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Emma Donoghue’s ‘Frog Music’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

On September 14, 1876, as San Francisco suffered under the twin plagues of record-breaking heat and an epidemic of smallpox, a young woman was shot dead through the window of a rented room at a railway station just outside of the city. Her name was Jenny Bonnet, well-known to the police for the crime of wearing men’s clothes, a predilection for which she was arrested numerous times. With her was a 24-year-old French burlesque performer and prostitute, Blanche Beunon.

Frog MusicEmma Donohue’s new novel, her first since her international bestseller, Room, takes these facts as the basis for an historical fiction that is less a mystery—Blanche is convinced through most of the book that she knows who killed her friend—than a portrait of these two characters and, even more successfully, of the time and city in which they live.

Jenny Bonnet is a wonderful creation, seemingly determined to live life on her own terms, with a recklessness that looks very much like freedom. “Jenny’s an odd kind of woman,” Blanche thinks, “part boy, part clown, part animal. An original, accountable to no one, bound by no ties, who cocks her hat as she pleases….” In her self-reliance and refusal to be bound, as well as in her flashes of compassion, she could almost be a fully grown, female Huckleberry Finn.

Blanche, Donohue’s protagonist and our guide through the world of the book, is somewhat less easy to love. She’s famous for her shows at the House of Mirrors, the bordello where she’s known as “The Lively Flea” for a particularly popular routine, and she’s wonderfully unapologetic for her appetite for sex: even if her partner is a paying client, “Men are tools Blanche uses for her satisfaction.” She lives with her lover and pimp, Arthur Deneve, a man whose apparent charm gives way, over the course of the book, to shocking brutality.

Blanche is also a mother, though not a particularly good one. She and Arthur have arranged for their child’s care at what they believe to be a farm outside the city, where the country air will be good for his health; instead, as Blanche discovers to her horror, he has been kept in a terrible, dank home for unwanted children. Blanche’s desire to find her child, and guilt over what she has done—she knows that she was relieved to be free of the burden of an infant, and that she was blithely unconcerned about his fate—are the primary motivations for her actions after Jenny’s death.

Killing off your most appealing character is a remarkable risk for a novelist. But Jenny doesn’t disappear from the book after her murder; instead, the book adopts an odd, occasionally cumbersome strategy, dividing into two interwoven strands. The first follows Blanche through the days immediately following the shooting; the second tells the story of her friendship with Jenny, beginning a month before the opening scene and moving toward what we know to be the friendship’s inevitable end.

The novel becomes enormously poignant as it nears its end, when we see the friendship between Blanche and Jenny blossoming in unexpected ways even as we know Jenny’s death is nearing. And Blanche becomes an ever-more appealing character as we see how she has been changed by that friendship, moving toward a future more open to possibility because of the ways in which Jenny challenged Blanche’s assumptions about her own life. Though Blanche claims to have no talent for friendship, she comes to realize that Jenny “is the friend Blanche has been waiting a quarter of a century for without even knowing it.”

DonoghueFor all its human drama, the real protagonist of Frog Music is the city that enlivens every page. Donoghue’s San Francisco of the 1870s is a rich, vibrant, unpredictable place, equal parts Wild West and cosmopolitan city, full of casinos and saloons and immigrants of all kinds, many of them transient. “As if the City’s just a mouth, swallowing them whole,” Jenny observes, “and the rest of America’s the belly where they end up.” It’s also a place of music, and the book is full of songs, many of them from Blanche’s native France—one meaning of Donoghue’s title—but others distinctly American, whether the minstrel songs of Stephen Foster or Black spirituals.

Donoghue’s San Francisco is finally a frontier town, a place where boundaries are at once starkly drawn and constantly shifting: lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, all are fiercely asserted and yet repeatedly crossed. As we learn more about her past in the book’s final chapters, it’s clear that in Jenny Bonnet, Donoghue has created a thoroughly human embodiment of our impulse to cross all lines.

Previous reviews...
Tatamkhulu Afrika’s ‘Bitter Eden’
Rabih Alameddine’s ‘An Unnecessary Woman’
Edmund White’s ‘Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris’
Randall Mann’s ‘Straight Razor’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Faber/FSG in May 2015. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


New Book Says 45 Percent Of Men Quit Having Sex After Just Two Minutes

Sex_clock In Harry Fisch’s new book The New Naked: The Ultimate Sex Education for Grown-Ups, he reports that 45 percent of all men finish having sex within two minutes of engaging intercourse. This is a 30 percent decrease from what sex researcher Alfred Kinsey found in his sex studies of the 1940s and 1950s, so that’s good.

But The New Republic additionally reports that a 2004 paper in the Journal of Sex Research suggests that heterosexual men may mind their short endurance time more than their female counterparts, as men tend to idealize themselves lasting a longer amount of time than women do.

Sadly, a 2009 paper in The Journal of Sexual Medicine has correlated a longer duration of sex with more women achieving orgasm.

No word yet on how much this applies to gay men and women. Although a 2011 study on gay and bi men's sex lives over an entire lifespan did yield plenty of interesting finds.

