I don't know why it took me 2 months to slog through this, cuz it was pretty great. Unfortunately, she also started writing this in her teen years, &...moreI don't know why it took me 2 months to slog through this, cuz it was pretty great. Unfortunately, she also started writing this in her teen years, & will make you feel like a unicellular dolt in her brilliant musings. I also loved her lists, for some reason, and so felt liberated to incorporate them into my own diaries. I still feel shamed every time I write in mine, though, because everything appears banal by comparison. Looking forward to the other volumes of Sontag's journals - are they both out now? I don't remember.(less)
My first foray into Kincaid's wide body of work, and I certainly wasn't disappointed. Basically analyzes her, let's say, "complicated" relation with h...moreMy first foray into Kincaid's wide body of work, and I certainly wasn't disappointed. Basically analyzes her, let's say, "complicated" relation with her family - her cruel mother, her feuding brothers, and in particular, her wild and horn-dog-y brother who, during the span covered by the memoir, is diagnosed with AIDS, undergoes a respite from death's door with the help of anti-retrovirals, and then dies from the disease's complications.
A number of cultural factors lend the book some greater weight than I think Kincaid wants to fully interrogate - her family is in Antigua, where, at the time of the memoir's "narrative," HIV and AIDS are little understood illnesses, and much maligned because of their association with MSM populations. This likewise becomes a conflict for Kincaid's brother, who wishes to disavow both the homophobic stigma attached to the disease and to avoid acknowledging his diagnosis in any regard. At the end of the memoir, after her brother's death, Kincaid discovers that, in fact, her brother did have sex with men and had kept this closeted from basically everyone who knew him in his life. Kincaid doesn't necessarily consider this secrecy or this identity deeply, and I think does her memoir a disservice by treating the revelation almost as a kind of "whodunnit" moment of disclosure. Her privileged position of knowing is underscored, though quietly, from the very beginning -- and of course, is unavoidable in the life writing genre, I suppose.
At other times, Kincaid is beautifully humane in considering her brother's suffering, and in recognizing the disease, despite her obvious distaste for her Antiguan family. Particularly wonderful was her attention to the permeability of the body, her distinction between the precarious but confident lives most people lead and the kind of living death that certain populations outside of the cultural or political center must reside in, emblematized here by the corporeal limbo of the patient with AIDS. I'd like to say things are different contemporarily, and certainly there have been leaps and bounds in the fight against the virus, but is there any other illness so misunderstood and so stigmatized even in supposedly "liberal" countries like the U.S.? I think a lot of people get off on believing that we've developed a kind of sophistication in relation to AIDS that "those people" in the Caribbean or in Africa can hardly fathom, but perhaps one thing this memoir serves to remind us of is that even in privileged positions or "educated" communities, there's a great deal of blindness, hypocrisy, and terror regarding the epidemic.
Oh me oh my! That was a depressing end to the review. Sorry, I've been reading a ton of books with HIV at their center this summer, and as a gay man born after the rise of the epidemic, this is a terror that has never not been peripheral in my life. So, yeah, pour a drink and cheer up, y'all?(less)
White suggests in the brief Q&A following this memoir that autobiography should be concerned strictly with the "truth." I found this a peculiar in...moreWhite suggests in the brief Q&A following this memoir that autobiography should be concerned strictly with the "truth." I found this a peculiar invocation, having just finished reading Isherwood's "Christopher and His Kind," where Isherwood invested half his time in the metatext of life writing-in other words, was constantly conscious that memory is faulty and one's perspective on an event is never true, but is one lens on that happening among many. Isherwood goes so far as to refer to his earlier selves as "Christopher," and to discuss their experiences and understandings of things as radically different than the memoir-writing-'I' of the book.
So White believes that his text, at any rate, is an accurate portrayal of around two decades of life in New York (with a bit of time out for San Francisco and Venice). I wonder whether the figures in this--diverse as Mapplethorpe and Sontag, John Ashberry and James Merrill, White's numerous lovers, and even with a cameo from Patti Smith--would see it his way, but nevertheless this is a thrilling read. I was born in 1987, a handful of years after the advent of HIV/AIDS, and so the sexual and erotic world of White's New York remains as if in a foreign language. By the time he discusses the early 80s, noting that the "specter of death" hung over each pulse of desire, I begin to recognize my own erotic identity. But the sense that gay liberation was, at least for White, primarily a sexual freedom, a radical anti-monogamy, a blurring of the bounds between friends and lovers and fucks and tricks, a sense that at any turn of the corner, one could make a connection with a desired and desiring other...this began to feel to me like a tragedy. One describing the rise of a non-normative system of relating emotionally to others--and its fall, that familiar story we now know, to the horrors of a virus that, while no longer a death warrant, still carries with it profound consequences and great stigma. Suddenly, it seems that the sort of assimilationist politics of contemporary queer mainstreams had to have been the inevitable toughing up against AIDS, but also required the disavowal of any sort of true radicalism, any real resistance to the conventional romance plot that we are stuffed full of now. It gets better & all that.
