Reading: Looking Back to Move Forward; 2 from the 1950’s

Today talking about James Baldwin’s 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room, and Barbara Comyns’s 1950 novel, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths.

Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin, Paperback, 176pp, 2013 Vintage edition, originally published in 1956 by Dial Press

I’ve been doing a lot of looking back in an effort to decide how best to move forward, said reflection having led to my decision that my 2018 year in reading would include at least one backlist book from my massive “To Be Read” stacks for every new release I read. Considering my advanced age and long experience as gay man, one would think I’d have read all the classics of the Queer canon but because of my devotion to another queer author, Garth Greenwell, whose What Belongs To You is one of my favorite books of all time (click HERE for my love letter to it and Mr. Greenwell) and my searching out all his work, I found his appreciation for James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, (click HERE for that article) and realized though I thought I had, I had never read it. I didn’t even own a copy. So, while I have managed to read a backlist book, I didn’t reduce the To Be Read pile.

David, an American expatriate in 1950’s Paris, whose “girl”, Hella, has awayed to Spain to contemplate his marriage proposal, becomes involved with Giovanni. Torn by the conflict between his powerful erotic and emotional attachment to Giovanni and the cultural and internalized homophobia that terrifies him, David is unable to commit to any path, to face his own truth, to come to terms with himself, admitting: “I do not know what I felt for Giovanni. I felt nothing for Giovanni. I felt terror and pity and a rising lust.”

James Baldwin tells us the ending from the beginning; we know that Giovanni has been sentenced to the guillotine, Hella has headed back to America, and David is a mess of guilt, self-hatred, and doubt.

David’s shame is a difficult and painful read, particularly now when homophobic-fascist bigots are determined to undo hard-won LGBTQ progress toward equality and turn back the clock to the atmosphere of shame and second-class citizenship for everyone but white-hetero-cis-males of a certain upper-economic level, efforts at which have increased hate crimes against the LGBTQ community by 700% so far since 45 took office.

Yet, even though it is emotionally eviscerating, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room is an invaluable portrait of a particular time and attitude in our history, and reminder of why it is so important we not go back. And the language! James Baldwin’s writing is spare, but utterly evocative, managing to capture an era in the exchange of a few sentences between David and Jacques, the older gay man who has helped David, lusted for David, and for whom David has little use except to use. In the following exchange, Jacques and David are in a bar with Giovanni when Jacques asks David if he intends to write Hella and tell her about his feelings for Giovanni. Listen:

“I really don’t see what there is to write about. But what’s it to you if I do or I don’t?
He gave me a look full of a certain despair which I had not, till that moment, known was in him. It frightened me. “It’s not,” he said, “what it is to me. It’s what it is to you. And to her. And to that poor boy, yonder, who doesn’t know that when he looks at you the way he does, he is simply putting his head in the lion’s mouth. Are you going to treat him as you’ve treated me?”
You? What have you to do with all this? How have I treated you?”
You have been very unfair to me,” he said. “You have been very dishonest.”
This time I did sound sardonic. “I suppose you meant that I would have been fair,  I would have been honest if I had — if —”
“I mean you could have been fair to me by despising me a little less.”
“I’m sorry. But I think, since you bring it up, that a lot of your life is despicable.”
“I could say the same about yours,” said Jacques. “There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain. You ought to have some apprehension that the man you see before you was once even younger than you are now and arrived at his present wretchedness by imperceptible degrees.”
There was silence for a moment, threatened, from a distance, by that laugh of Giovanni’s.
“Tell me,” I said at last, “is there really no other way for you but this? To kneel down forever before an army of boys for just five dirty minutes in the dark?”
“Think,” said Jacques, “of the men who have kneeled before you while you thought of something else and pretended that nothing was happening down there in the dark between your legs.”
I stared at the amber cognac and at the wet rings on the metal. Deep below, trapped in the metal, the outline of my own face looked upward hopelessly at me.
“You think,” he persisted, “that my life is shameful because my encounters are. And they are. But you should ask yourself why they are.”

It wasn’t so very long ago — my youth, in fact, and I am now in my 50’s — when, in much of the world, the sort of liaisons Jacques had were the only possible type for men who lusted for men. There was no possibility of being openly homosexual, and the puritan attitudes Americans had (and have) about sex coupled with culturally embedded homophobia, made it nearly impossible for gay men (and women, though it was a very different experience but no less dangerous and fraught) to have a positive self-image, to escape childhood, adolescence, adulthood without some measure of self-hate, which often went unrecognized, or, even, was congratulated. Both Jacques and David in the above exchange are displaying internalized homophobia and sex-negativity.

