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The Lost Language of Cranes
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1001 Monthly Group Read > November {2010} Discussion -- THE LOST LANGUAGE OF CRANES by David Leavitt

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Charity (charityross) Get to it...

Amanda Well, despite the fact I rather enjoyed it, I'm at a loss to find anything to say about it. It seems very much a novel of its time and perhaps not quite as clever as it thinks it is. I thought the characterisations were rather good though, especially Rose and Owen.

Cindy (newtomato) | 196 comments I've put it on hold at the library, so I'll probably get to it in a week or two.

message 4: by Trisha (new)

Trisha I thought the book was okay. I was confused by the message though. I thought this book was supposed to be helping people open their minds to the definition of "love" and that no one is "sick"(or wrong) if they love one person (or gender) over another.
But, I thought this book seemed to support the prejudice that: homosexuality/bisexuality is either hereditary and therefore a disease type gene issue or that they the issue of someone only mimicking their enviornment.

The main character is the son of a man who has always tried to hide his homosexuality. His father is riddled with guilt at first, because he wonders if he has "made" his son this way?! (he even wonders if it's hereditary)

Then with Eliot, it seems like it's the belief that he grew up in a house with two men therefore he is attracted to men. It seemed the opposite of tolerance and riddled with prejudice (the "monkey see monkey do" kind of belief!).

Maybe I received the wrong message from it, but that is my two cents worth. Maybe I am more sensitive because I have people close to me who fight with this prejudice every day. Maybe I look for the argument or judgement (when it's not there).
Either way, I'm glad it was on this list and I read it.

Amanda Actually Trish, I also picked up on this and it did bother me. I'm not sure whether it is all supposed to be coincidence for the convenience of plot, or actually Leavitt's opinion - perhaps even wishful thinking?! I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he was just illustrating the attitudes of the times, but I have to say I don't find the insinuation that our gender preference is choice or influenced socially any more useful than the old predjudice that it is some sort of disease that can be cured. As for it being genetical, this certainly hasn't been my experience.

Personally, I felt that the book suffered from a lack of heterosexual characters, as if they were the oppressed, underrepresented minority - though not as severely as The Swimming-Pool Library does. I found that lack of balance a little alienating.

message 6: by Julie (last edited Nov 17, 2010 12:19AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Julie (juliemoncton) | 56 comments Interesting comments, Trish and Amanda! I don't think Leavitt was trying to suggest that homosexuality is caused by environment. As Amanda mentioned, I think it was for the convenience of the plot. I thought the point of the book was to show how 3 gay men - Owen, Eliot and Philip - handle their homosexuality differently growing up in such different environments. The title refers to the story of the child who grows up with no language except what he 'learns' from construction cranes. For the 3 men, their homosexuality is a given, but how they accept it is more a result of their upbringing. Just the fact that Owen was trying to deny his sexuality for decades by staying in his marriage implies that it is part of who you are, not a developed trait. Anyway, such an interesting point and definitely good food for thought!

message 7: by Amanda (last edited Nov 17, 2010 02:46AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Amanda Well put Julie. This is what I took away from it too, but that is because these are also my personal opinions I brought to the reading. Somebody with very different opinions could easily twist the narrative to insuinuate that the story of the little boy who thought he was a crane because that is all he had known suggests that Eliot was simply copying his adoptive parents' behaviour, as this was normal for him. Its a confusing parable.

I guess the story is supposed to resonate with Owen's situation though. A homosexual man who behaves like a heterosexual because its all he knows.

Lauli | 263 comments I also found the story of the crane boy a bit contrived and unnatural. But in my edition of the book there is a preface by Leavitt where he himself acknowledges that it may be the weakest point in the book.
I think characterization is one of the strengths of the book. I could relate to Owen and Rose's feeling that the floor has been pulled out from under them and they have to learn to cope with it. I feel the book may not have aged very well, since the situation for gay men, I think, has changed dramatically for the better. It's funny that, at the same time I was reading the book, a law was passed in my country making gay marriage legal. But reading it helped me understand the plight of these people in a society that still has to learn to embrace difference and to accept that sexual gender choices are an expression of individual freedom rather than a disease.

