Friday, 26 July 2013
5 out of 5 stars
The Sting of the Natural World
What could be nicer than a family get together in the wilderness? Let’s get back to nature and relax. The idea of the benefits of a family get-together is a popular one, but isn’t the reality of the situation somewhat different? Families after all are the subject of a very number of interviews with psychologists. In this novel George Temple has this idea of getting together with his adult son and daughter, Courtney and Scott, by going on a trek through the wilderness of Yellowstone Park. Things have not been right with his family and George seems to want to heal the matters. Unfortunately matters are not quite as simple as this.
Warren Adler is a leading writer of thrill/chill fiction and this is his thirty-sixth novel. His most famous work is The War of the Roses, which was made into a movie starring Danny De Vito, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. Unlike some horror books The Serpent's Bite is not a work of the fantastic, but it does have a slightly larger than life quality. But then how normal is ‘normal’ life?
True to the genre the plot of Bite has many twists and turns. Some changes of direction are well prepared for, others are hinted at and some are very unexpected. The style is calm, then explosive, then calm again in a cycle that runs throughout the book. There are two sex scenes which may shock very conservative readers. Adler manages admirably to maintain our attention by including many flash backs (prior to the trip), which add variety. He also uses the interesting technique of writing each chapter from a different character’s point of view. This sometimes adds considerable irony to the book as we see that some character’s perspective is not quite right. On the whole Adler presents a rather hard-boiled view of human nature and the style captures this well.
The characters in this novel are hardly likable, but Adler is not trying to be ‘nice’. We are indeed delighted by these people’s nastiness and foolishness. Even the good George Temple comes in for some criticism. Being powerfully motivated, these characters are relentless, carving a clear direction for themselves, but some evolve over time.
The book has a clear theme of addiction. First we meet alcohol addiction, but there are other compulsions waiting to be discovered later in the plot. Temptation and ‘sin’ also run as topics, though I do not mean to imply that this is a religious book. The Temple’s are Jews, but not practicing synagogue visitors.
From the psychological perspective Adler has written a fairly accurate novel. The information about addiction rings true to life. Adler delves into peoples’ blind spots: the lies they consciously and even unconsciously maintain. Close to this is the truth of secrets kept from others.
Women may at first be a bit offended by this tale. Courtney is certainly a powerful, determined woman, however she falls into the category of the classic ‘prime hussy’, a rather stereotyped role. Mrs Temple, only alluded to in the text, also seems the stereotyped ‘loving mother’. Adler is, however, talking about the very notion of stereotyping which very really occurs in our lives as we are subject to social values from family, books, TV and films. The very idea of feminism is based on this notion. Adler certainly encourages us to question this stereotyping. To add balance the male characters are equally driven pigs.
In the larger perspective of the society Adler playfully upholds vales and questions them at the same time. His characters are bad people but their rebel views sometimes make sense and carry weight. The philosopher Michel Foucault pointed out that a great deal of society is a power system which manipulates us and in this novel much of what manipulates us is delved into and questioned. I do not mean that this is a heavy philosophy text of the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre. The average reader will most certainly enjoy this book.
Nature features prominently in the book and Adler plays with it as he plays with the notion of society. George Temple’s idea is to get his children away from things in order to work their life together out, but can we ever get away from life and is life really what we think. The ambivalence of nature provides an interesting, symbolic backdrop to the book as a whole.
Adler has written an exciting, very readable book which also has deeper meaning if you look twice. Be prepared to be shocked. I have mentioned feminism, philosophy and symbolism but don’t reject this book because you think it is too intellectual for you. At its heart this is overwhelmingly horror, pure and simple.
Wednesday, 10 July 2013
4.5 out of 5 stars
Struggling towards the light
Emma Fiorello is sixteen and deeply in love with Eric Florentino, a bright and caring, but wayward youth. They have a very special connection which Emma felt virtually as soon as they met. According to Emma they are “soul mates”. Eric knows what she means, but is perhaps a little less ‘spiritual’ in his outlook. Life is fresh and good, but Emma also senses that perhaps she and Eric will not stay together. Suddenly Emma is attacked and raped and her life begins the swift process of falling apart. Can Emma survive this turmoil and will she and Eric struggle through it, or will the premonition of relationship break-up come true?
