Tag Archives: LGBT History Month

Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin

It is very rare that I re-read a book, even my favourites. I always have a fear that in doing so some of the charm will wear off or the surprises that you had on the first read won’t reappear. One series of books and indeed one book in particular, that I have returned to again and again over a good few decades is ‘Tales of the City’ by Armistead Maupin. As it is LGBT History Month this month I decided it was a fitting time to return to Barbary Lane once again, hopefully bringing a few of you along with me.

***** Transworld Books, paperback, 1978, fiction, 269 pages, from my own bookshelves

At the end of her vacation from her homeland of Cleveland, Mary Ann Singleton decides, rather recklessly for her, that staying in the city of San Francisco should be a more permanent move. Initially moving in with her old friend Connie, who is a little more free and easy that Mary Ann can believe, she finds her own apartment at 28 Barbary Lane above her mysterious and initially rather odd seeming landlady Anna Madrigal, neighbours Mona, Mouse, Brian and soon Norman. It is Mary Ann’s story of arriving and settling in San Francisco that makes the initial tale in which more and more tales of the mixed bunch of characters around her diverge and merge off of, some linking back on each other and some adding twists and turns you wouldn’t see coming. All together they do, as the title suggests, make a wonderful collection of tales, and indeed a narrative of, the city. I don’t want to spoil the tales and their twists for you though so I won’t discuss the plot/s further.

For me the main joy of the book and this has been the case every time, in the fifteen years that I have re-read it on and off, is the fact that it feels like real life. The city of San Francisco comes straight off the page, I haven’t been there (and would love to if anyone fancies treating me, ha) but I feel I have, so vivid is the description and the atmosphere of the place from the luxury of the Halcyon’s apartments to the supermarkets and dry cleaners of downtown. In fact it does very much feel like a love letter to and from San Francisco in many ways.

‘Well, take your time. There’s a partial view, if you count that little patch of bay peeping through the trees. Utilities included, of course. Small house. Nice people. You get here this week?’
‘That obvious, huh?’
The landlady nodded. ‘The look’s a dead giveaway. You just can’t wait to bite into that lotus.’
‘What? I’m sorry…’
‘Tennyson. You know: “Eating the lotus day by day, To watch the crisping ripples on the beach, An tender curving lines of creamy spray; To lend our hearts and spirits wholly to the influence of”… something, something… You get the point.’
‘Does the… furniture go with it?’
‘Don’t change the subject while I am quoting Tennyson.’
Mary Ann was shaken until she noticed that the landlady was smiling. ‘You get used to my babbling,’ said Mrs Madrigal. ‘All the others have.’ She walked to the window, where the wind made her kimono flutter like brilliant plumage. ‘The furniture is included. What do you say dear?’
Mary Ann said yes.
‘Good. You’re one of us then. Welcome to 28 Barbary Lane.’
‘Thank you.’
‘You should.’ Mrs Madrigal smiled. There was something careworn about her face, but she was really quite lovely, Mary Anne decided. ‘Do you have any objection to pets?’ asked the new tenant.
‘Dear… I have no objection to anything.’

It is the characters that steal the show, Mrs Madrigal, Mary Ann and Michael/Mouse in the main, walking off the page as they do so with flaws and all. Maupin is a master of characterisation and prose each character being multifaceted with good sides and bad, secrets here and there and just regular people of all walks of life. I don’t think in any book I have read outside of the ‘Tales of the City’ series have I found a set of characters that depict all aspects of society, in terms of ages, sexuality, backgrounds, wealth, races, etc, without feeling false of like the author is trying too hard. Maupin covers homophobia, terminal illness, affairs (of people of all ages and sexualities), spies, murder, lies and even cults without any effort or feeling like he is trying to make a shocking statement. There is also a short sharp episodic feel to the book, no surprise as originally it was serialised in a San Francisco paper, that makes it almost unputdownable; you find yourself saying ‘just one more, oh go on another one’ as you go along.

For me at fifteen, and still at thirty if I am honest, what Maupin says to me is that these are characters who are all trying to figure themselves out and so you can too at the same time. As the series goes on, and the more you return to it, all these characters feel like friends. Here I have to admit I wanted to – okay I still do a bit – take the place of Mouse when I was fifteen and have best friends like Mary Ann Singleton and Mona and live in one of Mrs Madrigal’s apartments. In that teenage phase we all have, I think, where I used to save up 20p a week to runaway it was Barbary Lane that I was aiming for. I owe a huge thanks to Armistead Maupin for not only for making me love reading and providing me with escape in my younger years but for also making me realise it was okay to be a bit different from everyone else, that it didn’t matter – or that it wouldn’t matter to those people who really cared about me – and that I would find my way in life okay. It was books like this one and how it reached out to me, way back when in my teens, and made me want to start something like The Green Carnation Prize so other people could find books like this as well, be they a teenager or adult.

Anyway, I have gone off on a tangent, as you can see ‘Tales of the City’ is a book that means a huge amount to me. It is a book, for me, which epitomises what reading is all about, exploring worlds we don’t know and with characters walk off the page and we befriend from all walks of life. It’s one that is a joy to discover for the first time, which I hope some of you have done or will do, and even more of a joy to return to time and time again – and it never seems to age. I cannot recommend, or love this book, enough.

Who else is a fan of ‘Tales of the City’ and the series? Who also loved the TV show, why can’t they do the whole lot? Who has returned to it again and again? Who has tried it for the first time and what did you make of it?

