Tag Archives: Tales of the City

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.

Six Degrees of Separation – from Pride and Prejudice to Under the Visible Life #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.

This month we’re starting with Pride and Prejudice. It would have taken a very determined person to avoid Jane Austen’s sharply observed, elegantly expressed novel on love and marriage among the English bourgeoisie over the last couple of decades. There have been a multitude of tributes paid to it, not least the BBC TV series featuring a wet-shirted Colin Firth emerging from a lake after a swim. Not sure what Austen would have made of that.

Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary is surely the best known of those tributes, all about a young woman’s trials trying to find the man of her dreams when he’s practically under her nose. He’s even called Darcy which might have given her a clue. In a clever bit of casting, the much-ogled Firth played Darcy in the Bridget Jones films which may even have eclipsed the books in terms of their success.

Bridget Jones began life in a newspaper column in the now defunct print version of the Independent which leads me to Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, originally a San Francisco Chronicle column, also all about relationships with a good deal of product placement and outlandish adventure thrown in. I loved them but not the TV adaptation which failed to capture the charm of the books for me.

Which leads me to another TV adaptation, this time a successful one. I posted an entry in my Blasts from the Past series recently on Jake Arnott’s tale of 1960s East End gangsterism, The Long Firm, which prompted me to seek out the DVD of the BBC’s excellent dramatisation, It turned out to be just as good as I remembered – Mark Strong fits the part of Arnott’s complex Harry Starks perfectly.

When I passed Arnott’s novel onto H, my resident contemporary historian, he was struck by the accuracy of its period detail. The only other novel I can think of that fits this exacting bill is Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club, so good H included it on his undergraduate reading list for the period. It’s about four school friends growing up ’70s Birmingham and facing strikes, IRA bombs and appalling fashion trends.

Coe wrote a book called Expo ’58 set in the same year as Roddy Doyle, author of The Commitments, was born. Doyle’ s funny, touching novel is set in working class Dublin and follows a group of disparate people who form a band, belting out classic soul numbers. While some of the members are there for lack of anything else to do its the camaraderie of making music that keeps them together despite their many falling outs.

Which brings me to my last book, one which I’ll grab any chance to write about – Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life about two very different women bound together by their love of music in a friendship that endures through love lost and won; marriage, arranged and otherwise; and raising children in the most difficult circumstances. Music is the breath of life to Katherine and Mahsa, running through their story like a constant yet ever-changing refrain. A memorable, beautifully written novel

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from an early nineteenth century classic about love and marriage to a novel about friendship and a shared love of music. 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.