Clover Doves could be classified as a paranormal romance: it is a love story with references to precognition, empathic telepathy and ghosts. The novel is, however, also part spiritual philosophy and part self-development/psychology. This is not to imply that Clover Doves is overly ‘preachy’ or contains lectures on these subjects: the philosophy and psychology arise naturally from the plot and characters, and are quite skilfully woven into the novel. It is clear, though, that Filigenzi has done much reading and thinking about the subject of human potential. Beyond these specialized subjects the novel is also very much about ‘ordinary’ life struggles: family, friends, love relationships, suffering, conflict and death. Clover Doves is skilfully written and will appeal to a quite wide variety of readers, especially those willing to keep an open mind.
The plot is divided into three sections of equal length. Part 1: The End begins with a peak of disaster and descends in a spiral of crises as life falls apart for Emma and Eric. Part 2 adds further development and complication, and consists of a series of revelations about the past. Several years after Part 1 Emma meets Jared, a very loving and understanding college student who seems to have his future well planned and who is very much interested in Emma. Part 3: The Beginning once again starts with a peak and continues with increasing sadness, but also increasing joy, as relationships are developed and worked out, and plot details are resolved. Emma must face the complicated issues of her love for both Eric and Jared, her dislike of her drunken mother, Cassie, her need for other friends, and the general question of meaning and development in her life.
Filigenzi writes well and the plot moves its readers along, never boring them or dwelling too much on any particular point. There are a number of plot twists to surprise us and keep us wondering where we are going. At times the writing is quite poetic and at other times it is full of tension. The two chapters describing Emma’s rape and subsequent experiences in hospital are very well written. The emotion is quite palpable. As just one example the reader should note the subtle comparison between the rapist’s “dark, rough whiskers” which “scratched” Emma’s face and the “scratchy hospital blanket” which covers her when she awakes from her ordeal to face yet another ordeal of investigative prying. The narration shifts from character to character and we see experiences from first one point of view and then another. This Postmodernist technique allows us to see deeper into the narrating characters and reveals the inadequacies of point of view. What one character thinks of another is incomplete, biased and occasionally quite wrong. There is one example of imagery associated with the title of the book (which I will not describe in order to avoid spoiling the reading experience), but beyond this symbolism is absent. Just as a word of warning, there are mild sex scenes in the novel and occasional course language, both of which may offend conservative readers. Clover Doves, however, would certainly not qualify as erotica. Sex is of course a normal part of romantic relationships and most modern readers will have no trouble accepting Filigenzi’s tasteful depictions.
The characters are very likable, though they possess personality failings, and the reader immediately empathizes with them and hopes the best for them. Even Cassie, who is a classic ‘bad’ mother, has hidden depths as we come to know her better, recognizing our own failings. All of the five main characters, Emma, Eric, Jared, Cassie and James, Emma’s guilt ridden father, are well rounded, having a mix of good and bad points, which makes them quite believable and lifelike. All of these characters must struggle to grow and in some way, great or small, overcome their failings. Jared is the most ‘perfect’ character, but even he has moments of jealousy and suffers from some lack of thought about the implications of his relationship with Emma.
As has already been indicated, the main theme is suffering and overcoming pain and difficulty. As Buddhist philosophers point out, the First Noble Truth is that life inherently involves “dukkha” or suffering, and that even in our happiest moments there is latent pain (Michael Carrithers. Buddha: A Very Short Introduction: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 55 - 57). Why do we suffer and what are we to do about it? Can we grow toward happiness, or is this the idle fantasy of the optimist? Does spirituality and psychological development offer at least some reconciliation with pain and suffering? These are the types of questions Emma must struggle with. There is also a related theme of relationships (in the form of family, friends and lovers). Personal connections can cause us pain, but can also heal. As the Existentialist Gabriel Marcel points out in Man Against Mass Society (Gateway, 1970) modern people “lack a sense of their own worth and are strangers to themselves and one another” (Thomas Flynn. Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction: Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 90). We are lonely, afraid and hurt but aid is near if we can overcome our resistance, our defensiveness. But of course no relationship is perfect or runs entirely smoothly. Death is the final, inevitable affliction and it too appears as a prominent theme in this novel. Once again from a Buddhist perspective, “without an awareness of death, life can only be lived on a shallow level” (Jane Hope. Introducing Buddha: Allen & Unwin, 1999, p. 31). We fear death, feel life is made meaningless by death and deny our own death (because when young it seems unreal and with age it seems too close). Since prehistoric times people have speculated about death and an afterlife and Emma, along with many, many others in this long tradition, is forced to contemplate her own mortality from a very young age. At sixteen she is beaten almost lifeless and the implications of this last for years to come. Closely allied to death is the theme of violence and war. Aggression is of course usually avoided, but is it sometimes a solution to extreme problems? Do we sometimes walk lightly into violence and what are its consequences? Is the immediate victim the only one to suffer? Of course life is complex and there are not always clear answers, and Filigenzi’s text does not always offer hard and fast rules or solutions.
