Logical Family

A memoir by Armistead Maupin

Originally reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson

“Sooner or later, we have to venture beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us. We have to, if we are to live without squandering our lives,” says novelist Armistead Maupin

It’s something Armistead Maupin seems to have managed rather well, judging from some of the characters populating both his novels and his private life.

Fans of his fiction be warned: Reading this memoir will probably give you a slight case of déjà vu. No matter. You’ll soon find out he’s by no means said it all. It took Maupin more than 30 years to claim his truth, he says. And if readers have seen some of it before, in interviews, newspaper essays, or popping up in his fiction, particularly his bestselling Tales of the City series of novels, “. . . please know I reserve the right to plagiarise myself.”

What is, after all, the point of a memoir? Pride? Nostalgia? Justification? Explanation? In this case, all four make appearances—the first in more ways than one—covering the broad strokes of a life well lived, as well as the nuances.

Don’t expect it to be a campy gossip-fest from the feted gay activist. While it’s true names are occasionally dropped like sequins off a drag queen’s dress, there’s ample justification. After all, how could Maupin possibly tell his own tales without discussing those who often peopled them?

The scenes that are likeliest to stay with you, however, are variously infuriating, touching, sad, moving, and tragic. Like his fictional linchpin Anna Madrigal, Maupin’s need for the “logical family” of this book’s title has perhaps been greater than most.

Brought up in a traditional Southern household, to say his parents were conservative is an understatement. Even the playhouse built in the backyard when he was six by his father proclaimed that fact. “Above the porch, above everything, Daddy had emblazoned a message with my mother’s red nail polish: SAVE YOUR CONFEDERATE MONEY! THE SOUTH WILL RISE AGAIN.”

It should come as no surprise then that Maupin himself grew up embracing those conservative views. When, at 16, he was named student City Manager of Raleigh for a day, he told a reporter that “young right-wingers like me would soon be of voting age, and that should serve as fair warning to liberal politicians who wanted big government and socialism.”

Conservatism notwithstanding, his less conventional sexuality weighed on his teenage mind:  “I knew I was mentally ill. I had read it somewhere in a magazine . . . But I couldn’t bring myself to tell my parents, even if it could save me from permanent insanity. There were mornings when I woke up thinking, Tonight I’ll tell them. After supper, maybe, or after Gunsmoke, when Tony and Jane and Mimi are in bed. But I never found the nerve.”

When finally, a quarter of a century later, he decided to level with his mother, it was—perhaps misguidedly at the time—in a letter written by a fictional character in his Tales of the City newspaper column.

“I had poured my heart into it with such naked intimacy that I knew she would realise that the message was meant for her,” he says. No response was forthcoming, but what did he really expect? “The letter had appeared in a San Francisco newspaper where millions of people could see it . . . but it could hardly be described as an act of bravery. I had avoided the chance of rejection by addressing it to everyone and no one. I had thrown in down a well, and there was no voice from the bottom.”

At the time, he may not have done himself any favours but, in a real-life twist that must now delight the author, his “Dear Mama” letter has become a kind of coming out clarion call, used countless times by those whose own words can’t adequately explain all they want to reveal, read aloud by celebrated actors, and even put to music.

While his parents may not have completely cottoned on to his natural inclinations, it’s likely his flamboyant, palm-reading “Grannie” who insisted he was the reincarnation of her extremely artistic bachelor cousin, Curtis, knew exactly who he really was. She was the first member of his so-called logical family, he says; ironically the only blood relative who was.

In some ways it’s just as well she didn’t have more say over his early upbringing. Had he been allowed to blossom in his own true colours, the nine bestselling Tales of the City novels may never have been born.

After a stint in Vietnam as a navy communications officer, he was working as a reporter for the Charleston morning newspaper, the News and Courier, covering the military and academic beats, when he was invited to return to that country as one of the so-called Cat Lai Commune, formed to counter the “long-haired peaceniks” of John Kerry’s Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

“I earned my keep by writing inspirational pieces about our experience,” he writes. “For two sweltering months we were a high-profile, right-wing Habitat for Humanity” whose main job was to talk to the press.

On his return, he was offered a job with the Associated Press in San Francisco. In the meantime, his devotion to duty was rewarded when he was among those summoned by the White House to meet President Nixon, who wanted to thank them personally for their volunteer efforts.

“Importantly, for the president, he wanted to recognise them on the same day an anti-Vietnam was planned outside the White House,” he now notes.

To his horror, Nixon also tried to talk sex—at least, “a little wink wink, nudge nudge with the troops.” As “lousy” luck would have it, he’d chosen to do it with Maupin and not one of the more conventionally red-blooded males gathered in his presence!

If anything really taught the author about himself it was probably the liberalising freedom and “deeply democratising” excesses of San Francisco. A late starter, he made up for it and then some in heady Seventies San Francisco.

