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[personal profile] rachelmanija sent me a package containing among other objects Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy, a Harlequin romance entitled Wedlocked: Banished Sheik, Untouched Queen, and a postcard of le portrait présumé de Gabrielle d'Estrées et de sa soeur la duchesse de Villars, 1594. (Painting link probably NSFW although in irreproachable taste due to its age, because a provenance of several centuries makes most things more respectable.) It's amazing how well this all goes together.

The painting is, actually, a reasonable metaphor for Prince of Tides: over-the-top and trashy, but with surprising artistic technique and critical credibility, and a story that only makes the entire thing multiple magnitudes weirder. This is, you see, the portrait of Gabrielle d'Estrées made to serve as her announcement to her lover, the King of France, that she was pregnant. The child would of course be illegitimate, but royal, so she's holding but not wearing his signet ring. There's a woman in the background making baby clothes.

And she is of course naked in a bathtub with her sister groping her because her sister is demonstrating that she will be very good at feeding babies. No, really. This is a gesture you can see the Virgin Mary making on herself in various paintings when she's suckling Christ. Of course, the reason it is being performed by somebody else and both of them are totally undraped ladies is because when you are the maîtresse déclarée of the King of France you have something of a reputation to keep up, and also he was probably into that.

So it looks like an extremely formal portrait of sixteenth-century lesbian sex, BUT ACTUALLY it's an extremely formal portrait of sixteenth-century vaguely suggested lesbian incest serving as a note to a prospective baby-daddy AND a comparison of the subject to the Virgin Mary.

In a similar way, Prince of Tides looks at first glance as though someone has forcibly chained Tennessee Williams to a writing desk and informed him that he is to write Love Story. It is a fusion of the Southern Gothic with the Big Fat Seventies And Eighties Epic Novel, you know, from the people who brought you Shogun; a book that is meant to keep you more entertained than any other seventeen books by being as long as all of them put together and also by having the entirety of their content, pureed. It has a confusing amount of very good descriptions of food, a prose style that is not merely purple and not merely mauve but pretty much Fauvist, and characters who manage to be interesting enough despite the fact that the narrator is not as funny as he thinks he is and spends a bit too long in every chapter reminding you that his childhood was terrible, which, yes, we got that, a narration of events would have proved that. (I am not going to try to give you any kind of narrative summary of this novel. I told you, it has the content of seventeen novels shoved into it.)

Then you look more closely at it, and you go, this is a book in which an eighty-five-year-old man waterskiing forty miles on a bet to win back his suspended drivers' license is an interlude between the chapters in which melodramatic things happen. This is a book which contains, in its entirety, the text of a highly symbolic pseudonymous children's book written by the narrator's tormented-genius twin sister. This is a book which has not one but two scenes involving the narrator being very good at football which are genuinely emotionally effective, even if one does not know the rules of football (and I don't). THIS IS A BOOK IN WHICH SOMEONE BECOMING A VIOLENT ENVIRONMENTAL TERRORIST IS AN ANTI-CLIMAX BECAUSE THE THINGS THAT HAPPENED BEFORE THAT WERE SO MUCH WEIRDER.

Apparently I am going to spoiler-cut this. Huh. )

I knew about this plot point going in. It was even more spectacularly odd than I had been told to expect. It was also genuinely disturbing, in that way where there is a lot of violence in this book and when you pile violence upon violence after a while you are kind of ready to buy something when it goes THAT FAR over the top. It would be way less disturbing if you could even see the top under your feet, you know? This scene is, by itself, so completely outside the boundaries of all plausibility that it almost makes the entire book emotionally believable.


You see the analogy to the painting? I mean, that painting is so way the hell over the top that it only wound up in the Louvre.

It is true that, to date, of the things [personal profile] rachelmanija sent me, so far only one has had the supreme artistic accolade of having a Barbra Streisand movie made out of it.

It is, however, not too late. She may, after all, still get around to Banished Sheik, Untouched Queen. I can only hope*.

