Book review: Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory

This was one of those books the library had on display. It is newly out and popular, so I was lucky to get a copy to check out. Being a student of history, I’ve been familiar with the general activities that led up to the British evacuation at Dunkirk, but I’ve always been starved for details. How did the British manage to get all those men out? How many made it? What about the French? Why wasn’t the German army able to stop them? Did the small boats really help all that much? This book is well-researched and does a great job of answering those questions. It also, importantly, introduces the politics–domestic and military–that maneuvered Britain into the situation in the first place. Along the way, Michael Korda weaves a compelling narrative with a information-rich but eminently readable style.

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Book Review: Charlotte Shane’s N.B.

This is certainly the most challenging review I’ve undertaken. Charlotte Shane’s book is not like any other I’ve read. This was a kickstarter project to publish the collection of her blog of the same name. She says of this effort: “I was lonely and isolated, so I wrote a lot.” But that is not what makes it difficult to review. There are two issues that make this a challenge for this reviewer (after the TL;DR).

TL:DR

In the first two thirds of the book, Shane presents her early and middle years doing sex work and it is a harrowing tale that would give any father nightmares. She depicts extreme sexual positions, pain, discomfort, and sexual torture with an air of sometimes wounded but defiant bravado. In the last third, she is in more control, yet still occasionally takes johns she shouldn’t – just to prove she can control them. Control is a big theme in this work; for example, she doesn’t like pain, but takes on as a sub in order to test herself.

The writing is episodic and, early on, often very disjointed with few clues as to setting and participants. Later, it is still episodic, but more context is given and becomes more reflective, though there is no overall theme to pull the book together. It does, however, depict in brutal honesty the trade of high-priced escort. Money, sex, saps who fall for her, the clients she falls for, kindness, degradation, glamour and adventure. Other themes are big cocks, sex, shared intimacy, pain, pride in her job, loneliness, depression (never explicit, but implicit in some entries), men who think she’s beautiful, but no, she isn’t. It gets a bit repetitious with certain themes (such as that last one) yet there is no closure; the sturm und drang is open-ended, a memoir-in-progress. The last bit (Volume II) is a series of vignettes, with more attention to construction, presentation and setting,  yet not related in time or theme.

If the Boltons were real, Shane would be their huckleberry

Paper books, paper notes, no search...annoying!
Paper books, paper notes, no search…annoying!

The first difficulty in review is that this book is so raw. Shane is sometimes compared to Anaïs Nin, but I wouldn’t put this work in the same category. Yes, Nin brought us as close as her hand-mirror; she shared vast ranges of emotion (often contradicting) and deep thinking on art and psychology. She even shared the physical pain of her miscarriage. But Nin heavily edited her Diaries and even applied editorial awareness in the Journal of Love. She knew that at some point, even the unexpurgated diaries would be read, and Nin’s motivation was literary. Although there are some explicit love scenes, they aren’t the focus.  Nin conveyed that her sex was pursued in the context of love and intellectual curiosity, and in that curiosity and investigation, she weaves an overarching story.

Shane is a different animal, and she presents a problem for the reviewer, in that the content is unrelentingly revealing. I have hundreds of quotes I’d love to use (see photo) but it would be patently voyeuristic to use most of them. I feel many are statements that are Shane’s and only Shane’s to share, so I’ll quote the barest few to convey what this book is like.

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Book Review: Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

Note to the reader: this is a review of an adult book, and there are rude words and adult topics. If you think you might be offended by this, please visit the bunnies sub-Reddit.

I continue my reading of women writers with Erica Jong. I picked Jong for a couple reasons. One, I knew she wrote about the human condition from a woman’s point of view. She’d be helpful to me in depicting realistic female characters — especially ones who are in conflict with their society. Also, I’d picked up this book years back when I was working and, reading part of it, found it accessible and fun. I always wanted to read the whole thing. Coming after Nin, Jong was in many ways a continuum: very psychological, presents a character who is steeped in psychoanalysis and surrounded by psychoanalysts, facing an essential duality, and who is preoccupied with sexual fulfillment. D. H. Lawrence is a major figure in both works as well, oddly enough.

Compared to Anais Nin, I found Jong an easier read. In contrast to Nin, this is not a journal, but a fictional memoir, a vehicle for Jong to explore her own passage into fully-realized adulthood. Whereas Nin was a predator, like a tiger-cum-tasmanian devil rampaging through the jungle (well, France) like a trucker at an all-you-can-eat buffet, Jong’s protagonist Isadora is more of a furry little woodland animal that, knowing where her burrow is, and how cozy it might be, is driven to search out new climes. Isadora’s is a circular story: she starts with husband Bennett, goes on an excursion with another man, exploring her past along the way, is dropped off and abandoned, hits rock bottom and climbs out, finding completion as a fully actualized adult, back with her husband. Nin’s Diary is by definition a slice of life, with growth along the way, for sure, but no closure.

Another difference is that Nin had as many quotable lines on a page as Jong has in a chapter. That’s not a slight on Jong, she has some trenchant quotes, such as “Never fuck a psychoanalyst is my advice to all you young things out there” and, regarding her husband’s silent approach to sex: “How did I know that a few years later, I’d feel like I was fucking Helen Keller?” (p. 30). And, of course, it was in this book she introduced the ‘zipless fuck,’ a classic Jong-ism which entered the mainstream in the seventies. But Jong’s book is a narrative, she tells a tale, more so than Nin, who analyzed every moment of her life in her journals.

