And it's with that context in the back of my mind, that I do find myself judging some of my favorite authors for the way they chose to depict gay men and women.

As I age, I'm finding it harder to forgive these portrayals.  I'm tired of making the excuse that it was the sign of the times, that we wouldn't be portrayed in such fashion anymore.  I want to pretend that Doris Miles Disney could not portray Wally Howard, the murderer in That Which is Crooked, as an effeminate serial killing mama's boy, and lay the blame on his murderous instincts on that fact that he was gay.  But then I'm confronted by the way Rhys Bowen portrays gay men in her current Royal Spyness series, as either jokes or buffoons.  And as much as I love Georgie and the world she inhabits, I'm finding it harder and harder to continue with the series.  While the gay men in her books aren't the villains, they are still portrayed as less than men, as a stereotypical joke to be laughed at.  When I'm forced to think about it, I don't think Christie or Disney are any worse than Bowen in this regard.  And in a way, Bowen is worse, because she should know better.  We no longer live in an age where homosexuality is treated as a disease, at least not in the Western world.  I can't blow it off the way I do the earlier works, and then I find myself wondering why I'm drawing that line.  Why am I willing to forgive ignorance at all?  Regardless of when it was written, hate is still hate.  That's sentiment behind it isn't any different.

Then comes the hard part for me though, and I'm still not sure what I'm going to do about it.  I've already judged Doris Miles Disney for her ignorance, and I will never read another of her books.  When it comes to Dame Agatha though, that is a harder judgement call.  I still love her and her books.  I get lost in her ability to weave a mystery out of thin air, and turn it into the most complex labyrinth in existence. Other than one or two instances, racism and homophobia really aren't written into her stories, though even those few times are still unforgivable.  Even now, as I'm writing this, I'm trying to justify my decision to keep reading her books, and that bugs me.  I should be able to walk away and never look back, but I can't.  For what ever reason, I'm going to judge authors differently, through whatever lens I conjure out of my ass.  It won't be fair, it won't make sense, but I'm going to have to start drawing lines somewhere.  I just need to figure out what those lines are.

And here is the synopsis I promised you, afterwards I'll even say a few things about the story itself.

Luke Fitzwilliam does not believe Miss Pinkerton's wild allegation that a multiple murderer is at work in the quiet English village of Wychwood and that her local doctor is next in line.

But within hours, Miss Pinkerton has been killed in a hit-and-run car accident.  Mere coincidence?  Luke is inclined to think so - until he reads int he Times of the unexpected demise of Wychwood's Dr. Humbleby...

I'm hoping that after you have read the previous eight paragraphs, you aren't left with the idea that I hated the book, because I didn't.  Some of my favorite Agatha Christie books have been her standalone novels, even if PBS put Jane Marple into the TV version of this one.  She seems to be at her most creative when she is trying to write a story around the personalities of her reoccurring detectives.  It's not often that she delved into the area of magic and Satanism, even if it mainly served as the backdrop for a rash of murders.  It's even rarer that the main character in her standalone was a man, and Luke was fun to read.  He delves into solving the mystery, the way I delve into a plate of potato dumplings, with relish and determination.

The secondary characters, except for the creepy gay Satanist, are well rounded and quirky enough to live in a village called Wychwood.  I'm not sure she assembled a more eccentric group of people into such a small piece of land.  The interactions between them are poisonous and hilarious, and sets up the perfect psychopath to go to work.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Happy Easter!

Wishing you, and your family, a very happy Easter!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Still Life At The Wichita Art Museum

As per the usual, when I have a Saturday off, I took a trip to the Wichita Art Museum.  I'll be the first to admit that I'm cheap, and since they have free admission on Saturdays, it's the only day I'll go.  I had another reason to go that day, but it didn't pan out, and I'd rather not talk about it, so I'm not going to.  Either way, they had a wonderful exhibition of still lifes from their permanent collection in one of the lower galleries.  Most of these are new to me, as I'm pretty sure they don't see the light of day very often.  I love when they supplement with pieces in their vaults.  Art should be seen, not tucked away.  I took a few pictures, of my favorite pieces, and I thought I would share them with you guys. I'll be the first to admit that I suck at taking pictures of art work hanging on a wall, it's harder than you think it would be.

Red Roses by Sigmund J. Menkes

Englishtown by Janet Fish

Still Life with Cattails by Herman Meril

Still Life with Mask by Marvin D. Cone

Still Life, Copper Tray by Edmund L. Davison

Still Life of Flowers by Morris Kantor

Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase by William J. Glackens

Mortality and Immortality by William M. Harnett 

Still Life with Lemons by John Noble

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson

Synopsis From Dust Jacket:

In the Field of Merrilor the rulers of the nations gather to join behind Rand al'Thor, or to stop his plan to break the seals on the Dark One's prison - which may be a sign of his madness, or the last hope of humankind.  Egwene, the Amyrlin Seat, leans toward the former.

