Angels in America

I just finished my third read of Angels in America. I guess it is one of those rare texts that doesn’t just invite itself for a revisit, but is almost a necessary lifelong companion. Speaking as it does to homosexuality in America, and to the AIDS crisis (and the political mess that surrounded/continues to surround it), I feel the play deserves continued attention and examination. But that’s all the sociopolitical intellectual side of things. The play is also damn good, wildly brazen, and a lot of fun, despite its also being incredibly painful and sensitive.

Tony Kushner’s masterpiece is actually two plays packaged together. The first play is called Millennium Approaches and the second is titled, Perestroika. The reason for each title is made clear not just in the theme of each part, but in the very literal text. Part one deals with the awareness of “the plague” as told from one character’s perspective, as well as the other awakenings that are happening to the disillusioned post-Reagan. The second part deals with the managing, if not acceptance, of the many real problems that Americans in the early-1990s were facing. In this way, the two plays tell the two most important parts of a crisis — the recognition of it and the fall out from it.

One thing that stands out to me most upon this third reading is just how fabulously genius the metaphors are; they seem very much “in your face” because they very much are in your face (one of the acts is titled “Spooj.” I mean, hello!) And yet, behind the trumpeting and the camping and the filthy language and the wild, uncensored eroticism (orgasm in the arms of an angel? Oh boy!), there’s a subtle sensitivity, a deep root being strummed in a way that is both painful and almost cathartic. Whether the issue is romantic infidelity, drug addiction, religion (the falling from it or the falling toward it), politics, or disease, each character’s experience is developed in a way that is unusual for drama; they are given depth and personality, and the time it takes to actually deal with their problems. Drama is primarily about action, but Kushner, though using action to propel the plot, also relies on more traditionally narrative-like characterization to illustrate the play’s major themes and to help the audience feel more invested.

Something else I enjoy very much about the play, especially considering its time of publication, is how it outlines the complexity and diversity of homosexual experiences. In literature and the arts, where one might assume homosexuality is more known and accepted, it is homosexual stereotypes, not lives, that have been most often articulated and perpetuated. (A chapter in my book, From A Whisper to A Riot, deals with this, if you’re interested in learning more about this history.) Kushner, though, allows one of his characters to essentially call out that kind of stereotyping (literally, using the word) and then develops a number of diverse gay men who have very little in common, opening up the very idea of what it means, or could mean, to be a gay man in America. The only prominent piece of literature to that point that had done something similar is The Boys in the Band, but unfortunately that play is far less complex and falls into the trap of its time, being filled with characters who mostly hate themselves and each other. Not exactly inspiring, though understandable for 1968. In fact, I think an interesting exercise would be to perform a close comparative analysis of The Boys in the Band and Angels in America, to see just how much changed for gay men between 1970 and 1990.

My thoughts on this one run all over the place, but to put it simply, I think Angels in America should be required reading. It is not just a staple of American drama and an important artifact in the history of that genre, but it is also an important historical artifact more generally. Kushner litters the play with references and allusions to classical mythology, Christianity, Mormonism, Judaism, atheism, American government, science, addiction, war, politics, and so many other factors, that one is sure to walk away from it not only having been entertained and challenged, because it is challenging in its themes, tone, and delivery, but also edified and, perhaps, with a great deal of new questions to consider.

And a final note: the play was beautifully adapted by HBO in to a 6-part miniseries starring Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Emma Thompson, Mary-Louise Parker, James Cromwell, Michael Gambon, and others of that caliber. It is well worth the watch.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I started reading Homegoing sometime around September of 2019. I just finished it on January 20th, 2020. Four months to read a contemporary fiction novel of 300 pages. That’s a little absurd for me, to be honest, and I’m not sure what took me so long. I could blame it on work, on writing, on other responsibilities, or on the fact that for the last 6 months I’ve been reading 4 or 5 books at a time, constantly (a terrible error I’m now trying desperately to correct! I’m down to just THREE books right now!). Anyway, it took too long, but boy was it worth the time.

It’s hard to describe Yaa Gyasi’s first novel and even harder to believe that it is her first. In many ways, I could compare it to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, except that I prefer Homegoing. I’m tempted to say, “this is a masterpiece of contemporary literary fiction that deals with the deeply complex history of race in the United States, beginning with the African slave trade and commenting right up until the present,” and leave it at that. But that wouldn’t do the storytelling much justice. It’s true that this novel covers hundreds of years, though it focuses on two lines of ancestry beginning with two half-sisters living in what is now Ghana. One line remains in Africa, having participated in the slave trade, and the other line is made up of descendants of a woman stolen from her tribe, enslaved, and brought to the United States.

