My Reading Antlers

Mysterious Skin

Mysterious Skin Reissue Edition by Heim, Scott published by Harper Perennial (2005) - Scott Heim

 

"When I sprinted from the house, I saw the moon, orange, almost electric, stalled between feathery clouds like a helium balloon, ready to burst into a million splinters. Without glasses, the world melted from focus. The house and trees seemed under water. I leaned against a tree and felt its knobby trunk pressing into my skin like a column of bones."

Rating: 5 Stars
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, LGBTQ
Setting: U.S - Midwest
Timeline: 1980's
Official Summary: At the age of eight Brian Lackey is found bleeding under the crawl space of his house, having endured something so traumatic that he cannot remember an entire five–hour period of time. During the following years he slowly recalls details from that night, but these fragments are not enough to explain what happened to him, and he begins to believe that he may have been the victim of an alien encounter. Neil McCormick is fully aware of the events from that summer of 1981. Wise beyond his years, curious about his developing sexuality, Neil found what he perceived to be love and guidance from his baseball coach. Now, ten years later, he is a teenage hustler, a terrorist of sorts, unaware of the dangerous path his life is taking. His recklessness is governed by idealized memories of his coach, memories that unexpectedly change when Brian comes to Neil for help and, ultimately, the truth.

Two words. Soul crushing, just absolutely soul crushing. Life is tragic, it is beautiful and redemptive, yet it was hard to go through the book with any sort of optimism. Once the milk has been spilled, the stain just won't come out. Things are built up, and they fall to pieces. The characters try their best to pull the pieces back together, but in the end, one just has to keep pushing along, surviving and trying to find some joy in the fact that at least they are loved and not completely alone.

 
The prose is beautiful, sparse and to the point yet poetic. The characters themselves are relatable. The story features various points of views all from the different characters as they grow up in Little River or Hutchinson Kansas, but mainly focuses on the lives of Brian Lackey and Neil McCormick, both of who had suffered terrible trauma during childhood and how they deal with and then eventually come to terms with what had happened to them.

Mysterious Skin is probably better known for its movie starring Joseph Gordon Levitt. I have seen the movie, but I don't think I will discuss the differences between the two, they both have their merits. I think, perhaps, the movie is less disturbing just because the scenes in the book are just that much more graphic (whereas they would not actually show the abuse explicitly in the movie). I would not recommend this book to those who are easily offended by sex and violence involving children and teens. However, the book is honest, and these things DO happen and I believe that it is worth reading and acknowledging, even if it is so very painful and heartbreaking.

To play devil's advocate about the cons of the book, at some point, I felt like the minor POVs (Wendy and Eric) served no purpose than to show how awesomely hot and dangerous Neil was. "As I later wrote in my journal, Neil would have 'averted my eye from an uncapped grenade'". Now imagine this... almost all the time. At some point, I felt that all the other characters besides Neil and Brian sort of existed for the sole purpose of illustrating a more objective view of them. That's not to say that the minor characters aren't painted vividly, because they are, but they didn't seem particularly important and could've really been replaced by anyone and it wouldn't have made much of a difference. It was also a bit more than suited my tastes with the self-wallowing.

All of the characters are looking to escape. You can be Deborah or her father who literally moves away, or like Wendy and Eric who fantasizes about being saved from monotony with their morbid fantasies of murder and mayhem, or you can be Neil, who separates himself from others by lashing out on them, or like Brian, who, instead of facing the troubles in front of him, prefers to look towards the sky for glimpses of the extraterrestrial. Mysterious Skin is a book about a small suburb in the middle of nowhere and how all the characters feel trapped. It is a story about growing up, and how rarely one ever does it gracefully, but with a sort of violence that leaves one with a sense of vertigo.

