Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin

Giovanni’s Room was written by James Baldwin – an African American, published in 1956. I don’t know about you, but whenever I start on a new author, I look them up first, to know what they look like and their brief background. I often find strong correlation between who the author is and their work, so a kind of expectation is built. With Giovanni’s Room, it was all blown out of the water. I expected an African American story, but it is so far removed that I’m still struggling putting the image of the author next to his book in my mind.

For a start, the story is not even set in America, but in France. The protagonist is a white American called David – middle upper class, has an American girlfriend. David meets Giovanni – an Italian trying his luck in Paris, and later has a relationship with him. More important characters include a couple of older French men, whose names I had to google to discover the proper pronunciations: Jacques and Guillaume. They’re both wealthy, such that they have financial power over the young ones like David and Giovanni.

The quartet makes an interesting dynamic. In fact, the book opened my eyes to a very unfamiliar world to me: Parisian gay bars. There are all kinds of rules and expectations and power struggle. The older wealthy men are expected to treat (buy drinks and food), and in a way they’re seen as pathetic and desperate, being old and ugly. The young ones are dirt poor, but they have themselves to offer. If they play it well, giving hopes may just be enough to string the old men. Sex however is the ultimate prize.

David’s denial of his same-sex attraction is a major source of conflicts. There’s no race issue at all – it’s not that kind of book. I’d be very interested to read Baldwin’s other books and see whether it’s addressed somewhere else. It just seems odd to me that an African American writing in the 50s wasn’t writing about race issues.* It’s so amazing in many ways. Giovanni’s Room felt like it could’ve been written by a white French man. There are even healthy sprinkles of French words and sentences (that I had to look up to know what they mean). I’m intrigued.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

A little anecdote: James Baldwin was mentioned in Capote the movie, which I watched while reading Giovanni’s Room. I didn’t plan it, but it’s an interesting coincidence that Capote and Baldwin lived and wrote in the same era, and both were gay.

* This is confirmed on Wiki, that mentions: “He wanted to distance himself from American prejudice and see himself and his writing outside an African-American context. Baldwin did not want to be read as “merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer”.”

James Baldwin

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

First published in 1965

In Cold Blood is said to be the original non-fiction novel, based on a true crime in a small town called Holcomb, in Kansas, USA, in which a family of four were killed without apparent purpose – hence “in cold blood”. In light of recent political events, it seemed like an apt time to read American book set in the Midwest. I feel that as non-Americans we’re often fed California and New York, the East and the West coasts, but not much of others. The barren landscape of Holcomb seems like to the forgotten part of the US that came to light more recently.

I don’t usually read crime fiction, and I don’t watch crime TV series. But I watch a lot of crime documentaries. I’m not sure why I don’t have interest in crime as work of fiction at all – I just see little point in it, even though some may be inspired by true events. But in documentary format, I can’t get enough of!

I’d consider In Cold Blood as journalistic piece, albeit in a narrative that is close to novel. Other people may argue about the proportion of fiction and non-fiction elements in the book, but I’m on the side of ‘never let truth get in the way of a good story’. I don’t mind reconstruction of personal events and dialogues in between the hard facts.

I’ve always liked Truman Capote. I’ve read Breakfast at Tiffany’s and some of his other short stories. And I’m glad that I liked In Cold Blood too, very much. The beginning was a tad slow, and it took me longer than his other works to get into, but once the murder happens – about 50 pages in, it just flowed.

There are liberal sprinkles of single quotes, marking words, phrases, and sentences that I assume were taken out of the real people’s mouths, such that the book at times seems like a long string of people’s words put together by Capote. He filled in the gaps, and knitted them into a coherent single piece.

It is quite an amazing piece of work. I can only imagine the extraordinary amount of research and energy put into the book. And probably most important of all, the story telling ability of the author. Why this case? There are so many murder cases around, some of which are similar. Because for one reason or another, this was the case that just happened to come to Capote, at the right time. Just like Sarah Koenig with the Adnan case (Serial podcast). It came to her at the right time, and something in it piqued her interest. Thanks to the storytellers, these cases get their stories told, immortalised in some ways, unlike so many others that are buried and forgotten forever except in the memories of the few friends and families. In Cold Blood showed me once again the power of storytelling.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

Movie companion: Capote (2005)

I watched Capote starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman soon after finishing In Cold Blood. I’d been meaning to watch it since it came out, but insisted I read In Cold Blood first, because I knew the movie is about Capote researching materials for the book. After reading and watching, I do recommend people to read the book first!

Prior to watching the movie, I didn’t know what Truman Capote was like. I knew he was gay, but that’s about it. It was immediately apparent that he had quite specific mannerism. He was flamboyant in his speech and dressing, portrayed so well by Hoffman. People say that in fact Capote was even more exuberant in real life, and Hoffman had toned down his portrayal. I have not seen other movies portraying Capote, like Infamous (starring Toby Jones), so I can’t compare, but I was impressed by PSH. I always liked him.

