The key word is “Person”

 “ . . .our genders and orientations do not define us. We are somehow greater than our sexual identities, but our sexual identities matter.” – John Irving

There are two somewhat different schools of thought about human nature. One says that our nature is set when we come into the world. That which defines us as “human” includes our ability to procreate. Male and female He created us. This “natural law” theory differs from the view that says we have no fixed nature at birth; instead we define ourselves through the choices we make. This “existential” view places the burden and responsibility of our choices squarely on us. Consciously or unconsciously, many people hold such views, so in their eyes if you are gay or bisexual you are either a freak of nature of you are choosing to behave unnaturally. Either way, you’re just not normal.

It has only recently occurred to us that perhaps nature isn’t as monolithic as we would like to think and that these two philosophical views offer us what amounts to a false dilemma.

Author John Irving  has never been one to mince words or avoid controversy (The World According to Garp dealt with sexually “suspect” arrangements, and The Cider House Rules with abortion), and his latest book, In One Person (Simon & Schuster, May 2012) tells the story of Bill Dean (later Abbot) who, from the time of his adolescence, found himself sexually attracted to both men and women. The story begins in the 1950’s when “gay” wasn’t in the vocabulary (at least the way we use it now), but “queer” and “fag” were. People who felt “different” kept it to themselves—for good reason. And many of them loathed themselves. Who would choose to be self-loathing is a question that comes to mind when reading this novel.

At age thirteen, Billy—like most adolescent boys—began to experience sexual longings and the objects of those longings were troubling. Like many of Irving’s characters, Billy has an absent father. His mother, with whom he has a complicated relationship, eventually falls for a younger man (a teacher at the local private boys secondary school) and Billy, to his consternation, develops a crush on his soon-to-be stepfather. This bothers him, but he still relishes the man’s attention and glories in his “crush”. Billy’s family includes his grandfather, Harry, who runs a lumber mill and who sublimates his latent sexual ambiguity by playing women’s’ roles in local theater productions. He is seen throughout the novel either wearing the rough clothes of a lumberman—or his wife’s frilly dresses (“I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay” – apologies to Monty Python).

Billy seems to feel more “normal” when he meets the local librarian, Miss Frost, for whom he develops a deep longing. She is a beautiful, big boned woman who encourages him to read novels of all sorts, and who has the aggravating habit of repeating what people say to her. A habit Billy will emulate for the rest of his life.

It is Miss Frost who will affect Billy most deeply. At the age of 18, he asks Miss Frost about books that will help him deal with his crushes on men, and she gives him a book by James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room, that deals explicitly with men who love other men. Afterward, Miss Frost takes Billy down to the basement (where Grandpa Harry has built a comfortable bedroom so Miss Frost won’t have to leave the library when the weather is bad). There, Billy has one of the most unforgettable sexual experiences of his life—and learns something about Miss Frost that explains why no children ever come to the library.

Billy has other crushes as well, one of the most compelling of them on the star of the school wrestling team, a boy named Kittredge. Kittredge is a cruel young man who never loses a match, and who delights in deviling Billy and Billy’s friend, Elaine (who also has a crush on him). In time, Billy and Elaine develop a close bond, and engage in sex, and their relationship is one of the most stable in his young life. It is Kittredge, however, who impregnates Elaine, causing  her to leave and obtain an abortion. Although Elaine is the daughter of a faculty member, nothing happens to Kittredge. Miss Frost, because of what happened with Billy, was forced to leave. The unfairness of it all begins to work on Billy.

Billy goes on to college and later becomes a writer of “angry” novels about sexual identity and the prejudices against those who are gay, lesbian or transsexual (a word that will eventually be replaced by “transgender). All the while, he engages in multiple relationships with men—and women.

In the 1980s, the “plague” of AIDS takes many of his good friends from school, in particular one young man with whom he spent a summer in Europe and who loved Billy far more than Billy loved him. The scenes of death, with all of their clinical descriptions, are truly heart-rending as one by one young people die in agony. Billy, who began using condoms in 1968 and who was a “top”—as opposed to a “bottom”—in his relationships escapes the plague.