The protection of innocence and its theft is what some people would consider the transitional point between child and adult. You are no longer a child if you are corrupted, yet, that is hardly the case since no one in the story gives off the feeling of being a responsible adults. The adults in the story struggle to raise their children while their own personal lives come crashing down like a vase into a thousand tiny pieces. They are child molesters, rapists, lonely men who slowly drive by parks looking for prostitutes are examples of those on the more degenerate side, and at best, they are too busy wrestling with their own problems to do anything about the problems of others. And if they are not blind to the problems of their children, they can do little about it except watch them grow up as one would an inevitable train crash. Brian's mother is as close to a responsible adult as one gets in the story, bless her soul.

Needless to say, it is a depressing story. Prepare to suffer.

Anyway, enough of about the book. I went and googled "pedophilia" (hope the cops don't bust through my door and arrest me, I swear it's just for this review), but I came across some interesting discoveries that I'm sure everyone else already knew and I'm the only one who is late to the party.

According to WebMD, a pedophile is: "a person who has a sustained sexual orientation toward children, generally aged 13 or younger. Not all pedophiles are child molesters (or vice versa). Child molesters are defined by their acts; pedophiles are defined by their desires. Some pedophiles refrain from sexually approaching any child for their entire lives." But it's not clear how common that is.

Pedophilia has been categorized as a mental disorder since 1968. I find it sort of odd that they would say it is both a mental disease and a sexual orientation. I'm not trying to defend pedophilia or anything, but not that long ago, homosexuality was considered a disease as well... hm, some food for thought. I'm definitely not venturing into that territory since that opens up a whole can of worms and I don't want to be caught with my foot in my mouth. At the moment, I kind of view pedophilia as a mental disease a bit like an antisocial personality disorder. It's not something that one can help, and it is detrimental to others living in society. There is no cure, but there is therapy that makes it manageable.
So all of this talk about traumatized children, destroyed childhoods, and sexual predators begs the question of how early is too early to talk about sex with your children. Personally, I think it is never too early to talk about sex. If a child can ask about it, then a parent/guardian should be able to answer it. Knowing too much is definitely better than knowing too little. There are concerns by parents that by teaching their children about sex, they will immediately start bopping like bunnies. Well, sure, generally that happens when sex is FIRST taught to children by the media and pornography (think Neil McCormick whose first exposure to sex is porno mags and watching his mother and her boyfriend), which does nothing but glamorize sex while ignoring all the responsibilities and precautions that are necessary when it comes to connecting so intimately with another human being. In pornography, vulnerability is an act, and a fantasy that doesn't actually exist. All porn stars look pretty damn confident in themselves as well as movie actors/actresses who are having sex for the first time (pan slowly away to the full moon out the window as the bodies fall slowly to the bed).

That's why I believe it is important to teach your child about sex before something or someone else does. I for one, would not want my child to one day be caught by a predator and not know what's going on or that what is happening to him or her is wrong and help should be sought for immediately, or even if it could not be helped, that the child should feel safe enough with talking about what happens in the lower half of a human body to a parental figure without feeling ashamed or dirty. After all, we want to catch that fucker and many of these crimes are not reported until it is much too late.

Wow, I really went off on a moralizing tangent didn't I? Well all in all, I think Mysterious Skin is a fabulous book, but will definitely strike the wrong chords with some people. Read at your own risk.
Source: http://readingantlers.blogspot.com/2014/03/review-mysterious-skin-by-scott-heim.html

Tragic Gay Fatigue by Miranda

Reblogged from The Fangirl:

"It’s tiring. It’s tiring looking through lists of QUILTBAG novels and checking off which ones are about tragic gays or all about being gay and being left with relatively few books to look at. It’s tiring being told (some times by straight authors) that, as a non-straight person, my life must be full of tragedy and oppression.

 

It is that way for a lot of my siblings and I wish it weren’t. But at the same time, we deserve to have stories that inspire hope in us too, don’t we? We deserve to have stories where kids just like us go on grand adventures and save the day and don’t die just because they’re gay. We don’t need fictional reminders that our lives suck; we get real life reminders of that every day."