The movie showed things that happened in the making of the book, behind the scene. I mentioned the research and energy put into it. It’s even more emphasised in the movie, though in a slightly different way than I expected. Truman Capote inserted himself completely in the case, and was not just an observer. He influenced how certain things went, he had relationships with the inmates, namely Perry Smith and Richard/Dick Hickock, but especially Perry Smith.

I guess in a way it shouldn’t be surprising. After all In Cold Blood humanises the perpetrators. He couldn’t have done it without personal relationships with the guys. But in the movie Capote went steps further. He manipulated them in some ways, to get the story that he needed. It was a very complex relationship. Seems very taxing to say the least. And at the end In Cold Blood was the last book Capote ever finished, and was his last masterpiece. It’s as if it has taken everything that he had.

Another striking point is, in the movie Capote was shown as someone with a big ego, who enjoyed being the centre of attention. But in In Cold Blood, he completely disappeared. There is no ‘I’, ‘I think’, ‘in my opinion’, or any sign of him present. I find this remarkable, the ability to extract yourself completely from your writing, especially now knowing how he was as a person. Something that I am still learning.

It wasn’t a perfect movie, as there were some discrepancies with the book that bothered me a little. But I still rated it highly.

Mee’s rating: 8/10

 

My Friend Dahmer – Derf Backderf

First published in 2012. Setting: Ohio, USA, 1976.

I first heard of My Friend Dahmer from Literary Disco podcast. The trio spoke very highly of it, and I think it was mentioned even as one of their favorite or most memorable books of that year that they read as a group. So I snapped this book when I saw it at my library.

I have a certain fascination for serial killers and murderers. I could spend a lot of time reading about them on Wikipedia, and I watch plenty documentaries about them. There’s just something inside me that wants to understand the psychology behind what I think is very unnatural acts.

My Friend Dahmer tells the story of Jeffrey Dahmer, also known as the Milwaukee Cannibal, who killed 17 men and boys. But the book tells the part before he was a murderer. Backderf, the author, was in the same high school as Dahmer, and even though you can’t say they were close friends, they had some interactions. Dahmer may not be Backderf’s closest friends, but it seems Backderf was one of the closest to Dahmer during that teenage period.

The book seems like Backderf’s way to dissect what happened in the past, to question if there was any sign leading Dahmer to become what he was, if anything could’ve been done to prevent the making of a murderer.

I did not (re)read Jeffrey Dahmer’s Wiki before reading this book, though I’m sure I’ve read about him in the past amongst one of my many afternoons spent reading about serial killers on Wikipedia (Tell me I’m not the only one?). Just so I could read the book as it was, without images in my head about what he’d done after.

I must say the foreboding was clear from the first few pages. There was an uneasy feeling throughout the book, from the beginning to the end. It definitely made for an uncomfortable reading. Dahmer had always been an awkward kid, with separating parents at home, and teachers that were oblivious to his drinking problems. Other students, including Backderf, treated him like a mascot – a character that provided entertainment for many, but no real friendship ever formed. It was a lonely existence.

The art is excellent. The blocky, flat, kinda psychedelic way of Backderf’s drawings show the 70s era and the characters in such an amazing way. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it before. Backderf also provided extensive appendix at the end of the book, explaining his sources: interview with various friends, teachers, parents, and Dahmer himself, newspaper articles, and the author’s own memory. The research he’s done was commendable.

The book practically ends at Dahmer’s first killing. I spent the next couple of days reading about the details of his subsequent murders and watching some of his and his parents’ interviews. It was chilling. A good chunk of the interviews were focusing on the “why”. And after what must’ve been hours and hours, nobody, including Dahmer himself, seemed to get any closer to the answer. Dahmer died in prison in 1994, so I guess that is the end.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

 

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

the bell jar
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath (US, 1963)

I read the Bell Jar sometime in November and only got the chance to write about it now, so it’s started to get a little fuzzy. I went back to Sydney for 2.5 weeks in the first half of November, then fell into a bad reading slump. So really I have not read much since The Bell Jar – only one “book” of Middlemarch (a slog), and one short story (fantastic!): Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. I’ve resigned to the fact that I can only finish Middlemarch next year, as I’m only halfway through the tome, and I may not read much more until the end of the year.

The Bell Jar is the only novel by Sylvia Plath, is said to be a feminist text, and semi-autobiographical. I knew about Plath’s suicide, and I had some idea that the novel would be somewhat about descending into madness – and it is. It reminds me of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

The book starts in New York City. We meet Esther Greenwood, who won a prestigious internship at a fashion magazine with a selected other young women. She is supposed to be having the time of her life, but she is mainly… depressed. In the second half, she goes back to her home, in a small town somewhere, and things just keep going down hill.