A fictionalised piece written for Marin newspaper the Pacific Sun about a true-life group of housewives who spent their evenings loitering around a local supermarket veggie section looking for a little male company struck a positive nerve with readers. He was asked to continue following “Mary Ann’s” adventures in a new San Francisco edition of the newspaper, but the rest was definitely not history. The paper folded five weeks later.

“I fell into a funk,” he recalls. Knowing nothing and caring less about the subject, he somehow ended up writing press releases and diva profiles for the San Francisco Opera, whose boss was a tyrannical homophobe. Like it or not, though, it was this miserable job that led him to his life’s success: a society columnist he’d met at opera fund-raisers tipped him off about the interest shown in his series by a senior columnist—another homophobe, believe it or not—at the San Francisco Chronicle, who deemed him “just vulgar enough” to fit in.

It must have been a daunting gig requiring as it did a column, not once a week as before, but 800 words a day, five days a week. So vaguely did he draw the boundaries of his new Tales of the City, the columns were, he recalls, “as bland as a hospital meal.” One reader even asked which high school the newspaper’s new writer attended.

Self-preservation, nervousness, sensitivity, call it what you will, it didn’t last. Caution was soon discarded as readily as clothes flung off in a gay bathhouse. A slightly mortified managing editor showed him a two-column wall chart listing “Heterosexual” and “Homosexual” column characters. At no time should the gay people number more than a third of his imaginary population, came the instruction. It’s an episode as hysterical as some of the scenes in his successful series, though to be fair it was probably necessary. “Almost overnight the serial had gone gay as a goose,” he admits.

Reconciliation (of a sort) with his father happened unexpectedly and in the midst of a heart-breaking tragedy that rocked the gay world. Maupin’s parents, his mother frail and ill, were visiting him in San Francisco. His friend Dave Kopay—a former NFL running back and the first professional athlete to come out of the closet—had been planning to throw a brunch for Maupin’s folks on the last day of their visit. Proud as he was of all his friends, he thought Dave would be “the perfect poster child for selling homosexuality to my old man. For me (and for so many people across America) Dave was living proof that We Are Everywhere.”

When Maupin received a call from him on the day, it was nothing to do with the preparations. It was to find out if he’d heard the shocking news: “cool straight” liberal San Francisco mayor George Moscone and gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk had been shot dead at City Hall. Kopay and Maupin knew both well enough to call them by their first names. The assassin was Dan White, a disgruntled, homophobic former supervisor.

Word came through to them of a memorial service for Moscone and Milk to be held later in the day. His mother, making a good show of telling them it would be fine, told him to go and not think twice about it—they’d catch a cab back to their hotel.

Mourners carrying candles in paper cups began heading toward the Civic Center, hundreds more joining them at every intersection. The scene was, he recalls, almost phosphorescent in its beauty, “like plankton on a night tide. And I had never heard such silence.

“It was my youngest friend, Daniel, who spotted the miracle in our midst.”

Read it for yourself and weep.

Maupin’s memoir is dedicated to perhaps the most important member of his logical family, his husband, photographer Christopher Turner, whom he married in 2008 and of whom there is surprisingly little mention. And who can blame him for that? This is a memoir, not an autobiography—incidents and memories, rather than every single detail of a life.

Logical Family is just as well written as you’d expect. It is frank, the language it contains is unequivocal, and most of all it is damn good. If you have a soul, it will move you not only to laughter but also to tears. 

 

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Priestdaddy

A Memoir by Patricia Lockwood

Originally reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson

PriestdaddyEVERY man of God has two religions, according to writer Patricia Lockwood: one belonging to heaven and the other to the world. Her own atheist-turned-Lutheran minister-turned-Catholic priest father’s are the Catholic Church, and nudity. Well, near-nudity, anyway.

His default off-duty position seems to be spread-eagled on the couch clad only in his underpants (formal white heralding a good mood; his most transparent boxer shorts indicating anger) watching action movies on television while cleaning one of his guns or coaxing strange sounds out of one of his electric guitars.

“I have almost no memories of him wearing pants,” she says, “and I have a lot of memories of his sitting me down for serious talks while leaning forward on his bare haunches. He just never wore pants on principle. We saw him in his [clerical] collar and we saw him in his underwear, and nothing ever in between.”

That her father is a married Catholic priest is almost as much of a shock as his habitual off-duty state of undress. An atheist for years, his journey to God began after he’d watched The Exorcist 72 times. Well, he’d joined the Navy and was confined to a nuclear submarine at the time so there probably wasn’t much else to do.

For her mother, his conversion was inevitable. Even though he’d been a smirking, Godless, slightly rebellious teenager when they met, she had no doubt religion was Greg Lockwood’s destiny.  “I knew I would make him a Catholic eventually,” she tells her daughter, “because the really bad ones always convert sooner or later. The worst bad boy of all was St. Paul, and he fell off his horse and ended up in the Bible.”

After his satanic movie binge, Greg disappeared into books and study for several years, eventually deciding he was meant for the Lutheran ministry: “He could argue the numbers off a clock and the print off a newspaper, and now he argued himself into orthodoxy,” his daughter explains.