Beginning with the tragic relationship between slaver and enslaved, the novel then progresses slowly and methodically forward, chapter by chapter, with each new chapter focusing on one descendant from one or the other of these lines, alternating between the African slavers and the African enslaved. Ultimately, as the generations progress, these two family lines come closer and closer together until, at last, the two contemporary living members of both lines are reunited and they, like fire and water, stand both in stark contrast to each other and in necessary complement.

I’m not sure I’ve ever used this phrase before, but it seems fair and just to say: this novel is a tour-de-force. Not only is it beautifully written and incredibly imagined, but it is also masterfully balanced. The complexity of telling a historical narrative and weaving together two story-lines that diverge and then slowly re-converge after centuries apart is difficult to overstate. It takes a delicate hand and brilliant imagination to make this work, but work it does. The painful history is treated fairly and without reservation. The many types, shapes, and forms of racism and all its variety of implications for those impacted by it since the original sin of slavery is posed in breathtaking sweep and yet, in the most human and relatable ways. From the original capture of native people, to the American Civil War; from Jim Crow to the Harlem Renaissance; from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s to the continued reckoning of today, Yaa Gyasi’s scope is wide and encompassing.

If you’ve ever tried to wrap your head around institutional racism but get lost in theory or technicalities, Homegoing is a wonderful opportunity. It is, first, a beautiful and painful story about people; but it is also the creative articulation of the complicated web of a shameful shared legacy of racism in the United States. It has the potential to open even those eyes that have been intentionally kept closed to these persistent realities.

The Good Earth

Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth has probably been on every one of my reading challenge lists for the last ten years, or darn close to every list, anyway. It’s also another case of mistaken identity on my part, as I went into this one knowing, again, almost absolutely nothing about it except that so many of my reading friends have raved about it and that it has been critically well-received for a very long time.

My own edition, for example, indicates that Buck won the Pulitzer Prize, that this one is a “classic novel” by a “Nobel Prize-winning author,” and that it is a “comment upon the meaning and tragedy of life as it is lived in any age in any quarter of the globe.” This is all riveting and laudatory, but it’s not a whole lot to go on. Perhaps I can be excused, then, for thinking this was a Chinese novel translated into English and for thinking its author was a Chinese woman, not a white American one. And perhaps I can even be excused for thinking this was a novel of eco-criticism, not one of historical fiction. Maybe? Please excuse me?

First things first, I think this is a powerful and important novel about a turbulent and not very well understood time and place in world history. It is written as a kind of episodic saga spanning the full life of one man, from his late youth (marriage) to his old age, and it details the many hardships and turns of fortune, including extreme highs and lows, alongside the every day experiences of a traditional working man of the land. And the land is everything to Wang Lung. It means more to him than his wife or family, his children or his lover(s), more to him than even his own health or well-being, seeing as how not even extreme poverty is enough to scare him from his land, at least not for long. In this way, Wang Lung is a kind of hero who stands for the importance of man’s connection to the earth. What are we, after all, if we do not have land of our own and if we do not care for it and protect it jealously? Nomads, homeless and hungry.

That’s about as far as Wang Lung’s heroism extends, though, and it sometimes becomes difficult for me to understand just why this book is so popular, other than the fact of its quality writing, its (apparent) accuracy about the period, and its exposing to western audiences a culture that had been and perhaps remains mostly unknown. Because, really, Wang Lung is not a very good man. At least not by contemporary standards. He shows very little kindness to his wife and eventually becomes downright cruel toward her. He shows very little care for his children, except in so far as he helps them to advance his own legacy. He does, however, demonstrate great resilience in the face of countless setbacks and downright bad luck and he honors his family in the traditional family, particularly his elders, even though they do not deserve it. So, in some ways, he might be an example of man, father, and son for his time. But today? There’s so little to root for.

The true hero of The Good Earth is O-Lan, the slave-turned-wife who saves Wang Lung from himself and without whom none of his success would have been possible. Despite lack of love or respect, she persists quietly in making a home for her family, in ensuring their well-being, and in deftly handling some of the most extreme challenges that the Wang family face, both in poverty and in success. She’s a character to celebrate and one that I will surely remember long after most of my memories about the book have faded.

