Sunday, September 3, 2017

Lolita: A Review



Nabokov, V. (1955) Lolita.  Everyman's Library, Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

In the popular mind, 'Lolita' brings an image of a teenage temptress, in turns innocent and erotic, who lures older men into fits of sexual desire and ravenous pleasure.  That, however, is not just a myth but completely at odds with how Vladimir Nabokov wrote of the original 'nymphet' in his still shocking, still scandalous, still brilliant Lolita.  The Lolita in Nabokov's novel is no alluring vixen, but a mouthy, vulgar 12-year-old, far from the sexually eager plaything of lore.  In fact, this Lolita, far from desiring sex, is a victim of sex in so many forms.

A good way to scandalize readers and audiences, I've learned, is to talk about sex, particularly sex that people won't talk about openly.  Kate Chopin did that with The Awakening, where she wrote openly of a woman rebelling against the conventions of her time and not finding guilt over an extramarital tryst (though she did have her protagonist kill herself).  Unlike Chopin, whom I think didn't intend to shock and scandalize America with her tale of a wife and mother finding 'the woman within', Nabokov opted to touch on perhaps the most taboo subject revolving around sex: pedophilia.  Lolita still scandalizes with its tale of erotic desire for a nymphet, and looking at it now, Lolita still says something to us about how people can rationalize the irrational, and how desire still drives people into all sorts of behavior.

Under the guise of a memoir/confession, Lolita is told in the first-person by someone who uses the pseudonym 'Humbert Humbert'.  He is awaiting trial for murder, the motive being the one he describes with one of the most famous opening lines in literature:

"Lolita.  Light of my life, fire of my loins.  My sin, my soul.  Lolita".

Humbert is from a well-to-do European family whose first true sexual adventures involved a girl of similar age, Annabel Leigh (evoking Edgar Allen Poe's poem, with our dear drunk horror-meister also a fan of these teenage vixens).   Since then, Humbert has had an attraction to young girls between 9 and 14, but not any and every girl that age, what we now call 'tweens'.

Instead, it is a specific type of tween, those he calls 'nymphets', who have a specific nature to them that makes them nymph-like, only in younger bodies. They have a certain quality, a certain maturity to them, emotional if not completely physical, though their bodies can drive Humbert to desire.  These nymphets are what inspire desire within Humbert, so he is not someone who believes himself to be a pedophile, who just wants any young girl.

After coming to America, Humbert has quite by chance stumbled upon his ideal nymphet: Dolores Haze, daughter of Charlotte Haze, who has a room to let.  Charlotte has little love for her 'Lo', but Humbert has nothing but erotic love for his 'Lolita'.  He agrees to rent the room, and soon starts bonding with the Haze family, in particular the little girl, who is also called Dolly.


Humbert struggles with his desire for Lolita, but he gets a big surprise when Charlotte takes her willful daughter to summer camp.  Charlotte writes and leaves Humbert a letter, confessing she is in love with him.  She also issues an ultimatum: either he too must tell her he loves Charlotte or leave the Haze house.

In desperation, Humbert Humbert marries Charlotte Haze to stay close to his precious, precocious nymphet.  Humbert works against Charlotte's plans to send Dolly off to boarding school so that Charlotte and Humbert can be together.  He begins to plan and fantasize of murdering Charlotte so that he and Lolita can be together, but then comes a shocking revelation that threatens Humbert.

Charlotte uncovers and reads the secret diary Humbert has kept, one that reveals not only his contempt for Charlotte but his erotic fixation for Dolores.  In shock and enraged, Charlotte runs out of the house after confronting him, telling him that he will be exposed for the psycho that he is.  Fortunately for Humbert, in her rush Charlotte is hit by a car and killed, the incriminating evidence quickly picked up by Humbert.

Humbert picks Dolores up from camp and at first tells her Charlotte is in the hospital.  However, he now has her in his grasps.  He thinks of seducing Lolita by drugging her, but in the end, 12-year-old Lolita seduces middle-aged Humbert Humbert into being sexual.

At least, that's HIS story.


Now that they are lovers, and Humbert can fulfill all his desires on his Lolita, they begin an odyssey across America, where their relationship becomes more twisted.  He in turns threatens and entices Lolita with either an orphanage or pretty clothes, all to be had if she gives in to his 'pleasures of the flesh'.  Eventually, they settle down in a small town where he teaches, but she is still the source of all his obsession.

He soon suspects that someone is after them, and his suspicious prove true.  At one point, Dolores is hospitalized, and Humbert learns to his horror that she has been spirited away by her 'uncle'.  Despondent about losing his 'light of his life, fire of his loins', he wanders through life, always attempting to find his beloved Lolita.

Time passes, and he is contacted by a now-17-year old Dolores, who is married and expecting a child.  She is asking for money.  He begs her to come away with him, but she declines.  Still obsessed over who had his beloved Lolita, she eventually reveals it was Clare Quilty, a famous playwright who spirited her away to his own pleasure palace.  That didn't go well, and now he goes and kills him.  It's rather pathetic since Quilty, high on something, is oblivious to a lot of what's going on and appears to barely remember Lolita.

We know in a prologue that in the end, Humbert dies shortly before his trial for murder, and that Dolores dies in childbirth, with her own child a stillborn.



Not exactly the stuff of highly charged erotica.

It seems interesting to me that the image of 'Lolita' and the reality of Dolores do not match in any way.  Again, people who hear about a 'Lolita' see a teen who is erotic, who wants sex, who wants to seduce, who is eager and willing to bring sexuality into the life of an older man.

Dolores herself, despite Humbert's insistence, did not.

What we have to remember about Lolita is that Humbert Humbert is probably the most unreliable narrator in literature.  I don't think anything he says can be trusted, and his beliefs about both the sexual desires of Dolores and her willingness to be his tween mistress are not to be trusted.

Only rarely in his 'confession' does Humbert ever open the suggestion that Dolores was what she actually was: raped, abused, molested, call it what you will.  At one point, he talks about how once in bed, he heard Dolores sob.  Those sobs, I think, were not tears of joy, but of hurt, pain, sadness.