Never quite at home among his “homey” parishioners, though, he moved further and further away from them until, as her mother realised, he was becoming Catholic.

“He was tired of grape juice. He wanted wine . . . Catholic priests by definition aren’t allowed to be married, but my father snuck past the definition while the dictionary was sleeping and was somehow ordained one anyway.”

It’s a rare phenomenon but not entirely unknown. Currently, there are around 200 married priests out of more than 400,000 in the Catholic Church worldwide. When an already married minister of another faith converts to Catholicism, he can apply to Rome for a special dispensation, which is what Greg Lockwood did (his case was approved by one Joseph Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI, and later still to resign from his Catholic-in-chief role).

As if such an unconventional father wasn’t enough to imbue the young Patricia with an off-kilter take on the world, her mother, too, was an unusual parent—full of clichéd wisdom and waiting-for-disaster paranoia.

Instead of corroding Patricia’s soul, as it quite easily could have done, this strangely skewed upbringing appears only to have sharpened her perspective, not to mention her mad observational and writing skills. That she was dubbed the poet laureate of Twitter is almost no wonder. The medium is an art-form, she explains at one point to her sceptical mother: “. . . like sculpture, or honking the national anthem under your armpit.”

Clever, irreverent, profane and often downright rude, her words and explicit humor have garnered a huge and generous Twitter following. So generous, in fact, that when her husband Jason needed cripplingly expensive surgery for a rare eye condition, her Twitter fans rallied to the rescue, raising the money in less than 12 hours. “Connections forged in filth and nonsense are strong,” she explains.

After Jason’s surgery, the couple reluctantly moved in with her parents. “We are penniless and we are exhausted,” she says, “and in the grand human tradition, we have thrown ourselves on the mercy of the church, which exists for me on this earth in an unusually patriarchal form. It walks, it cusses . . . It is currently shredding its guitar upstairs, across the hallway from the room where we will be staying for the foreseeable future.”

“It” is no symbolic or heavenly patriarch, of course. It is Patricia’s flesh-and-blood father, her “Priestdaddy”; an anachronistic, chauvinistic, hedonistic son-of-a-gun, if you ask me. A sort of one-man, ecclesiastical reality show anointing his family with guitar riffs and hairy-legged displays of selfishness.

Her poetry collections aside—Balloon Pop Outlaw Black and Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, a New York Times Notable Book—Patricia Lockwood never intended to write about herself at any length. How could she? “not about what happened, and never about my most profound and deforming secrets—that I had been raised in an alternate reality, that my childhood sky was green . . . But how long can you outrun your subject when your subject is your own life?” –  Stevie Godson

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The Keiskamma Art Project …

by Brenda Schmahmann 

Reviewed by Stevie Godson

Keiskamma Art ProjectALTHOUGH it was originally inspired by a hand-embroidered 11th century tapestry in the French cathedral city of Bayeux, the Eastern Cape’s own Keiskamma Tapestry is internationally recognised today and acclaimed as a work of art in its own right.

That’s hardly surprising because it tells a quite different story.

Even so, there are some obvious similarities between the two and these, as well as the differences that exist between the original and its African offspring, are eruditely examined in a new book by Brenda Schmahmann: The Keiskamma Art Project: Restoring Hope and Livelihoods.

A marvel of imagination and creativity, the Keiskamma Tapestry was dreamt up and driven by a compassionate medical doctor with a master’s degree in fine art.

After Dr Carol Hofmeyr’s obstetrician husband Justus took up a post in East London, the couple bought a property in Hamburg. Horrified by the poverty she saw there, Carol searched for cash-generating ideas to enable the local women to support their children.

After several false starts, including free art lessons, crocheted plastic bags, and paying for litter collection, she came up with the idea of the embroidery-based project which evolved into the now renowned 73-panel, 120m-long wall-hanging.

Embroidered in wool and beads, and depicting Xhosa history over the last 150 years, it’s a striking depiction of conquest, loss and eventual recovery.

Since the mammoth work’s completion in 2004, the Keiskamma initiative has taken on a life of its own, evolving into an ongoing, much-acclaimed art project with several studios. At the time this book was being written, the project was supporting 130 people.

Along the way, further artistic inspiration has come from several other international artworks, including Pablo Picasso’s explosively powerful political statement Guernica, on the devastation and despair wrought by war on an historic Spanish town. The Keiskamma Guernica focuses equally powerfully on the devastation and despair caused locally by the Aids pandemic.

Schmahmann, a professor and the South African Research Chair in South African art and visual culture at the University of Johannesburg, skilfully examines this as well as other Keiskamma project creations in a style that, while academic in nature, is both highly readable and completely accessible to the casual reader and scholar alike.

Beautifully and obviously lovingly produced, The Keiskamma Art Project: Restoring Hope and Livelihoods is, because of its visual subject matter, lavishly illustrated. I’m tempted to call it a coffee table book, but that would possibly trivialise its depth as well as its substance.