Through it all, Billy is unapologetic about his lifestyle, and by the time he is in his 60s he returns to his New England home where he finds peace with himself as a teacher at the school where he grew up.

Late in life, Billy encounters the son of the wrestler Billy had such a crush on in school, the cruel kid who impregnated Elaine. The boy is angry at life, and at his father—who, as it turned out, was gay. Kittredge’s son speaks from the heart, but with venom—venom that many self-proclaimed “normal” people might use when addressing someone who is—well—different.

“You’re bisexual, aren’t you? Do you think that’s normal, or natural—or sympathetic? You’re a switch-hitter!”

Billy has lived and learned, and replies in the way that his first love, Miss Frost replied to him once when he asked her a similar question.

“My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me—don’t make me a category before you get to know me!”

If you are a person who thinks that people who think of themselves as gay, bisexual, or transgender are all misguided, sinful miscreants and that their demands for legal rights are part of a conspiracy to undermine American society, do not—I repeat—do not read In One Person unless you aren’t afraid to examine the views you hold. You might just be surprised.

The real power of Irving’s 18th novel is its subject matter: it’s a book about human beings.

Where do you grow minds and hearts? The Library, of course!

Image Source: Rochester, Illinois Public Library Summer Reading Program site

Libraries, like newspapers, are being hit hard by modern technology. Public libraries are also frequently back-burnered by municipalities when there are budget shortfalls (and you can argue about the short-sightedness of this all you want to no avail). But, personally (and with apologies to Mark Twain), I think the rumors of the death of the library are greatly exaggerated. Oh, there won’t be as many of them, but they won’t go away entirely. Not everyone cares for iPads or computers, and not everyone can afford them. For libraries to disappear entirely, the majority of people living in a community would have to sacrifice every long-held assumption about what it takes to build character and develop critical thinking. You can point up that even Rome submitted to barbarism, of course, but I don’t think we are anywhere near that point.

According to the American Library Association, summer reading programs developed in urban areas in the 1880s to encourage children who had leisure time to read and grow. I am delighted to see that our local Springfield, Illinois library—like hundreds of other libraries in communities large and small—has big plans for its summer reading program. For more about Lincoln Library’s Reading is So Delicious! Summer program, go to Lincoln Library’s summer reading site.

Springfield, Illinois is far from alone in this. Other Illinois communities, like Rochester, Jerseyville, Elmhurst, and hundreds of others that are lucky enough to have public libraries are planning big things—as are hundreds of other libraries in probably every state in the union.

Parents, it doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor. Encouraging kids to think about the world and their place in it helps to form their character, and there is no better way for them to enter into that world than with books. Encourage their curiosity, encourage them to read, and you will give them a foundation for character building that no material wealth can ever afford or satisfy. I can testify to this, since we had very little growing up but my mother was prescient enough to introduce me to Moby Dick when I was 7 years old. It was a gift that is still giving.  I have her to thank for that, and the Jacksonville Public Library. Take advantage of your summer reading program, wherever you live, if you are lucky enough to have one!

Summer Reading. It’s free. It’s fun. And it can make all the difference in the world to your children, your teens—or yourself!

Testing your inner Miss Marple

Mary Higgins Clark is one of the most successful writers working. At the age of 84, she is still working and is one of Simon and Schuster’s sure bets when it comes to writing books that will sell. She is every writer’s dream.

Her most recent novel, The Lost Years (Simon & Schuster, 2012) was a little hard to get excited about at first, but the more I read the more I found myself enjoying it.