* (Look, I-- actually went through a Barbra Streisand period, as a young teen, where I saw everything I could get hold of containing her about fifty times each (though not this), and I still quite like her. I am one of the three human beings on the planet to have seen On A Clear Day You Can See Forever more than once. Having read this novel, I don't even have to look up what role she played to tell you that she was horribly, horribly, terribly miscast and that the whole thing cannot have ended well. But if she ever were to film that Harlequin romance novel, I would, in fact, see the movie. I thought I should make that clear at some point in here.)
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Review of the book I read Friday, July 15th.

So this parody of John Norman's indescribably horrible Gor books is available online in its entirety, but the author also did a small run of it as a printed book. The cover image can best be described as a terrible Photoshop mashup of Tom of Finland and one of the actual Gor covers. For all I know, that might be precisely what it is. The tagline is "They came to Gor... but not for the women!"

A small percentage of you have now already realized that this is the greatest book that our civilization has as yet produced and have gone out to read it.

The rest of you may still require a little convincing. If you are unfamiliar with John Norman's Gor novels, well. I am told that the first couple, while he still had editors, are readable if you like that sort of thing, in which that sort of thing is books in which mighty-thewed Earthmen go to foreign planets where all of the women are not so secretly masochists. Then he lost the editors and apparently has waxed longer and longer in his attempts to communicate his philosophy, which boils down to men = masters, women = slaves, this = natural order of the universe, Earth = degenerate.

So as you can see it was crying out for a parody.

I attended the reading of portions of this one at Readercon (which is where I got a copy). I think I hurt my ribs laughing. The author assured the audience that he suffered brain damage in the process of composition because he had to mainline the entire Gor series to do it: on behalf of a grateful public, man, thank you.

Allow me to excerpt:

Why was I so afraid? It could not be a fear of death that possessed me, for as a Gorean warrior I gladly faced death, dying being a proper modality for a warrior, this being bred successfully into our genes over millions of years of evolution in which the strongest men died young and in violent ways and so were evolutionarily more successful than weak men, who might flee with the women and survive with them for a long time, fathering many children as a result. No, it could not be a fear of death that had made me flee.

Allow me to excerpt again. Note that the protagonist is in the process of frantically fleeing.

I peered down a side street. As is the right modality of things, many of these streets in Gorean cities do not have proper names, but may be known to those who live in the neighborhood by informal names, such as "the street where the gardener Borin watered his houseplants," "the street where the slave Tiffany wrote a long and pointless description of the naming procedures of small Gorean streets," "the street where you can find the house of the court-martialled private Hoosdrun," and so on. To the chagrin of the reader of any account where small Gorean streets are mentioned, streets are often called different names by different people, so a street may have the name, for example, of "the street where the slave Tiffany wrote a long and pointless description of the naming procedures of small Gorean streets," at one end and a second name at the other end, such as "the street where master Clitoris Vitalis had a bad case of gas," at the other.

I am assured that the long and pointless description of the naming procedures of small Gorean streets by the slave Tiffany actually takes place in a John Norman novel... and that there is also frantic fleeing going on at the time in that.

Of course, as with all humor, you either think this is funny or you don't. If you don't, I can't help you. If you do, hey, there's also a plot, vague gestures in the direction of character development whenever it would be funny, copyediting jokes, and song parodies. (Despite the fact that the official internet host of this work is at, there is no explicit sex or violence.)

And it doesn't overstay its welcome or repeat jokes to the point of non-hilarity, both things it is extremely easy for parodies to do. It is short, consistently original, and will cause you to use the word 'modalities' way, way, way more often; what more can one ask of a book?
rushthatspeaks: (platypus)
The best way to describe the reading experience I had with this book is to say that it resembled what might happen to a perfectly innocent person who does not know much about history while looking up newspaper headlines from 1880s London. Which is to say, there you are researching away, doing nothing particularly ominous, and suddenly all of the scholarship on Jack the Ripper lurches out of its cabinet and starts gnawing on your leg. Up becomes down, dogs and cats start living together, the definitive works on the subject are written by people who do not have a personal interest so much as a personal ideological obsession, and otherwise perfectly rational researchers start yelling at one another "WHAT PART OF PH'NGLUI MGLW'NAFH WGAH'NAGHL CTHULHU FHTAGN DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND?"

Except weirder. This was weirder.

