Sarah Schulman, The Cosmopolitans (2016) #20BooksofSummer

A copy of The Cosmopolitans resting on a brown wood table. The cover features a black and white photograph of a diner from the 1950s.

Set in Greenwich Village in 1958, The Cosmopolitans centres on the relationship between Bette, a white secretary, and her neighbour, Earl, a black, gay actor.

Earl and Bette have developed a close friendship over the course of thirty years, a friendship based in their shared experiences of being ejected, unjustly, from their families and having to make their own way in a hostile world. They have created a family of choice, eating dinner together, providing sympathy, celebrating birthdays and Christmas. But, Earl and Bette are also people who have, in a sense, become “stuck”, remaining in the same patterns as the world changes around them.

At this historical turning point, just before the beginning of the 1960s, Bette and Earl’s lives are invaded by Bette’s young cousin, Hortense, an aspiring actress whose disruptive presence will explode all the pain this relationship has been designed to contain.

The encounter with Hortense creates a crucible, revealing the truth that despite their long friendship, Bette and Earl have never really understood each other’s pain. They haven’t truly seen each other. Bette simply doesn’t fully understand the extent of Earl’s anguish and loneliness, as a middle-aged, failed actor, who’s life is heavily curtailed by homophobia and racism. Earl, meanwhile, does not truly understand the way that Bette’s family’s betrayal has frozen her in a kind of emotional limbo, endlessly waiting for her opportunity to make the people who hurt her tell the truth.

The Cosmopolitans beautifully evokes the world of 1950’s New York and the emotional lives of its characters. It’s one of the most insightful novels about human relationships that I’ve ever read. This story, which has just a handful of characters, delves deeply and uncompromisingly into the nature of love and friendship. It is about cruelty and lies; it is about truth and accountability. It is very much a novel about ethics and picks up the theme of “shunning” that recurs in Sarah Schulman’s fiction and non-fiction. It asks a lot of difficult questions: why do we tell lies and destroy each other’s lives? What does it mean to love another person? What does it mean to really see another person? Without trying to reduce The Cosmopolitans to a “message”, I took away these thoughts: trying to annihilate another person in response to our own pain is never a good strategy; we have to talk to make things better, and healing can only happen when something is made right.

The Cosmopolitans is an intertextual work that engages with Honore de Balzac’s 1846 novel, Cousin Bette, which sadly I haven’t read. It also speaks to the work of James Baldwin and, at the end, even becomes a little meta in relation to the author herself.

Recommended.

The Novels of Joseph Hansen

Michael Nava has published a thoughtful article in LARB about the author Joseph Hansen Gay Noir Pioneer

I recommend reading the Dave Brandsetter mystery novels if you can get your hands on them. They feature an openly gay detective and offer a fascinating window onto the lives of gay men and, to some extent, lesbians in the 1960s and 70s. Hansen also has a really interesting writing style.

Lesbian/Queer Women Link Love #8

Queer Bible, U.A. Fanthorpe

LGBTQ Nation, Meet the Harlem Renaissance dancer who made sure lesbian history wasn’t forgotten

Queer Bible, Natalie Barney

Autostraddle, All Bones and Blood and Breath: Remembering Barbara Hammer

Quill and Quire, The 88-year-old creator of mystery’s first lesbian detective reflects on the character’s return

Lambda Literary, review of My Butch Career by Esther Newton

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, Poppy Jenkins by Clare Ashton

A Trip to Gay’s the Word

Photograph of 5 books in a pile, with titles by Sarah Schulman, Jane Traies, Jill Dawson and Amy Bloom

A pile of lesbian books!

We were in London briefly last weekend, me for a work conference and my partner, lucky thing, to see the new production of All About Eve starring Gillian Anderson and Lilly James. But of course we still found time to visit Gay’s the Word bookshop in Bloomsbury, where I treated myself to a few books that I’ve had my eye on for a while.

Sarah Schulman is one of my favourite lesbian writers and I bought her two most recent books. Maggie Terry (2018) is a crime thriller about lesbian PI with addiction issues, while The Cosmopolitans (2016) is a historical novel about the friendship between a black gay man and a middle-aged white woman in the 1950s.