The plot revolves around the murder of a 70 year old archeologist and biblical scholar named Jonathan Lyons, who recently discovered a scroll that may well have been a letter written by Jesus Christ to Joseph of Arimethea. Joseph of Arimethea, you may recall, was the man who allowed Jesus to be buried in his tomb, and who—according to Clark’s storyline—met Jesus when he was a young boy teaching in the temple. When Jonathan’s daughter Mariah—from whom he had been estranged since she discovered he was having an affair with a younger woman—discovers her father dead, she finds her mother, Kathleen, cowering in a closet with a gun in her hand babbling about so much blood. Her mother suffers from Alzheimer’s, and the circumstances aren’t encouraging. Did mom flip out, angry as she was over her husband’s affair, and in a lucid moment blow her husband’s brains out? The cops sure think so. And mom’s looney behavior following the murder doesn’t do much to allay suspicion.

And what of the scroll? Where is it? Mariah soon begins to wonder whether the scroll—which long ago disappeared from the the Vatican library—might be tempting to someone who knew how to find a buyer on the black market. But for the time being, mom is the most likely suspect. Mariah knows better.

There are other possible suspects. Four men, all friends of Jonathan’s with some expertise in the field of archeology, may present with excellent motives. Then there’s mom’s caregiver who, as it turns out, has a criminal record. And as it turns out, Jonathan’s mistress Lily (younger by a score of years) is no saint either. Money is, after all, the root of all evil.

Enter Alvirah and Willy Meehan—the couple who figured on Clark’s The Lottery Winner (Simon & Schuster, 1996)—close friends of the Lyons families. Alvirah is to Clark as Miss Marple was to Agatha Christie, a busybody with a good heart who just can’t stay out of the inquiry into what really happened to their friend. Willy is her indulgent husband who puts up with her eccentricities even to the point of missing the crucial last plays in his favorite televised football games. He doesn’t want to lend the impression that he doesn’t listen to her! He is the perfect understanding husband. As the story progresses, it is incredible to see how cops pander to Alvirah’s whims and suspicions, frequently taking their cues from her and never chewing her out for following suspects around the city to flesh out on her hunches. But as you would expect, she is generally right on target with her deductions.

Mary Higgins Clark: One of the most successful and prolific suspense writers in the business, and with good reason. Source – Mary Higgins Clark’s Web Site

Crime fiction has taken an ugly turn since the 1980s, ever since serial killers became the vogue. The horror and gore that has filled so many novels since then, augmented by a fascination with forensic analysis, has steeped the mystery reader in the horrific so successfully that it takes a while to accustom oneself to a murder mystery that is filled with classy and impeccably civil suspects and victims. A cup of tea is a sine qua non as they ponder the complexities of the case. Most live in the better places in New Jersey or Manhattan, and are people of substance and style. They shop at Bergdorf and have their hair colored by Dale of London.

They are polite and well spoken. One character, when being questioned by the police, states, “After a busy day at my office, I was content to eat quietly by myself, and to forestall your next question, I was alone in my apartment all night.” Another – the killer—later kidnaps Lilly and Mariah, ties them up and takes them to a warehouse. Before he leaves them, he unties them and allows them to go to the bathroom. Then he ties them up again.  What a gentleman.

How many suspects in recent serial killer / forensics analysis novels would even know what “forestall” was – unless it was the first stall in a barn where a racehorse could be found. And when do you remember a killer allowing a woman who was tied up to use the bathroom? In Clark’s world, even the felons are class acts.

There is one thing that bothered me. Clark is an artful plotter, but somehow the linchpin in the whole story—the supposed letter Jesus wrote to Joseph of Arimethea—seems to have precious little significance other than as a motive for murder. We are told at one point that “the entire world would be mesmerized to see this,” but somehow that doesn’t get the juices flowing. When Mariah discloses its existence to Alvirah Meehan, it’s almost as an afterthought. Later, there is a salacious tidbit thrown out about the letter containing DNA (after two thousand years?), and the DNA confirms a doctrine of Clark’s vaunted Roman Catholicism in an intriguing genetic way. But then that gets dropped. Its ultimate disposition is disclosed in the wrap-up, but it just doesn’t seem to have been worth all of the trouble—let alone all of the felonious and oh-so-impolite behavior. It is merely a plot device. Even the purported content of the letter seems innocuous. “Dear Joe, Thanks for being such a good friend,” or words to that effect.  Curious? Maybe. But it’s hardly mesmerizing.