The story itself is a fascinating and deeply personal, even insightful, look into pre-Revolutionary China. Most of the war and its effects are demonstrated by the shifts in society, politics, class, and economics, rather than by any description of the war itself (there are a few brief mentions and it becomes more prominent near the end, though Wang Lung remains stubbornly ignorant to all that is happening, partly because he cannot read and partly because he cares for nothing but his own property and has no use for the world beyond it.) As a description of mostly rural China in the 1920s, it seems to me a masterful work. I’m struck by how much was changing so rapidly and can’t help compare it to the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, which would undergo it’s own riotous transformations.

As much as I enjoyed the story, despite mostly despising the supposed protagonist (which is fine – I don’t mind a book with a character I hate, so long as the writing is good, the purpose clear, and the story solid), I do wonder how much might be different if it had been written by a native Chinese person. Buck spent much of her life, including her youth, in China, but I cannot help but wonder about a story that deals with Chinese ancestry and legacy as written by an outsider. It’s a rather uninformed concern, however, as this is the first text about 1920s China that I’ve ever read. I’m eager to research Chinese reception of the novel, both at its time of publication and to this day. Another new project ahead?

The Good Earth is the first book I’ve completed for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge.

200 Years of Anne Bronte

It’s another Folio Friday here at Roof Beam Reader! I’m thrilled to share that, today, The Folio Society is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Anne Bronte. How could I resist being a part of the celebration?

Unfortunately, I’ve only read one work from Anne Bronte, youngest of the Bronte sisters, to date. Agnes Grey. I enjoyed it very much, but I’ve been told by many readers that their favorite, and Anne’s best work, is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. For that reason, I’ve had the book on almost any “challenge” list I’ve ever created, and of course it is listed on my Classics Club challenge list. Still, for whatever reason, it sits on the back burner. I’m excited, then, to have my very own copy of this incredibly beautiful new edition of Tenant of Wildfell Hall! The Folio Society, as usual, does this great author justice.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

  • Introduced by Tracy Chevalier
  • Illustrated by Valentina Catto

“Anne’s book was far more radical than anything her more famous sisters ever wrote’.” –The Times

About the Book: Frank, radical, and unashamedly feminist, Anne Brontë’s ground-breaking masterpiece The Tenant of Wildfell Hall sent shockwaves through Victorian England and remains strikingly modern today. This beautiful new edition of Brontë’s masterful novel is published by The Folio Society to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the author’s birth.

The story follows the mysterious and beautiful Helen Graham, who has recently moved into Wildfell Hall. Curious speculation turns into nasty rumors as the town deliberates on who she is, where she has come from, and what has happened to her husband…

About this Edition: Critically received on publication, the novel was withdrawn for years after Anne’s death, and later widely published with major editorial omissions. For this stunning anniversary edition, we returned to the first printing and have included Anne’s heartfelt preface in which she defends her work. Also included is a new introduction exclusive to this edition by novelist Tracy Chevalier, who examines the reason behind the novel’s initial negative reception: “Wildfell Hall is a different, wilder beast – perhaps too wild for its time.”

Beautifully bound, and full of captivating illustrations by Valentina Catto, this edition’s binding and artwork blends classic artistic techniques with a contemporary edge, perfectly marrying itself to Brontë’s radical voice. Published in series with her sisters’ most accomplished novels, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, this new edition recognizes Anne’s literary achievements as equal to those of her sisters, and completes the trio of their most celebrated works.

About the Publisher: For 70 years, The Folio Society has been publishing beautiful illustrated editions of the world’s greatest books. It believes that the literary content of a book should be matched by its physical form. With specially researched images or newly commissioned illustrations, many of its editions are further enhanced with introductions written by leading figures in their fields: novelists, journalists, academics, scientists and artists. Exceptional in content and craftsmanship, and maintaining the very highest standards of fine book production, Folio Society editions last for generations.

Book copy and all images are courtesy of The Folio Society. Feel free to visit their NEWS AND BLOGS page for more information. In case you missed them, take a look at my Folio Friday features for other Folio Society books.