Dolores is not Lolita.

Lolita is the image Humbert has, the fantasy of his 'nymphet', that object of desire.  She is the fulfillment of his perverse sexual desires, how Humbert rationalizes his monstrous acts.  His 'Lolita' can be that temptress, that girl who enjoys his company.

Dolores is a twelve-year-old girl who finds herself without her mother and in the possession of a man who does not love her but who just wants her.  There is a wide chasm between love and desire.  Dolores is trapped, and in no position to argue against the oppression of Humbert.  She has no family, no friends, and worse, as a child she would be more susceptible to believe what she is told about being left in an orphanage.



I think the idea of 'Lolita' as this wanton teen comes from the Stanley Kubrick film of Lolita, which has a teen in the title role.  Sue Lyons' first appearance does not show her as an innocent, but as a vixen.  It makes clear that she is eager for pleasure.  Ever since the film Lolita, I think people think of a 'Lolita' as the temptress that Nabokov did not intend.  The most famous confusion of Lolita the image and Lolita the reality is with Amy Fisher, the so-called 'Long Island Lolita'.  Giving the 17-year-old Fisher this name solidified the notion of 'Lolita' as a sexually adventurous female enticing older men.

It's so unlike Nabokov's Dolores, who in many ways is like most 12-year-olds: sometimes unpleasant, sometimes cheerful, but not openly asking for sex.

Sadly, as a digression I think current society puts too much pressure on children to be more sexually mature.  I remember once eating at a McDonald's where I saw a mother with her children.  The mother was taking pictures of her children, and when it came to the girl, who was around 10 to 12, she told her to do a 'sexy pose'.  I was pretty much appalled at the idea that a grown woman, let alone a mother, would encourage her tween child to 'pose sexy', with the child complying by sticking one hip out and putting one hand behind her head.

Children, teens as well as tweens, now send nude or semi-nude pictures to each other, the so-called 'sexting', to where teens can find themselves as registered sex offenders for 'distributing child pornography' when they are the ones doing the distributing.

Perhaps Nabokov was predicting something in the American obsession with youth and sex.  Humbert's behavior is extreme and dangerous, but with parents dressing their five-year-olds like Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, down to the fishnet stockings, with graphic sex down to actual incest are on display not just in movies but television shows (looking at you, Game of Thrones), where even 'family shows' can be saturated with open discussions of all kinds of sex (from Two and a Half Men to The Fosters), it will not be surprising to eventually find that Lolita might end up being tame compared to how society is now.

 

It's interesting that Nabokov chose 'Dolores' as the name of our central character.  'Dolores' in Spanish is 'pain' or 'hurt', and if you think of the Catholic 'Our Lady of Sorrows' (or 'Nuestra Señora de los Dolores) it can expand what Nabokov was I think saying.  Dolores was the victim of a horrible person.  She too is 'a lady of sorrows'.

'Dolly' also is an interesting name for our character.  She certainly is a 'dolly' to Humbert, a plaything that he can use and eventually discard when he's through playing with this doll.  Humbert may dream of marrying his 'dolly', but he also is aware that at a certain point, these 'nymphets' lose their nymphic qualities and become boring regular women.  It's at that point when people like Humbert turn to younger nymphets to please them.

Nabokov, I think, was showing how men think of women: as playthings, objects to fulfill sexual desires and gratification and not as individuals with rights.  I grant that I may reading too much into that, but the interpretation can be found.

Charlotte, in her own way, is just as obsessive as Humbert, and I wonder if Nabokov was attempting to make a parallel between Charlotte/Humbert and Humbert/Dolores.  Like Humbert, Charlotte wanted him all to herself, with no one else in the world.  Like Humbert, Charlotte was quite willing and ready to get rid of her 'rival', though Humbert fantasized about drowning Charlotte versus Charlotte sending Dolores off to boarding school.

Desire, it seems, drives people to do all sorts of things.

Nabokov is a brilliant writer and shrewd observer.  Humbert's first great love, Annabel Leigh, I figure is meant to evoke that Edgar Allan Poe poem, and also with that the memory that Poe himself married his 13-year-old cousin (predating Jerry Lee Lewis' then-scandalous act).   Nabokov does not shy away from the unsavory elements of the story but at times you do laugh at how Humbert describes America and himself.  I don't think anyone who finishes Lolita comes away not admiring Nabokov's mastery of English prose.

Olivier Sarkozy: 48.
Mary-Kate Olsen: 31
Lolita: French Edition?
If people think that the idea of a Lolita, a pretty young thing that attracts an older person's eye to a culmination of sexual activity with said pretty young thing is far-fetched, even scandalous, I offer examples on both genders.

Men have pursued younger women since time immemorial.  Now, women are getting in on the act too. For some time, 'cougars', women who are sexual relationships with younger men, have enjoyed a renaissance, celebrated and held up as examples to follow.  From Demi Moore to Katie Couric (!), there is a strange fascination with women old enough to be their lovers mother.

Youth, that quality that Humbert Humbert pursued so passionately, is not just for 'dirty old men'.  There is no idea about a 'dirty old woman' as far as I know, but it is hard to not say that sexual desire for a youth, be it nymphet or the male version, a 'faunlet', does not enter into the minds of people.

"My sin, my soul. Tommy".

This idea of what Nabokov would call 'faunlets', the male equivalent of a nymphet is not limited to either women or heterosexual couples either.  The term 'nymphet' caught on, but faunlet didn't.

I think though there is such as thing as a 'faunlet', only they are now referred to as 'twinks'.

A twink is a certain type of male that certain gay men are attracted to.  They are smooth, with little to no body hair (certainly no facial hair), thin, potentially muscular, and most important, young or youthful-looking.  Again and again, we see that Nabokov was on to something when he writes about the sexual desire older people have towards younger people, and by younger I mean more than a decade at a minimum.

Here we have diver Tom Daley, 23, and his spouse, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, 43.  The fact that Mr. Black could, in theory, be Mr. Daley's father may be irrelevant, but it is interesting in that like Humbert, Black appears to have sexual desires for those not of his same generation.

