25 March 2015

Ways of being gay back in the day

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

Back in the mid-1980s when I was in high school and just getting to know the gay world no article or book about gay literature, or gays in literature failed to mention The Well of Loneliness. The only thing I remember about any of that exegesis is that TWoL is a bedrock classic of gay lit, but that it is also a depresso-tragic tale that reinforces the tragic gay stereotype. In college when the book came up in a conversation some Lesbian friends admitted they thought it was boring. Although today I have a predilection for this kind of Virago publishing-niche book, I can understand why some would find it less than compelling--or at least those who don't have a thing for early 20th century women's fiction. And god knows Hall could have used a better editor to fix some of her needlessly bad sentence construction. But I digress.

In terms of LGBT issues, things have changed enormously since TWoL was published in 1928, and have even changed enormously since I first heard of the book 25 years ago. Those changes definitely had an impact on how I perceived this text. For sure the Lesbian main character in the book faced great challenges and could not live an open life but she was of an economic class that allowed her much more freedom and opportunity to at least be a Lesbian. A working class woman in the same period would likely not have been so lucky.

I think one of the analyses of this book and others of its ilk is that it seems only able to present gays and Lesbians as leading tragic, depressing, or debauched lives. In my vague recollections it seems like some blame the book for setting or reinforcing that notion, and suggesting that that tragic story line was required in order to get mainstream publishers to consider printing such things. The gays had to pay for their sins somehow or the reading public would burn the place down. Indeed this may have been the case. E.M. Forster's novel Maurice which ultimately puts a positive spin on a gay character was written 1913-1914 but didn't get published until the 1970s after Forster was dead. I know that Forster wanted it that way, but I wonder if he would have been able to get it published back in the day without killing off Maurice and Scudder? Perhaps there are other books from that period that had happy endings for gays?

One of the ways that today's political and social climate has changed my view of the story is that I could see the ultimate final tragedy of the book (which I won't disclose here) as being one that didn't necessarily have to be about being gay. I could easily see how the final pages could have played out for a straight couple in a similar way if, perhaps not, for similar reasons.

Then there is James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room. Written in 1956, it has similarities with TWoL in the need for a tragic end, but in many ways Baldwin's characters are truly self loathing individuals in a way that Hall's characters were not. Long story short, David is an American in Paris whose girlfriend/fiancee is traipsing around Spain while he falls in love with the beautiful Giovanni. Even from the relative freedom of Paris in the 1950s (I failed to mention that Hall's book also largely takes place in Paris) society and family weigh heavy on David and cause no end of denial. So much so that even after a prolonged emotional and sexual relationship with Giovanni he seems perfectly able to pretend to himself that he is straight and sets in motion one tragedy after another. No one wins in this book.

Unlike Hall's book I don't think one can see this tragedy unfolding without the gay dimension. In fact their is no amount of cowardice in TWoL that comes close the David's in GR. Happily, Baldwin, and I think to some extent Hall, led lives that were more open and fulfilling than the characters in their books.

One of the odd things about both TWoL and GR was how closely the experiences and feelings tracked with my own in the 1980s. Although things were way better in 1985 than they were in 1928, the emotional roller-coaster felt very similar. I wonder if it still feels that way for kids today.

21 March 2015

This could be very big


I first read The Song of Names by Norman Lebrecht in 2004 which was a few years before I started blogging, so I've never been able to really plug it. I've mentioned it a few times in passing and written a word or two about Lebrecht's other fantastic novel The Game of Opposites, but I haven't really laid out why more people should read this book.

To be sure the book did not go unnoticed when it was published and it won the Whitbread Prize in 2003. But I've never run into anyone in real life or in blogging life who has read it. Well that all may change soon. I was getting ready to write about my re-read of the book and I came across an image of a poster for a movie adaptation. And not just any movie but one starring Ben Kingsley and John Malkovich. A little more digging didn't produce a release date but it did produce listings showing Anthony Hopkins and Dustin Hoffman in the lead roles. As someone who thinks a lot about having my favorite books turned into films, all this made my head spin. With these actors lined up-whichever pair ends up being right--this doesn't look to be some small release that will be consigned to DVD. If I had my choice I think I would mix the two up and have Kingsley and Hopkins. I worry a bit about the two American actors. Not because they aren't good actors, but because I don't want any of the characters turning into Americans. Maybe Malkovich and Hoffman are the ones lined up to play Dovidl, the Polish Jew in the novel.

But I am getting ahead of myself. My intention in writing this post was to talk about the book, not a movie. As I mentioned earlier, I first read this book in 2004 and it has been one that I have recommended every chance I got. But with the passage of time I began to wonder if I should keep doing so. Was it as good as I remembered? I just finished listening to the audio version of the book last week and I can confirm that I still love the book, but more importantly, I can confirm that it is a really good book. I love it because Lebrecht, a classical music critic, writes extremely well about the classical music world, something most novelists cannot do. But more than that, The Song of Names can stand on its own and one doesn't have to be entranced with classical music to enjoy it.

