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.
I missed this at the time it was published, but want to flag up Vandana Singh’s lovely and moving post, True Journey is Return: A Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin
The best tribute I can give Le Guin, as a writer, is to honor her teaching and be conscious of what messages I’m putting out into the world. Am I asking the hard questions? Are there hard questions I’m avoiding?
These dense, formal poems demand a lot of attention. They need to be read slowly and thoughtfully. Presented in three parts, Unraveling at the Name takes the reader on a deeply personal and uncompromisingly sexual journey through the experiences of young womanhood, marriage, awakening same-sex desire, divorce and single-motherhood. The experiences described by the speaker are common enough, but by elevating them through highly formal poetic structures Jenny Factor captures deep emotional truths about how life feels. Marilyn Hacker, blurbing the book, praisingly calls her use of the fifteen-sonnet heroic crown an “extravagant gesture”. and I think that’s the precisely the point.
Unraveling at the Name is Factor’s only collection and I really hope she publishes another one day.
Poetry Foundation, Jenny Factor
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!
I mostly enjoyed my reading last year, but I would like to be more focused in 2019. In particular, I’d like to read:
More poetry books
I read plenty of poems online, but I didn’t commit to any collections by specific poets and there are so many that I want to explore in more depth.
More short stories
I love short stories and have no idea why I neglected this form in 2018
More literary fiction/realism
I haven’t been friends with ‘lit fic’ for a while, but I would like to get back into it because I’m sure I’m missing out on some good stuff.
I’ve also decided to get a bit more organised about actually reading the books I already own. I’ve made a TBR list which currently stands at 82 books! I’ll be happy if I can get through half of that this year.
I am going to introduce a 50 page limit at which to ditch a book if it isn’t doing anything for me (or just after a couple of eye-rolls as Widdershins suggests)
I intend to continue reading as much SFF and crime fiction as ever!
I was aiming to write regular posts about the books I enjoyed during 2018. In this, I mostly failed! I may still get around to writing about some of them, but in the meantime, here’s a long, rambling post about everything I read this year.
Science Fiction & Fantasy
My favourite book was Trail of Lightening by Rebecca Roanhorse. Set in the post-apocalyptic world of Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation), this story about a monster-hunter had me gripped from the beginning. It takes what is now quite a well-worn trope (young woman with special powers hunts monsters) and does something fresh with it. I’m really looking forward to the sequel. Check it out of you like Buffy, Wynonna Earp or Seanan Maguire’s books.
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss came a close second. It’s is a lovely read in which the daughters of all your favourite nineteenth-century Gothic “mad scientists” get together and start to investigate their origins. I managed to write a post about this one.
The biggest surprise was Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon, which came as part of a Humble Bundle I bought last year. I guess this is the joy of bundles, they make you try things that you wouldn’t usually pick up. The representation of women is not great and McCammon goes full throttle with the “magical negro” trope, but I got a lot out of this book. It captures something about the way children use fantasy to interpret their experiences of the world and the exploration of loss and grief is really powerful. I’m still thinking about it months later.
I read some good SF novels. The most enjoyable was probably Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, with its story of a ship looking for a new home for its cargo of frozen humans, only to arrive at a promising planet and find it already occupied by sentient spiders, the result of a science experiment gone wrong. I don’t think it quite lives up to the superlative praise it received, but it’s fun, hopeful and quite moving at the end.
400 Billion Stars by Paul McAuley is a thoughtful, beautifully written and very serious story about a telepath press-ganged into investigating alien life on an eerie planet. I will read more of his work. After Atlas, Emma Newman’s novel about the forms that slavery might take in the future, is very good, but so bleak and depressing I can’t say I really enjoyed it.
I quite liked Taylor’s Ark by Jody Lynn Nye, but didn’t warm to the protagonist and found it rather slow-going. She has several series though and I will try some of her other works. Caught in Crystal by Patrcia C. Wrede is a very light and pleasing fantasy with the unusual feature of a protagonist who is middle-aged and a mother.
I read some novellas. I’m enjoying the adventures of Martha Well’s Murderbot (along with pretty much everyone else it seems) and read the first two in the series, All Systems Red and Artificial Condition. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor is lovely, but a little too YA for my tastes – get it for your daughters and nieces though! Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Arkfall is a nice, gentle SF story about an underwater civilisation.
I read far less short stories that usual. Ted Chiang’s collection Story of Your Life and Others is excellent, but the stories are very dense and challenging and, honestly, a lot of it went over my head! Maybe it wasn’t the right time for this one. I was quite excited by the conceit behind Alien Artifacts (ed Josh Palmatier at al), but found the stories disappointing. None of them really stood out for me.
What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman is probably the best serious, literary work of crime fiction that I read in 2018. Clever, elegant, haunting, but very dark and disturbing. I admired it more than I liked it.
