• Current Reads

      Life after Life Jill McCorkle
      This Is Your Captain Speaking Jon Methven
      The Starboard Sea Amber Dermont
      Snark David Denby
      Bring Up the Bodies Hilary Mantel
  • Popular Tags

  • Recent Reflections

  • Categories

  • Moleskine’s All-Time Favorites

  • Echoes

    The HKIA brings Hong… on [788] Island and Peninsula 島與半…
    Adamos on The Master and Margarita:…
    sumithra MAE on D.H. Lawrence’s Why the…
    To Kill a Mockingbir… on [35] To Kill A Mockingbird…
    Deanna Friel on [841] The Price of Salt (Carol…
    Minnie on [367] The Rouge of the North 怨…
  • Reminiscences

  • Blog Stats

    • 1,081,386 hits
  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,710 other followers

John Muir

1muir

The recent trip to the Gold Country enlightened me of Yosemite’s 150th birthday. The trip also led me to John Muir, naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, which saved national treasures like Yosemite and the Sequoia National Park. Without Muir this might no longer exist as it does to this day:
1muir2

To look at a map of the United States, one would get the impression that moving west a traveler would encounter the Rocky Mountains and then nothing but lowlands stretching out to the Pacific. But no, there are more mountains to be passed once you hit California and they are no joke. Just ask the Donner Party. Muir’s task was to enter this rugged country to oversee a herd of sheep sent into the mountains to forage during the blistering Summers suffered upon the San Joaquin Valley floor. My First Summer in the Sierra is his recounting of this life-altering experience.

The book describes the author’s 1869 stay in California’s Yosemite River Valley and the Sierra Mountains. Muir’s engaging journal describes majestic vistas, flora and fauna, as well as the region’s other breathtaking natural wonders. Picturesque descriptions and sketches will likely invest within reader a strong desire to see all he is describing. One thing is obvious almost from the beginning. John Muir was a good writer. His elegant use of language was apt for the grandeur of his subject.

[550] Mapping the Territory – Christopher Bram

territory

” The human race is full of sin, but conservatives have somehow decided that the gravest sin is homosexuality. Since they’re not homosexual themselves, they can feel assured they are among the righteous, even if they sometimes think impure thoughts, cheat in business, cheat on their spouses, neglect their children or skip church on Sunday. ” (A Sort of Friendship: A Few Thoughts about Gay Marriage, p.225)

Mapping Territory is Christopher Bram’s first collection of non-fiction over his thirty-year career. These essays range through such topics as the power of gay fiction, coming out in the 1970s, the AIDS epidemic, gay marriage, and the vicissitude of lower Manhattan. As befit and instinctive of a novelist, into these autobiographical piece, arranged more or less in chronological order, imparted Bram’s love for books and literature and how they help him address his sexuality as well as allow him to read his own desires. As a young reader, I shared Bram’s experience in reading the way into homosexuality—something is that is both eye-opening and relieving. The literature assures Bram, and myself, that being homosexual is not being off the margin. Homosexuality should be connected with the rest of life. This is certainly a revelation to me who comes out two generations after the author did, but still confronting a society in which “culture at large regularly instructs people on how to be heterosexual.” (A Body in Books: A Memoir in a Reading List, p.22)

Sex is intensely subjective anyway, full of built-in guilt and anxiety. No matter what you do or don’t do, it often feels wrong. During my first years in New York, I felt that I’d failed as a gay man if I didn’t have X number of partners over Y span of time . . . Monogamy was considered a blind aping of heterosexuals, despite the fact that the sexual revolution made fidelity less mandatory for them as well. (Faggots Revisited, p.105)

Mapping Territory does not just reach out to real readers—hungry, curious, open-minded readers of fiction in particular and good books in general, although these people, gay and straight, Bram sadly notes, are a minority. Beside a didactic discussion on what contributes gay literature and a critical review of Larry Kramer’s sex-renouncing Faggots, which continues to hit a nerve of the gays and provoke anger, Bram writes about coming out in Virginia, his stoop in West Village, the life of Henry James, the different appeals between books and movie tie-ins, the egotistic straight male fiction, and gay marriage.

That is my chief problem with most straight male fiction: authorial egos are so insistently, domineeringly, present. In too many novels I feel locked in a jail cell with just one other person, either a solitary sufferer or all-knowing puppeteer. Other people, other points of view, barely exist—even other male points of view. (Can Straight Men Still Write? p.176)

It is not until Bram makes this observation of his reading blind spot that I realize the straight male authors have accounted for less than a tenth in my reading. Authors he named emotionally thin and stylistically opaque are ones I have also long abandoned! This collection of essays is so rich in anecdotes, humor, philosophy and literary critique. Amazing how many of his feelings and experiences corroborate to mine, even down to his craving for erotic literature written with seriousness and craft. What Bram’s essays do for me is exactly why gay men and women search out for such literature: to find the much needed mirrors of reality. Woven throughout this endlessly entertaining book is Bram’s elegant use of the English language. The book also gives me fodder for my reading list.