As has already been noted spirituality features prominently in this novel. We see references to the concepts of “Yin” and ”Yang”, “soul mates”, “guardian angels” and the “afterlife”. This is not surprising in a book which talks so much about death. The void of the unknown naturally comes to mind as we all contemplate our mortality. As Emma comments:
“Facing death with no spiritual belief is difficult, especially as a child. You’re left with so many unanswered questions.”
The spiritual philosophy presented is not Orthodox. “God” is mentioned, but church-going Christians come out looking not so nice. Jared talks about the garbage that “so-called religious people” talk about abortion. The “faith” presented is “personal and private” with a New Age flavour, that is a mix of Hinduism and modern mysticism. The paranormal aspects of the novel are given a distinctly spiritual aspect. Emma regularly watches the popular TV program “Spirit Hunters” with her friends. They have a light hearted party, but later she remembers those days with a much more serious attitude. Her paranormal experiences give her strength and peace of mind, helping her to face difficult circumstances. Just as an aside it should be noted that the paranormal ideas concerning “electromagnetic fields” comes from real research by the university academic Michael Persinger (Wikipedia. Michael Persinger: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Persinger). Persinger has conducted an extraordinary number of experiments and studies on this subject.
Psychology naturally goes along with spirituality. As Emma comments, she finds peace of mind, strength and meaning in “a belief system outside myself”. Clover Doves is jam packed with details which will be noticed by those interested in the mind. Filigenzi has obviously done library research into psychology and her characters and plot are much more real and believable as a result. The psychological effects of rape on the victim are vividly depicted, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder flash backs, rage, guilt and feeling ‘dirty’ (Psychology Today. To Forgive Or Not Forgive: That Is The Question: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-compassion-chronicles/200803/forgive-or-not-forgive-is-the-question for anger and guilt). The plot also includes society’s tendency to blame and bully rape victims (Psychology Today. The Blame Game: Rape And Bullying I Teen America: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/youth-and-tell/201106/the-blame-game-rape-and-bullying-in-teen-america). The therapeutic techniques of deep breathing, meditation and mindfulness as a way of dealing with psychological pain and stress are also alluded to. The most notable psychological concept explored in the novel is the idea of the “Other”. As the psychoanalysis Jaques Lacan pointed out (Lionel Bailly. Lacan: A Beginner’s Guide: Oneworld, 2009, Ch. 7), we are very much haunted by a sense of lack and separation from the world. We see ourselves as an isolated ‘I” and believe that we are cut off from others and they from us. We are even ‘other’ to ourselves, that is cut off from self-understanding. We consequently feel a void, a longing, a desire for connection and true understanding. We long for unity with someone truly ‘like us’, who comprehends our experiences and perspectives and who we can comprehend. This longing is central to Clover Doves. According to Lacan the sense of separation from the ‘Other’ can never really be overcome, but Filigenzi, following a more mystical path of ‘Oneness’, peruses the ideas of connection and of finding those who truly understand us (for one of many books on Oneness’ see – Alan Watts. The Book: On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are: Vintage Books, 1972).
