Critic and cultural commentator Castle (English/Stanford Univ.; Boss Ladies, Watch Out!: Essays on Women, Sex and Writing, 2002, etc.) delivers a vibrant series of essays on art, travel and the personal relationships in her life.
Each of the pieces contains elements of autobiography, but it would be inaccurate to call the author a mere memoirist, as she deftly uses her personal experience to illuminate an array of other subjects. In “Courage, Mon Amie,” she analyzes her longtime fascination with the “filthy minutiae” of World War I while relating the time she moved to England with her mother for three years. In “My Heroin Christmas,” she delves into what she calls the greatest book she ever read, the autobiography of jazz legend Art Pepper, while also reflecting on her stepbrother’s suicide. A too-brief essay on her acquaintance with Susan Sontag deftly portrays the famed writer as laughably narcissistic and difficult, but Castle’s insight into her own awkwardness and hero-worship are just as intriguing. The long, ambitious title essay, which takes up more than half the book, is the funny, heartbreaking story of Castle’s secret three-month affair with a much-older female professor when she was a naïve college student in the ’70s. The author captures the obsession and self-consciousness of young love and paints a remarkably detailed portrait of the professor, who seems to have been, on many levels, a deeply unpleasant person. The best parts of the essay, however, deal with lesbian culture in the ’70s.Castle subtly shows how even in that relatively liberated era, most lesbians concealed who they were to their friends and acquaintances; even the professor was deeply closeted. Some of the details are simply hilarious, e.g., the overwrought lyrics of a lesbian folk singer, which have to be read to be believed.
A sharply written, deeply personal collection.