Explained Schmahmann in a recent television interview: “One of the mistakes sometimes people assume is that if a book is going to have well-researched and scholarly content, it’s going to have little, grim images, which is not true. You need beautiful images, clear images, to do justice to the works you’re talking about.”

Schmahmann has already published extensively on women artists, including those in community projects, and on contemporary South African art. Editor of Material Matters and co-editor of Between Union and Liberation: Women Artists in South Africa 1910-1994, she is also the author of Through the Looking Glass: Representations of Self by South African Women Artists; Mapula: Embroidery and Empowerment in the Winterveld; and Picturing Change: Curating Visual Culture at Post-Apartheid Universities.

And while her authoritative study of the work of the stunning Keiskamma art project is readable, well-executed and welcome, the art created by the rural women proves beyond doubt that narrative gifts are most certainly not conditional on words. – Stevie Godson

(This review was first published in the Daily Dispatch newspaper)

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The Accidental Life …

An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers

by Terry McDonell

Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson 

Terry McDonellHere’s an irony: If ever a book title needed editing, it could be the one on the cover of award-winning American editor Terry McDonell’s new book.

The Accidental Life it’s called—An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers . . .

What a massive understatement. Misleading, too. Let’s hope the immense pleasure of its contents isn’t lost to too many potential readers. That would be a shame.

The Accidental Life: Part-memoir, Part-journalism how-to—complete blast would be much more appropriate!

Of the many memorable anecdotes McDonell recounts in the book, a favorite for fans of the drug-laden “glory days” of gonzo journalism will doubtless be the one about a surreal game of golf he played with the genre’s chief proponent, Hunter S. Thompson. Joining the acid-assisted duo was writer and Paris Review co-founder George Plimpton. Almost inevitably, given the participants and the circumstances, the game also involved copious amounts of alcohol, flying golf clubs, honking geese and guns—well, one gun, anyway.

“It occurred to me . . . that having a story to tell about acid golf with Hunter and George was probably good for my career,” McDonell drily observes.

For anyone who doesn’t know who he is, during a career spanning 40 or so years Terry McDonell has headed up some of the brightest and best American publications, including Rolling Stone, Newsweek, Esquire, and Sports Illustrated.

He’s a master of headlines and deadlines and of winkling the words out of even the most recalcitrant writers.

Working and playing with a talented cast of writers, editors, actors, musicians and authors, including such diverse and colorful characters as musician Jimmy Buffett,Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, writer P. J. O’Rourke, and the aforementioned Hunter S. Thompson, his has been a successful and often wild ride.

And it’s clearly not nearly over.

McDonell has taken on the digital age with every bit as much enthusiasm, co-founding Lit Hub—a daily serving of the best in literary culture—and dishing out more of his sane and sage advice on everything from plagiarism to the perils and promise of Internet journalism and the business of making money online.

It wasn’t all fun and chemicals, of course, this accidental life Mr. McDonell so entertainingly recalls, and a few of his regrets are also included in this hard-to-pin-down book.

In addition to doling out no-nonsense nuggets of editorial advice for those who need them, Mr. McDonell is hugely adept at picking out and passing on the juiciest gossip, the most glorious lines of prose, and the naughtiest of memories.

It’s an irresistible mix.

(Stevie Godson is a columnist for South African newspaper the Daily Dispatch, a copy editor and a former books page editor.)

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The Latter Days …

… a memoir by Judith Freeman

Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson

The Latter DaysBorn into a community of devout Mormons, it’s only when she starts kindergarten that Judith Freeman realises different lifestyles exist in the outside world: It’s apparently full of heathens and other interesting people.

A feisty child, unafraid of speaking her mind or of bullying boys, Judith quickly gains a reputation for being a bit of a rebel. Even as a small girl, she complains about having to tithe 10 percent of her hard-earned chores money to the rich and powerful church: “and we’re talking about gross income, not net,” she recalls. “God gets his money before Uncle Sam.”

The fact that she’s the only one in her large family to have been born in a Catholic hospital adds to Judith’s feelings of being an outsider. Later, when she asks her mother why—the Catholic Church was, after all, openly referred to as the Church of the Devil by most Mormons—she’s told “it was brand new and I wanted to try it out”.

That still doesn’t explain her name.

“Judith, a Hebrew name from the Old Testament, one favored by Jews. Judith who seduced Holofernes, luring him to her tent only to cut off his head in order to save her people.

“A Catholic hospital. A Jewish name. A wrathful, sword-wielding woman. How did they imagine I’d turn out?”

Despite the usual bumps along the way, including an almost unbearably large one with the birth of a child whose health was so fragile it was touch-and-go whether he’d even survive, how she eventually turned out doesn’t seem so bad at all.

Married at 17 to her sister’s older ex-boyfriend, life back then for the now-successful author seemed set for disaster, particularly when her little boy was born blue, his colour caused by a lack of oxygen due to a malformation of his heart, a transposition of the great arteries.

