Tag Archives: Pen Pals

For San Francisco Travel, Armistead Maupin’s “Tales” Are Still Relevant

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The first volume of Armistead Maupin’s many tales of San Francisco

Author Armistead Maupin was in the Twin Cities last week speaking at the wonderful Pen Pals, an author lecture series that raises funds for the Hennepin County Library system. I’m sure that when they booked him for the event no one knew that it would coincide with the passage of the bill that made Minnesota the twelfth state to legalize gay marriage, but his appearance last week couldn’t have been more timely.

Maupin is the author of the beloved Tales of the City series that began as a newspaper column in the 1970s, first in a Marin County paper and then in the San Francisco Chronicle.   Much the way Charles Dickens’s work appeared in serial installments, each Tales of the City column delivered a new episode in the lives of a quirky and sometimes bizarre collection of transsexual, straight, and gay characters who reside at the fictional 28 Barbary Lane, San Francisco. The series grew into eight best-selling novels, a television miniseries, a film and a musical.

Maupin was one of the first openly gay authors and his stories were ground-breaking in a time when there were no gay people in popular culture. I was thinking as he spoke about how much things have changed, particularly in light of Minnesota’s new marriage law. His conversation was peppered with a few “motherfuckers” and some colorful comments about his sexual behavior. I wondered if such in-your-face speech seemed a bit dated, unnecessary in the era of Ellen Degeneres and “Modern Family” when gay people are more part of the mainstream. That was Friday. Then Saturday night in New York’s Greenwich Village, a gay man was murdered in what was clearly a hate crime. So, that answered my question. Maupin’s attitude and his stories are as pertinent as ever. When he started writing there was the homophobic Anita Bryant.  Now we have Rep. Michelle Bachmann.

Maupin’s groundbreaking stories incorporate the politics of the 1970s but also focus on universal themes of love and longing that have made the “Tales” endure over the decades with broad appeal. Maupin says, “We read to feel less alone, to find our experience reflected in that of others.” I would add that reading opens our minds to the the experience of others even if it isn’t the same as ours. The best thing about reading: it fosters empathy.

For anyone traveling to San Francisco, the Tales are a must read and Maupin’s web site offers a great map to the real places that you read about in the books. That reading and travel combination gives insight into the city’s history not only as ground zero in the gay rights movement but also its position as the America’s foremost place for iconoclasts–the Beats, hippies, immigrants from around the world, and cultural and spiritual seekers of all sorts who have changed the way we think and influenced our culture.

Though he will forever be associated with San Francisco, Maupin and his husband Christoper Turner, have decamped for Santa Fe, for what Maupin says is a new adventure in a place that has amazing vistas, adobe homes, and wide open spaces.  But, he says, “San Francisco is still in my heart.”

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Dennis Lehane’s Boston

And speaking of Boston (see my last post), I want to emphasize how well Dennis Lehane’sbook books convey the Boston “voice,” and life in the tough, working class parts of Boston where he grew up. You may not want to actually spend your vacation in the Dorchester neighborhood, for example, but you can visit those places through Mystic River, Gone, Baby, Gone and his latest, Live by Night, which all make great reads before a trip to Boston and a nice diversion from the Freedom Trail.

I saw Lehane last week when he spoke at Pen Pals, the author series that raises funds for the Hennepin County Library system which serves the Minneapolis area. He’s one of the best speakers I’ve ever heard, mixing insightful literary observations, stories of his relationship with Clint Eastwood who directed Mystic River, writing for HBO’s The Wire, and hilarious anecdotes about his gigantic Irish American family.  He learned his storytelling expertise at family gatherings (and sometimes in bars) where his dad and his uncle told “true” stories that changed with every retelling.

You can see how his skills as a raconteur translate to novel writing, which he says is a much more difficult task than screen-writing. His novels, like his storytelling, incorporate great pacing, tightly wound plots, and characters drawn from the Boston streets. That’s one reason that Lehane isn’t, in my opinion typical of the crime genre where anyone with a laptop seems able to get published.  His work could better be described as well-crafted literary fiction…with a purpose.  One of his comments about fiction sticks with me: fiction is “the lie that tells the truth.”