I'm sure Mr. Black would have no problem referring to Mr. Daley as the 'fire of his loins'.

Has Steve found his 'Lolito'?
Not to be outdone, we have a more interesting relationship: that between Stephen Fry and Elliott Spencer.  There is a 30-year age gap between Mr. Fry (60) and Mr. Spencer (30), which would certainly make the former old enough to be the latter's father.  Spencer said he didn't care about the age difference, but it was his comments about his spouse that I found fascinating.

"I don't care what people think.  Stephen is the love of my life, the light of my life."

Apart from my own cynicism about any relationship between two people with such a large age gap regardless of gender being built entirely and solely on love, the terminology used is remarkable.  It's almost as if Spencer is, consciously or not, quoting the famous opening lines of Lolita.

"Lolita.  Light of my life, fire of my loins.  My sin, my soul."

I think that obsession with youth, with the young, with sexual satisfaction and pleasure with the young, is something Lolita brings out into the open.  Granted, the Black/Daley or Fry/Spencer relationships or the Demi Moore/Ashton Kutcher or Sarkozy/Olsen romances are not on the same level as Humbert and 'Lolita', but they too had a sexual attraction for those nymphets and faunlets.

I am much too cynical to imagine that Black, Fry, Moore or Sarkozy and were attracted to just their spouses' minds or their 'spirit'.  They saw the young bodies, the firm bodies, the youthful figures, and desired the pleasures of the flesh.  If that is what they want, it is their affair.  Unlike Lolita, their actions are not criminal.

Questionable, but not criminal.

Still, it does make me think that one aspect of Lolita that isn't touched much on is the worship of youth.  Americans in particular hold youth to be a virtue, and not just in the physical realm.  Senator Kamala Harris tweeted that we should 'give (children) a voice in our government'.  Whether this means giving ten-year-olds the vote or perhaps appointing kindergartners to the SEC the junior Senator from California does not make clear.

More worship of youth.

Movies today are marketed and made for teenage boys and those who think like them, explaining the massive growth of action and comic-book adaptations and endless franchises.

More worship of youth.

Humbert Humbert is an unpleasant character, using his charm and European manners to rationalize his sexual craving for tween girls, Dolores Haze in particular.  Yet, with so many people now encouraging tween girls into being provocative, pushing girls and boys to being more explicit, can one really say that the world of Lolita is not coming?

I found Lolita to be rather sad, so unlike the lurid tale of forbidden sexual pleasure so many hold it to be.  It's not a love story.  It's a tale of obsession, of a man willing to degrade himself for a touch from someone he should not touch.  It's a tale of a girl surviving the best she can, doomed to a tragic life and death because one man would not control himself.  It's a tale of a mother blinded by love and hate who had she lived and not discovered his notebook, given her own child the shaft in order to please herself.

Lolita is a tragedy.  It is a tale of woe, of people driven to horrid acts by their uncontrolled desire, of women used by men for their own temporary wants, and of girls attempting to navigate this sea of horrors.

However, I think another tragedy of Lolita is that it is so misunderstood.  It's not a tale of lurid sex and naked, wanton desire fulfilled.  It's not a tale of a teenage temptress eager to give men sexual pleasure or to receive sexual pleasure from men.

Instead, it is a tale of obsession, of possession, of wickedness rationalized.

Don't go into Lolita thinking you're getting an erotic tale of the young seducing the old.  Lolita instead is the story of how the old can destroy the young.

1899-1977

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Awakening: A Review


Chopin, K. (1899). The Awakening. Herbert S. Stone & Company, New York.

The Awakening scandalized America when it was published and it all but ruined Kate Chopin's reputation.  It was not the quality of the work that shocked the reading public, or perhaps even the subject.  It was the fact that our heroine was not just so open about her various indiscretions and actions, but that she was unapologetic about it.  To readers at the time, Chopin was essentially endorsing and encouraging a sexual and gender revolution.

Having read The Awakening, I don't think Chopin had such lofty ambitions.  I think she just wanted to tell a lush, romantic story about a female: a wife, a mother, discovering 'the woman within'. 

The Awakening is a brilliant book: sensual without being tawdry, a journey into one woman's inner exploration into self, but still bound by the confines of strict Victorian society.

Edna Pontelier is a wife and mother, and that is all she is really: wife to Leonce, mother to Etienne and Raoul.  They take a holiday to Grand Isle in Louisiana, where the family interacts with others also on the island.  Here, Edna becomes friends with Robert Lebrun, a nice, handsome younger man with whom she's bonded.  Robert appears enraptured by Edna, but she does not return his affections beyond that of a friend, possibly a motherly affection at best.

At first.

After returning from Grand Isle, Edna realizes that she has fallen in love with Robert, who has left to seek his fortune in Mexico and to get away from the temptation of Mrs. Pontelier.  Edna soon starts losing her identity as 'wife and mother' and wishes to identify as 'woman'.  Leonce is perplexed by his wife's actions: her withdrawing from society to where she won't make or receive calls as expected, her growing disdain for rearing her children (though she still loves them).

At one point, she becomes so internally enraged that she takes her wedding ring off and slams it on the floor, then stomps on it.  She is finding her world now growing more intolerable and yearns for freedom.

Freedom comes her way when Leonce leaves for business and the children go to their grandmother's plantation.  Edna now feels free to be 'a woman': she moves from her large home to a smaller quarters, takes up painting and sketching, and has a fling with notorious rogue Alcee Arobin. 

Worse, she is unapologetic about carrying on in such fashion.

Eventually, Robert returns and they admit their love to each other, but I don't think they consummate it.  Edna is thrilled, but soon is devastated when he again leaves, knowing it is impossible for her to leave her husband without there being scandal.  Edna, now lost between the confines of society and the desires of her heart and flesh, eventually swims out further and further to see, presumably killing herself.