In Andor, the Trollocs seize Caemlyn.

In the wolf dream, Perrin Aybara battles Slayer.

Approaching Ebou Dar, Mat Cauthon plans to visit his wife, Tuon, now Fortuona, Empress of the Seanchan.

All humanity in peril - and the outcome will be decided in Shayol Ghul itself.  The Wheel is turning, and the Age is coming to its end.  The Last Battle will determine the fate of the world.

When I turned the last page of A Memory of Light, a journey I started back in 1994, came to an end.  Part of me was relieved that I finally finished the series, the larger part of me was devastated that it was over.  I had dedicated almost 20 years of my life to getting to know these characters.  I fell in and out of love with many of them, some I never liked, but they all meant something to me.  Many of the first ten books, I've read over and over again.  It's impossible to have this much exposure to them, without getting a little attached.

A Memory of Light wasn't the perfect final book for me, but I'm almost positive that I wouldn't have been completely happy no matter what happened in the book.  I wish that there hadn't been such a huge body count of reoccurring characters, over 50 when I stopped counting.  Many of them were major characters, and while I know some of their deaths were necessary, I'm also sure some of them could have been spared.  The major sacrifice, made by a central character and her warder, though horrific, was necessary, so I'm okay with that one.  But some of the other deaths, even now, stick in my craw.  Adding insult to injury, some of them were done off page, robbing the characters of a dignified death.  They deserved better.

I also wished and prayed for at least one more scene of the three boys together, and that never happened.  I would have loved for Rand, Perrin, and Mat to have connected one last time.  For that matter, I would have loved to see the original group that left Emond's Field, have one more moment together, and that was dashed as well.  I'm not sure, given the action in the book, that such a reunion could have been possible, but it would have been nice to see.  It would have been a nice emotional closure point for me, I just have to wish for it after the book was over.  Obviously there are major issues with such a wish, given the events in the book, but a reunion of those left would be nice to see.

And that brings us to the way the book ended, or didn't end.  The Age, and the story up to that point, are over.  There is nothing else that could prolong that particular story, but it's the aftermath that is still begging to be told.  I want to know what happens after a certain character rides away, from what everyone but a few thinks is the end.  I want to see that character explore who they are after all the events that have shaped their life, and the world, over such a long period of time.  I want to see who they chose to reveal the truth too, who is brought back into the fold, and who is left out in the cold, never knowing the truth.  I want to see certain relationships grow, others healed, and some come to an end.  I want to see who the twins grow up to be, and who Olver becomes.  I want to see how the young couple rule a kingdom they weren't expecting, and how another couple rebuild a kingdom once thought gone.  I want to see how the world heals itself, and read Loial's book.  Which means Loial has to know the truth, at some point int time, otherwise the tale will never be accurate.  I want so much more, but that's because I can't really let go.  I will be reading these books over and over again still, and I'll be praying for an epilogue at some point in time.  I could even handle 14 of them.

And I still want the Tuon and the Seanchan destroyed.

The Rest Of The Series:

The Eye of the World
The Great Hunt
The Dragon Reborn
The Shadow Rising
The Fires of Heaven 
Lord of  Chaos
A Crown of Swords
The Path of Daggers
Winter's Heart
Crossroads of Twilight
Knife of Dreams
The Gathering Storm 
Towers of Midnight 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Favorite Fictional Character --- Oswald, The Lucky Rabbit

With Easter right around the corner, I had the idea of featuring a rabbit stuck in my head.  I went through the obvious choices; Bugs, Roger, Peter Cottontail, the crew from Watership Down, and Trixx, but none of them felt right to me. Everybody knows them, and I'm not even sure I like some of them.  Inspiration struck though as I was getting a glass of water, I looked at the wall in front of the sink, and it hit me.  Right in front of me was the answer, staring at me, with a big grin on his face, was Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit.  When our local Disney Store closed a few years ago, I happened to pick up this wonderful canvas of Oswald for a few bucks.  It's done in muted tans, grays, and blacks, a color scheme that suits my style perfectly.  I really didn't know much about him, but over the years I've done some reading, watched a few early cartoons, and promptly fell in love.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Oswald, let's just say he predates Mickey, and is just as fun to watch.  For various legal and creative reasons, Oswald was regulated to the waste bin of history for decades.  After Disney was able to repurchase the rights to the character, Oswald has slowly had a rebirth of sorts.  I won't got into all the details of why this poor guy was abandoned, but it is a rather sad story.  And It was totally not his fault, the guy was hilarious.  He could detach limbs and use them as props, he was funnier than any rabbit had the right to be, and he brought smiles and laughter to everyone he met.

