Tag Archives: Armistead Maupin

Six Degrees of Separation – from Tales of the City to The Book of Salt #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.Cover images



This month we’re starting with Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, the first in a series of books beginning in the ‘70s about a group of young people – some gay, some straight – and their adventures living on Barbary Lane in San Francisco under the wing of the wonderful Mrs Madrigal, just the kind of landlady you’d want. I’ve read the whole series many times. It’s a joyous treat although it becomes darker as AIDs rears its ugly head. It was Tales of the City that made me determined to go to San Francisco which I did in 1995.

Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room also played a part in my holiday plans when we went on our central European railway jaunt a couple of years ago. It’s about the construction of very beautiful modernist house in the Czech Republic town of Brno, and the families who live in it.

Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-year House also tells the story of a house and its inhabitants, working backwards through its century long history. I enjoyed it but not as much as Makkai’s debut The Borrower which is about a librarian and a little boy she takes on the run.

Hard to imagine Sophie Divry’s slightly waspish librarian in The Library of Unrequited Love extending her hand to a ten-year-old. When she finds a young man who has been locked in overnight she treats him to a passionate soliloquy about her colleagues, the Dewey Decimal system and bookish conspiracies while unwittingly spilling the beans about her yearning for a young researcher.

Divry is also the author of Madame Bovary of the Suburbs, a tribute to a much-loved classic as is Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, a modern take on Pride and Prejudice. I’ve yet to read it but given the acute observation and acerbic wit on show in her recent short story collection You Think It, I’ll Say It, I’m sure she’s a fitting writer to take on the task.

Sittenfeld wrote American Wife based loosely on Laura Bush. Amy Bloom’s White Houses also features an American First Lady telling the story of Eleanor Roosevelt’s affair with Hick, a journalist who came to live in the White House, giving up her job as a Washington reporter.

Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt is also about a lesbian relationship between two historical characters, this time Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Troung tells her story through the voice of their Vietnamese cook who regales us with descriptions of the delectable food he serves to them in their Parisian apartment.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from San Francisco in the ‘70s to Paris in the ‘30s. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

The Days of Anna Madrigal: Where we learn the secret of her name

Cover imageIf you’re a Tales of the City fan the very title of this novel will have you salivating with anticipation so without further ado – it’s lovely. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Tales of the City is a collection of novels reflecting the life and times of their author which originally ran as a column in the San Francisco Chronicle beginning back in the ‘70s. It features a group of young people – Mary Ann Singleton, straight as a die and fresh from Cleveland; Michael Tolliver, the complete opposite; Mona Ramsey, a hippyish bisexual; and Brian Hawkins, a little older and very much the ladies’ man – all living in the bohemian confines of Barbary Lane under the loving eye of Anna Madrigal who offers her guests beautifully rolled joints alongside the nibbles.  They’re a delight – each one is like meeting up with old friends for a long overdue gossip. In this, the ninth instalment, Anna Madrigal is ninety-two years old, frail but still the wise old bohemian bird, cared for by the transgendering Jake Greenleaf who lives with her in Noe Hill, Barbary Lane having been taken over by stock brokers. Jake and his new squeeze are off to the Burning Man festival for which Jake has built a tricycle in the form of a monarch butterfly to honour Anna. Michael and his husband Ben are off to Burning Man too, albeit with a degree of reluctance from Michael who’s feeling his age. After eight years travelling the country in his RV, Brian has found himself a wife and is bringing her home to meet Anna, the nearest he has to a mother. Anna comes up with a surprising request – she wants them to take her back to Winnemucca, home of the Blue Moon brothel where Anna, née Andy, spent the first sixteen years of her life. She has some unfinished business to settle.

As you might expect from its title, there is a good deal of Anna’s back story interwoven with the Burning Man shenanigans which are often very funny. Slipped into the narrative are reminders of the characters’ backgrounds, updates on what they’re doing now and cameo appearances. Shawna, Brian’s adopted daughter, is much more to the fore. It’s a bit like the Archers with the older generation giving way to the new, but a lot more fun. And the story behind Anna’s name? Obviously I’m not going to tell you – suffice to say that it’s a poignant one and, sadly, still relevant today – but I will say that the anagram of Anna Madrigal is spelled out for those of us too dense to have figured it out already. I’ll leave it to you to work it out but while we’re on the subject of Maupin anagrams, here’s another to think about: I watched a documentary on him many years ago with the puzzling title Armistead Maupin Is a Man I Dreamt Up. Make of that what you will.