Okay, so. In 1920, the diary of Opal Whiteley was published, first in serial form in Atlantic magazine and then as a book. Opal was born in 1897, and the beginnings of the diary are (possibly, we'll get into that) from 1904 or so. The diary features extensive description of the landscape around her family's home in rural Oregon, and centers around her interactions with the many, many animals she cared for, observed, kept as pets, and gave extremely long classical names. It became very popular very fast, there was something of a media blitz, and Opal, in her twenties, was accused of having written the whole thing at a later age as a hoax. The book then fell out of print.

Benjamin Hoff, author of such works as The Tao of Pooh, picked it up randomly at a library in the 1980s and devoted himself to getting it back into print-- and to insistently debunking the idea that it is anything other than what it claims to be. He wrote a biography of Whiteley as front matter, edited the punctuation and spelling for publication, and attempted repeatedly to see her in the mental institution in England where she had resided since the end of WWII. (He failed at that; the institution kept throwing him out, and she died in 1992.)

The thing is, Benjamin Hoff is not a historian. He also has a rescue complex about Whiteley the size of a moderate skyscraper. Huge chunks of his biography and afterword are insistences that if only people had not been so nasty to her and doubted the diary, she might have written more books. He quotes extensively from sources who agree with him and says nasty things about the ones who don't. He also has a lovely habit of saying things like 'a friend of mine told me this biography would not be popular in feminist circles because it is written by a man'. I don't doubt the factual things he found-- the birth date, the exact geography, the course of her life after the whole diary publication, the photographs he includes. But the picture he gives is one so imbued with his white-knighting that that alone makes me look at it skeptically, and the amount of data he could not locate draws a portrait of a situation that desperately wants painstaking, objective information gathering and analysis from somebody who has no ax to grind.

Which is exactly what it isn't getting at the moment (saith the internet) and hasn't gotten. Why?

Well, because Opal Whiteley was... well. Upon reading her diary, which I did before reading the biographical preface (always read prefaces after the main body; this rule will take you far in life), I got a portrait of an incredibly intelligent little girl who had spent time in France with loving, caring relatives of some variety, who taught her some French, some Catholicism, and a great deal about the history of Europe, focused around names, dates, and the accomplishments of the great. This little girl wound up living in rural Oregon, forbidden to keep up her French, and under the care of an abusive and insensitive mother. Towards the end of the diary, she says that the French relatives were her real parents, that this is part of the reason for her mother's behavior.

The thing is, as far as anyone can tell she was born in Oregon to the people who raised her. Over the course of her later life, she became more and more convinced that she was French and that she was the orphaned daughter of a particular great French naturalist of the late nineteenth century. This is part of what caused people to wonder whether the diary was a hoax: she insisted so repeatedly that her parents weren't her parents. The belief in herself as French does not seem to have done much harm during a couple of decades of popular nature lecturing and travel in obscure regions of India, but by the 1940s she could no longer support herself writing or in any other way, and was institutionalized after the Blitz because she was found starving in her own apartment and incapable of discussing any subject other than French history.

Hoff believes her to have been schizophrenic, a diagnosis also produced by the institution in which she lived. There are therefore the following currently believed theories out there about the diary of Opal Whiteley:

1) she wrote it as a child and is telling the truth about her family situation and was never psychotic, just not able to cope with the logistics of taking care of herself
2) she wrote it in her twenties but ditto ditto
3) she wrote it as a child, revised it in her twenties, and ditto ditto
4) she was delusional from a very young age, which was also when she wrote the diary, and the delusions intensified
5) delusional from young age, wrote it in twenties
6) delusional from young age, revised it in twenties
7) never delusional but actively escaping into a fantasy life and family because of being a bright child in abusive circumstances; see above re: permutations of when she might have written it and whether she had mental problems later
8) the whole thing came to her as a child because of her status as a religious mystic/person with psychic powers no really that is out there.

And you will find people arguing any of those plus debating the various diagnoses she might have had, if any-- some think autism or something else on that spectrum instead of schizophrenia.

MY KINGDOM FOR A GODDAMN REPUTABLE HISTORIAN. (I told you, this is the sort of thing where people start screaming at each other. See how I just did?)

Of course, the whole thing would be infinitely less complicated if it were possible to prove or disprove any of this IN ANY WAY from the text of the diary itself. )


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