Tales about the City

I raced through this book in about three evenings.  I have been a fan of Armistead Maupin for years – ever since I first discovered Tales of The City in the late 1980s and fell in love with the characters, as well as San Francisco (it’s been top of my must visit list ever since).  I’ve read every book he’s written, and so getting this when it published was a no-brainer.

He calls it a memoir, rather than an autobiography, and that’s exactly what it is.  A series of reminiscences from his life – pretty much in chronological order, but interspersed with updates as necessary.

While I knew that the early books in the TotC series were based on actual events, I hadn’t realised just how autobiographical they were.  It was fascinating to see where the inspiration for some of the characters came from, and how some of the (seemingly-far fetched) plots were based on real events and places.

I also hadn’t realised how involved Armistead was in the early days of the gay rights movement. He is very honest about his past and lifestyle, both before and after coming out.  He also mentions a fair few well known figures, including Harvey Milk and Rock Hudson, but it’s not name-dropping; they are integral in the story.  It’s a really interesting, personal document of a pivotal time for gay rights in America and also a love letter to San Francisco.

After reading some of his non-TotC fiction I had wondered if he didn’t like women very much as the majority of his straight female characters are ultimately not very likeable.  However this book answers that question; the love and respect he has for his mother, grandmother and sister (as well as other members of his “logical family”) shine through.

I loved the concept of a “logical family” as well as the terminology.  Your logical family are those people you chose to be with and feel a bond with, not necessarily those you are related to or share DNA with.  Those who are familiar with my blog will know that this resonates with me.

I recommend this book to anyone who enjoyed Tales of the City, or who is interested in recent cultural history.  It’s an easy read but will stick with you and also make you think about your own freedoms and prejudices.  Read it.  Then read Tales of the City.  I dare you not to love Mrs Madrigal.  Better still, read TotC first so you don’t get spoilt for the twists…

Month in review

January started with dating and ended with reading.  A vast improvement!  I picked three books, relatively randomly, but they all seemed to share some similar themes; aloneness, disconnection and mental health issues.

The first book I read was The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian.  This isn’t a new book, (published in 2008) but was new to me.  I came across it when I was doing a bit of research around F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.   In this book the main protagonist, Laurel, grew up near East and West Egg,  the areas where Gatsby and the Buchanans live in the novel.  The book is based on the premise that the events in The Great Gatsby were true and explores what happened to Tom and Daisy (and their family) after Gatsby was killed.

Laurel is attacked while out cycling.  After this she becomes withdrawn and focuses on her photography and volunteering at a local shelter, where she meets a homeless man who she believes is the youngest child of Tom and Daisy Buchanan.  After he dies she becomes obsessed with uncovering the truth about his life.

I won’t say much more for fear of giving away the novel’s twist.  I guessed what this would be part way through, but didn’t work all of it out.  It was an interesting read, but probably not one that I will pick up again to reread.  It was the first of this author’s books I’d read and his style of writing didn’t quite gel for me.  However, if you like a thriller, or are interested in what may have happened post-Gatsby, then you might enjoy this.

The next novel was Lullaby by Leila Silmani.  She is a French author and the novel was a best seller in France.  It has now been translated into English and has had quite a lot of press coverage, mainly due to the subject matter.   The cover says  “The baby is dead.  It only took a few seconds.”  The story focuses on Myriam and her husband Paul who decide to get a nanny for their two children so Myriam can return to work as a lawyer.  They find Louise who seems perfect.  However as the reader you know that she will kill the children and it’s a matter of waiting and working out how and why this happened.

There is a lot of focus on gender and class and the story is fairly tightly plotted.  There is real sense of Parisian life and culture and how similar and different it is from ours. The end did seem quite rushed however, which was a shame.  The language was stilted in some places and I’m not sure if this was due to the translation or if this is how the original was written.  It was also unusual to read a book where none of the characters are particularly likeable.  I imagine it must be a difficult read though for parents who rely on a nanny for their children.

The last book was a debut novel from Gail Honeyman Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.  This was my favourite of the three by a mile.  It’s about a thirty-something single woman who has clearly had a traumatic childhood and has a difficult relationship with her estranged mother.  She is a creature of habit and very literal in  her understanding of the world.  She keeps herself isolated from her colleagues, until a chance encounter changes that.   Eleanor’s observations are hilarious, and the book was a real page-turner.  It is horrific in parts but written beautifully with some well-drawn, believable characters. The denouement was quite surprising but left hope for a sequel.  I would really recommend this one to anyone.

In all three the main protagonists are women who are all slightly separate from the rest of society and struggle in different ways with accepting that.   They all have mental health issues to some degree and find it hard to connect with others, feeling a need to prove something to either themselves or other people.   While they may have had experiences I have not shared, or may not all have been particularly likeable, it was interesting to see the commonalities and also understand a different perspective on life from mine.

As always, books open doors to different lives and different viewpoints.  I’ve been back to Waterstones for more, so my dating tales are likely to be interspersed with book reviews.  You have been warned!

Death comes to Discworld

This isn’t the post I was planning to publish today, but when I got home I heard the news that Sir Terry Pratchett had lost his battle with Alzheimers.  Terry was one of my favourite authors – his vivid imagination, dark sense of humour, inventiveness and quirky writing style (1) brought his Discworld characters to life.  They are his legacy and will keep his memory alive for generations to come .

He also seemed a thoroughly nice chap, with an enquiring, incisive intellect.  It makes the method of his passing even more tragic. I hope that on his journey Terry meets the Death character he so brilliantly characterised.

RIP Terry – my thoughts are with your friends and family at this sad time.


(1) I loved the footnotes