For me there is definitely a recognizable feminist undertone throughout. A sad discovery of the way the world works and there is nothing much you can do about it. You’re so insignificant, a single fish swimming against the current, a rebellious speck. There’s a realization that you’re dealt the bad cards by being born a female.

It’s hard to imagine someone like Plath being married to Ted Hughes, and then having to take care of two children from the marriage. Hughes is a series adulterer (when he was with Plath, and after), and his next wife after Plath also committed suicide! I never read anything by Hughes – and I don’t know if I want to, but really, having 2 wives who killed themselves does not give a good impression on the person’s character, does it? Furthermore, Plath and Hughes’ son also suffered depression and hanged himself. This guy is literally littered with deaths.

While I wasn’t quite blown away by The Bell Jar, I think it gave an interesting insight of the time and place and the mind of a Sylvia Plath. Like a few other authors, I find her life story possibly more interesting than her book. I may read more about her in the future.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

“I saw the years of my life spaced along a road in the form of telephone poles threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three… nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn’t see a single pole beyond the nineteenth.” – The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar is one of the Guardian’s 100 best novels written in English, amongst plenty of other book lists.

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2 Graphic Novels: Habibi and Kiki de Montparnasse

Habibi by Craig Thompson (2011)

habibi

I read Blankets by Craig Thompson a couple of years ago and found it very good and nostalgic (unfortunately I didn’t write my review on it). It’s about many things but what I remember the most is it’s a coming-of-age story about a protagonist who struggles with the Christian religion that he’s born in. Some struggles I’m familiar with, as I was born in the same faith environment.

Thompson’s second book, interestingly, touches again another subject that I have keen interest on – the other popular religion, Islam. I was born and raised Catholic/Christian in the country with the biggest Muslim population on earth, while retaining some traces of Buddhist religion from my ancestors. So though I end up rejecting all faith and not religious at all, I’d always be fascinated by the story and history of religions.

It seems that Craig Thompson has similar fascination, as he explores Christianity in his first book and Islam in his second book. Perhaps I’m bound to love Habibi based on my background that I stated earlier, and I did. It’s an absolutely beautiful book. And like Blankets, its number of pages alone (672 pages!) indicates the ambitiousness of the scope.

How do you even do graphic novel of 672 pages? I can understand normal book, which you can edit many times before it goes, especially with the use of computer these days. But how about drawing? Do you perhaps do a rough drawing of the entire book first, make sure the pace and plot are all right, before drawing in the details? I’d love to know his process.

In essence, Habibi is a love story between the two characters shown on the cover. Met as a little girl and an even younger boy, Dodola and Zam are not related by blood, but what they go through together create as strong a bond as any blood relation. In the harsh world they live in, their love fluidly changes according to time and circumstances, as they have only each other to cling on. The word Habibi means “my beloved”.

I kept trying to figure out the setting of the book, but I couldn’t. The architecture resembles Turkey, the landscape resembles Arabian dessert, and the clothing looks a mix of Moroccan. I couldn’t figure out the period too, as it seems to start sometime in the past, but goes to modern time in the course of the book. I think it’s on purpose that it wasn’t set in a particular real life country or time, more like an alternate universe with all the Islamic elements. I love how the book touches on the common heritage of Christianity and Islam, and the slight differences between the books (the Bible and Quran).

In reading Habibi I’m continually impressed by what Thompson did. The narration isn’t linear, the subject matter is deep, the illustration intricate, and he takes story telling with graphic novel as a medium to a completely new level. Simply amazing.

Mee’s rating: 5/5

Kiki de Montparnasse by Catel (Illustrator) and José-Louis Bocquet (2007)

Kiki de Montparnasse

This book tells the story of Alice Prin – who later was nicknamed Queen of Montparnasse and often known as Kiki de Montparnasse. She was a favorite model of many Parisian artists in the twenties. Hemingway wrote an introduction to her autobiography (one of the two books Hemingway ever agreed to write introduction for).

I read Kiki de Montparnasse not long after Habibi. That probably affected my reading a little, as I thought Kiki was way TOO linear (something that I never thought would be a bad thing). It literally goes from one event to another, like historical notes, almost text-book like. At this time this happens, next this happens, next that happens.

I also suffered a similar experience with reading Pablo, in the way that the book zips through who’s who in the roaring twenties in Paris, mainly painters in Kiki – a slightly different group than those appear in Pablo, but also writers, photographers, and film makers (the majority of whom I still don’t know). To make sure you get everyone, the book provides an extra index of people-you’re-supposed-to-know at the end, with a page of description for each person.