It's curious that The Awakening caused such an uproar when, if you think about it, Chopin in the end bowed to society's expectations by essentially killing off her main character, by suicide no less.  Had there been any other type of ending: a divorce, Edna murdering Leonce, running off with Robert, running off with Alcee, then I think the scandal would have been justified.

However, Chopin opted for what I thought was a terrible choice: in essence, having her once-independent character kill herself for her 'sins'.  I like to think the ending is a little ambiguous: she just keeps swimming further out to see, but could she not have turned back or have been rescued by a boat?

I figure that's highly unlikely, but there's a part of me that hopes.

Again, given that Edna did 'pay for her sins' by drowning, I would have thought readers back then would have seen in The Awakening a morality lesson about how 'proper women' should behave and what can happen if they go outside acceptable roles for women.  I would have thought it was all very tidy and Victorian.  However, that wasn't what happened.

People focused on Edna's liberation, her desire to be free and as we say now, 'do her own thing'.  The scandal was that she rejected the proper roles a married woman was supposed to have.  She did not want to be a wife and mother.  She wanted to be Edna, a woman in full if you like.  By her rejecting the expected role society placed on her, by her desire to follow her own wishes, wants and desires, therein lies the 'scandal'.

Edna finds herself going through her own version of a midlife crisis: finding in Robert an object of desire, and from that discovery came others about who Edna the person was, not who Edna the wife and mother was supposed to be.



The scandal was that Edna wanted independence.  I wouldn't say she necessarily wanted a divorce or regretted being a mother.  I think she loved her husband and her children, but she wanted something of her own, something that was uniquely, wholly, solely 'Edna'.  If Leonce, perhaps, had encouraged her in exploring her creative side, even taking the children while she had time to herself, perhaps the greater tragedy could have been avoided.

Leonce, however, was like every man back then: one who believed a woman was either a wife, a mother, or not there.  He at one point consults an old doctor about Edna, concerned that she's gone bonkers. 

Chopin shows that Leonce didn't bother asking Edna what ailed her, or that he thought that maybe Edna wanted nothing more than some freedom.  Instead, his horror at her refusing to call on receive calls as she did before, her growing disinterest in keeping up appearances both social and familial, all led him to think something was mentally wrong with her.

The Awakening is a brilliant book.  Chopin, like many a good writer, uses symbolism without being overt about it.  She does this with two characters: Mademoiselle Reisz and Madame Ratignole.  Edna met both at Grand Isle and became friends with them, later becoming the few people Edna would call on back in New Orleans.  Reisz, who expressed herself via her piano regardless of how good or bad she was, was free to do as she wished, unbound by marriage.  Ratignole was perpetually pregnant, and she might be what Edna feared she could be: a mother and nothing more.

The fact that both Reisz and Ratignole were happy as they were because those were their authentic selves is something that Edna, I think, failed to understand.  Reisz was born to be completely independent, Ratignole was born to be a happy mother.  Those aspects of themselves brought them happiness, and Edna I think wanted something in the middle but couldn't balance the two.

Chopin, via Reisz and Ratignole, gives us two sides of a coin, and our main character has to struggle between the two.



We also see the symbolism when Edna, in a rage of pent-up frustration, pulls her wedding ring off and stomps on it.  Here, she is in essence rejecting her identity as 'wife and mother', rejecting the confines she finds herself in, and metaphorically wants out of the confines society places on her.  Edna's rejection of callers, even her change in wardrobe where she stops wearing corsets if memory serves correct also symbolize Edna's rejection of societal expectations and her desire to be free.

Edna, to me, was a real person, one who had a growing realization, an awakening, that her life wasn't just what others defined her as but what she was, who she was.  She starts out as someone who is if not happy at least content within who she thinks she is.  As time goes on, as she looks around her, and as she sees in particular the ardor Robert holds her in, she soon starts questioning her world.  In the end, while that world in effect swallowed her up, she in the interim discovered 'the woman within'.

The Awakening is a title with many meanings.  It was a sexual awakening with Edna's passion for Robert and her tryst with Alcee, representing the man who was available versus the man she loved.  It was a spiritual awakening, with Edna discovering herself. It was an awakening of the soul, the mind, and the body.  Edna now essentially rose as if from sleep, to discover a new world.

Chopin's language is lush, if perhaps a bit florid for my tastes.  However, Chopin has an almost poetic quality to her writing in The Awakening, one that flows like the Mississippi: slow, easy, but without a touch of turbulence.

I don't see why now, The Awakening can be considered scandalous.  Perhaps because Edna is almost brazen about pursuing her own desires at the expense of her marriage and family.  I can see why it was so shocking and scandalous for the time, and even why now, Edna's self-discovery can be seen as tempestuous. 

Truth be told, I wasn't thrilled with the ending: seems rather weak of Edna to kill herself because she couldn't have the man she loved.  It almost felt as if Chopin were caving in to how our heroine could not be allowed to 'get away with it'.  Still, the ending is not completely false: perhaps Edna simply no longer cared about anything now that her raison d'etre was gone.  I always thought it was to conform to society's wishes to punish the 'wanton woman'.  Apparently that wasn't enough for readers at the time, who all but shunned Kate Chopin and The Awakening as a 'dirty book'.

For myself, I thought The Awakening a brilliant book, one that every man and woman should read.


1851-1904

Monday, May 29, 2017

A Couple of Haikus Written By Me

When I went to Mars
I ate a lot of honey.
It burns on my lips.

The stories are true:
Baseball games are much more fun
When it's Hot Dog Night.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

In the Night Kitchen: A Review


Sendak, M. (1970) In the Night Kitchen. Harper Collins.

Maurice Sendak opened a lot of controversy with his children's book, In the Night Kitchen.  The small book finds itself often challenged or banned from libraries.  I had not read In the Night Kitchen as a child so I did not know anything about it.  Now having read it, I don't know what the fuss is all about, both in regards to the controversy and to the praise it has received.

In the Night Kitchen revolves around Mickey, a little boy who hears noises and orders them downstairs to quiet down.  Before he knows it, he floats downwards, losing his pajamas and lands in the night kitchen.  There, three identical chefs, all who look like Oliver Hardy, apparently mistake Mickey for milk and stir him into the morning cake.  Just before they put him in the over, Mickey pops out and says he's not the milk and the milk's not in him. 