And, yet, Giovanni’s Room was considered too homo-positive when first published, when, in fact, it is a validation of homophobia and self-hate. As I said earlier, I thought I had read most of the Queer Canon through the years, and I did, but looking back, so much of the earlier literature was full of guilt and internalized homophobia and tragedy and struggle — all of which were reflective of Queer experience for much of this country’s existence. Dancer from the Dance, City of Night, Faggots, A Boy’s Own Story, Brideshead Revisited, and so many others, all full of inchoate yearning, once satisfied leading to tragedy, sorrow, ruin.

It’s time for a new literature, for which we must create a new world, the beginning of which is not going back to before. It’s time to undo the disaster or November 2016, restore order and the march toward equality for all, and end the patriarchy. Today. So that for a generation very soon to be, Giovanni’s Room will read as a horror story, unbelievable that attraction and love could cause such agony.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, Barbara Comyns, Paperback, 214pp, 2013, Virago Modern Classics UK, originally published in Great Britain in 1950 by Eyre & Spottiswode

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths introduces itself to you as a piquant, twee even, romp about young artists types falling in love, defying family, living on little money and lots of love. But soon, Barbara Comyns skillfully twists the fairy-tale-horror-story knife into your unsuspecting gut and takes the reader down the rabbit hole of poverty-stricken young wife and mother, abandoned emotionally, financially, and physically by a husband who turns out never to have loved her and who she realizes she never loved either.

I have never read anything like this, which is to recommend it highly. It is startlingly modern in attitude and experience, despite its having been written nearly 70 years ago, which, as with my recent exploration of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and its depiction of the horrors of Queer life in the 1950’s, is somewhat terrifying that we have not come further along in insuring equality for all people regardless of gender, race, age, sexuality, etcetera.

Sophia, twenty-one, over objections from the family, marries Charles, a painter who only rarely manages to finish a canvas he doesn’t then paint over again. Domestic bliss is short-lived and when Sophia becomes pregnant, Charles is angry and resentful. Things get worse from there. With changing perspectives and shifts in time and attitude, Barbara Comyns writes in an entirely unique and extremely assured voice. She veers from wit — dry and sardonic — to pathos, but never melodramatic mush, just up-front, out there, here it is ugly-life recounting. It is never clear exactly what she is doing until she’s done it, and one is gobsmacked by the power of the prose, plotting, and execution. For me, it was a bit like Flannery O’Connor; a naked, eager naiveté, relentlessly honest, almost too private a view into the events, as if we’re eavesdropping on someone’s therapy session — only, the someone is terribly interesting, amusing, and moving.

Read it. The ending — I am happy to say — offers some hope. And who can’t use a little of that?


So, there they are, reads 7 and 8 for 2018, both from the 1950s, both part of my effort to read more widely, not just the new buzzy books, but the old buzzy books as well. And, sadly, both describe social attitudes and inequalities that one would think we’d have remedied in seventy years. And we haven’t. So, there is more to do, my friends. More. Although I am not sure what that “more” is or means for me, like I said at the start, I am looking back to determine how I ought move forward. And as with everything else in my life, I find literature to be helpful in the pursuit — our past is prologue and what better way to explore and know it, to try to experience it, than through the reading of fiction from the past by gifted writers. I have history to learn. And future to sculpt. And so, the answer is to explore all that “more” waiting out there to be read, thus, here I am, going.




Reading: Recent Reads (and those in progress)

WARNING! This is not a foreword- this is a warning: I am trying to work on many projects – writing projects – which means I am forcing myself to be in front of my laptop for a certain amount of time, pecking and plucking away at the words, crazy with the effort to get the story told, to find the words, the rhythm, the way to say what is inside me DEMANDING to be said. In addition to the fiction projects, I’ve been trying to write a blog entry for days – it still isn’t happening. Here’s the thing – I am something of a mess at the moment. I am dysthymic – so I have ups and downs – and for whatever reason, right now, very down – and when I am like this, everything hits me the wrong way. I am currently terrified of a couple of things I am SURE are going to happen (they probably won’t – but being rational also flies the coop) and a few other things I think already have happened (they probably haven’t – but you can’t, I can’t, right now, convince me of this – not really) and to top it off – I have been pretty sick (for me) for about ten days. BeenRaybourn SILENT IN THE GRAVE to the doctor. Done the drugs. Getting better but still, not myself. Not myself. So, that’s the context for this book blog – I am not myself, and I am in a very bad place – mood/emotion wise. I am in that place where I hear the words, “And, I’m done,” over and over in my head, like a chant, like a mantra. This too, it will, it shall, it does, right? pass. Yes. Ok. Fair warning complete.