Thus the memoir seems to me required reading in some sense, because it offers a rare glimpse into possibilities for violent change in imagining our desire. Nevermind the fact that all NYC memoirs seem to be fantastic (in many ways, this reminded me a great deal of Patti Smith's recent "Just Kids," and of course even featured some of the same circles and happenings), White's sense of enthrallment with the city and with every figure he encountered, with the life of the writer (another experience that seems dead now), and so forth--these make this a memoir that begins to have an erotic charge with its own narration of the past, a sensual relation to memory. It's also fucking laugh out loud funny, and often very hot to read. We know the sad ending, and that's always unavoidable, but White doesn't allow melancholy to eclipse the thrill.(less)
An engrossing glimpse into the wild lives of rocker (well, we'll come back to this) Patti Smith and her photographer friend/lover/soulmate Robert Mapp...moreAn engrossing glimpse into the wild lives of rocker (well, we'll come back to this) Patti Smith and her photographer friend/lover/soulmate Robert Mapplethorpe. You probably don't need to hear about them as public entities, since both are more or less iconic in the American cultural imagination at this point.
Particularly interesting for this narrative of development are the pitstops or the alternatives presented over and against what Smith and Mapplethorpe eventually become. Smith remembers herself here as first and foremost a poet with painterly inclinations; rock & roll (for which she's now a kind of Godmother, along with Joplin, who makes a couple of cameos in Just Kids) appears as a happy accident--a way to engage drunk people with her words, or at least to distract them from throwing things at and harassing her at divey New York bars. Mapplethorpe paints and collages for 2/3rds of the journey of this book. He hustles, too, in what seems to be an attempt to justify his sexual identity as something enjoyed only for the money of it. Or at any rate, that's how Smith believes hustling operates for him.
So you don't get a great deal of the Icons Smith & Mapplethorpe. This is very much the 'rags' portion of the fairytale on the way to riches. A number of those who'd already made it--Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and so on and so on--make wonderful anecdotal forays through their lives. Jimi admits to Patti that he's actually quite shy, as she hides outside a party she's terrified to enter. Grace Slick snubs Smith in Max's (apparently, the bar the Factory kids made their own); Smith sings a song to Joplin; etc, etc. Interestingly, these moments always strike one as a kind of bizarro mundanity. Smith is often awed, but in an Alice in Wonderland fashion, where the guest stars are living their lives and Smith has just so happened to fall into their particular rabbit hole. In other words, this isn't some skeezy namedropping memoir.
It is, though, tender and humble, raw and (what seems to me, someone born nearly two decades after the main thrust of the narrative) very much 'of its time.' Hindsight and so forth. Smith suggests that no one seemed to be much aware of the fact that they were in a memorable "time", and in fact, it's that obliviousness that makes the memoir so enjoyable in many ways. Or rather, gives it the sense of immediacy and anxiety and joy that sets it apart from any celeb memoir I've read.
You don't need me recommendation, though. I'm certain you've heard the many accolades thrown at it, and all that jazz. It's not a perfect book, but it's certainly worth the couple of breathless sittings you'll spend with it.(less)
Not perfect & not my usual fare (though I love Tina Fey), but I have to say this was fantastic "decompression" reading for my before-bedtime-time....moreNot perfect & not my usual fare (though I love Tina Fey), but I have to say this was fantastic "decompression" reading for my before-bedtime-time. Bit uneven, but certainly worth a read for some great--yes--laugh out loud moments, as well as Fey's discussions of women in comedy. (less)
I should confess up front that I have never read The Berlin Stories, nor have I even seen Cabaret. Blasphemer! The ultimate bad gay!
...but I do like...moreI should confess up front that I have never read The Berlin Stories, nor have I even seen Cabaret. Blasphemer! The ultimate bad gay!
...but I do like Isherwood? Or at any rate I loved A Single Man (novel & film!). I was a bit baffled to see so many reviews here note that reading about the writing of The Berlin Stories was tedious, because I actually found Isherwood's reflective, sometimes nostalgic relationship to his own earlier writing endlessly fascinating, particularly in the sense of his comments about self-censoring and the ways in which he felt his sight about the situations he was narrating appears so limited in hindsight. More interesting was Isherwood's hazy delineation between the writing-I and "Christopher," as he frequently referred to his past self/selves. Recently I read Edmund White's "City Boy," where he has no interest in a kind of metatextual consideration of identity--memoir writing should be founded on fact and authenticity to White's mind; on the other hand, Isherwood/"I"/"Christopher" seems almost to eroticize his relationship with his past, and clearly believes that there can't be an objective relationship between the self and the world that the self experiences, because we are not transparent to ourselves, and our understanding of our social being necessitates far too many subjective filters. Despite White's protestations, I found Isherwood's notion of memoir writing far more truthful and nuanced.