Now wearing the batter, he makes a plane out of dough and flies over the Milky Way (a large bottle of milk), where he dives in and pours out the milk for the Hardy Trio's cake (again, losing his covering and appearing nude).  Job done, he shouts out "Cock-a-Doodle-Doo" and floats back up to his bed, with the ending noting that thanks to Mickey, we have cake every morning.



What freaks people out about In the Night Kitchen is the full-frontal nudity of Mickey, who is around five in my estimation.  This child is naked twice in the book, and it isn't just that Mickey's nude.  It's that we can clearly see his genitals.  The sight of a nude child concerns many parents, who fear that this might be offensive, even pornographic.

I can only judge from my own perspective, but I don't see why parents or any other adult would be so horrified at the drawings.

This does not go up to the level of child pornography in any way, shape or form.  Child pornography is when one gets sexual pleasure or gratification from images of or actual intercourse with children.  In the Night Kitchen does not, to my mind, come close to having been created for such a purpose.



From my view, the illustrations of nudity are innocuous and inoffensive.  There have been nude children in art before: primarily images of the Christ Child with Mary where He is undressed, or when we see mythological creatures like Cupid or cherubs who are similarly undressed.



For me, this is a case of the adults putting in their own perspectives, good or bad, into a children's book.  I'm pretty strict about nudity and anything I might think is untoward or indecent, but given that the audience for In the Night Kitchen is children, I don't think many children will even really care.  Boys know what they look like, and maybe girls will ask about what Mickey looks like, but a straightforward "that's what makes a boy a boy" I figure would work.

Ultimately, when it comes to Mickey's nudity, I think it is a case of they read too much into things.



In the Night Kitchen is beautifully illustrated, rich in detail and pleasant to the eye.  Having said that, I thought it wasn't a particularly interesting story.  A somewhat bossy child (he does yell at the beginning) dreams he falls into a special kitchen where cake that is served in the morning is made (with him almost in it) and he pours the milk.

I'm trying to think if I were a child, would I really care all that much about the story itself.  I don't think I would.  I'd love the illustrations, so full of fun and life and whimsy, but for the story?  I know it was all a dream, but why would I care how cake for breakfast was made?

I don't even remember having cake for breakfast, at least on a regular basis.

With regards to the reason In the Night Kitchen is often challenged or banned (Mickey's nudity), I still hold that people read too much into it and put their own ideas about decency into it.  It's a little boy, and while perhaps Sendak could have illustrated it in such as way as to hide Mickey's penis, he opted not to.  I'm not going to begrudge him his artistic choice but I'm not going to label him a pervert either.

I do wonder whether the fact Sendak was openly gay might be behind these allegations of indecency. Gay man, nude boys: too many people reading too much into too little.

It is up to parents to decide what is and isn't appropriate for their children, not other adults either librarians or 'concerned adults'.  It isn't pornographic or meant for arousal.  In the Night Kitchen is really about the beautiful art within it.  I just thought the story was dull, though it might entertain a very small child.

I would not ban or censor In the Night Kitchen, finding it much ado about nothing.  I'd have no problem letting my children read it.  I doubt however, it would be of much interest to them.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady: A Review


Quinn, S. (2016) Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady. Penguin Press, New York.

In the years since the death of Eleanor Roosevelt, all the skeletons appear to have come out of her and her husband President Franklin D. Roosevelt's closet.  Eleanor herself appears to have been forced out of the closet, her sexual persuasion now a subject of debate.  The BIG question surrounding the former First Lady is 'Was Miss Ellie gay?  Was she maybe bisexual?'  Eleanor and Hick cannot answer the question of whether she and her friend/associate Lorena Hickok had a sexual relationship.  There is simply no solid proof of such a thing.

Eleanor and Hick does show that there was a deep, profound, even romantic relationship between Roosevelt and Hickok, but romantic attachments does not always mean sexual relations or even physical desire. One can feel passionate, even romantic about someone without it becoming physical. Eleanor and Hick makes a strong case that without Hickok, Eleanor would not have become the iconic, activist First Lady she became.  

There could not be two women as vastly different as the patrician Eleanor and the hard-scrabble Lorena.  The former was born into wealth and privilege, daughter of one of the oldest New York families and niece of the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt.  The latter was born into squalor, abused by her father and forced out into the world.  Despite their radically different social circumstances, the two were kindred souls.

Eleanor, nicknamed 'Granny' by her own mother for her dour demeanor, was brought up in a pretty chaotic world.  The glamorous Alice Roosevelt looked askance at her daughter and openly called her unattractive.  Eleanor's father Elliott had a very serious drinking problem and while he was devoted to his 'Little Nell', it wasn't enough to save him.  Eleanor's childhood was filled with fine homes but ones full of emptiness and even danger.

Hickok's early years were equally chaotic.  With essentially no parents, she dropped out of school and worked in other people's homes until a distant relative, Aunt Ella, rescued Hick, helping her get an education and eventually a career as a journalist.  It was as a journalist that Hickok and Roosevelt got reacquainted (Hickok having previously interviewed Eleanor when the latter was the spouse of an up-and-coming politician named Franklin); Hickok got a chance to board a train carrying the Roosevelts on a campaign tour and she got an interview.  Despite their differing backgrounds, they immediately bonded.


Hickok was as openly lesbian as one could be in the 1930s, and she fell in love with Eleanor as well as the New Deal the Roosevelts personified.  Knowing that it would be impossible to be impartial, Hick gave up her career as a journalist to be with Roosevelt in both official and unofficial capacities. Eleanor's own private life was not as clear: in her posh French school, Allenswood, many girls were attracted to her in various degrees, from mere infatuation to perhaps sexual desire.  Whether she actually returned the affections is unknown.