Amanda I really related to Owen and Rose too. I felt equal sympathy for both of them, relating to Rose for living her whole life with a man who did't love her the way she deserved and Owen for ultimately loving and losing the most important person in the world to him over and again (because I really do think he loved Rose). I was also angry with a society that allowed something like that to happen.

Kirsten | 35 comments I also thought the book was a bit dated. But I agree that the best bits were the characterisation of the relationship between Rose and Owen. I happened to be reading the book at the time I was going through a difficult patch in my marriage and I found that I could really relate to their feelings. Leavitt is a skillful writer in that regard. I agree that Owen really did love Rose and it must have been so difficult to him to hurt someone he loved so much.

Judith (jloucks) | 1203 comments Rose's feelings after she learns about her husband's homosexuality is what I most related to. Despite the fact that, on some level, she must have "known" for a long time, I just couldn't imagine the self-doubt and
personal history reconstruction that would have to accompany such a realization about one's married life!
I didn't really like her as a character, but I certainly sympathized with her predicament.

Christina Stind | 183 comments I really liked the book - I think Leavitt is a very powerful writer in conveying emotions (sadness, loss, bewilderment etc) and I really felt for these characters. Although Philip at times just had me shaken my head for his way of handling his relationship with Eliot - but we've all been there, haven't we, been so much in love with someone and making a fool of ourselves to try and get them or keep them even though we know deep down it's never going to happen ...
I really felt for Owen - living his entire life with this secret and being more and more unhappy and lost, trying desperately to find a way to lead a tolerable existence.
I don't think Leavitt is trying to suggest that being gay is either something you mimick or inherit - I think he is trying to show how the attitudes toward gays and being gay has changed, well illustrated by the enormous difference in Owen's and Philip's situations.

message 13: by El (new) - rated it 4 stars

El I just finished this book tonight, and coincidentally it happens to be World AIDS day. With that in mind I realized that what may seem "dated" about this book is that it was published in 1986, only five years after the AIDS pandemic was really recognized. We see through Philip's perspective his concerns with HIV/AIDS, and how his desires as a gay man are sometimes pushed down due to his awareness of the disease. I really enjoyed this book and felt a powerful message throughout. I wasn't confused by Leavitt's message about homosexuality - I thought the characters were confused in different ways based on their individual opinions, but when I considered the themes of homosexuality and language together, somehow it all seemed to fit for me.

Adelhaida | 7 comments My friend wanted me to read this a while ago, and I find it interesting. This book teaches self- acceptances and shows how hard it is for most gay's to announce their coming out. Great sense of emotion and even though I thought it was quite old,it was a good read.

message 15: by Judith (last edited Dec 02, 2010 03:57PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Judith (jloucks) | 1203 comments I've been thinking about Rose ever since I made the remark that I didn't really like her character in the story. I'd like to qualify that by noting that Leavitt made a point of letting us know that Rose had been starved for love and affection in her married life, and I think he wanted us to feel sympathy for her coldness and detachment as well as for her predicament after she was forced to accept the fact of Owen's (and her son's) homosexuality. He (Leavitt) showed sympathy for all his characters -- one of the elements of really good novels, I think. Praise, praise for that!

Amanda I found Rose difficult too, Judith, especially after her son and then her husband made their revealations. I found it painful how she could turn her back on two people who loved her so utterly - it felt so cruel! It's hard to understand, with my modern sensibilities, Rose's rejection of her son, but I can understand the hurt and resentment she felt for Owen. If my partner told me he was gay after I'd dedicated my youth to him and struggled through years of less than completely satisfactory marriage, I'm not sure I would react any better. Given how deceived she must have felt, her restraint was admirable and perhaps testiment to the feelings she still held for him.

My wishlist for his book is that all three characters found new and fulfilling relationships, reconciled their differences and all six of them got together for thanksgiving dinner, but this is perhaps a bit naive of me!

Cindy (newtomato) | 196 comments Amanda wrote: "My wishlist for his book is that all three characters found new and fulfilling relationships, reconciled their differences and all six of them got together for thanksgiving dinner, but this is perhaps a bit naive of me!"

And Janene and Laura, too!

message 18: by Amanda (last edited Dec 03, 2010 01:30AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Amanda Cindy wrote: "And Janene and Laura, too!