(via jmg)


Nation's Oldest LGBT Bookstore, Giovanni's Room, Closing

Last September we reported that Philadelphia's Giovanni's Room, the nation's oldest LGBT bookstore, was up for sale. Now it looks as though it is closing for good, Philadelphia Gay News reports:

GiovannisroomEd Hermance, who has owned the store for 38 years, announced his plans for retirement in the fall, planning to sell both the business and the two buildings it encompasses. He announced a potential sale agreement several weeks ago, but told PGN this week the buyer could not come up with enough money to finalize the sale.

Hermance said he made the difficult decision to close the store several days ago. Since the beginning of the year, Hermance said he had lost between $10,000-$15,000 in keeping Giovanni's Room open.

He blamed retailers such as Amazon for the tough environment independent bookstores are currently facing.

The bookstore is planning a sale beginning on Wednesday.

The paper adds:

"Hermance had been hoping to sell the business for $100,000 and the buildings for up to $750,000. He said he still intends to give proceeds made from the rental or sale of the buildings to Delaware Valley Legacy Fund upon his death."


Virginia School Committee Votes Unanimously To Keep 'Two Boys Kissing' On Shelves

After a public hearing following a parent’s request to remove David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing from the Fauquier High School library in Virginia, a review committee voted unanimously to keep the book on school shelves.

Two_boysFauquier.com has more:

A large crowd upwards of fifty people gathered in the Falcon Room at FHS. About 24 people gave their opinions on the matter and about six letters were read from those who couldn’t attend the meeting, including one from the author of the book, David Levithan. The comments made at the hearing showed an even split in opinion…

FHS parent Jessica Wilson made an official complaint to remove the book from the school library on Feb. 7, because she believed that the cover of the book condoned public displays of affection, which are against school policy…

Marie Miller, a teacher at FHS and the advisor for the school publication The Falconer said… “If the focus of this book was on heterosexual teen relationships, it would not be the subject of a book challenge…

The committee included Judy Olson, a parent of an FHS student, Lauren Milburn, an administrator at Liberty High School, Emmett Bales, a teacher at FHS, Kim Ritter, a librarian at Kettle Run High School, Weiher and chaired by Fauquier County Public Library Director Marie Del Rosso.

While other parents said that the book’s repeated use of “the f-word” would make it an R-rated movie inaccessible to most high school age teens, a  LGBT-identified graduate from Fauquier’s public schools attested that books like Two Boys Kissing and The Perks of Being a Wallflower helped him feel less alone and more comfortable with his identity.

Levithan’s book (which we reviewed) was nominated for a 2013 The National Book Awards in Young People's Lit. The parent who lodged the initial complaint may still appeal the committee’s decision to the school board if she so chooses.


Dan Savage Joins Condemnation Of Jo Becker's Gay Marriage Book, Protest Planned: VIDEO

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Joining the widespread condemnation of Jo Becker’s book Forcing The Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality, writer and activist Dan Savage called the book “a divisive lie,” a theft, a "bullshit-washing of history" and appalling.

Speaking with HuffPo Live, Savage said:

“The book has been universally condemned by people all across the ideological spectrum in the gay community. You know, when you’ve got Andrew Sullivan, Nathaniel Frank, Chris Geidner, Michelangelo Signorile, John Aravosis, me, all these people in unanimous agreement that this book is a travesty… Andrew said recently on his blog that he’s seen episodes of (anti-gay preacher) Pat Robinson’s The 700 Club that were received better in the gay community than this book.

"Jo Becker claims that this book is a history. It says in the book — she’s backpeddling now — that this is a history of the marriage equality movement. And she describes marriage equality as an issue that had languished in obscurity until 2008 when Chad Griffin, Ted Olson and David Boies decided to do something about it in the wake of the Prop 8 case, and that’s just complete and total bullshit. And they’re being called on it."

Savage goes on to slam Becker for disparaging Freedom to Marry founder and long-time marriage equality activist Evan Wolfson’s 50 state, one-state-at-a-time strategy which has proved very successful. Savage points out that people involved in the Prop 8 case had nothing to do with the Edie Windsor DOMA case which has been much more instrumental in winning marriage equality state-by-state across the nation.

A protest is planned for Jo Becker’s May 2 book signing event at the Book Passage in San Francisco.

See Savage's interview AFTER THE JUMP...

Continue reading "Dan Savage Joins Condemnation Of Jo Becker's Gay Marriage Book, Protest Planned: VIDEO" »


NYT Reporter Jo Becker Defends Marriage Equality Book in Grilling from Ronan Farrow: VIDEO

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MSNBC host Ronan Farrow used a segment of his show to discuss NYT reporter Jo Becker's new book Forcing the Spring: The Fight for Marriage Equality which has come under heavy criticism for a narrative advocates have called absurd, distorted, and just plain wrong.

Becker is asked if she regrets any of the language she used, including comparisons of AFER's Chad Griffin to Rosa Parks, and starting the book with "this is how a revolution begins" as if the movement for marriage equality began when AFER took up the Prop 8 case.

Becker regrets none of it.

Watch, AFTER THE JUMP...

Continue reading "NYT Reporter Jo Becker Defends Marriage Equality Book in Grilling from Ronan Farrow: VIDEO" »


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