Clover Doves largely deals with a very individualistic view of life, but the larger perspective of society is present to some extent. Much of the action takes place in the “small town” of Ellicott City, Maryland. We are not presented with the much celebrated view of small town America, but instead we see a rather shallow, nasty, gossip ridden, small-minded place. Rather than producing individuals of character this part of the U.S. is depicted as resulting in high conformity. The girls who torment Emma all have the “same fake disgusted look”: they are carbon copies and artificial at that. From the perspective of the Marxism/Capitalism debate we see that the pursuit of money and power is virtually completely absent from Emma’s life. She decides on a career in “Special Education” helping “autistic students” because it gets her out of her own problems and gives her personal satisfaction and meaning. Cassie, on the other hand, is lost in a pursuit of the good life: wine, parties, clothes, make-up and money. She is depicted as a result of this attitude as being a hollow and bad mother. Successfully, or unsuccessfully, Marx tried to create a more humane society (Gill Hands. Understanding Marx: Hodder Education, 2011, Ch. 6) and criticized Capitalism for being exactly the opposite.
Feminists will be pleased to note that Emma as a sixteen year old is a physically fit young woman who enjoys outdoor sports, like jogging. She has a positive attitude and is already contributing to society in a caring way through her part-time job at the local veterinary clinic. The great bulk of the book of course deals with the personal effects of rape, which is an overwhelmingly male crime and one which is proposed by Feminists to be at least partly motivated by a desire for power (Wikipedia. Rape: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape). As we have already noted Filigenzi depicts the ‘re-rape’ which the interview and legal process inflicts on the victim (Susan Alice Watkins & Marta Rodriguez. Introducing Feminism: Allen & Unwin, 1999, p. 136-137). Emma is very much disempowered by the rape, but the capable 16 year old is never completely lost, and we can admire her as a woman who struggles through difficult circumstance. Emma’s friend, Erica, who appears in Part 3:The Beginning, is a caring woman willing to go to considerable trouble to help her friend, traveling long distances to aid Emma. Cassie, by contrast, is a ‘painted lady’, following the values of male dominated society and representing much of what Feminism stands against.
From the wider perspective of Gender Studies Eric in some ways fits the Western stereotyped view, which was propagated in the 1950’s, of the ‘tough guy rebel’ who others know to leave alone. His room is messy and his temper is short. Eric, however, is also loving and sensitive towards Emma, and has hidden depths and understanding. As he develops through time he, like Emma, overcomes his failings becoming a much more rounded, non-stereotypical male. Jared is sensitive and loving from his first appearance in the book. Emma is surprised by his apartment noting “how clean it was inside”. As we have noted he does have some stereotypical male qualities: he is unthinking. He is, however, much more a New Age man of the Men’s movement type: strong but feeling. James, Emma’s father, first appears in the text as the typical retro-1950’s father who feels he must be strong and who is insensitive to others' needs. As the story progresses, though, he gains at least some contact with his caring side.
LGBTIQ readers will be unhappy to find that they are negatively represented by Eric’s pedophile gay Uncle Tim. Not all pedophiles are gay and not all gays are pedophile, but this is the wide spread accusation in popular culture. Of course gay pedophiles do exist, but we wonder why this character could not have been balanced by a more positive LGBTIQ portrayal in another minor character? The statistics clearly reveal that LGBTIQ people contribute positively to society (Prudential Financial. The LGBT Financial Experience: 2012-2013 Prudential Research Study: Prudential Financial, c2012, http://www.prudential.com/media/managed/Prudential_LGBT_Financial_Experience.pdf). There is in fact some evidence that these people contribute more than other groups, although it should be noted that these studies have been criticised on methodological grounds (for one example of extra contribution see – Richard Florida. Technology And Tolerance: The Importance Of Diversity Too High-Technology Growth: Center On Urban & Metropolitan Policy, The Brookings Institution, June 2001, http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/1000492_tech_and_tolerance.pdf).
African-Americans also receive representation in Filigenzi’s novel, though in this case the representation is positive. Erica, a friend Emma’s meets later in the book, is described as having “chocolate brown skin” and we can infer from this that she is African-American. Erica is represented as bright, caring, a good friend, and married to a successful officer in the Marines. Dr. Reynolds, similarly has “brown skin”. He is an “oncologist” and has a “kind” and gentle manner.
The elderly are referred to in the absent character of Emma’s grandmother. Here, once again, we have a positive depiction of an often forgotten group. Emma remembers her relationship with this elderly woman with a sense of “peace”. The aged sometimes, though not always, have an experience of the world and a kindness towards the very young. In our very nuclear family world these connections and contributions are often ignored and it is good to see that Filigenzi has not completely ignored them.