Of course! We were talking about Rose and Owen so much I forgot there were other characters :P

I have to say, I like that Leavitt wrote female homosexual characters as well as male - I always feel a bit feminist when gay male writers only write about men!

Cindy (newtomato) | 196 comments Amanda wrote: "I have to say, I like that Leavitt wrote female homosexual characters as well as male - I always feel a bit feminist when gay male writers only write about men!"

Agreed! I thought Janene was one of the more interesting (& likable - if that matters) characters in the book. I liked getting a glimpse into her evolution after Eliot moves away and she settles down with Laura.

Jennifer | 1 comments It seemed to me that Rose's rejection of Philip after he came out was directly related to maintaining the self-delusion required to accept the state of her marriage. I thought her character was an excellent example of how lonely modern life can be. She busied herself with work and had an obsessive relationship with crossword puzzles, which distracted her mind from seeking and understanding the true nature of her son and husband. Throughout the course of the novel there was really no personal connection between the three other than history (except for Owen trying to connect with Philip when he finds out he's gay). I think this was an excellent portrayal of a common problem in modern families, that is letting your mental image of what your family "should be" impede the ability to truly know and then connect with family members.

I also thought it was strange that the secret of both father and son would be homosexuality but agree that it is unlikely meant to suggest genetic causality.

Cindy (newtomato) | 196 comments Yes, good points, Jennifer. When we find out that Rose was a warm and loving mother to Philip when he was younger, that her passionate affair had ended, and that she and Owen were never really physically warm towards each other, you can really see how she has lost all physical connections in her life. Lonely, indeed.

Michelle (fireweaver) | 104 comments Amanda & Julie, i'm right there with your top of thread observations: very much a tale of its time, very nicely written, marvelous characterization, and yet...meh.

i think that the difference in eliot & philip's upbringings was to show that everyone has issues, completely regardless of the way you were raised. neither a gay boy raised by repressed distantly loving parents nor one raised by openly gay supportive parents finds it easy to maintain a healthy relationship. ya just gotta make your own way in the world. and yes, same thing for the women, and a resounding agreement on the kudos for inclusion of female characters here as well.

i thought Leavitt's characterization skills were really one of the high points for this book. everyone had a distinct "voice", and their own clear motivations, and i very much wanted things to work out right for one and all. thanksgiving dinner in a few years indeed! the most telling point for me on this is just how much i wanted rose & owen to work things out with each other. if this was my personal situation, i'd respond in a hugely different fashion. that being said, i thought it was quite remarkable when i thought about it later how much i wanted rose to get what she wanted for herself (a comfortable lack of change), rather than what i would want for myself in that case.

the other strong point of this book for me was the very genteel writing style. plenty of other books in the mid-80s were earthy and gritty, so i don't think the tone is merely a product of its times. dinner parties and quickie sex acts in a porn theater and books of word puzzles and little snow flurries are all described in the same clear, gentle language; nothing played up for shock value, even when it would otherwise be somewhat shocking. it's not an expose of OMG THE GAYS!!!, but just a quiet tale of a few lives intersecting and diverging.

and while i liked that a lot, it's probably also why i didn't love it. there are no huge tragedies here, no major villains to come together to fight, no glorious successes of monumental proportions...just quiet, calm, ordinary lives. and i already have one of those i'm working on myself.

message 23: by Sue (last edited Dec 04, 2010 05:24PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue (sue_re) I thought this was a very sweet book; as pointed out by others, Leavitt has a very sympathetic portrayal of all of the characters. I was glad that it was an honest portrayal of gay love, not overplayed. The portrait of NYC in the 80s seems very true and real. Leavitt's storytelling is very gentle, neither suspenseful nor boring, but enough to hold your interest and feel for the characters. It did take me a while to get used to his style; the writing in the first part of the book seemed a little awkward- I don't know if I got used to it or if it smoothed out. I'm still contemplating the crane-boy story and how that came to be the title. I did like Jerene very much.