256 pp. Alyson Books. Hardcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[543] Love In A Dark Time – Colm Tóibín

lovedark

Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodóvar

” This, then, is a book in the main about gay figures for whom being gay seemed to come second in their public lives, either by choice or by necessity. But in their private lives, in their own spirit, the laws of desire changed everything for them and made all the difference. The struggle for gay sensibility began as an intensely private one, and slowly then, if the gay man or woman was a writer, or a painter or a filmmaker or a reformer, it seeped into language and images and politics in ways which were strange and fascinating. ” (Introduction, p.3)

Colm Tóibín, whose fictional works I have read and admired, may once have been uneasy about his sexuality, but this collection of essays suggests his critical faculties have always been assured. Love in a Dark Time is not a memoir, not is it polemics; and, to my relief, it is not a prescription of another queer theory. The figures who interest Tóibín are not gay writers whose works had “done so much to clear the air and make things easier for gay people,” but those from an earlier time, whose legacy was ambiguous, either by choice or by necessity.

Rather it is dictated by a narrative that is predetermined: any biography of a homosexual man who made no attempt to hide his sexuality must dwell at length on the untidiness of his personal life and the drama of his relationships. (Francis Bacon, p.146)

These essays, though in varying strengths in terms of details and profundity, while considering the influence of their sexuality, leaves readers a better understanding of these artists. Tóibín makes no secret of his fondness for Elizabeth Bishop and James Baldwin and his admiration of their works. He compares Bishop to Hemingway for her fierce simplicity: “A use of words in which the emotion appears to be hidden, to lurk mysteriously in the space between the words.” (Elizabeth Bishop, p.177) The calm surface of her poetry gives little indication that her life was troubled. Her literary métier became an outlet that allowed her to triumph over such familiar demons as emotional insecurity and alcoholism. Of Baldwin he also highly praises. Tóibín nails the root of the aura of intensity and seriousness that is James Baldwin. Not only the drama of his own life often echoed against the public drama, his being black and gay and an imaginative writer was such the triple burden he had to bear in that dark time. Only when he was full-hilt in the civil rights movement did he realize that the privilege did not extend to the gays. But like Tóibín notes, the adversity did not stop him. His works delve into the subject of flesh and sexual longing, and how the truth of the body differs from the lies of the mind.

His intelligence, the energy of his wit and his longing for love hit up against history and the hardness of the world, hit up against the prejudices which people had about a man who was black and a man who was gay. (James Baldwin, p.212)

The collection also touches upon painter Francis Bacon, who put off any interview irrelevant to his art work; Thomas Mann, who sublimated his homosexual desires at his desk; Roger Casement, whose homosexuality antagonized him to the consular service; Mark Doty, who wrote poems about AIDS without naming the disease, and Oscar Wilde, who went to jail for sodomy. Love in a Dark Time is highly readable and important, for it is only when homosexuality is removed from the margins and placed at the very heart of the cultural canon that society shall be free of discrimination. The progression of these pieces shows we are heading the right direction at the least, though the battle is still a long one.

278 pp. Picador UK. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[444] How to Travel with a Salmon – Umberto Eco

” Unfortunately, there is one inexorable law of technology, and it is this: when revolutionary inventions become widely accessible, they cease to be accessible. Technology is inherently democratic, because it promises the same services to all; but it works only if the rich are alone in using it. ” (151)

Umberto Eco’s assembled essays are both impishly witty and bitingly fun. From the advice on eating in a commercial jetliner (which comes in handy as I was about to be served a meal while reading the book), the trick for going through customs unmolested, the downside of traveling with non-endurable goods to dealing with the leaky coffee-pot from hell in luxurious hotel room, Eco demonstrates his acute vision of the absurdities of modern life. The innumerable gadgets that claim to make life simpler and convenient also make us hoarders. Fax machine became a godsend when the postal system failed, but soon the fax introduced a new element into the dynamics of nuisance. Until the fax, the pests paid (for the soliciting phone calls and the postage for flyers), but now the fax user was harassed by a swamp of missives at his own expense because he had paid for the fax paper.

Eco’s essays are constructed on the irony of modern technology and its drawback. Cellphone epitomizes the very catch-22 and to my interminable delight he is not shy about lambasting the pathological cellphone users for their inordinateness and lack of respect for others. Those whom Eco repudiates are ones I never have the fortune to be spread from the company: people who cannot resist their compulsion to interact, they can never enjoy a moment of solitude. Nor are they aware of their inner emptiness.

So much for humane conveniences, Eco imposes one question, the same underlying one that addresses the extent to which we make sacrifices for such petty conveniences. This collection is not to be missed if you are keen on light and diverting read but that which sheds light on what it means to be human in the age of technological and informational boom. The few essays that delve in aliens and history are lackluster and a bit off the tangent.

256 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]