When he was abandoned though, he life took a horrible turn.  With Mickey on the rise, and himself in decline, I'm afraid he became a little bitter and angry.  By the time Disney got him back, and started to put him back to work, he wasn't the same happy go lucky rabbit anymore.  He resented Mickey.  He couldn't understand why the mouse got the life he was supposed to have, and quite frankly, I don't blame him.  If I was thrown out like old bath water, I'd be pretty damned pissed off myself.  But Oswald is not a bad guy, at his core, he wants to be loved and make people laugh.  I'm not saying he still doesn't have his issues, but he is getting through them, and he is slowly being given his due.  He is evening making appearances at the Disney theme park in Tokyo now, and his image is starting to pop up in the other parks as well.  He has his own line of merchandise, and he even has had a new cartoon, where he is the lead.  His star is back on an ascending path, and I can't wait to see where it takes him.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Wordsmithonia Radio: R&B That's Never Been Played By Our Local Stations

It's not very often that the majority of the R&B music I like gets played on the radio stations here in Wichita, KS.  I'm not sure why that's the case, but the stations around here tend to play the same 30-40 songs over, and over again, with rarely an aberration.  Don't get me wrong, I like Beyonce as much as the next fan, but there is so much more to the world of music then the couple of artists everyone seems to know about.  I know a lot of it has to do with where I live, but it doesn't change the frustration I feel when I turn on a local radio station.  So when I want to listen to what I like, I have to buy the albums or listen on Youtube.  I'm going to share with you some of the songs I rarely get tired of listening to, no matter how old some of them are.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Little Squirrels Can Climb Tall Trees by Michael Murphy

Synopsis From Publisher:

Kyle Miller is a rare breed.  Though born to conservative parents and raised in small-town Oklahoma, Kyle realized young that he had to escape rural America.  Now he's living in New York City, working as an ER doctor, and paying off his massive student loans.  He's never been on a plane and never seen a movie, but he is worldly enough to recognize attraction when it smacks him in the forehead.  Not that he knows how he managed to crack heads with Joseph, who's a good foot shorter than Kyle's six and a half feet.

Joseph is Kyle's polar opposite in other ways too, well-off where Kyle is poor, and self-assured while Kyle is insecure.  He's also determined to show Kyle what a great guy he is and bring the confidence Kyle shows in the ER out in her everyday life.  But Kyle's hectic work schedule and inexperience with relationships won't make for an easy romance.

I really don't know what my problem is, but I'm ridiculously addicted to romance right now.  I can't seem to get enough of it.  I'm not sure if my brain is trying to tell me to get my toes back into the dating game, after years and years of purposefully being single.  Maybe I just like reading about sex, which is something I'm not all that familiar with anymore.  And truthfully, I end up skimming through most of the sex scenes, so I'm all most positive that it's not the second explanation.  I'm not even all that sure about the first, while I have thought about it, and maybe even talking again with someone I dated 19 years ago, I'm not sure that explains it either.  I do know that, to a small or even large degree, it's the fact that I'm discovering so many new to me authors, some of whom are pretty frickin good.  I'm not familiar with the ebook publishing world to know what portion of these authors also get paper books published as well, but I do think a lot of them would be if they were writing in another genre.  So many of them are brilliant, that it's their writing I'm addicted to, not necessarily the romance aspect.  Though I'm not skimming through ALL the sex scenes.

When it comes to Kyle and Joseph, they were adorable.  They were the typical odd couple, a couple that on paper, does not belong together, but they click.  Kyle, in all his innocence, gives Joseph a new lease on life.  Allowing him to dive back into a relationship with someone who isn't jaded or bitter by past relationships.  Kyle on the other hand, allows himself to really explore life and all it has to offer with Joseph, something he's never done before.  The relationships also allows both of them to truly trust in each other, an idea that's foreign to both of them.

Kyle is the surprise standout for me.  He is the character that grows the most, and truly comes into his own person. He comes out to his very fundamentalist mother, something he thought he would never do, in front of an entire room full of religiously conservative women.  When the guest speaker starts rallying against the evils of "the gays", he eventually breaks down and confronts the man.  He isn't afraid, he isn't hesitant, he's amazing in that moment, and if he was real, I would have proposed to the man.  From that moment on, he is a man who is fully comfortable in his own skin, which allows him to be completely comfortable with Joseph.