All that said, the memoir is also incredibly fun to read. It covers his major Berlin years--basically, from when he went there at the end of the 20s until he decided to sail for America at the end of the 30s. We see his love affairs, his novel-writing, his "slumming," his experience with the Hirschfield Institute. There's a great deal of his passionate friendship with Auden, and Stephen Spender and the Woolfs and Thomas Mann and his daughter all wriggle in and out of the narrative here. Obvs the rise of European fascism (well, mainly Hitler) casts a broad shadow over Isherwood's time in Germany. There's a terror to this tale that recalls V Woolf's journals and letters--also, Between the Acts, her final novel and the one most anxious about the oncoming War. Isherwood is a quite exciting prose writer, too: even in mundane sections, nothing seems to drag, as he's constantly tossing a witticism or a strange anecdote or a viciously honest comment on himself in. This was my first of a journey into the "gay memoir" (well, gay male memoir--for whatever reason, I have, like, a pretty solid history with lesbian fiction, but almost none with the tradition of My People??), and I couldn't be more glad to have it as the initial touchstone, though I imagine using it as my yardstick may be a bit overreaching. We shall see...(less)
About the last book I'd ever pick up on my own (I am about as far from interested in sports as one can possibly be), but Ware's successful integration...moreAbout the last book I'd ever pick up on my own (I am about as far from interested in sports as one can possibly be), but Ware's successful integration of a widespan of provocative topics--feminism, Title IX, the politics of athletics, BJ King, public outing, &co--proved a quite interesting and educational (but not boring) read. I can't say I came away from the book *liking* King really at all, but I don't require that from a biographical portrait. She certainly offers a useful icon/figurehead for the intersections of these diverse issues, even if she seems self-serving and, well, profoundly fake.
It's an accessible book that wears its research well. In the interest of full disclosure, Susan Ware was teaching a grad course I was in at the time of reading, but this is no sycophantic review. I think particularly if you're interested in feminist history, sports, tennis, or King this will be a wonderfully useful book to have at hand.(less)
I'm not a Janis-head by any means, so I can't speak to this biography in relation to other works on Joplin. I like her music; I knew a bit about her r...moreI'm not a Janis-head by any means, so I can't speak to this biography in relation to other works on Joplin. I like her music; I knew a bit about her rise to fame & her tragic fall (& also recently saw some 'supernatural' special on the History Channel where psychics tried to access JJ's ghost in the hotel room where she died...har har). The biography, however, is not a tragedy in any conventional sense. Echols doesn't shy away from the drugs, the booze, the sex, or even what seems to be the profound loneliness (masked by bravado) that permeated Joplin's life. But what never seems to be foretold is the tragedy; Echols isn't invested in any sort of suicidal readings of JJ's death. She recognizes the self-destructive trajectory of the Haight-Ashbury & the 60s music scenes, but doesn't make an attempt to act as if JJ was, like an incredibly bright star, always doomed to implode. The figure that comes across in this story is sometimes frustrating, sometimes pitiable, always electric.
Perhaps even more to the credit of the biography is Echols' astonishing knowledge of the cultural-historical contexts in which Janis lived--Janis comes to represent here an icon of transition between a number of musical and social shifts (from Joan Baez-folk to 'authentic' rock&roll to Dylan's-going-electric, to the increasing abyss between 'black' and 'white' music as the 70s dawned). Echols knows her music history & she certainly knows the 60s, which was wonderfully illuminating & made the biography feel more 'thick' in many ways. It detracts from the temptation to sensationalize or melodrama-tize (can I use that word?) Joplin's life & locates her within a particular moment, which gives her, I think, far greater complexity.
Echols came to speak to a graduate seminar I'm in at the moment--and god, you couldn't pick a better personality to write this biography. She was, as I said of Joplin here, just electric. She held the room with a perfect sort of visceral intensity, & was incredibly gracious & wonderfully informative about the process of writing this book. I think it's quite an accomplishment, & the bio comes highly recommended, if my opinion holds water...(less)
Pretty wonderful in general, and particularly interesting in its readability (for being (a) a journal; and (b) just a year-in-the-life, cut out from w...morePretty wonderful in general, and particularly interesting in its readability (for being (a) a journal; and (b) just a year-in-the-life, cut out from what one imagines must be a wider life). Still trying to figure, though, why Carolyn Heilbrun sees it as a watershed moment for women's autobiographical writing. Also I learned this awesome French saying, which now I can't freaking remember - & don't have the book on hand - "amour de somethingsomething," which is meant to connote a friendship between two people who easily could have been lovers but diverged from that path - all that's left is a kind of perfume of that possibility. Anyway, one day I'll figure it out and then never use it again...but I'll still admire it!(less)