That aside, this is a relaxing mystery that will fill your evenings nicely. It is reminiscent of Agatha Christie in its polite and urbane milieu. It is artfully plotted: almost too artfully. It’s not the best book I have read, nor—I suspect—the most memorable; but it’s a good way to challenge your inner Miss Marple.

Raring (2/5)

Copyright Isaac Morris 2012

A Governor calls for extermination — in the United States?

The history of Joseph Smith and the Mormons has long been of interest to me, ever since my parents and I visited Nauvoo and Carthage, Illinois in the late 60s. Theirs is a story of struggle and faith and violence and courage in the face of adversity. Who are these people? The question is again before us, now that the Republican presidential candidate is himself a prominent Mormon (See my February review of Matthew Bowman’s The Mormon People).

Now comes another contribution to the literature of the Mormon experience that focuses on the years the Mormons spent in Missouri, culminating in what is known as the Mormon War of 1838. The Mormon War – Zion and the Missouri Extermination Order of 1838 ( Westholme Publishing, 2011) was written by Brandon G. Kinney, a Springfield, Missouri attorney whose avocation is history.

Kinney does a couple of interesting things in this book. One, he points up how a lack of communication contributed to a mob mentality. When something occurred in one county, the actual events were mired in confusion as the stories circulated. An exchange of gunfire became a “massacre,” when in fact no one was harmed. Residents ran fearing for their lives. (I’ve often wondered if, had texting been available, people would have been better or worse informed in fear and panic situations!) When actual confrontations did occur, the participants were stoked and ready. Secondly, the newspapers clearly sided with the Mormons, based on similar misinformation. The Mormons were, if Kinney is to be believed, victims–but became victimizers as well, when pushed too far. This is not hard to accept: there were atrocities on both sides of this story. Life is seldom as one-sided as we would like to believe.

Like so many of the books about Mormon history, this reads at times like a Western novel. Kinney describes the battle of Crooked Creek, in which 60 mounted Mormon militia charged downhill into a fusillade from the state militia and eventually, after losing three men, routed the militia (not without committing an atrocity in the process). This ill-advised attack on the state militia unleashed an all-out-war, and added fuel to the fire and resulted in an unprecedented reaction by Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs. Outraged by reports of violence, based largely on misinformation, Boggs issued an executive order calling for the extermination and expulsion of the Mormons.

Kinney makes no bones about the prophet Joseph Smith, Jr., and his bias is evident if well documented. That is the mystery of Joseph Smith; the facts can substantiate a view towards his sainthood or towards his villainy. Smith comes across as a charlatan—or worse. Kinney clearly suggests that Smith may have, in fact, ordered the attempted assassination attempt on Boggs after the Mormons fled to Illinois. This controversy is not new: but Kinney makes it plain that Smith was capable of it.

All in all, this is a worthwhile read—although it has been done before. An allegedly (I have not read it) less biased study appeared in 1987 by Stephen C. LeSueur (The 1838 Mormon War, University of Missouri Press) that was heretofore called definitive. LeSueur is a Mormon, but that does not rule out his ability to provide an objective history. But definitive is as each generation calls it, and both are deserving of a read if we are to continue the great dialogue that history should be.

Rating (3/5)

Copyright Isaac Morris 2012

The Morris Chair

Catherine II of Russia was a woman whose reputation was mired in controversy. Legend has it, or so one my college professors once said, that she was so insatiable that it led to her death. As the story goes, she died when a stallion that had been harnessed to a hoist above her bed snapped the harness and fell on her. Another story was that when she married her young husband, he spent his time in bedroom with her, under the covers, playing with toy soldiers.