For those who need a little plot to stay interested...young Polish Jew violin prodigy is left in London to live with a concert promoter and his family during World War II. The promoter's son becomes his bosom buddy and they live like brothers until the day of Dovidl's Royal Albert Hall debut when he and his violin disappear for almost 50 years.

Besides being a good book and interesting story, for those who do like classical music gossip with a slightly bitchy and bitter edge, this book is for you. Whether its publishing, recording, concerts, conductors, players, or the music itself, Lebrecht comes up with the goods and isn't afraid to poke the giants of the classical music world. I loved these gossipy bits. There is also one scene early in the book where he laments not just the dumbing down of the classical music world but British civilization itself. And Lebrecht seems to be one of those lefty snobs of which I count myself. Populist in politics but personally and culturally elitist. And he is so good at being snarky. (Never too much in this novel, but his Twitter feed and blog can sometimes be a bit much. Do critics ever tone it down?)

Listening to the audio book not only reacquainted me with a book I already new that I loved, but I think it may be one of my most enjoyable audio book experiences I've had so far. At first I found Simon Prebble a little too driven in his reading. It seemed like someone was poking him in the back. But it actually kind of worked, and his accents were very believable and made one forget he wasn't actually different people. The only complaint I have is his mispronunciation of a single instance of the name Gianni. Italian is so easy to pronounce but so many people have real trouble with the "gia" combo. Don't even get me started on the terrible reader who butchered Baldwin's Giovanni's Room on audiobook. Overall there were many times as I listened when I took note of how well Prebble read the book.

Don't wait for the film to come out. Go find the book or audio book and give it a go. If for no other reason, you will have the inside scoop when the blockbuster film comes out.

19 March 2015

God knows I love Trollope, but Phineas bores me

I've read the Barsetshire series and loved them--although the final volume could have used a better editor. And I've read 4 or 4 stand alones like Dr. Wortle's School and Three Clerks and loved those as well. I've even read four of the six Palliser novels, and that is where things started to go wrong. I liked Can You Forgive Her?  But then Phineas Finn bored the sox off of me. I enjoyed The Eustace Diamonds for sure, but thought it a little one note. And then Phineas Redux, hmm, now I'm not even sure I have read that one yet. So I guess I have only read the first three.

So why do I bring this up now? When I started listening to audiobooks on my new commute I loved listening to Timothy West read Trollope and decided to listen to the Pallisers again in hopes of juicing me up to read the rest of them. Well, I enjoyed listening to Can You Forgive Her?, but Phineas Finn in audiobook is boring me as much as it did in print. It's making me think I want to give up on the Pallisers entirely. A little sad perhaps, but it frees me up to listen to the Barsetshire series which I know I will enjoy and it will give me a chance to pick up one of the many non-Palliser Trollope novels I have on my shelves that I have been neglecting because of my intent to finish off the Palliser novels first.

Also exciting is that I don't have to listen to 21 more hours of Phineas.

07 March 2015

Ti is more than a drink with jam and bread

The title is apropos of nothing other than my desire for a Sound of Music pun.

What follows is a little lighthearted ribbing of book blogger Ti who mentioned in a comment on Lucy's Forever Home that she couldn't recall me doing a food-related post. Well she is right in the sense that I am no Ruth Reichl (whose memoirs you MUST read if you like food and/or cooking) and this ain't Gourmet magazine (RIP). But, I have posted about food once or twice over the years. In fact one of my earliest posts way back in 2006 was about food. And it is one of my most clicked on posts, probably the title pulls people in.

It is true that I am not one of those people who has an Instagram account where I post pictures of every meal I have ever eaten, but I do love to cook and bake. I first took a cooking class in the 4th grade during summer school, not just because I liked to cook, but because as a kid I was always hungry and the prospect of getting to eat what we made was too much for me to pass up. When I was in grad school at Cornell one of the best things I did was take "Culinary Arts for Non-Majors". That class was awesome layered with awesome. I thought I was a pretty good cook before that but it gave me a lot more confidence in my abilities and taught me how to mix things up a bit when it comes to modifying recipes.

Tips on how to cook breakfast radishes we saw in the Loire Valley in 2009.

One of my favorite meals of all time because of the company, the location, and the food. Again in the Loire Valley. And John did a particularly good job of capturing it on film. Click on the link for more.

Christmas 2009 was all about food.

My niece helping me bake brownies (albeit from a box--the best kind).

The summer of the successful CSA share. (I make that distinction, because the following year I was terrible at using or even picking up our CSA produce.)

Sauteeing aromatics is perhaps one of my favorite things to do. Here I am getting the stuffing ready for Thanksgiving 2012.

A literary connection: baking from the Barbara Pym Cookbook.

A healthy salad in Sedona.

I post many more food related photos on Facebook but still not crazy amounts. But hopefully I have given Ti something to chew on.