I’ve heard good things about The Crime Writer (2016) by Jill Dawson and White Houses (2018) by Amy Bloom. The first has Patricia Highsmith moving to a cottage in Suffolk to try and finish a novel while also carrying out an unhappy affair, only to find herself the protagonist in a thriller. The second is a love story about the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and journalist, Lorena Hickok.

Now You See Me: Lesbian Life Stories (2018) is a collection of personal accounts from older lesbians edited by Jane Traies and looks absolutely fascinating.

I could have spent a lot more, but thought I’d better stop there. So much for not buying any more books until I’ve made a dent in my TBR pile!

40 Years of Gay’s the Word

Great article from Dazed about the 40th birthday of London’s fabulous LGBT bookshop Gay’s the Word

It’s a special place and we always pay a visit whenever we’re in London.

14/03/2019 – Updated the picture after a trip at the weekend!

Lesbian/Queer Women link love #7

The Guardian, Pioneering Bollywood lesbian romance opens in India 

Duke University Press, Esther Newton, My Butch Career, A Memoir 

The Guardian, ‘It has made me want to live’: Public support for lesbian novelist Radclyffe Hall over banned book revealed 

The Paris Review, Hunting for a lesbian canon 

Catapult Magazine, ‘I should hate forever to be a burden to you’: Lessons in love from Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West 

Lit Hub, The overlooked eroticism of Mary Oliver 

Becky Chambers, Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018)

Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories.

Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third novel in Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers series. It follows The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit. I absolutely loved the first two books and was very much looking forward to reading this one.

What I most appreciate about the entire series is Chambers’s love for ordinary people and her determination to put their stories at the centre of a space opera. Sometimes I think I would sum the Wayfarers books up as, “Ordinary, average people – like you and me – but in space”.  This is refreshing because, as much as I love science fiction, it does have a tendency to focus on the high achievers! Chambers is more interested in the people in the background who keep everything going: the cooks, the techs, the shopkeepers and miners. In this sense, her world seems more influenced by Firefly (and to an extent Bablyon 5), than Star Trek, although the optimism probably owes a debt to Trek.

Record of a Spaceborn Few takes us “home” to the Exodan fleet mentioned  in the earlier novels. These vast generation ships left a dying Earth centuries ago and wandered through space until they met some helpful aliens, slowly joined the wider galactic community, and settled into orbit around a star, developing into a ship-based civilisation.

“We are the Exodus Fleet. We are those that wandered, that wander still. We are the homesteaders that shelter our families. We are the miners and foragers in the open. We are the ships that ferry between. We are the explorers who carry our names. We are the parents who lead the way. We are the children who continue on.”

Set on the Asteria, the story is told from the point of view of five characters. There’s Tessa, elder sister of Captain Ashby from The Long Way, who is fleet born and bred, but starting to wonder if it’s the right place to stay and raise a family. Then there’s Isabel, an older woman, and the ship’s record keeper, who must deal with a visit from a distinguished alien researcher. Sawyer is a young man from a rough colony world who wants to try to make a life for himself in the fleet. Kip is a bored teenage boy who just wants to get out and go anywhere else. Then there’s Eyas, one of the fleet’s caretakers whose job it is to look after the dead. We receive a sixth perspective from the reports of the Harmagian scientist, Ghuh’loloan, on her impressions of life in the fleet.

The story begins with an appalling disaster, the accidental destruction of one of the other generation ships, an event that results in over 40,000 deaths and causes an existential crisis in the fleet. The tragedy reverberates throughout the novel and touches the lives of each character in different ways, causing them to question their understanding of the fleet as home.

Chambers’s ability to deal with painful, even heartbreaking subjects without ever losing a sense of hope and optimism is what has made her novels so beloved. They’ve helped me a lot over the last couple of years when I’ve been struggling with feelings of meaninglessness and despair. In this respect, Record did not disappoint. I cried several times (in a good way) and finished the book feeling like I’d received a warm hug.

Record is a slower burn and even less plot-driven than the others. Initially I felt that five or six points of view was too many. I struggled a bit to keep up with them all, which may have been partly down to having a cold when I read the book. I still think it might be slightly too many, but I can’t imagine the story without any of them, so I think that’s just the way it has to be. There were less aliens and I did miss them a bit.

If you didn’t like her other novels, you certainly won’t be converted by this one! Personally, I hope there will be many more books in this series.