In addition to her disarming frankness, Jong has a wonderful sense of pathos, and weaves it with black humor. Entranced by the ashing Adrian, who grabs her butt, the lonely, unfulfilled and Jewish Isadora writes “All I wanted was for him to press my ass again. I would have followed him anywhere. Dachau, Auschwitz, anywhere” (p. 24).

And there is the lyrical Jong. Like her protagonist, Isadora, Jong was a poet, and now and then she really lets loose, often delivering sensitive subjects with both resounding frankness and lyricism, often mixing the raw and the delicate in the same passage. She introduces the essence of Isadora’s disaffection thus:

But what about all those other longings which after a while marriage did nothing to appease? The restlessness, the hunger, the thump in the gut, the thump in the cunt, the longing to be filled up, to be fucked through every hole, the yearning for dry champagne and wet kisses, for the smell of peonies in a penthouse on a June night, for the light at the end of the pier in Gatsby…”

Heady stuff.

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The feminine and masculine in Anaïs Nin’s Diaries vol 1

Note: I winnowed this theme from the Diaries vol1 of Nin, and found it fascinating enough to break into its own post. As an observer, I’m commenting on how Nin presented masculinity and femininity as clearly as I can from her own concepts as she discussed them in her diaries. Clearly, the concepts of the feminine and masculine have changed since Nin’s Diaries were written. The entire notion of a binary gender categorization is being dismantled by writers and commentators today.

It makes sense to note that she was a product of a Catholic upbringing in an era where gender roles were strictly defined — and that her views would have changed between the 1930s (when the Diaries v 1 were written) and her death in the 1970s.

The value in this exercise was, as a fiction writer, to learn how a woman operated in a society with strictly defined gender roles while she simultaneously turned conventions on their head. The insights are valuable when writing my own depiction of a woman who is finding her way in a dramatic shift of role and ability to self-actualize (Mayana, in the Pat Hayden Jones book).

The love triangle and a psychological triangle

Of interest to me as a reader of both Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller is Nin’s contrasting of Miller’s manifestation of self to June’s and her own. The relationship is taken in context of Nin’s romance with both Miller and June, which is clear from the unexpurgated Henry and June and hinted at in Diaries v 1 (though she seems more free to admit in the Diaries dalliances with June than with Miller or any other man).

Miller is described from her first meeting as a sensual being (in the classical sense): “warm, joyous, relaxed, natural” but simple in some ways. He is depicted as flummoxed by June, an ephemeral personality who hard to pin down. June spins, in his words “…such complicated stories, intrigues, miraculous barters.” With Nin’s description of herself as a being with only passion and compassion, the one to whom others come in order to discover their true potential, we have the setup for an incredible love triangle, and Nin does not disappoint — at least, from the psychological side (no steamy sex scenes in the Diaries).

TL:DR: In a historical context, the concepts of feminine and masculine were for the most part binary and prescribed by social mores and convention. As Diaries v 1 begins (first 100 pages or so), the story of Nin, June and Henry illustrates elemental forces in apposition. On one side, the force is (in historical context) elementally feminine — the sex with less physical strength which, in the world at the time, did not control instruments of power,  exercised its influence with persuasion, verbal acuity, concealment, subterfuge. The two women secretly mock the masculine Henry’s slowness and June asserts “the perfidious alliance of our lucidities, our quickness, our subtleties.” Henry is like a bull, often placid but at times confused or frustrated; he lashes out in anger at a world which escapes his ability to grasp.

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Book Review: Diaries of Anaïs Nin Vol 1

Note: I can’t annotate with page numbers here as my Kindle version has only ‘locations.’

TL;DR: The Diaries reveal an impassioned but (compared to the unexpurgated diaries)  composed Nin. She starts with the story from Henry and June. It is presented in a more linear, if incomplete, fashion and loses much of the impact as Nin excised all references to the steaming hot sex she was having with her lovers. Those relations lose depth as a result. The book livens up near the middle as she becomes more confessional regarding Antonine Artaud, with whom she conveniently did not sleep with. The last two-thirds of the book contain lengthy retrospectives of her first psychoanalyst, her father and her second psychoanalyst, who tries to convince her to stop with the diaries (!). The psych bits don’t interest that much and there is a lot of repetition. The story of her father is unsettling but very interesting and reveals much of her history. She closes with a tale of her pregnancy which is heartbreaking in several dimensions, finding God at the hospital, losing him when she must choose between God and psychiatry, which she’s chosen to study. Then it’s off to New York. Finis.

The Diaries vs. the unexpurgated journals

The Diaries are a fascinating read after reading the unexpurgated journal of the same time period (Henry and June, hereafter referred to as H&J for brevity). In that review, I wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek TL;DR describing Nin as ‘overwrought.’ I used that word for both its definitions — in a high state of excitement or anxiety, and as referring to a work which is overly elaborate. The unexpurgated diary is very stream-of-consciousnesss and records extreme levels of emotion and absorption. Here, in the originally published (and heavily-edited) Diaries, her story is more linear, more composed. She tells of her engagement with life as being at a high order of awareness: “Ordinary life does not interest me. I seek only the high moments. I am in accord with the surrealists, searching for the marvelous.” In the first third of the book, she’s a bit stiff, and as a result, Nin comes off as a a bit precious for us normal folks, we who “never awaken.” She’s living off a stipend, after all, and for her, life is not a struggle to make the rent. (When talking of giving money to June, Nin mentions a monthly allowance). However, that changes as the book progresses and she bares more of her soul to the reader in sections about Artaud and her father.

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