Another Twilight Fan Fiction Writer Sells Out (Leisa Rayven aka KiyaRayven)

From PW announcement:

 

Rose Hilliard at St. Martin’s Press took world English rights (working in conjunction with Macmillan U.K. and Macmillan Australia) in a three-book deal to an adult series that began as Twilight fan fiction. The original work, called the Diva Diaries, was, according to SMP, downloaded over two million times. The author, Leisa Rayven (who posted the original story as KiyaRayven), is Australian and took the work offline in September 2013. She is now represented by Christina Hogrebe at the Jane Rotrosen Agency, and extensively revised the work before selling it; the first book is now called Bad Romeo, and the second Broken Juliet. The series is told in alternating perspectives, with each book narrated by one member of a Hollywood couple: she’s the “it girl” and he’s a “bad boy actor.” The duo’s relationship dates back to high school, when they met playing the leads in their class production of Romeo & Juliet. Bad Romeo has BDSM elements, but, explained Hilliard, features a “sweeter” love story than the one in that other erotic series that began as Twilight fan fiction (ahem, Fifty Shades of Grey); Bad Romeo is scheduled for early 2015.

 

Fanfiction can be read here: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/5782299/1/The-Diva-Diaries

 

 

 

Source: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/book-deals/article/61255-book-deals-week-of-march-3-2014.html

Empress Orchid by Anchee Min


"The years inside the Forbidden City had formed a shell over her and the shell had hardened. Historians would describe her as cruel and heartless. Her iron will was said to have carried her through one crisis after another."


Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: China
Timeline: Qing Dynasty (Mid to Late 1800's)
Summary: A compelling story about the humble beginnings of Orchid, (also known as Empress Dowager CiXi) who eventually becomes the last empress of China.

For the most part I thoroughly enjoyed reading Empress Orchid. I've been meaning to read more of works after reading her memoir Red Azalea several years ago. The first part of the novel mainly focuses upon the traditions and dangers of imperial court life and the budding romance between Orchid and the Emperor. One can't help but root for our heroine as she stumbles into her own actualized Peking Opera from her impoverished beginnings in the countryside. The story itself starts off with her being unable to pay workers to carry her father's coffin to his burial ground, already framing the story in a sort of tragedy. A rags to riches story, Orchid comes from having nothing to all to everything she could need, and then more than she can handle.

The reason why I am always a little dubious about reading novels set during this time is because you know that there are no happy endings, but I suppose that's historical fiction for you--you sort of have a general idea of how it's all going to fall apart. Already during that time period you have civil unrest, invasions, widespread famine, and of course, the infamous Opium Wars part one and two. From dodging potential assassinations and executions to keeping China afloat by pleading her partially hysterical husband to do something about it, she certainly has her work cut out for her. All in all, the novel is an entertaining read. The prose flows well and you become really invested in the characters, even if you disagree with them at times, or find them a bit overdramatic.

One thing that I greatly appreciated about this novel were the glimpses into the lives of eunuchs. Honestly, instead of reading about more concubines, I would love to read a story from the perspective of a eunuch living in the palace. Although the theme of the novel does take a feminist slant, it also briefly expounds upon what it means to be a castrated male living in a world populated by thousands of female concubines. Seriously.

Anyway, like I said before, I always feel a little uneasy reading these kinds of novels about China. The reason for China's downfall, as historians have pointed out, is how they increasingly withdrew from the rest of the world. They thought their way of life was infallible. A few words about tradition. Confucius, for those of you who aren't familiar, was all about tradition. Tradition was what kept society functioning. If you don't know your place in the world or what you were supposed to do, then there would be mass chaos and confusion. Sometimes the tradition seems inhibiting and overcomplicated, but it was all about putting order to the chaos. Confucius was an incredibly well-learned scholar (a bit like Su Shun in the novel) and drew from the vast history of China all the things that worked and put them all in a pot of adhesive that would mend the fractured country. For awhile, this adherence to tradition worked. It was so effective that the invading Manchu who took over kept it and adopted Chinese language and customs.

