What wants to be a transgressive thunderclap ends up a mildly diverting exercise.

BOY CAESAR

Third-century emperor and twenty-first-century academic find they’ve got oh-so-much in common.

From a.d. 218 to 221, Rome’s emperor was an unlikely teenager with the unusually (even for Rome) tongue-tangling name of Heliogabalus. In the very early part of the new millennium in London, the much more simply named Jim is working on his university thesis about—you guessed it—Heliogabalus. In his introduction to this time-skipping tale, Reed (Pleasure Chateau, 2000, etc., not reviewed) mentions that he’s intent on a method whereby the past will dissolve into the present, and vice versa, in the manner of a Derek Jarman film. It’s an unfortunate but all-too-apt comparison, as the ensuing pages can have a tendency to be too mindful of Jarman’s film Edward II—another example of a renegade artist trying to reclaim a previously vilified gay historical figure by melding time periods but getting impossibly lost in the labyrinth of its own baroque mechanics. With all that said, Heliogabalus is an undeniably fascinating character who deserves a full recounting of his reign (though he was reimagined in a 1933 Artaud work, albeit as quite more violent than the dreamy-eyed pinup boy that Reed makes him into). Half of the book is given over to his interior recollections, and it gets quite a bit of steam out of the sheer magnitude of Heliogabalus’s anarchic plans. When the action shifts forward to London and the just-as-self-obsessed Jim (except he has a thing for designer labels, whereas the emperor was obsessed with color-coding gargantuan feasts), the narrative skips and stutters, abandoning the fragrant rhythms previously established in the ancient world. Reed has no problem dropping anachronisms like “rent boy” into the Rome-set text, a stratagem that seems too clever by half, and when Jim’s and Heliogabalus’s worlds start to meld forcefully, the whole thing collapses under the strain of its own pretension.

What wants to be a transgressive thunderclap ends up a mildly diverting exercise.

Pub Date: May 4, 2004

ISBN: 0-7206-1193-8

Page Count: 220

Publisher: Dufour

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2004

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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Rather than settle for a coming-of-age or travails-of-immigrants story, Hosseini has folded them both into this searing...

THE KITE RUNNER

Here’s a real find: a striking debut from an Afghan now living in the US. His passionate story of betrayal and redemption is framed by Afghanistan’s tragic recent past.

Moving back and forth between Afghanistan and California, and spanning almost 40 years, the story begins in Afghanistan in the tranquil 1960s. Our protagonist Amir is a child in Kabul. The most important people in his life are Baba and Hassan. Father Baba is a wealthy Pashtun merchant, a larger-than-life figure, fretting over his bookish weakling of a son (the mother died giving birth); Hassan is his sweet-natured playmate, son of their servant Ali and a Hazara. Pashtuns have always dominated and ridiculed Hazaras, so Amir can’t help teasing Hassan, even though the Hazara staunchly defends him against neighborhood bullies like the “sociopath” Assef. The day, in 1975, when 12-year-old Amir wins the annual kite-fighting tournament is the best and worst of his young life. He bonds with Baba at last but deserts Hassan when the latter is raped by Assef. And it gets worse. With the still-loyal Hassan a constant reminder of his guilt, Amir makes life impossible for him and Ali, ultimately forcing them to leave town. Fast forward to the Russian occupation, flight to America, life in the Afghan exile community in the Bay Area. Amir becomes a writer and marries a beautiful Afghan; Baba dies of cancer. Then, in 2001, the past comes roaring back. Rahim, Baba’s old business partner who knows all about Amir’s transgressions, calls from Pakistan. Hassan has been executed by the Taliban; his son, Sohrab, must be rescued. Will Amir wipe the slate clean? So he returns to the hell of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and reclaims Sohrab from a Taliban leader (none other than Assef) after a terrifying showdown. Amir brings the traumatized child back to California and a bittersweet ending.

Rather than settle for a coming-of-age or travails-of-immigrants story, Hosseini has folded them both into this searing spectacle of hard-won personal salvation. All this, and a rich slice of Afghan culture too: irresistible.

Pub Date: June 2, 2003

ISBN: 1-57322-245-3

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2003

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