Eventually, and after much uncertainty “he is among the first children with a transposition to survive after undergoing a recently invented surgery to reconfigure the inside of his heart since the arteries themselves cannot be switched . . . He will be a pioneer, the heart surgeon says: If he survives he will be a model for what is possible. Since I come from a long line of pioneers, this somehow seems appropriate,” she writes.

Almost inevitably, as the subsequent strain on her marriage takes its toll she falls into an affair with the married surgeon—a sophisticated, older, wealthy man who was born in Europe, speaks five languages, and wears shirts with his initials monogrammed on the pockets.

“He is as foolishly in love with me as I am with him,” she writes, offering no excuse nor any explanation.

It’s a disconnect that’s present several times through the course of this memoir; a disconcerting distance between herself and her story, almost as though she’s telling someone else’s tale. An editing shortfall, perhaps, rather than any failing in the actual writing, it’s occasionally frustrating for the reader.

Her son survives, though her marriage and her faith do not, and by age 22—having packed in more experiences than many people do in a lifetime—Judith decides she will become a writer.

Raised in Ogden, Utah, 30 miles from Salt Lake City, Judith is the sixth child and second girl in the Mormon family into which she is born. There are two more boys born after her. Luckily, her mother loved babies.

Theirs wasn’t a particularly big family by Mormon standards: although there is no prohibition on birth control for members of “The One True Church”, some of their neighbours had broods of 11 and 14.

“Children are like special gifts to Mormons who believe not only in an afterlife but in a pre-existence as well,” she says, “an ethereal realm where souls are lined up as if in a crowded celestial waiting room, waiting for a chance to pass through the veil and come into this world. To create a baby is to open the heavenly portal and let a spirit pass through.”

Having any children at all was to her father’s apparent regret. If he hadn’t had them he might have become a real musician, he tells her “when I was old enough to appreciate such a comment, and also be stung by it. What child wants to think she kept a father from his dreams?”

A harsh, sometimes verging on cruel, taskmaster, and a devoted Mormon, her father was one of a kind. A drum-playing liberal Democrat in a largely Republican environment, he was given to wearing colourful clothes—“he never met a pair of plaid pants he didn’t like”—and natty hats.

Evil, he once told her, came into the world with syncopation, “because that’s when people started moving their hips”.

“He made evil sound like fun . . . ,” she recalls.

By no means a history of her family’s chosen religion, nor any excuse for the lifestyle choices the author makes along the way, her memoir nevertheless contains some fascinating tidbits about both. – Stevie Godson

(Stevie Godson is a columnist, a copy editor and a former books page editor.)

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Fall of Man in Wilmslow

by David Lagercrantz

Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson  

Fall of Man in Wilmslow WHEN Detective Constable Leonard Corell is called to a house in a quiet English suburb he discovers a man lying lifeless on his bed, white froth dried into a dribble of powder at the corner of his mouth, a half-eaten poisoned apple on the bedside table.

In another part of the house, two wires hang from a ceiling while a pan bubbles on a tabletop hotplate next to clamps for the wires and some kind of transformer. The stench of bitter almonds—cyanide’s telltale trademark scent—pervades the air.

It’s more like something from a twisted fairytale than a real-life scene in small-town 1950s England.

Even more startling is the identity of the dead man. He is Alan Turing, the eccentric maths genius whose Enigma code-breaking skills helped deal a victorious blow against Hitler just a few years earlier.

But there is no sinister murder mystery for the detective to solve. Turing has committed suicide.

This is the intriguing, completely true (except for the appearance of Detective Leonard Corell), beginning to a slow-paced but thoroughly absorbing novel based on the life and death of one of the 20th century’s most brilliant men.

Feted by the British government for helping to save England from the Germans—he was awarded an OBE in 1945—Turing was arrested in 1952 after reporting a burglary at his house. (Even though homosexuality was a crime, the naive genius told police he suspected his lover, a man he’d picked up and taken home.)

Found guilty of gross indecency, Turing’s security clearance is immediately rescinded. He can avoid jail, he’s told, but only by agreeing to take the female hormone oestrogen—not quite chemical castration, more an awful experimental hormonal handicap.

Provided the doses are high enough, sexual desire disappears within a month. Among the side effects (considered negligible by the authorities): temporary, though some would argue potentially permanent, impotence, and the development of breasts.

The question, according to Detective Corell’s bosses, is not how Turing died but whether, before killing himself, he’d been careless with state secrets.

After England’s spy scandal a few years earlier, when Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean fled to the Soviet Union, homosexuals were more ruthlessly pursued. After all, as Chief Superintendent Charles Hammersley is at pains to point out to the young detective, they are the ideal blackmail victims.

“They’ll do almost anything to stop their leanings from being exposed,” he says. “Our friends at the FBI have also noticed that the Russians specifically try to recruit queers … the Americans have a new, very professional organisation … you’ve perhaps heard of it … It’s called the CIA and they have carefully analysed perverts and come to the conclusion that they can’t be trusted.”