PS. It's funny that the book cover on Goodreads is of a flying crane when the crane referred to in the book is a construction crane.

message 24: by Amanda (last edited Dec 05, 2010 01:58AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Amanda Michelle wrote: "the other strong point of this book for me was the very genteel writing style. plenty of other books in the mid-80s were earthy and gritty...nothing played up for shock value, even when it would otherwise be somewhat shocking"

Absolutely right Michelle. This is what I liked most about this book. I've read gritty gay-lit set in dark, alternate (and almost exclusively homosexual) universes, filled with sadistic behaviour patterns, serial infidelity and rampant promiscuity and found it hard to swallow (and it hardly does much good for the rep of homosexuals, either!). I've known gay people and they aren't the characters portrayed in those books. Leavitt's writing felt more human - more real. You feel as if the characters are taking part in a society you recognise.

Sue wrote: "PS. It's funny that the book cover on Goodreads is of a flying crane when the crane referred to in the book is a construction crane"

My copy of the book didn't have a crane on the cover, but my first thought on reading the name was of the animal crane. I guess our mental processes are happier to believe that birds - a living animal incapable of speech - might have language than they would be to give speech to an inanimate object. It was a clever trick on Leavitt's part! Strange the way the human brain works...

message 25: by Michelle (last edited Dec 05, 2010 11:21AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Michelle (fireweaver) | 104 comments I absolutely thought it was going to be about animal cranes rather than construction cranes, too. perhaps that's also intentional, given that cranes can symbolize long life and monogamy?

message 26: by RedSycamore (last edited Dec 10, 2010 09:25AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

RedSycamore | 4 comments Michelle wrote: "I absolutely thought it was going to be about animal cranes rather than construction cranes, too. perhaps that's also intentional, given that cranes can symbolize long life and monogamy?"
Hehe, glad to know I wasn't the only one.

Leavitt's characterization was definitely the highlight of the novel for me - every character was utterly believable even when they weren't sensible, or reasonable, or likable, etc.

It also struck me as strange that Leavitt seems to be suggesting that both nurture and (genetic) nature contribute to homosexuality in light of Eliot's and Philip's respective upbringing/parentage, but I agree with previous comments that he probably only caused the characters to be related in the ways that they were for the sake of convenience/plot facilitation. It felt a lot more meaningful to interpret the crane child as representing the characters' initial (and essentially meaningless) language as the dishonesty of hiding their true natures and their newly learned, meaningful language as the open but painful honesty they achieved by the end of the novel.

Almost totally random aside:
One little thing that I couldn't forget for some reason were the two unfinished theses (Owen's and Jerene's). I wondered if Leavitt was somehow suggesting that academia was also a sort of false language that they both had to unlearn, but that always felt like a big stretch. It was just a little tidbit that, for some reason, I expected to have some sort of underlying relevance beyond emphasizing the fact that someone similar to Owen (but, like Philip, born a generation later) would be much freer to live as they chose...

message 27: by Karina (last edited Mar 02, 2011 01:44PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Karina | 381 comments Sad that I missed the discussion of the book, but I definitely will agree that the characterizations are strongest. The plot itself I thought was lacking, especially with the random insert of the Crane story. However, the character of Rose I thought was the most interesting. There were at times that I was empathetic to Rose's plight, the need for her to feel passion in her relationship with Owen, when clearly there wasn't any, and she sought relationships with other men to fulfill her passions. Yet, while Owen and Rose had no passion or feeling in their relationship, they continued to stay with each other, Keeping up appearances so to speak.

One point that did bother me that others brought up was that both Nature/Nuture are contributing factors to homosexuality which believe what you may, is not the case. I think that was a weak point that Leavitt should've been less lazy about in his plot and looking for an easy story to write out and paid a little more attention to.

message 28: by El (new) - rated it 4 stars

El Karina wrote: "I think that was a weak point that Leavitt should've been less lazy about in his plot and looking for an wasy story to write out and paid a little more attention to."

I'm not sure he was being lazy, per se. In 1986 maybe Leavitt (being gay himself) genuinely felt they were contributing factors. It may been an important point he was trying to make at the time, and he may not agree with it now - hard to say.

Has anyone seen any interviews with him re: this book? I did a quick look but only found more recent interviews. I'm just curious - would love to pick his brain about this one.

Karina | 381 comments Maybe lazy was too strong of a word but I do feel that instead of going in depth with it he just chose scenarios that moved his plot a long, however I do have to agree that I would love to pick his brain as well about this. I sometimes tend to forget that this book was written in 1986, so it may be possible he does feel the same way as you state.

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