For a time, the two were very close companions, bosom buddies if you will.  Again, whether it ever turned sexual, even once, is something Eleanor and Hick does not give a firm affirmative or negative.  Roosevelt did associate with a large group of lesbians, who were a major part of Democratic Party outreach, especially to women.  One of her enterprises, Val-Kill, was a cooperative between Eleanor and a lesbian couple with whom she eventually had a bitter falling out.

Hick encouraged Eleanor to be more assertive, working with her to break out of her shell more and take risks.  It was Hick who suggested that Eleanor use her diaries and letters to her to create what would become Eleanor's daily My Day newspaper column, making Eleanor's voice and views known around the world, for good or ill to FDR (who was too busy with both the business of government and his own wandering eye to be hovering over 'the missus').

Quinn's argument is that Eleanor would not have become the First Lady of the World if not for the help of this squat little woman next to the almost six-foot-tall Eleanor.  Eventually though, whatever passion they felt for each other, be it romantic, sexual, or something in between, faded.  There was still respect, admiration, and affection, but the thrill was gone.  Eleanor had found other people (men, interestingly enough), while Hick found love with another woman.

Eventually, old age caught up with Eleanor Roosevelt, and she died in 1962, revered and admired.  Lorena Hickok died five years later, pretty much forgotten by history, yet in those five years, on Eleanor Roosevelt's birthday, Hick would go to her old companion's grave and leave a tribute: a yellow rose.

The Third Doctor on Doctor Who, Jon Pertwee, observed that there wasn't during his time on the show any hint or suggestion of romance between the Doctor and his Companion.  He was fond of the Companions, Pertwee said, but fondness is different from desire.  I find this to be the case when it comes to a love affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok.  There may have been a love affair between them.  I think there was one.  Yet, does this mean there was a sexual one between them?

There is a difference between affection and attraction.  They are not one and the same.  I believe one can be fond of someone, even feel great emotion for them, without it ever entering the world of physical intimacy.  It may be possible that Eleanor Roosevelt had great passion for Lorena Hickok, finding in her someone to confide in, to free up emotions.  Their letters do indicate something very strong: Eleanor treasuring a ring Hick had given her, reminiscing about their trips together.

One letter even speaks about how Eleanor wanted "to put my arms around you and hold you close".  Read today, they strongly suggest a physical relationship.

So, was Eleanor into a gay life?  Again, no proof has yet confirmed or wholly denied a physical relationship, and my memory of Eleanor and Hick doesn't ever say "Yes, they had sex".  I imagine that for many people, particularly the LGBT community, having someone as prominent as a First Lady be in 'the sewing circle' would be of great symbolic use.

As a side note, these are probably the same people who stretch to find that either President James Buchanan or his successor, Abraham Lincoln, might have been gay based on circumstantial evidence that can be interpreted in certain ways to fit the supposition.

However, on a personal level, I'm disinclined to think that Mrs. Roosevelt did indeed carry on a sexual relationship with Lorena Hickok or with anyone outside Franklin.

There are a few things to consider.  First, Mrs. Roosevelt came from an era where women could be more openly affectionate without there being any suggestion of 'untoward or unnatural' activities.  Second, Eleanor and Franklin had five children together, hardly a suggestion that Eleanor didn't, at least on some level, enjoy heterosexual sex.  There might have been more intimacy between them if not for Franklin's devastating affair with Eleanor's social secretary, Lucy Mercer (later Mrs. Rutherford), which totally broke that part of their life together.  Third, would Eleanor, as old-fashioned in some ways as she was, and who had endured the horror of an unfaithful spouse, herself opt to be unfaithful?

There had been rumors of an affair between herself and a bodyguard,  Earl Miller.  He had a smaller but still influential role in the First Lady's life, showing her how to shoot and making her laugh.  When asked about the possibility of an actual sexual relationship, he answered, "You don't go to bed with someone you call 'Mrs. Roosevelt'".  In her latter years, the Widow Eleanor was also extremely fond of her doctor, David Gurewitsch, with the suggestion she was in love with him.

Whether Eleanor Roosevelt was gay or bisexual is known to only one person, and she isn't giving interviews outside a seance.

If the idea that Eleanor Roosevelt was schtupping a rather frumpy middle-aged woman is the reason one picks up Eleanor and Hick, it would be a sad turn, because the book is not some sordid tabloid gossipy tome.  It is instead, a very interesting read about the relationship between two women, whatever form it took, helping and shaping each other, as well as shaping world history.  One learns quite a bit, such as how influential lesbians were in the Democratic Party of the Roosevelt years.

One also learns about these two very interesting women, who rose from very punishing circumstances to become strong, capable, and historic figures.  That, I would argue, is more interesting than any sexual tidbits about long-dead people.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Crisis of Character: A Review


Byrne, G. (2016) Crisis of Character: A White House Secret Service Officer Discloses His Firsthand Experience With Hillary, Bill, and How the Operate. Center Street, New York.

*Editor's Note: this review is for the audiobook, reading by Brian Troxell.

Bill and Hillary Clinton can be seen two ways, depending on your political persuasion.  They can be seen as a loving couple who have devoted their lives to public service, working towards making the world a better place (that would be the liberal point of view).  They can be seen as a cold, calculating pair interested only in holding on to the power they think is their divine right, enriching themselves in the process (that would be the conservative point of view).  Crisis of Character comes from former Secret Service Agent Gary J. Byrne, who was part of then-President Bill Clinton's protection detail and was ensnared in the tumultuous Starr investigation that nearly brought down his Presidency. 

Those on the Right or Left who might expect a no-holds-barred takedown/monstrous slur of the Clintons may be in for a surprise.  While we do get some disturbing new information about President Clinton's liaison with former intern Monica Lewinsky, Crisis of Character reads more like the unpublished memoirs of MITCH RAPP than a tell-all on the machinations, real or imagined, of the 42th and almost 45th President.