Anchee Min does a great job portraying how that tradition becomes China's undoing, but how it is necessary to give hope to the people. It is the distance that the wealth creates that gives the peasants, whose lives are pretty miserable during this time period, something to look up to, "He emphasized that I was not to express my feelings. I must not remind people that I was as ordinary as they were". Life for Orchid had become like the Peking operas she so dearly loves. This sort of stubborn tenacity to cling to customs is persistent throughout the whole novel. When Orchid is advising her sister about the pain of a loveless marriage, she replies, "If it is the way things have been for hundreds of years, I don't see why I should be the one to have problems."

For anyone who wants to really wants a basic understanding of Chinese culture and where they were coming from right before the era of the People's Republic, Empress Orchid, is a very good read. It gives you a general idea of what it was like during the Qing dynasty. What it means to be nobility, what it means to be in power, what it means to be a woman in power, are all themes explored in the novel. It is a fascinating story about a woman who has to bend like a river through all the obstacles in order to do what she feels is necessary for the collapse of what was once a great and powerful nation.

So why did it collapse? There are some remarks in the novel itself. The Manchu officials had become lazy and corrupt because of their privilege, and corruption was unattended to. There was a lot of problems with policy, and of course, China, believing themselves to be invincible due to being favored by God, didn't feel the need to strengthen their armies. I believe that during one of my history classes, it was said that China once had one of the most powerful naval fleets, but it was greatly weakened because there was thought to be no need for it. Well... obviously that didn't turn out to be a good idea.

Now onto the factual accuracy of the novel. All in all, it is an interpretation of events and should be taken with a grain of salt. However, I'm not a historian so I cannot point out what is true or what is false. There is a disclaimer from Anchee Min herself about it. "All the characters in the book are based on real people. I tried my best to keep the events the way they were in history. I translated the decrees, edicts and poems from the original documents. Whenever there were differences in interpretation, I based my judgement on my research and overall perspective."

My quick glance at wikipedia tells me that Empress Cixi was actually considered a despot who ruined China, but if you read the novel and look at dates, you'll see that China was already in the decline before Orchid had even entered the palace. She was blamed for a lot of things that had already been taking place before her reign. I can't really comment on the truth of the matter, but I did see an article by Julia Lovell from The Guardian.

Cixi, the last empress of China from 1856 to 1908, is one of those historical figures people love to be nasty about. Soon after her death, Edmund Blackhouse, a charlatan foreign correspondent, forged Chinese court documents portraying her as a psychopathic nymphomaniac; ever since, Cixi's many western biographers have gleefully wallowed in allegations of her badness: her extravagance (she splurged the fund for modernising the navy on a marble pleasure boat), her conservatism (she crushed the westernising reform movement of 1898), her ruthless disposal of inconvenient political opponents (including her nephew, whom she placed under house arrest for a decade and perhaps poisoned). This very partial version of events swallows whole the Confucian Chinese male view of history, which, wherever possible, deflects blame for monumental historical catastrophes - such as the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 - on to women.

But the tide of opinion now seems to be turning for the last empress. Last year, Chinese television aired a hit drama series about the last years of the Qing dynasty, in which viewers were flabbergasted to see Cixi portrayed as "a nice person". (Deeply perturbed, China's rulers - all of them men - soon weighed in to criticise the show's historical heresies.) Empress Orchid is a further, feminist step on the road to her rehabilitation. Written by a woman, narrated by Cixi herself, the novel turns the last empress into a dignified, discreet sovereign, holding her country together in the face of foreign invasion, dissolute emperors and scheming courtiers.

So with that, my conclusion is that Empress Orchid is definitely worth reading. The book won the 2006 nominee for the Richard and Judy Best Read of the Year Award, and is generally praised by critics and reviewers. I enjoyed the book and look forward to the second part of the series

 

Crossposted at book blog: http://readingantlers.blogspot.com/