Notes of a Desolate Man

My first book of 2020 is Notes of a Desolate Man by Chu T’tien-Wen, translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chun Lin. In 2019, I made a more-or-less conscious decision to read more works by Asian and Asian-American writers, and I’m continuing that this year. In my search for gay Asian literature, specifically, I discovered a number of seemingly compelling texts, translated to English, from writers of Filipino, Chinese, Vietnamese, and other nationalities. Notes of a Desolate Man is Taiwanese, which I thought an appropriate place to begin this year because Taiwan recently became the first Asian nation to legalize same-sex marriage.

The novel was originally written in Chinese and published in 1994. It was translated to English five years later, then published by Oxford University Press in 2000. Its description notes that the novel won “the coveted China Times Novel Prize,” which is striking to me considering what (little) I know about attitudes still surrounding LGBTQ+ issues in China and its territories, which would have been even more conservative and regressive 20 years ago. This first-person tale of a Taiwanese gay man reflecting on his life, loves, and intellectual influences is said to be one of the most important contemporary novels in Taiwan. I think what must have caught the prize readers’ attention is not necessarily the subject matter, at least not solely that, but the brilliance and creativity of the novel’s form, style, and synthesis of ideas.

True to its mid-1990s origins, the book is postmodern in style. The chapters function as snapshots, or time capsules, of moments in the narrator’s (Xiao Shao) life. Within each, however, is a unique and provocative kind of stylistic. T’ien-Wen moves back and forth between treatises on major concepts–psychology and medicine, literary theory and history, art and philosophy–and narration. This balancing of intellectual exposition with creative storytelling can be a bit jarring at first, as it feels in one moment that we are dealing with an academic essay and in the next, a rich, vibrant cultural story. It doesn’t take long to get used to the approach, though, and when one recognizes and accepts what’s happening, it becomes not just easy to enjoy the relationship between Xiao Shao’s personal moments and his intellectual ruminations related to them, but it also becomes an exhilarating exercise in elevated thought. The reader can, in other words, simultaneously relax and enjoy a beautifully tragic story while engaging critically with an incredible range of philosophical explorations. It’s the kind of storytelling one might expect from, say, a Tolstoy or Woolf; form a Joyce or Steinbeck. Perhaps the closest comparison I can make is to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, as this novel, too, begins with a specific memory but then, as ruminations on the past tend to do, spreads rapidly into tangents and asides, some of which are easier to follow than others, and none of which tend to follow chronological order.

At the heart of the novel, holding together the story and its cultural and philosophical exercises, is one man’s journey through life and loss. The main concern for Xiao Shao, which fuels everything else that happens in the novel, is the loss of his dear, lifelong friend to AIDS. A year ago, if you had asked me to read another gay story about AIDS, I would have politely declined. That theme (rightly) dominated the genre for so long, that I became quickly burnt-out by it. But here’s the rub: aside from perhaps one British novel on the topic, all of the novels, short stories, essays, poems, and plays that I had read about this topic were from the American perspective; after all, I am American and my history is intimately wrapped-up in what happened here in the United States. Reading about this crisis and how deeply and painfully it was felt on the other side of the world, though, reminds me just how intimately we are all connected, and just how quickly we can become myopic about what we think we know.

Despite the difficulties inherent in reading a translated novel, and particularly one in the challenging postmodern genre, I found myself unable to put this book down. It is somehow dense and light as a feather. It is erotic and illuminating. Xiao Shao’s journey was to me like an exposé, or an introduction, to the activism, society, love, culture, history, and poetry of Taiwan, all couched in universal metaphor, in western philosophy, and in cinema. I was delighted to be reminded of feminist film studies concepts like the “male gaze,” for example, alongside the anthropological theories of Lévi-Strauss and literary allusions to the likes of Beckett. If I had one negative reaction at all, it was in discovering that the author is a woman (which I realized late in the book, when I bothered to do a little research on T’ien Wen). I was under the impression, by my own fault, that the book was more autobiographical, so that was a minor disappointment. It is also the case that the vast majority of “LGBT” themed literature has been written by women and straight men, so I prefer, now, to search for those “own voices” writers. There was a time, however, when it was much more socially acceptable in the United States for women to write about same-sex love and relationships between men (read my book if you’re interested in learning more about that). It’s entirely possible that the same was true in Taiwan in the 1990s. Regardless, Notes of a Desolate Man is a gem; it is a gem as a story, a gem as a Taiwanese cultural artifact, and a gem as a literary masterwork.

I think it’s safe to say that this one has earned a permanent place in my library.


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