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Filed under Armistead Maupin, Books of 2013, Review, Transworld Publishing

Savidge Reads’ Top Ten LGBT Books…

As I mentioned yesterday I am in a little bit of a reading funk. So I was routing through my bookshelves, and preparing for the event I have coming next Tuesday, I thought that I would make a little video of my personal top ten LGBT themed books. This is by no means what I think are the best LGBT themed books, it is a list of the ones that have a special place in my heart from my young teens all the way to now. So have a gander if you fancy it…

I know there are some celebrated books and authors missing yet these are the ten books that I mentioned.

Pilcrow – Adam Mars Jones
The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller
Running With Scissors – Augusten Burroughs
The Proof of Love – Catherine Hall
A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood
My Policeman – Bethan Roberts
In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
Skin Lane – Neil Bartlett
A Boy’s Own Story – Edmund White
Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin

I am aware I have missed some of my favourite authors like Stella Duffy, Sarah Waters, Geoff Ryman, etc, lots and lots of Green Carnation books, nonfiction and classics, the latter mainly as I am playing catch up with Larry Kramer and Radclyffe Hall etc.

That is of course where you come in… What are the books you love with LGBT themes? Which books have I missed and might I have read and need to re-read (I feel I need to pick up ‘Rough Music’ by Patrick Gale again at some point) or try for the first time? Which of you the books I mention have you read? Who is coming to Leeds on Tuesday for my scary solo event? Who is currently reading ‘Tales of the City’, which I will be picking up to re-read today, to discuss on Friday on the blog? Lots of questions for you there.

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Filed under Random Savidgeness

LGBT History Month 2013

Some of you may be well aware of this already, though I thought I would bring it up anyway, that today marks the start of LGBT History Month. The idea behind the initiative of a whole month of LGBT history is to bring to the fore tales of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who have not just done amazing things recently but also those who have done things in the past and might have been forgotten. It is about remembering, or highlighting, these people and the history of LGBT culture and using it to educate people of all orientations at the same time. For more details pop and check out the website. Now despite the fact that I co-founded an LGBT book award (which launches at the end of the February to coincide with all this) I have never really gotten involved in the month and so I thought this year I should, especially as I won’t be judging the Green Carnation Prize 2013. The question is though… how?

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I wanted to make sure that I was doing something, even if it was just something small, on the blog really, as whilst hopefully I don’t bash you over the head with it, I am a member of the LGBT community – if a bit of a rubbish one – and actually I am rather clueless (which I am almost ashamed to admit to) on the history of the LGBT movement. So therefore I wanted to read a nonfiction book that might open my eyes to more of that. I also thought it would be fun to read a book that has become an LGBT ‘cult classic’ though it is difficult to get hold of AND I thought I might try and get you all to join in with reading an LGBT book that if you have read, like me, you will be desperate to read all over again or have you not yet read it will open up your eyes to a wonderful series of books with some amazing characters, and so I have dug these three books of various shelves…

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Neil McKenna’s latest nonfiction book ‘Fanny and Stella; The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England’ sounds like it is going to be right up my street. Fanny and Stella were two male clerks who were also part time actresses and prostitutes, so good was their guise as women. Yet when their impersonating nature was discovered their court case was one of the most sensation trials of the Victorian era, should they be found guilty of their many supposed crimes they would face life in prison. This just sounds incredible and is an LGBT tale that I’d never heard of, or even seen flickers f in neo-Victorian literature really, until a buzz started about this book. I will be starting this today.

‘Queens’ by Pickles is a book that is apparently quite difficult to get hold of as it has been out of print for many years. I picked it up about 4 years ago in London when I had that amazing 5 for £2 second hand bookshop down the road and have still not read it and I really feel I should. It is apparently a visceral, blunt and confronting novel that tells of the underground lives of gay men in the 1980’s and is told with wit and cynicism in third-person ,omniscient narrator, overheard dialogue, and epistolary. It should be something quite different and special; apparently the pessimistic tone of the book is what makes it both hard hitting and also darkly funny, as it is hard to get I decided not to make this the unofficial read-a-long choice instead going for…

‘Tales of the City’ by Armistead Maupin and easily, easily, easily one of my favourite books of all time. I love the characters, I love the descriptions of 1970’s San Francisco and I can remember falling in love with everyone and wishing so badly I could move to Barbary Lane when I first read this in my early teens. Please, please, please (not that I am begging much, ha) do join in for an unofficial read-a-long of this if you fancy it, I plan on discussing it on Friday the 22nd of February and would genuinely love to get you all picking it up. I have a feeling I will want to read the whole series again. Can you tell I am excited?

I am also joining in with The Guardian’s Reading Group this month which too has gone all LGBT and is reading, deep breaths now, ‘Swann’s Way’ the first in Marcel Proust’s series ‘In Search of Lost Time’ – I won’t lie, I am petrified of this book and I haven’t even picked it up yet, in fact I don’t have a copy as yet but I am working on it. I will also be doing an event at Leeds Library at the end of the month called ‘Wilde About Literature’ and will be looking for your help with some thoughts on that, but more on that in another post.

So who is up for reading ‘Tales of the City’ and just out of interest what have been your favourite LGBT themed books, not necessarily by an LGBT author but a book that deals with it, nonfiction books recommendation books especially welcomed, as I mentioned I need to brush up on my knowledge of the LGBT past, though fiction recommendations are always welcomed of course!

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Filed under LGBT History Month, Random Savidgeness