Alafair Burke’s The Ex is good too. I saw the twist coming, but it didn’t really matter. I also read the second in her Ellie Hatcher series, City of Fear, which is entertaining, but comes with a massive content warning for depictions of sexualised violence against women.
I really liked The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves, the first in her popular Vera Stanhope series, but was disappointed by the second novel, Telling Tales which is full of boring, unsympathetic characters – the only interesting person is dead and even Vera is sick of everyone by the end! I’ll probably try the next one though.
The last book I finished in 2018 was The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths which is a really fun Gothic mystery. A good one to take on holiday. I also loved Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, a meta-fictional response to Agatha Christie and two solid mysteries for the price of one. These are both books written with the intention of entertaining the hell out of you, while also making some good points about the function of literature.
Speaking of Agatha Christie, I worked my way through all the Miss Marple novels in 2017 and was finishing up the short stories at the beginning of this year. The Thirteen Problems and Miss Marple’s Final Cases were both decent reads, but not really a patch on the novels. I also read one Poirot novel this year which was The Murder on the Orient Express. I knew the ending and it still had me gripped. I guess that’s why we call her a genius.
I thoroughly enjoyed Sovereign, the third in C.J. Samson’s Tudor detective series. This series is far more dudely than I would usually read, but it’s a world to sink into and has me hooked.
Special mention goes to Stoner McTavish, the first in Sarah Dreher’s much-loved lesbian detective series. It has its flaws but is very enjoyable and I would hate to see Stoner fall into obscurity. I wrote a post about this one.
I was disappointed by Stephen King’s Finders Keepers. Mr Mercedes certainly wasn’t King on top form, but it was a good read. Finders Keepers had an interesting premise, but I found the characters dull and too much of it was told from the POV of the extremely boring villain. I probably won’t bother with the next one.
Otherwise, it was all re-reading. I read Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson and Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, both for a lesbian book group I occasionally attend. I’m not really a Winterson fan, with the exception of Oranges and the memoir, which is basically another version of Oranges! I disliked Sexing the Cherry even more on reading it again. I’m still fond of Rubyfruit Jungle. It’s an important novel from a queer historical perspective, if not a great work of literature.
I usually re-read something by Jane Austen and this year it was Persuasion.
My favourite work of non-fiction this year was Forbidden Lives: LGBT Stories from Wales. As a Welsh LGBTQ person myself, I was delighted to see a book published about our history. I’m very aware of what a challenge this book was in terms of doing the research. The result is a collection of fascinating stories that in many ways highlight, and even celebrate, the ambiguities and elusiveness of queer lives in the past.
I read CN Lester’s Trans Like Me which I found an accessible and moving personal account of transgender experience. It covered a lot of issues and didn’t shy away from areas that might be considered challenging.
Then there was Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up, a delightful and thoughtful book of essays about food and eating which also has a queer and feminist sensibility. A very healing book, I think, and recommended for anyone trying to recover from eating disorders, or just wanting to get off the diet roller coaster.
The rest was a bit of a mixed bag. I’m fascinated by con artists and fraudsters, so I was keen to read The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova. It was worth reading, but felt a bit padded out and repetitive. I would have liked more stuff on how to resist falling prey to confidence tricksters. I was a bit disappointed by Neanderthals Rediscovered by Dimitra Papagianni, but this was mainly because I wanted more on the actual lives of Neanderthals and this book is more the story of scientific advances and the study of the subject. How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman is readable, like all his books, but not as fascinating as Misquoting Jesus.
Steve Hagan’s Buddhism Made Simple does what it says on the tin and offers a nice, simple introduction to Buddhism, if that’s what you’re looking for.
The best recipe book I bought this year was The Modern Cook’s Year by Anna Jones. I feel I should say that I don’t entirely approve of Anna Jones’s general attitude to food and eating. I’m all for eating your vegetables, but I find her approach rather restrictive and a bit inclined to pander diet fads like “clean-eating”. Also, many of these recipes are not cheap to make. Having said that, I do own all of her books because the actual recipes are innovative and delicious and The Modern Cook’s Year is a beautiful book full of ideas.
The most useful book I bought was The Roasting Tin by Rukmini Iyer. My partner and I both work full-time and this book has helped us to feed ourselves well without too much work and washing up. I just bought the follow-up, The Green Roasting Tin, which looks just as good, and is exclusively vegan and vegetarian.
Overall, this was a mostly enjoyable, if unfocused, year of reading. I mainly read genre fiction. The majority of the books were by women (72%/20%), and a reasonable number by queer/LGBT authors, but I could do better at reading more books by people of colour.
If I had the time over again, I would set a page limit at which to ditch the book if I’m not liking it, because I still wasted too much time slogging all the way through some books that I didn’t enjoy.