On your way to Boston?  You’ll also want to pick up some of the books that Lehane suggested in a In  New York Times interview, which included classics such as The Friends of Eddie Coyle, by George V. Higgins, The Last Hurrah and The Edge of Sadness, by Edwin O’Connor, and in nonfiction, Common Ground, by J. Anthony Lukas. I also have scads of other Boston books on the reading list in Off The Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs, and Girls on Getaways.

 

Poet Mark Doty loves dogs. I love dogs. Hearing Doty’s poems about his dogs made me love poetry.

I never thought a Golden Retriever would lead me anywhere literary. My own Golden

Jake and pals.

Retriever, Jake, has led me a lot of places—swamps, the neighbors’ back yard after he ate all the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at their daughter’s birthday party, wading in lakes after balls that he refused to retrieve…. never to poems.  But Mark Doty’s Golden, Beau, opened my eyes to the potential of reading poetry, and just in time for National Poetry Month.

Doty appeared at the Hennepin County (MN) Library Foundation’s Pen Pals series last week. He’s funny, entertaining, insightful, and has a beautiful voice, which makes me think that poetry is best read aloud, by the poet—so intimate.  He writes about many other things, but he got me with the dogs.  Of course, even those poems are about more than canines; they’re about aging, joy, love, living in the moment.

After I finished blowing my nose and blotting my eyes in the back of the auditorium, I told Doty I’m a convert. Check out his poem Golden Retrievals on the Poetry Foundation’s Web site.

I’m off again: muck, pond, ditch, residue of any thrillingly dead thing. And you?


Nancy Pearl and Bill Bryson on Travel

I’ve been flipping through Nancy Pearl’s latest volume of her Book Lust series, Book Lust to Go—Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers.  It makes me want to pack my suitcase and try out a few of the locales for which she has reading suggestions—from Afghanistan to Zambia.  Actually, though I’m an adventurous traveler, I’d prefer to discover Afghanistan and Zambia as an armchair traveler, but the book offers plenty between A and Z for just about anyone interested in the literary side of travel.  Right now I’m looking at the “Veni, Vidi, Venice” section with, yes, lust.

Nancy is probably the world’s most popular librarian; she even has an action figure.  She was here in Minnesota a few weeks ago and spoke at the Southdale library and on Minnesota Public Radio.  You can listen to her interview on the MPR Web site. (Also, FYI, this isn’t Nancy Pearl in the photo above.  It’s Teddy Roosevelt, adventurer extraordinaire.)

She says in the intro to the book that (unlike me) she doesn’t like to travel that much, let alone lust for it. “I’m stymied,” she says, “by the very activities of planning a trip and figuring out an itinerary, choosing dates and what to pack. I’m frustrated by my inability to speak any language except English…. You try finding a Laundromat in Tallinn without knowing Estonian and you’ll soon discover that although everyone has assured you that all Estonians speak at least a rudimentary form of English, that doesn’t really seem to apply to most people over thirty.”

But one of my favorite writers, Bill Bryson, would argue that that’s the best part of traveling. In his book Neither Here Nor There, Travels in Europe, he says, “That’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.” I’m looking forward to seeing him tomorrow at Pen Pals.

The language problems can be the least of traveling disasters.  Book Lust to Go has a section that cracks me up: “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.”  Who hasn’t had a few mishaps while traveling?  They make the best stories. But these books will make most travelers’ problems and pitfalls look like a day at the beach.  Books such as Jim Malusa’s Into Thick Air:  Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents (think insects, extreme weather and landmines.)  Also, W. Hodding Carter’s Westward Whoa: In the Wake of Lewis and Clark. To that I’d add Candace Millard’s River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey about his unendingly horrible trip down a tributary of the Amazon, a trip full of treacherous guides, starvation, man-eating fish, malaria and much more.  At one point Roosevelt told his son, Kermit, to just leave him there to die.  Really, that’s where I draw the line. So much suffering is just no fun. Nancy Pearl prefers to be a virtual traveler through the pages of a book. If all trips were as bad as Roosevelt’s, I’d be happy to join her for an armchair adventure.