GAY LIVES

HOMOSEXUAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY FROM JOHN ADDINGTON SYMONDS TO PAUL MONETTE

Cultural historian Robinson (Humanities/Stanford; Freud and His Critics, not reviewed, etc.) examines provocatively a century’s worth of authors whose homosexuality is a central subject of their autobiographical narratives. Covering 14 British, American, and French writers, most of them professional men of letters, Robinson focuses with sometimes claustrophobic reductiveness on “what they did in bed, what they wanted to do, what they didn—t want to do.” The lives here and the way their authors represented them are remarkably various: The posthumous memoirs of 19th-century belletrist John Addington Symonds and Edwardian don G. Lowes Dickinson evidence lots of flowery Greek-inspired idealism but precious little sexual success in a society that was not so much repressive as willfully oblivious. In 1951 Stephen Spender disparaged his gay past through “elaborate avoidances,” while Christopher Isherwood’s post-Stonewall Christopher and His Kind recreated much of the same milieu without Spender’s backpedaling. J.R. Ackerley found lasting (nonsexual) love only with his dog; the flamboyantly effeminate Quentin Crisp flatly disdained sex. The French indulged in philosophical contortions: AndrÇ Gide wrote that his physical desires had nothing to do with emotion; Jean Genet claimed that his homosexuality was, like his criminal career, a deliberate choice to remove himself from conventional society; Julian Green couldn—t reconcile his sexuality with his Roman Catholic faith. The diarists Jeb Anderson and Donald Vining both endured the post-WWII crackdown on gay life in America, the former miserably and the latter with inexplicable perkiness. Memoirs by Andrew Tobias, Martin Duberman, and Paul Monette all center on emergence from the closet. In general, Robinson writes with crisp elegance, but he tends to dive for his subjects” genitals with unseemly relish. And though he is often shrewd in assessing literary strategies as psychological evasions, he just as often ends up berating writers unfairly for lack of candor, self-knowledge, or 1990s political savvy. Nevertheless, Robinson covers an impressive amount of previously unsurveyed ground. (15 photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-226-72180-9

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Univ. of Chicago

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1999

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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