When last I briefed on my recent reads I had just started Deanna Raybourn’s “Silent in the Grave”, the first in her Lady Julia Grey series. Unlike most of my reading, I did this on an e-reader. I keep trying to like reading on a device, but, I have to say, I am just not very good at it. And while I liked the book – Ms. Raybourn skillfully took me out of my IRL-world to a different time, a fantasy, and for that I am grateful – I still think I’d have better liked the book had I been holding real pages in my hand.

After I’d finished my regency romance foray, I moved on to a recommendation from my friend, Sue. I take her advice quite seriously now since I ignored for years her insistence I read Ann Patchett’s “The Patron Saint of Liars” only to finally pick it up and become an evangelical fan of its brilliance. So, I looked forward to “Brother of the More Famous Jack” by Barbara Trapido. I was not as smitten with this as so many people (including Elizabeth Gilbert, who blurbed its front cover) – many of those people being authors citing it as one of their reasons for becoming a writer – seem to be. I kept thinking, “I should be liking this Beaton, Love from Hellmore,” and feeling guilty that I did not. Oh well, to each their own.

After that, I wanted some quick, reliable comfort and so turned to Continue reading


I love Hillary Clinton. I’ll be buying at least one copy of her book today.


I am also very, very fond of President Obama. He will go down in history as the President who first openly grew to support equality for the BGLQT community. How AMAZING that after the broadcast of The Normal Heart, a television film by Ryan Murphy of Larry Kramer’s play about the early years of the AIDS crisis during which the sitting President — Ronald Reagan — purposefully ignored the tragedy, and continued to vilify the BGLQT community to gain political traction — as many, many Republicans still do today — how amazing that this president, President Obama, called Mr. Murphy to congratulate him and say how moved he had been by the presentation [CLICK HERE FOR STORY]. Yes, we can. And, we did. Thank you President Obama.

I am overjoyed at the prospect of President Hillary Clinton for eight years, followed by President Michelle Obama for the next eight after having successfully served as Senator from Illinois, followed by President Chelsea Clinton for the next eight, followed by Malia Obama and then Sasha Obama for the next sixteen, which will give us 40 uninterrupted years of Female Democrat leadership; that just MIGHT be enough to undo the damage done by the Republicans — and I mean Reagan, the Bushes, and the current crop of Senators and Congresspeople and Supreme Court Justices and all the Tea Party shenanigans they have enabled.

Luckily, there are enough people like me to continue making certain that progress happens, that human rights are not just protected, but grown, and that people are put ahead of profit. But it’s a struggle.

Hillary 2

Click the pic to visit READY FOR HILLARY website

Here is the link to the READY FOR HILLARY pac [CLICK IT]. Add your name. Join now.

(Note: My blog is my platform to say what I like, as is yours — if you have one — to say what you like. I don’t approve comments that tell me not to speak my truths and my mind, nor do I go to other blogs and ask that they not write what they write. I have friends who voted for Mitt Romney; in fact, I have friends who approve of Sarah Palin; they don’t ask me not to say what I say, think what I think, write what I write; nor do I ask that of them; nor should anyone ask it of anyone. Thanks.)

I OBJECT(ify): Tony Award Nominations and other WTF?’s

Someone recently suggested that I was opinionated and judgmental. Actually, it wasn’t a suggestion, but, rather, an unabashed and full on declaration, although, to be fair, it was in response to my having first made the exact same accusation about her. She, however, used this blog as evidence that I was judgmental.

Hmph. Now hear this, I do have rather strong opinions about things and I do work on the foundational assumption that my opinions are more right than wrong, so, it NATURALLY follows that those with whom I agree are smarter and better informed and in all ways superior to those who disagree with me. However, that doesn’t mean I’m judging you ignorami who don’t understand that I know best.

I think we can all agree that that settles that. And if you don’t agree, well, not to judge, but you are WRONG!

Quinto, Zachary Instagram

Zachary Quinto’s latest Instagram. He has quite an admirable body of work.