Most of Crisis of Character is really about Byrne himself and his experiences working at the Secret Service and later, the Air Marshall Program.  He talks often about how inept the Secret Service was when kowtowing to political correctness (such as putting physically unfit people in guard positions to fill quotas) or in how their hands were tied due to civilians who thought they knew better (such as when staff to then-candidate Bill Clinton would push the Service to wave in people instead of inspecting them, or when a gay activist visiting the White House became incensed when told he couldn't put gay-themed stickers around the Mansion or the artifacts within them, insisting that 'they had won').

It should be noted that whenever the Service would screw up, or indeed whenever anyone would screw up, Byrne himself was not the person who did the actual screwing up.  When it came to President Bill Clinton's extramarital assignations, Byrne didn't do the screwing either.



Instead, we see that to a point, Crisis of Character actually backs up the former President and First Lady's story: White House intern Monica Lewinsky, not the brightest bulb who if Byrne had had his way wouldn't have ever set foot on the grounds, was a stalker of sorts.  She would go into restricted areas, constantly coming up with weak excuses to be where she knew she shouldn't be (she got lost, she was looking for the restroom, she was visiting a friend, she was dropping things off).  It was an irritant to Byrne and the other agents, but eventually she managed to snare herself a President (and was unaware that she wasn't the only mistress gallivanting about, former Second Daughter Eleanor Mondale getting in on the action too).

The grotesque nature of the liaison (I'm not sure it would qualify as an actual affair) involves having the President's semen not just on that infamous blue dress, but on White House hand-towels that a Navy officer was forced to wash as part of his duties.  This whole thing disgusted our agent, especially given the difference between our Baby Boomer President and the last President from The Greatest Generation, dear Poppa Bush, who was dignity and kindness itself.

We then get the long, sordid saga of the Clinton impeachment, and how it wrecked his life when he got dragged into it.

Apart from this and the assertion that then First Lady Hillary Clinton knew of the liaisons (down to throwing things at the President), Crisis of Character really has little to nothing to do with the Clintons, in particular with how Hillary Clinton plotted for sixteen years to return to power in her own right as the first female President.



Instead, Crisis of Character tells us of the various exploits (both exciting and mundane) that Byrne went through.  I couldn't help think of the late Vince Flynn's most famous character: superspy and super-Patriot MITCH RAPP, a man who is the embodiment of the American Assassin.

Let me digress slightly to say that as much as I liked Flynn personally and found him to be highly talented, I never liked MITCH RAPP (the caps are always because he struck me as a staccato, monotone, monosyllabic person).  MITCH RAPP, in the two novels I read/heard about him, has no personality.  He has no family, no friends, no outside hobbies, no quirks, no sense of humor, no personal foibles, no life apart from kicking ass and killing people, especially if it means going against those in power.

Sure, he might have been motivated by his girlfriend being killed in the Pan Am bombing, but MITCH RAPP, at least the one I encountered, doesn't even appear capable of any human emotion, let alone love.  He doesn't appear to enjoy sports, doesn't read books, binge-watch shows, have any guilty pleasures, laugh at anything...in short, he to me is so cold and unlikable I really have a hard time getting through a MITCH RAPP book.

Listening to Crisis of Character, one feels that Byrne seems himself as a MITCH RAPP-type: tough, take-no-prisoners, at permanent guard, a master at weaponry and hunting down evil beings.  It borders on the comic, and to be honest, I skipped some parts because he went on and on about his various trainings, which might have been interesting if I went into the book wanting to learn that.

I went into the book wanting a reason to not have Madam Clinton be Madam President, why Hillary Clinton was unfit to follow Poppa Bush or even her own husband a la Evita Peron.  What I got was how great Gary Byrne was at his job.

If you want to learn about the machinations of the Clintons (real or imagined) or why she was not fit to have been Commander-in-Chief, skip Crisis of Character



Monday, February 20, 2017

Hope: Entertainer of the Century: A Review


Zoglin, R. (2015) Hope: Entertainer of the Century. Simon & Schuster, New York.

In the nearly fifteen years since his death at age 100, I venture to say that the name Bob Hope is slowly being forgotten.  I'm old enough to remember Bob Hope specials, even his last USO tour during the First Persian War.  If he is remembered, it is with a certain disdain, a relic who was both politically incorrect and politically repulsive to the current leading lights of laughter.  With left-wing comics Bill Maher, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Sarah Silverman, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Will Ferrell, and Jon Stewart ruling comedy, Hope's brazen conservatism is essentially the final nail of the coffin of his reputation as a comedy master. 

Richard Zoglin would have a long argument with you on Hope's legacy and importance.  Hope: Entertainer of the Century is an impeccable biography of the all-around star who found success in every field of entertainment he entered: vaudeville, Broadway, film, radio, and television.  Hope's fortunes (financial) were assured, but his fortunes (career and reputation-wise) faded thanks to a mix of time and Hope's own inability to stay with them.  Hope: Entertainer of the Century covers both Hope's public and private life, one that was filled with sex, ego, and pettiness, but also one that had kindness, generosity, and shrewd management.

Leslie Towns Hope (Zoglin insists that the more traditional "Townes" spelling is wrong, even when Hope did it) was an immigrant, born in England but who was brought along with the rest of his family to join his father in Ohio.  He was a bit of a scrapper, not one for school (Zoglin uncovered that Les, as he preferred to be called, had even done a stint in juvenile correction school), but one who loved his family.

Encouraged by his mother, who loved playing her piano, Les started entering dance competitions and soon built up an act with other partners, who for various reasons, didn't stay long.  Still, Les Hope kept plugging away at showbiz, and soon he was working his way up the various vaudeville circuits, from regional to national.  He also started honing his comedy skills, where it was his quips, not his dancing, that got the attention. 

Already at this point, Zoglin would argue, Hope was creating a new style for comedy, one that didn't depend on what had gone on before in vaudeville (comedy duos, ethnic stereotypes, or standard jokes).  Instead, Hope started doing more topical humor, tailoring quips for the regional audiences.  As a side note, Hope was among the first to not try any ethnic humor, his Midwestern manner being an odd fit to try anything ethnic, though he tried once with such awful results he never ventured into it again.