Something of an eccentric, if slightly bigoted, misfit himself, Corell becomes fascinated not by any investigation into Turing’s death, because there isn’t much of one, but by the mathematician’s work. The policeman’s imagination is fired by mention of a paradox said to have caused a crisis in the world of mathematics. The more he finds out, the more he’s reminded of his own unfulfilled dreams of reading higher maths at university—dreams thwarted by his intellectual father’s hedonistic wastefulness. He spends hours reading Turing’s papers and theories, including the mathematician’s obsession with developing a machine that can think for itself.

As the frustrated academic delves deeper into Turing’s world and work, he stumbles close enough to some top secret truths about the mathematician’s time at World War 2 code-breaking headquarters Bletchley Park—and beyond—to seriously endanger his own life.

In Swedish author David Lagercrantz’s skillful hands, maths and science conundrums that might otherwise bore the lay-reader form fascinating, sometimes convoluted twists along Corell’s pathway to the truth.

This noir-ish novel is neither conventional thriller nor mystery. There is, after all, no surprise about real-life Enigma code-breaker Alan Turing’s tragic fate; many of the other characters in the book are also real; as are many of the events described.

There’s a slow “otherness” to the writing, possibly connected to its translation from the original Swedish, which suits the somewhat plodding character Lagercrantz has created in Corell, as well as an old-fashioned Englishness he captures surprisingly well.

It’s a pity about the title, though. Perhaps it worked better in the original Swedish. Assuming the author meant to equate it to the biblical Fall of Man, it’s technically okay, but it’s a clumsy construction, off-putting and hard to remember.

Since writing this odd, though strangely satisfying novel—released for the first time in the US this month, but written and first published in Europe in 2009—Lagercrantz has leapt from virtual obscurity to literary stardom after being chosen by the estate of the late Stieg Larrson to write the fourth book in the series that began with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The result, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, debuted at #1 on The New York Times best seller list and sold more than 200,000 copies in its first week of release. – Stevie Godson

(Stevie Godson is a columnist, a copy editor and a former books page editor.)

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The problem with filth filters

Rude place names - graphic from The Sun newspaperI’D NEVER heard of “the Scunthorpe problem” until about 4am on Tuesday, when insomnia saw me catching up on some reading matter over a large mug of freshly brewed coffee.

What I did know was that Scunthorpe is in Lincolnshire, on England’s eastern side, and is the country’s largest steel processing centre. I’ve never been there, though, and of its problem I knew nothing.

I do now, thanks to etymology-geek Tom Chatfield’s book, Netymology: A Linguistic Celebration of the Digital World.

Turns out “the Scunthorpe problem” isn’t confined to that eastern English town—it’s a geeky label emanating from something that happened there in the late 1990s. Its definition gave me such a chuckle that my coffee ended up in a lot more places than it should have.

Explained Tom in the UK’s Guardian at the time of his book’s release: “Computing can be as much combat as collaboration and the Scunthorpe problem is a perfect example.”

The stories behind sleek technological terms are often “messily human”, he added, (which of course is why he could write a whole book about them).

“Entirely innocent words can fall victim to machine filth filters thanks to unfortunate sequences of letters within them—and, in Scunthorpe’s case, it’s the second to fifth letters that create the difficulty.”

Well, of course!

So bad is the problem that, at one time, the poor townsfolk were prevented by global internet service AOL from setting up user accounts. Its effect eventually became known in cyber circles as the Scunthorpe problem—a dubious honour, I think.

“… those who live in Penistone, South Yorkshire—or people with surnames like Cockburn—may be equally familiar with algorithms’ censorious tendencies,” notes the author.

He doesn’t mention what those so-called filth filters made of Britain’s myriad other “mucky” names. Some of them are so colourful they’re enough to make a bishop blush.

Take your pick from such horrors as the hamlet (we’d call it a dorp in South Africa, I guess) of Shitterton in Dorset; Crapstone in Devon; or Old Sodbury in Gloucestershire.

Shitterton—which supposedly means little town on the stream of a midden or sewer—topped the list of most embarrassing British place names in a recent survey. I wouldn’t mind betting those who live there pooh-poohed that result (sorry!). They’re so proud of the name that most of the 50-odd households chipped in around R280 each to have it chiselled into a solid marble block heavy enough to end repeated thefts of the sign bearing it.

Such schoolboy snigger-inducing places as Brokenwind in Aberdeen, Scotland, and Backside, also in Aberdeenshire will, of course, easily slip through the filters. As will Scratchy Bottom in Dorset; Happy Bottom, also in Dorset; Sandy Balls in southern England’s New Forest area; Golden Balls in Oxfordshire; Pratts Bottom in Kent; and North Piddle in Worcestershire.