American Indians and the disabled are unfortunately absent from the plot. The novel only has 3 main characters and 3 lesser characters and it is therefore more understandable that these groups, which are so often passed over in society, are not represented. We wonder, though, if they could have appeared as minor characters?
From the perspective of Structuralism we note that, in line with the binary theory of Claude Levi-Strauss (Boris Wiseman. Introducing Levi-Strauss and Structural Anthropology: Allen & Unwin, 2000, p. 87, 96, 149), Filigenzi’s novel centers on a number of complementary pairs. They are: Emma/Eric, Emma/Jared, Eric/Jared and Eric/Cassie. In each case these characters have something in common: both Emma and Eric, for example, suffer from very painful pasts. The members of these binary pairs are of course individuals and not exactly alike, but the comparisons are notable. In terms of ethics we also see the good/bad dichotomy, although in this case the binary relationship is opposed. Emma, Eric, Jared and Erica are ‘good’ while Cassie and the school kids of Ellicott City are ‘bad’. This dichotomy is not always sustained though, and, in line with Postmodernist thought, good and bad blends into grey. We see that people behave as they do partly because of circumstances, and that we are not necessarily simply one thing or another. This is certainly a more mature view of the world and ethics.
Continuing with Levi-Strauss’ anthropological version of Structuralism it should be noted that myth plays an important role in Clover Doves. The paranormal and spiritual elements of the book give it a mythic quality, though I do not mean to imply that it is pure myth. The Emma, Eric, Jared love triangle is a type of element that often appears in myth, and indeed in life, both really and metaphorically (Sallie Nichols. Jung And Tarot: An Archetypal Journey: Samuel Weiser, 1984, p. 130-131). If we take the Tarot card The Lover as one example we can very much see the pertinence to Filigenzi’s tale. In the Marseilles Deck, the ‘traditional’ version, we see a young blond haired man standing between two women. On his right we see a woman with a different visage, who is perhaps older and who touches him on his shoulder (near his head). On the youth’s left is a blond haired woman who has similar facial features to the young man, and who touches him on his heart. The lover’s head is turned to the first woman, but his body turns to the blond. Above them all, and presumably unseen by them, hovers the god Cupid, his arrow aimed at the Lovers heart. Cupid can be said to represent fate, or natural forces, or greater unseen powers (Sallie Nichols. Jung And Tarot: An Archetypal Journey: Samuel Weiser, 1984, p.135-137). In the Waite Deck Cupid is replaced by “a great winged figure with arms extended, pouring down influence” (Arthur Edward Waite. The Pictorial Key To The Tarot: Being Fragments Of A Secret Tradition Under The Veil Of Divination: U.S. Games Systems, c1971, p.92). This “winged figure” is in essence an angel. It is said that the first, older woman could represent intelligence and things of the mind, and the blond woman the emotions and matter of the heart and body (Sallie Nichols, p.130). In Filigenzi’s novel we have a woman and two men, but the circumstances are otherwise quite similar. Emma has “brown eyes” and “gorgeous brown hair”. Eric also has “brown eyes” and “soft brown hair”. Jared, by contrast has “blue eyes” and “long locks of blond hair”. Emma is very attracted to Eric, emotionally and physically, but her mind (especially later in the book) and her intuition tells her that things will not go smoothly. When Emma meets Jared her emotions make her hesitate, but on reflection she decides on a rational plan of openness and honesty which will enable her to have a sensible love relationship with him. For Emma fate and other ‘spiritual’ forces will play a great role in her relationships with both Eric and Jared. Interestingly a number of people who positively influence Emma are referred to as being like a “guardian angel”. Much more could be said about this comparison between the mythic quality of The Lover card and Clover Doves.
Courtney Filigenzi has written a novel which is in essence a paranormal romance, but when examined is much more than that. A spiritual philosophy is developed in the book. Psychological accuracy adds to the reality of the characters and plot. Some comments are made about society, including observations about the pursuit of riches and ‘the good life’. Women, African-Americans and the elderly are represented positively. The negative depiction of LGBTIQ people, though, is open to criticism. Viewed from a Structuralist and Mythic perspective the book is complex and shows considerable depth of thought and sophistication. But beyond all this Filigenzi has written a novel that has much to say about life: the circumstances we face, and how we develop. I am happy to rate this book as 4 and a half stars.