Speaking of wrong, the Tony Award nominations [see them HERE at] were announced this morning and some very deserving work was, in the words of Julie Andrews, “egregiously overlooked.” For example, the brilliant revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie  was deservedly nominated in Best Revival of a Play, Best Director, and earned nods for three of its four actors; Cherry Jones, Celia Keenan Bolger, and Brian J. Smith, but neglected, EGREGIOUSLY, was its lead actor, Zachary Quinto. I am horrified. He was quite simply, BRILLIANT in the role, called by those who knew Mr. Williams the very best Tom ever, closest to the vision Mr. Williams dreamed and, quite rightly, closest to the energy of Mr. Williams himself who wrote the role as autobiography. WTF? Well, thank goodness I’ve Mr. Quinto’s body of work on American Horror Story to watch again and again, and his body — period — from his latest Instagram to … uhm … watch. Yeah. That. Again and again.

jeremy jordan

Jeremy Jordan. Because.

And that’s not the ONLY ridiculous — NOT THAT I’M BEING JUDGMENTAL — oversight. The delightful, moving, magical, fantastical, tuneful musical, Big Fish, garnered not one single nomination. Who do you have to fuck in New York to get a Tony? And by that I do not refer to the rumors about Arthur Laurents and his Brian Singer-ing of Matt Cavenaugh and Jeremy Jordan that they might get the lead male ingenue role in the West Side Story revival. Honestly, Big Fish was one of my favorite musicals since Grey Gardens and the score by Mr. Andrew Lippa has everything a Broadway musical ought to including the glorious I Don’t Need a Roof, the YouTube of which I post about once a week. Speaking of, how did Kate Baldwin not get nominated as Best Leading Actress in a Musical? And Norbert Leo Butz not nominated for Leading Actor? WHAT? SO FRUSTRATING!

And so, bad enough Big Fish didn’t get a nomination, but, come on people, The Bridges of Madison County didn’t get a Best Musical nomination either? Why? I’ve just rapturized about this show yesterday in this blog [CLICK HERE FOR THAT ENTRY]. At least Jason Robert Brown was nominated for Best Score. But, Bartlett Sher was robbed not being nominated for Best Direction. That direction was flawless.

And why, praytell, was Bobby Steggert not nominated for Big Fish and/or Mothers and Sons? He is from Frederick. My town. He should be nominated EVERY YEAR.

Oh well, just my opinion, I’m not judging the assholes who made these mistakes.

Enough about the Tony Award noms. EXCEPT, I quit smoking last year on the day of the Tony Awards so I would always remember the date. Now, what with all the ridiculous omissions in this year’s noms, I might be forced to take up nicotine again. I feel — somehow — personally affronted.

KYstoreSpeaking of affronted, Joe.My.God. blog [CLICK HERE] posted this story this morning about a Kentucky store that has posted signage saying it welcomes Christians and gun-carriers but NOT people who swear or are gay. Honestly, they’ve a slash through the rainbow. Have you ever? What a world.

Herald Embroidery [CLICK TO SEE THEIR SITE AND WRITE THEM] has since posted a clarification stating:

“While we will serve all customers who treat our place of business with respect, we reserve the right to refuse to produce promotional products that promote ideas that are not in keeping with our consciences. This includes, but is not limited to content promoting homosexuality, freemasonry, the use of foul language, and imagery which promotes immodesty.”

Well, not to judge — because, you know, “judge not that ye shall not be called an asshole” and all that sort of rot, but, really? I sent them the following message:

You are despicable. Judge not. This selective reading and application of the bible to justify hatred and discrimination is the greatest sin of all.

Not judging. Just saying, my opinion. Speaking of not judging and opinion, and judging and being opinionated, Frank Bruni wrote a gorgeous OpEd piece in the New York Times about the judging and opinionated and iconic Mr. Larry Kramer. CLICK HERE TO READ IT. We gays, we owe Mr. Kramer a huge debt of gratitude and while some have judged him harshly for his combative and confrontational manner, I think history will more harshly judge those who sat in silence while hundreds of thousands of us died, were bullied and discriminated against, and told we couldn’t order a t-shirt that promoted our homosexuality. And so, for Mr. Kramer, I eschew politeness in this moment and say, “FUCK YOU HERALD EMBROIDERY IN KENTUCKY!”

No gays. But bring guns. Oh my. Reminds me of this recent quote from Bill Maher “Remember, for every liberal with a cause who makes you go, “Oh, just shoot me!”, there’s a conservative with a gun who will.” Bang. Bang.

Silence equals death. And the following promotes my homosexuality and my taste in men, proving, once again, that I am equally adept at objecting and objectifying.

April 29 1 April 29 2 April 29 3 April 29 4 reading edited tumblr_lyv88fgRpm1qbte6oo1_500