Author Philip K Dick, on whose books several films have been based, including Minority Report and the cult sci-fi classic Bladerunner, isn’t always so lucky. Only this week, a list sent to me of some of his books arrived exactly as follows:
“Philip K ~censored~ – The Divine Invasion
Philip K ~censored~ – Radio Free Albemuth
Philip K ~censored~ – A Scanner Darkly
Philip K ~censored~ – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Philip K ~censored~ – The Man in the High Castle
Philip K ~censored~ – The Simulacra

Reminds me of the time my own name was jokingly “censored” on 5fm’s (then Radio 5) Chuckle and Chat Show: I was introduced on-air as Stevie Bleepson! – Stevie Godson

(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch)

The Rude Map – graphic from The Sun newspaper

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The Road to Little Dribbling …

… by Bill Bryson

Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson

 

Bill Bryson - The Road to Little DribblingBilled as “a loving and hilarious, if occasionally spiky, valentine” to the author’s adopted country, Bill Bryson’s follow-up, two decades on, to his bestselling Notes from a Small Island, is sometimes that—and sometimes not.

His famously droll way of highlighting the “small island’s” foibles still puts in an appearance but his “spikiness” is apt to descend into not much more than an old man’s grumbles over slipping standards, litter louts, and the like. Not that the grumbles aren’t sometimes justified, it’s just that the author’s clever edginess is often lost along the way.

Time, it would seem, has turned the American-born recently naturalized Brit’s quirky take on an entire nation into a series of somewhat cranky rants.

Ironically, while planning a route for this trip, Bryson decided to avoid, as far as possible, the places he went for the book’s predecessor. “Too much danger of standing on a corner and harrumphing at how things had deteriorated since I was last there,” he says.

He needn’t have worried.

A visit to the Seven Sisters, “one of the great walks of England,” triggers a pages-long moan about aging. Time was when he used to see only two small, dark caves when he tilted his head back in front of a mirror, he says.

“Now I am confronted with a kind of private rainforest.”

The last thing this reader hoped to discover in the book was a description of the fibrous material with which the author’s nostrils are packed. But there it is, in all its “glory.” Thicker than a coir doormat, apparently.

“Somebody needs to explain to me why it is that the one thing your body can suddenly do well when you get old is grow hair in your nose and ears,” he complains.

Bryson first went to England when he was 20, and he’s lived there on and off ever since.

“My time in Britain describes a kind of bell curve, starting at the bottom left-hand corner in the ‘Knows Almost Nothing at All’ zone, and rising in a gradual arc to ‘Pretty Thorough Acquaintanceship’ at the top,” he explains. “. . . recently I have begun to slide down the other side toward ignorance and bewilderment again as increasingly I find myself living in a country that I don’t altogether recognize. It is a place full of celebrities whose names I don’t know and talents I cannot discern, of acronyms (BFF, TMI, TOWIE) that have to be explained to me, of people who seem to be experiencing a different kind of reality from the one I know.

“I am constantly at a loss in this new world. Recently I closed my door on a caller because I couldn’t think what else to do with him. He was a meter reader . . .”

Bryson never did discover the Little Dribbling of the title, although in an island that’s known for nutty names (Scratchy Bottom in Dorset, for example; Pratts Bottom in Kent; and North Piddle in Worcestershire, to name a few), it’s entirely possible it does exist.

The main attraction of Britain for Bryson, one of the things he “really, really” likes about it, he says, is that it’s unknowable: “There is so much more to it—more than any person can ever see or figure out or begin to know,” he says, and he’s worked out that all the known archaeological sites “would require no less than 11,500 years of your time.”

Even after his extensive list of what’s good about the place (including saying “you’re the dog’s bollocks” as an expression of endearment or admiration—a phrase I’d put firmly in the category of the slipping standards Bryson so abhors), one is left feeling this is less a humorous travel book than it is an excuse for a ramble around an old man’s pet peeves.

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Of luscious lips and sillypops

From "Welcome to the House of Fun" by Stevie Godson (all rights reserved)

From “Welcome to the House of Fun” by Stevie Godson (all rights reserved)

THERE’S nothing like a quick slick of lipstick to momentarily boost my mood. Little things, as the saying goes. Unfortunately, it was one of those little things — eye-shadow was another — that made my dear late mother-in-law slightly suspicious of me when we first met. An old-fashioned soul, she was probably worried I wore it only to entrap her son.

So when a friend who knows of my penchant for the odd and unusual sent me the following tidbit she found on social media, it resonated ever so slightly:

“In 1770,” went the odd item, “British parliament banned lipstick saying it had the power to seduce men into marriage, which was classified as witchcraft.” [sic]

Bad grammar notwithstanding (it was, of course, lipstick, not marriage which was classified as witchcraft), I was intrigued and had to find out more.

My research showed me not only was it true, but also that artificial teeth, false hair, iron stays, high-heeled shoes and “bolstered hips” were banned under the same legislation. Not only was the full penalty of the law  — whatever that was — imposed, but any resultant marriage was declared null and void.

A paper written by third-year Harvard student Sarah Schaffer in 2006 — made freely available by that august institution’s Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard programme — produced more delicious details. According to Sarah’s paper, various lipstick status laws were formulated down the years to protect men, long pre-dating any laws concerning lipstick safety (which would, of course, have primarily protected women).