The story about the toy soldiers is true. The story about the horse, not true. Like all legends, it has is genesis in fact: she, like the empress Elizabeth before her, enjoyed men. Catherine had at least 12 lovers in her lifetime, and would probably have been diagnosed as promiscuous. But she, like so many fascinating women monarchs, was defined more by strength of…

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A Renaissance Mystery Wrapped in a Medieval Enigma

Author S. J. Parris (a nom de plume for Stephanie Merritt) is new to my acquaintance, and I am very glad to have made it. Her newly released novel, Sacrilege (Doubleday, April 2012) is third in her series of Giordano Bruno mysteries, and so far the only one I have read. That is a state of affairs I plan to remedy as soon as possible.

According to Parris’ web site, she developed a love of history while a student at Cambridge, especially the history of the Renaissance period. In Sacrilege, this love of history is evident not just in the complexly woven plot, but also in the clear descriptions of life in a civilization long on treachery and short on public sanitation. You can almost smell the surroundings she describes and their unwashed denizens.

The Brits love their history, and with good reason. Their history is replete with such luminaries as Thomas Becket, the archbishop who defied a king and who was murdered for his obstinacy; Henry II, the king indirectly responsible for Becket’s murder and the man who instituted the common law; Queen Elizabeth I, the woman who ruled far better than her father and who guided England through its Golden Age; and a young Italian scholar named Giordano Bruno.

Giordano Bruno is, sadly, lost to most history courses, even though his philosophy influenced the thinking of the philosopher Benedict Spinoza, and his cosmology influenced Galileo. Bruno was a brilliant young man who could not long suffer the intellectual strictures of the Dominican Order, left, and began to wander philosophically and literally through Europe. He found favor with the King of France, and for a time served as his envoy to England. At some point, he may have served as a spy for Walsingham.

These are some of the characters and this is the milieu of Sacrilege, a thriller that starts with a cry for Bruno’s help from a woman he once had a dalliance with. She has been accused of murder in the town of Canterbury. The victim: her abusive husband. Bruno, who still has feelings for the woman, is taken in by her story and seeks the approval of his spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, to go to Canterbury to investigate. Walsingham is at first reluctant. However, he is also concerned about plots by Catholics in Canterbury to depose the queen and reinstate the Catholic faith, and feels that Bruno might be able to develop information about such a plot if, in fact, one did exist. Walsingham acquiesces, and Bruno and Sophia Underhill—the wronged wife– set off on their journey to clear her name and find the real murderer of her husband.

S. J. Parris (from her web site)

Once there, Bruno renews his pursuit of Sophia and this time he finds his attentions warmly reciprocated. Or hotly reciprocated, rather. He also uncovers a plot on the part of some of the town canons and burghers to aid the invasion of England by the King of Spain and to unite Catholic insurgents by restoring the lost relics of Thomas Becket, which were supposedly destroyed by Henry VIII. The investigation also connects the abduction and brutal murders of young boys from the town, although Bruno is at a loss to understand how they tie into the plot. The outcome is truly a surprise, as is the identity of the murderer of Sophia’s husband.

The beauty of this plot is that it is constructed on an edifice of accurate history and on real historical controversy: Was Bruno, in fact, a spy of Walsingham’s? Were Becket’s bones destroyed by Henry VIII or did pious monks spirit those bones to safety? If so, could a future restoration of the Catholic faith in England have been one of their motives? As recently as 1988, workers unearthed a corpse that might well have been his. Scholars still disagree, however, and it remains one of history’s mysteries. But to Parris, it is all crystal clear. Parris spins a tight web whose interstices you must pull apart carefully in order to reveal the entire construct.

Historical footnote: In 1600, the Roman Inquisition arrested the real Giordano Bruno because of his various heretical ‘opinions,’ and he died a horrible death by hanging—upside down, gagged, and naked—over the flames that consumed him. The same Cardinal Inquisitor who served as one of his judges, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, later figured in the first trial of Galileo. Pope Pius XI canonized Bellarmine in 1930. The Vatican acknowledged its errors in the treatment of both men some 400 years after their conviction. It’s all better now.

Rating (4/5)

Copyright Isaac Morris 2012