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More to life than books (but not much more)

by Roberto Friedman

More to life than books (but not much more)

June is bustin' out all over. LGBTQ Pride Month always brings with it a cornucopia of new books of special interest to our community. Among them this June are "The Unpunished Vice - A Life of Reading" by Edmund White (Bloomsbury; publication date: June 26) and "Tinderbox - The Untold Story of The Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation" by Robert W. Fieseler (Liveright; June 5).

White is the preeminent gay man of letters of our time. Among the 27 books listed by his authorship in his new one are novels; story, novella and essay collections; his great autobiographical trilogy ("A Boy's Own Story" and its sequels); the nonfiction "The Joy of Gay Sex" (coauthored); his monumental biography of poet, novelist and playwright Jean Genet; shorter bios of titanic literary figures Marcel Proust and Arthur Rimbaud; and many memoirs of his long working and cultured life in New York City, Paris, and elsewhere. "Unpunished Vice" is really another memoir by way of bibliography. White writes about books, and authors, that have mattered most to him in the course of a long and lively literary career.

"I wasn't a compulsive reader, nor was I as widely read as many of my friends," he writes. "My feeling of fraudulence has diminished somewhat now that I've outlived everyone; just by dint of reading (no matter how slowly and without discipline) for many decades, I give the illusion of being well read."

Wethinks the lady doth protest too much. Authors whose oeuvres White expounds upon with real understanding and insight include of course Proust, Colette, Andre Gide, James Merrill, Stephen Crane and Walt Whitman. Among authors he can call friends are John Irving, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Howard, and Susan Sontag. He read Henry James to Peggy Guggenheim in her gondola in Venice. Vladimir Nabokov called White his favorite American writer. This is name-dropping on an Olympian level.

White makes brief mention in passing of his two strokes and heart attack, of his younger husband Michael Carroll, of teaching, and of giving dinner parties, but it's all ancillary to what books he was reading (or not reading) at the time. It's a life of the mind.

The last few chapters are essentially book reports on some favorite authors including Rebecca West, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Ronald Firbank, whose Cardinal Pirelli goes in drag "disliking to forego altogether the militant bravura of a skirt." And Leo Tolstoy, whose "Anna Karenina" White calls the greatest novel in all of literature. An accomplished novelist, White knows the novel as the art-form that most ceaselessly portrays the life inside our heads.

New Orleans story

Out There only really learned about the Up Stairs Lounge fire in New Orleans, LA, in June 1973 a few years ago, when a documentary about the tragic event became widely available. It's amazing that it's still not as well-known a gay civil-rights landmark as the 1969 Stonewall Inn rebellion. So the publication of author Robert W. Fieseler's new "Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation" is an important corrective.

The arson fire killed 31 men and one woman, making it the largest mass killing of gay people in the U.S. until the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, FL. But as Fieseler shows, newspapers of the time hardly covered the tragedy. The very real pressures of violence and retribution hung over many closeted lives in that time and place.

A review of "Tinderbox" in The New York Times, "Gay Sanctuary, Then an Inferno," gave deserved media attention to the book. It also unfortunately was brutally honest about its drawbacks, pointing out "lamentable efforts to introduce local color (the 'ragamuffins' who 'do-si-do' around the place until they need to 'vamoose.')" But any book editor knows there is never a manuscript that couldn't use some editing for style. We'd count the book's flaws as faults of editing (or no editing). In the meantime, the new volume is an important record of research and attention brought to bear on a tragic and important event in gay history.

Milk time

"Pride at the JCCSF" will present "Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death," authors Lillian Faderman and Michelle Tea's kick-off to Pride weekend with a look back at the life and legacy of Harvey Milk (1930-78), Thurs., June 21, 7 p.m., Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California St., San Francisco. Free, advance reservation required. Please consider donating as you RSVP to this free event. www.jccsf.org.

"Born to a Jewish family, Harvey Milk struggled to find his place in the society that surrounded him. Faderman and Tea explore the many complexities of Milk's fascinating life, from his Jewish childhood on Long Island to his final years as one of the most revolutionary politicians of the 20th century."

Lillian Faderman is a distinguished scholar of LGBT and ethnic history and literature. She has received numerous awards for her previous 11 books, including three that have been named by the New York Times as Notable Books of the Year, "Surpassing the Love of Men," "Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers" and "The Gay Revolution."

Michelle Tea is the author of over a dozen works of memoir, fiction and poetry, most recently "Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions and Criticism."

On the rocks

Bay Area Rainbow Symphony (Dawn Harms, Music Director & Conductor) will celebrate gay pride on June 9, 8 p.m. at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music by performing music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Serenade for Strings) and Leonard Bernstein's opera "Trouble in Tahiti" in the original full orchestra version. This eclectic opera mixes jazz scat singing with opera arias and musical songs. Former San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows Renee Rapier and Eugene Brancoveneau star.

In "Trouble in Tahiti," Bernstein wrote of a marriage in trouble in the 1950s. Bernstein was particularly fond of this opera, so when he wrote a sequel 30 years later called "A Quiet Place," he used "Trouble in Tahiti" as flashbacks. In the sequel, Dinah, the mother in "Tahiti," has just died, and the family comes for the funeral. By the 1980s homosexuality was more openly talked about, and one of the major characters is gay. Tickets: 1.800.595.4TIX.

Correction: In the DVD review of Pier Paolo Pasolini's film "Medea," based on the Euripides tragedy and starring Maria Callas in her only movie role, Pasolini's death date was erroneously given as 1961, in an obvious typo. Lamentably, the great filmmaker met his tragic end in 1975.

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