Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A flawed novel that starts out pretentious and ends up predictable.
When looking at a book written sixty years ago, we consider what it brings to us today. Does it show us a window into what life was like in the past for example? In this book much of the action is set in one room, Giovanni’s Room, so in that reference it could be timeless. I gained no insight into life in Paris in the 1950’s or much into gay culture of the time, I think there’s only one or two brief scenes set in a gay bar.
So does the book then offer something timeless, such as a meditation on love, life, or loss? And again I’d have to say no. The main character, I don’t even know his name he’s so forgettable—he has elements of a timeless struggle, sleeping with men and then pulling away, only to find yourself drawn back. I don’t know if it’s the time it was written or what but what drew him back to Giovanni is never fully explained. The loss aspect is brushed over, and what we’re left with is very much of its time, a book about gay shame manifested in a way that doesn’t really exist now.
The book starts off very slowly and I found it difficult to get through the All-American goes slumming in Europe stage. Who cares? And the fact that Baldwin made the lead character white, I kept wondering why. One would assume to get people somewhat on side, for who would read about a black gay man in 1950 as the hero?
The women, or should I say woman, in the book are one-dimensional: “I want to start having babies. In a way it’s really all I’m good for.” The one most together, not moping about his sexuality, he can’t survive. The book was noted for its daring, and it’s not daring any more.
Langston Hughes said of Baldwin, from the Introduction to this book, that he “over-writes and over-poeticizes in images way over the heads of the folks supposedly thinking them.” I agree, the novel is not relatable to me today in 2014, and I don’t know how relatable it ever was.

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Thursday, January 16, 2014

My Story by Tom Daley

My Story by Tom Daley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tears, tears, tears!

I loved this book. Living in Canada I knew nothing about Tom Daley until he came out. From there I watched Splash! and his Olympic performance and was captivated by his looks and charm.

I picked up this book to learn more about him, I had heard his father passed away but didn't know any of the back story. The book is very well written, full of pictures which were great, except once when his father is passing away in the story and there's a big shirtless glamour shot on the page. But once is okay.

I felt I really got a sense of who Tom the person is. One would expect an autobiography of an 18 year-old to be more flighty and self-serving but through his tremendous dedication to sport Tom has gained insight into the world.

As I was reading I considered the position he was in writing this book. For example, when his diving partner bad mouths him in the press, Tom can't write in the book that he hated him and he'd never liked him anyway and he smelled bad. It all has to be controlled, he can't be seen to be lashing out. Not that I thought he felt that way, but in his early teens people can get moody. So it was a challenge writing a story of a short life and making it interesting and not stepping on anyone's toes. Not an enviable assignment but Daley pulls if off well.

I finished the book on an airplane and I would recommend not reading the end in public. I cried and cried, more than I've cried in a long time, perhaps more than I've ever cried for a book. I like though that the book ends on an uplifting note and that some hope for the future can be found in tragedy.

I have never watched the Olympics, I have read only one book on sports, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game and it was great to learn about a whole new world. I enjoyed reading this and would always hurry to pick it back up.

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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

City of Night by John Rechy

City of Night by John Rechy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fantastic book that I read slowly as I wanted to sip it like fine wine.

This book keeps showing up on gay people’s top books of the year every year as new people discover it and there’s a reason. I believe this classic will continue to impress for generations to come.

On the surface a book about a hustler turning tricks, the story to me helped pave the way for Stonewall with some of the first and best vivid pictures of gay life from the early 1960’s presenting drag queens and Johns with a sense of humanity rarely seen. Another thing I loved it the author successfully creates a new language with youngman and sexmoney and a lack of punctuation making the book a style all his own.

One thing less good is the retail kindle edition I purchased from Amazon was not proofread and contained over 250 errors from the conversion from paper. This is really unacceptable and the book deserves better.

The story starts off with the hustling and returns back there often as a base, with many insights as applicable now as they were 50 years ago when the book was published, as in this account of a hustler describing his John and the image being sold:
“If he asks too many questions, he exposes himself to the possibility that he will get an entirely different answer from the one he wants to hear and it will shatter his sexdream.”

I loved Miss Destiny:
“Now Miss Destiny is a youngman possibly 20 but quite as possibly 18 and very probably 25”

And with the despair and suicide in pre-Stonewall literature, to be able to read the following was fabulous, even if the character’s story didn’t end all that well:
“But one day, in the most lavish drag youve evuh seen—heels! and gown! and beads! and spangled earrings!—Im going to storm heaven and protest! Here I am!!!!! I’ll yell—and I’ll shake my beads at Him.... And God will cringe!”

A lot of this book was me being surprised I related so well to tales of the gay scene 50 years ago. Tale as old as time, I suppose:
“And then I started driving to the beaches, I guess to make sure there was a whole world ready to welcome me when I finally decided to join it—if I ever decided to. I always came there with the intention of meeting someone. But then I would see a screaming fairy—and suddenly I’d be ashamed. It’s very strange—but I couldnt bear to look into his eyes, afraid, I guess, that he’d look back at me with recognition. And I didnt want a fairy, I knew that I didnt even want them to look at me in that strange, piercing way. So I would drive away—but then I’d come back....”

It was also great seeing some of the dated references and again appreciating the freedom I was able to have. Tales of the vice squad forcing men to cut their hair or:
“In a small clearing surrounded by the tables and benches, a line of six young males danced the Madison: without touching—making it legal.”

And Chi-Chi’s last stand for dignity, similar to Miss Destiny’s in the first half was quite moving.

The early and late parts of the book talk more of the author’s life. The author describes the collision of two worlds when with a John:
““Who gave you that ring?” he asked abruptly. I hesitated to answer. Finally I said: “My father—a long time ago.” Even to mention my father—to recall the memories of that ring—in the presence of this man suddenly seemed blasphemous.”

In this life a lot of what you’re selling is image and the last chapters examine who is selling to whom. The book gets a little bogged down in the last lap, which was disappointing, with the author going on a long head-trip and only occasionally do moments of clarity and understanding of purpose hit the reader.

I got the impression here at the end he was struggling with his purpose and looking toward the future, which I understand and that’s what you do in your twenties. But it’s not until you’re in your thirties, an age the author hadn’t yet attained when the book was published, that you get the answer. So I felt the author was at the last struggling toward a point that he hadn’t yet reached. The realisation that everything will be okay, the point of self-acceptance.

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