As his career kept building, Hope indulged his other great passion: women.  He had a secret first marriage, and his marriage to Dolores Reade (born Dolores De Fina) is shrouded in mystery.  Despite a wide-ranging search, no marriage license or wedding photo has ever been found or produced.  Zoglin argues that as a devout Catholic, Dolores would not have 'lived in sin' for long, so the likelihood of a Church-sanctioned wedding must have happened, but when, how, and under what circumstances no one outside Bob and/or Dolores knows.

Hope, for his part, continued his rise in showbiz, and after a failed first attempt finally got into the movies at a relatively old age of 34.  Not a splash at the beginning, it was The Big Broadcast of 1938 that bolted Hope's career: not the movie itself, but its theme, Thanks For the Memory (a title which most people erroneously refer to as Thanks For the Memories), which he lucked into to be his signature song.

Out of his movie success came radio, where Hope became a pioneer: having to create a whole radio show out of whole cloth versus other radio comics like Jack Benny and Burns & Allen, who already had definitive personas.  Hope's humor was also unique in that it was more down-to-earth, more the 'everyman' than a particular type like the cheapskate Benny or cerebral Steve Allen.

Hope managed his career smoothly, open about using writers (whom he wasn't the most generous with and whom he expected to be on call 24/7).  His radio and film career built up, and eventually a "Bob Hope" type emerged: the brave coward, one who appears courageous but turns chicken at first sign of danger, who pursues women but crumbles when he manages to get a response.

This of course was different from Bob Hope in real life, who had no problem getting almost any woman into bed (if it is believed, among his conquests were Ethel Merman and Doris Day, the latter never commenting on this curious liaison).  What Dolores knew, or wanted to know, is also unknown.

The Second World War was Hope's finest hour.  A man who didn't have any great angst, he thrived on the live crowds and threw himself into entertaining the troops (having done a wide variety of charity events for years prior).  Hope was undeterred, crisscrossing Europe and Asia to find an audience (even if sometimes troops would rather get home than get Hope).

After the war, things slowly changed, but Hope didn't.  He didn't become an ideologue until the Nixon years, and his support of both Nixon and the Vietnam War, along with his mocking of the youth movement in his various USO and television specials, began to sour larger groups of audiences.  His film career began to fade, and his specials became the like man himself: more rigid, more scripted, more cautious, and finally a sad parody.


Bob Hope ruled NBC, with only Johnny Carson being anywhere near his equal.  However, whenever Hope wanted to promote something, Carson had to give him time on The Tonight Show.  Carson, more withdrawn and moody, didn't gel with the generally bon vivant Hope, and Carson hated how scripted their 'spontaneous encounters were', to where if Carson skipped a question Hope would answer it anyway.

Bob Hope, once nicknamed 'Rapid Robert' for his quick-fire monologues, would not give up the limelight.  As he entered his 90s, he stubbornly insisted on doing his TV specials, where it was getting harder and harder to hide his advancing age, poor eyesight, and hearing difficulties.  Hope, to the end, wanted to be the center of attention, even if it was accidental.  When Dolores, who had given up her singing career to be Mrs. Bob Hope (and where despite the ability to Bob would not put her in his specials until very late in his career), made a 'comeback', Hope's hearing caused him to virtually shout when she sang.  Even worse, he would loudly order Dolores to stop being romantic with him after her set.

Given that at least until his 60s or 80s (I can't remember which), he had no problem being romantic with other women, it seems all so unfair.

In the end, after meeting his goal of living to 100, he died a couple of months later in 2003.  By that time, Bob Hope might have been an institution, but one that fewer and fewer remembered (his death merited one page in Time Magazine, but that of 'third-best Beatle' George Harrison got the cover).  Zoglin argues that Bob Hope had simply lingered too long: the prepared obituary for The New York Times had been sitting there so long that the author of the obituary himself had been dead three years).

I figure that many people nowadays do not know who Bob Hope is, or why he matters.  Zoglin's brilliant biography brings Hope back to life, showing us both his comedic brilliance and the hard, sometimes unfeeling man he was.

I say sometimes because Hope was more complex than 'selfish comic'.  Hope could be unpleasant (such as an early stunt where he would make paper planes out of his writer's paychecks and send them floating down, a practice he quickly dropped once it made the rounds).  He had no qualms about not just seeing other women on the side but forcing others to be party to such antics (in one incident Zoglin compared to a real-life The Apartment, he cajoled a young writer to let him have the key to his apartment for an assignation, leaving at the arranged time). 

However, Zoglin tells a story that reveals another side of Bob Hope.  Hope, unlike other stars then and now,  would reply to almost all his fan mail, adding personal touches, particularly whenever a soldier or his/her family were involved.  In 1967, as the Vietnam War escalated (and Hope's popularity diminished), he got a letter from a friend of a seven-year-old girl he had posed with for a cystic fibrosis campaign.  The letter detailed that she was dying and that if he could write to her it would mean so much. 

Bob Hope replied, and not just with a form letter, but with a brief note that even threw in some humor at his expense (opening with, "Remember me?").

Hope was complex and complicated, at times self-centered, even vain.  He was also, Zoglin would insist, a true genius: not just in comedy, but in the art of career management.  He set up Hope Enterprises to further his career, always venturing into new media when given the chance (he didn't run away from television when others were terrified of it).  He invested wisely in real estate (though bristling at reports of exactly how wealthy he was).  He brought an intimacy between himself and his audiences that made him appear approachable, even if he wasn't.

For all the disdain Colbert, Maher, Silverman et al may have towards Hope's politics, there would be none of them if not for Hope.  He set the standard of the modern late-night talk show: the monologue, the skits, those were all from Hope.

Bob Hope should not be forgotten or relegated to a small place in comic history.  Apart from Woody Allen, no major comedian/comedienne mentions Bob Hope.  With Hope: Entertainer of the Century, Richard Zoglin gives us the whole Hope: brilliant, petty, easy-going and difficult.  Bob Hope was a true comedic genius.

With luck, Hope: Entertainer of the Century will spark a revival to restore him to his rightful place in comedy.

Bob, Thanks For the Memory...

1903-2003