Both Pablo and Kiki are told from a woman model point of view in similar period of time and setting – the woman on the sideline, the muse of the famous male artists. I wonder how many of those they had back then? Probably plenty.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

Black Hole by Charles Burns

black hole

I love graphic novels, but I’m always dreading the time I have to write about them. How does one put into words something that works visually? For me at least, it’s a challenge.

Black Hole was drawn in strong style of black and white. It is set in an alternate world, similar to our world (or U.S.A world, Seattle to be exact) in the 1970s, at the time of sexual liberation, and the age of sexual exploration.

There’s a strange disease spreading in the area, transmitted by sexual contact. The symptoms are different for each individual. Some are outwardly grotesque (anything in face area), some are less obvious (anything that can be hidden within clothing). It ranges from disfigured face, gross skin rashes, to having extra mouth in the neck, or a tail. Those who can’t hide their disease go somewhere in the forest and live as outcasts. Akin to fatal sexual disease like AIDS, there’s no known cure, so if you got it, you cross to the other side of the line and become “the others”.

The atmosphere is pretty creepy and nightmare-ish for the majority of the book. The black and white style adds to the eeriness and claustrophobic feeling, which is really perfect for this story.

I found the themes and the visualisation very interesting and unique, but like some reviewer on GR pointed out, the book lacks resolution. It’s the all-too-common case of book starting very strong, but the author doesn’t know how to end it in a satisfying way. But really, everything else up to the end is a remarkable achievement.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Literary Disco’s great episode on Black Hole

Slouching Towards Betlehem by Joan Didion

betlehem

Slouching Towards Betlehem is a collection of essays by Joan Didion that were written between 1961 to 1968, the collection itself published in 1968. I heard the name Joan Didion thrown a lot, and this is my first time reading her book. I chose this, first because of this Great Courses, secondly because I happened to see it at a secondhand bookshop — an Oxfam in York (a pretty odd place to find it actually).

My first mistake was that I read this on my way to New York, having connected Didion and New York in my head, only to find that the essays were not about New York at all, but about California — which is a completely different beast.

The collection is divided into 3 sections: Life Styles in the Golden Land, Personals, and Seven Places of the Mind. I somewhat liked the very first essay titled Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, about a woman who’s accused of murdering a husband in a burning car, wrapped in the theme of losing your dream.

But after that it just kept going down hill for me. I experienced the same frustration that I had reading Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint: there are way too many American culture references that went over my head. And it’s not just any American culture, it’s American culture in the 1960s, and even Californian culture in the 1960s. Some authors write for the world as their audience, but with Didion you can tell she wrote only for her fellow Americans, and familiarity with the culture and the setting was assumed, taken for granted. I am definitely not the target audience of these essays.

The title story Slouching Towards Betlehem is something to do with the decline of San Fransisco. Lots of drugs references, so again, not for me. I was really hoping that I could relate more with the Personals section, but it didn’t really happen either. Was it her writing? – I wondered.

It was somewhat redeemed by the very last essay: Goodbye to All That. In many ways, this is the essay and the Didion I was expecting when I started reading the book on my flight to New York. It’s about young Didion trying to survive in New York, and after a few years, finally decided to leave it all.

“Of course it might have been some other city, had circumstances been different and the time been different and had I been different, might have been Paris or Chicago or even San Fransisco, but because I’m talking about myself I am talking here about New York.” 

“I would stay in New York, I told him, just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turned out the bridge was the Triborough, and I stayed eight years.”

“It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city for only the very young.”

(The wiki mentioned that as of 2005 Didion came back to live in New York to this day. Does it mean she’s become the “very rich”? :)

“I was in love with New York. I do not mean ‘love’ in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite the same way again.”

But at the end…

“There is no possible, no adequate answer to that, and so we give certain stock answers, the answers everyone gives. I talk about how difficult it would be for us to ‘afford’ to live in New York right now, about how much ‘space’ we need. All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young any more.”

I could relate with this. Her New York is my London. I too thought I would stay a year, and ended up staying five years, and counting. I too fell in Love with London at the first sight, like none of the other cities that came before it. And I always think that I won’t be able to afford to stay in London forever, nobody does, except for the very rich of course. I haven’t got to that point yet, but maybe someday.

Mee’s rating: 3/5 – An uneven collection of essays for me, so I can only give it average rating.

didion

In his course Prof Grant L. Voth compared Didion a lot with Truman Capote. I somehow never thought Didion and Capote as contemporaries — Capote seemed older and his books are more often considered classics. Perhaps because he died a while ago while Didion is still alive? For that reason I’m counting this for my Classics project as I have already put In Cold Blood on the list. It will be interesting to compare their literary journalism style when I get to Capote.

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