Lipstick, or lip rouge, could be devastatingly dangerous and contained all sorts of weird substances at different times in its history, including sheep fat, human saliva, highly lethal lead, crocodile poo, and extracts from potentially deadly poisonous plants. Gives a whole new meaning to the saying that you have to suffer to be beautiful, doesn’t it?

No such suffering seems to have troubled Roman empress Poppaea Sabina, second wife of the notorious Emperor Nero. The previously twice divorced Poppaea set out to captivate old Nero, who succumbed to her charms and married her in 59AD. A vain woman, Poppaea had around 100 attendants to “maintain her looks and keep her lips painted at all times”, says Sarah’s report: “Indeed, most wealthy Roman women had specially-trained make-up and hairstyling slaves, cosmatae, who were overseen by a headmistress of the toilette, the ornatrix.”

Those ancient Roman divas sound even worse than some of today’s spoilt-brat celebs.

But back to the 18th century ban, and the truism where there’s a will, there’s a way. Although cosmetic enhancement was illegal, the use of (mostly) subtle lip stains prevailed. By the end of the 19th century, and just as the largely joyless Victorian era was coming to an end, there was a groundswell of support for doing away with the ridiculous legislation.

It wasn’t only women who wanted the law overturned. “Artifice must queen it once more in the town,” wrote essayist and caricaturist Max Beerbohm, in his 1894 work  A Defence of CosmeticsNot that he was particularly on the side of the women, he just wanted them out of the way.

They had begun to take up sport, you see – the cause of Max’s alarm. “With bodily activity their powder will fly, their enamel crack,” he warned. “They are butterflies who must not flit if they love their bloom. Now, setting aside the point of view of passion, from which very many obvious things might be said (and probably have been by the minor poets), it is, from the intellectual point of view, quite necessary that a woman should repose. Hers is the resupinate sex.  On her couch she is a goddess, but so soon as ever she puts her foot to the ground – lo, she is the veriest little sillypop, and quite done for.”

Luckily for this lipstick-lover and others I know, we’re able to choose how much, how little or even if we colour our lips, although as relatively recently as 1906 a couple of American states considered banning the cosmetic in case it poisoned any men who kissed the women wearing it!  — Stevie Godson

(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch)

 

 

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Kitchens of the Great Midwest

…  A novel by J Ryan Stradal

Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson

Kitchens of the Great MidwestIf Eva Thorvald—whose life we follow (more or less) from the time she’s born—ever prepares your food, rest assured it will taste exquisitely unlike anything you’ve ever eaten before. In Eva’s skillful hands, even the most mundane dishes are good enough to set your taste buds singing like choruses of cartoon angels.

A feted chef, her sporadic pop-up supper club—started when she was just 20 years old—boasts long waiting lists and stratospheric ticket prices.

She’s the Taylor Swift of the stove-top and, among food snobs, almost as influential.

But it wasn’t always that way. Eva’s childhood meals were more fish sticks and frozen peas than gourmet fare.

Brought up by her Aunt Fiona and Uncle Jarl, Eva doesn’t remember Jarl’s big brother Lars, a chef who everyone said was a legend in the kitchen. He died of a heart attack a few months after she was born.

No matter, unbeknown to the young woman her facility with food was probably written in her DNA. Her biological father spent weeks before her birth plotting a menu for his daughter’s first months. In deference to her toothless state, week one included such tasty treats as guacamole, pureed prunes and applesauce.

As fate would have it, the only memorable edibles in Eva’s childhood were the red hot chile peppers she grew and loved. A misfit at school, she even used them to get her own back on the bullies, concocting something that, once eaten, they would never forget. The tempting churro bites she generously handed out on her 11th birthday were enhanced with the aid of an eyedropper, some scorching off-the-Scoville-chart chocolate habanero chile powder, and a hot infusion chile oil (recipe thoughtfully supplied).

Happily, the chile oil is not the only recipe in the book.  From classics such as Caesar Salad—done Eva’s way without anchovies and cheese, just like creator Caesar Cardini’s 1920s original—and French Onion Soup, to Mississippi Mud Bars and Resurrection Rolls, they’re scattered throughout, as befits any foodie novel worth its salt.

Up front, in the acknowledgments, the author gives: “Very special thanks to my great-grandmother Lois Bly Johnson’s church, First Lutheran Church of Hunter, North Dakota, and all of the contributors to the 1984 edition of the First Lutheran Church Women cookbook, on which five of the recipes in this novel are based.”

No prizes for guessing which ones they are.

Eva’s magical way with food notwithstanding, I found her personality flat as a pancake.

Not so some of the book’s other characters, such as Pat Prager, a God-fearing, nosey neighbour busybody. Forget all that skinny-malinky sophisticated supper club fare; I’ll take some of her artery-clogging bars—sweet and tart lemon; rich and heavy peanut butter and chocolate—any day of the week (recipes, again, thoughtfully supplied.)

Will I be making any of Pat’s cholesterol-laden concoctions myself? Bet your sweet cinnamon roll I will.

(Kitchens of the Great Midwest: A novel by J Ryan Stradal is published by Pamela Dorman Books)

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