Take Me to Paris, Johnny by John Foster

This beautifully written memoir of a lover’s life and death will impress readers with its lyricism and emotion.


Originally published in Australia in 1993, John Foster’s Take Me to Paris, Johnny recounts the life of his lover Juan Céspedes, who died of AIDS in 1987. This Text Classics edition–the first in the United States–includes an introduction by critic Peter Craven and an afterword by Foster’s close friend John Rickard. While these supplementary materials provide context and develop Foster’s character, the original work gleams abundantly without their help.

Juan was a Cuban refugee studying dance in New York City when he met Foster, an Australian history professor, in 1981. A one-night stand became a summer-long affair and then a long-term, long-distance relationship, to Foster’s surprise. As the couple wrangled with the Australian immigration authorities to gain Juan’s permanent residence there, his illness became undeniably serious. He died in a hospital in Melbourne with Foster by his side.

This sensitive, perceptive memoir keeps Juan at its center, outlining his boyhood and escape to the United States before focusing on the love affair and Juan’s death; the final event receives due gravity without defining his life or the book. In a mere 200 pages, Take Me to Paris, Johnny achieves a full emotional range, sketches Juan’s rare and changeable personality and imbues a tragedy with poetry. Foster’s writing is exquisite: thoughtful, lyrical and with an eye for detail. While this is undeniably a sad story, Foster resists wallowing, choosing instead to celebrate Juan and even to laugh at their troubles. Take Me to Paris, Johnny is incisive, wry, loving and deeply lovable.

This review originally ran in the January 10, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 8 red gladiolas.

Teaser Tuesdays: Take Me to Paris, Johnny by John Foster

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.


I am reading a beautiful, sad memoir about a love affair and the death of the beloved to AIDS. Juan was a Cuban refugee living in New York City and training as a dancer when he met John, an Australian history professor.

John Foster tells this story with some lovely lines, like these.

I have one other memory of that November afternoon: the wind. It whipped off the river sharp and mean, and we were glad to step down from the street into the musty warmth of the subway on our way home. Juan was still living out of the bag of summer clothes that he had deposited, and since retrieved, at the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

Deceptively simple; but can’t you feel the wind? Whipping off sharp and mean really gets it there, for me. As I read this book, I feel like the tone of the title suits it: dreamy, sad, with some whimsy. Look for my review closer to the December pub date.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Women Lovers, or The Third Woman by Natalie Clifford Barney, ed. and trans. by Chelsea Ray

A sprightly, autobiographical 1926 novel of a Belle Époque lesbian love triangle, written in French by an American and appearing in English for the first time.

woman lovers

The works of Natalie Clifford Barney, an American who lived in Paris and wrote in French, are little known, and her 1926 autobiographical novel Amants féminins was published for the first time only in 2013. Woman Lovers, or The Third Woman is the first English translation.

A scholarly introduction by Melanie C. Hawthorne and a translator’s essay by Chelsea Ray place this work in the context of modernism and evolving gender definitions while detailing Barney’s biography. These introductory materials are revealing and absorbing in their own right, if a little dry in their academic tone. The novel, however, leaps energetically to life.

Barney’s protagonist N., who stands in for the author, believes in love among women as an ideal of pleasure and friendship. “Friendship is simply love without pleasure!” she declares. “Love is heavy for two to carry, and happiness is monotonous.” With a new lover, M., she establishes an “association” by which the two women will comfort those in romantic distress by sharing their affections. When she brings such a woman into her relationship with M., however, N. is unexpectedly left out, jealous and hurt.

Barney is perhaps best known for her aphorisms, and she uses such pithy fragments as well as screenplay-style dialogue, mock journal entries, a combination of first- and third-person perspectives and even drawings to tell her story. Woman Lovers, while brief, is thus a noteworthy and historically significant piece of experimental literature, queer theory and a captivating roman à clef all at once.

This review originally ran in the July 29, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 7 chestnuts.

Teaser Tuesdays: Women Lovers, or The Third Woman by Natalie Clifford Barney, ed. and trans. by Chelsea Ray

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.


woman lovers
This was a fun, thought-provoking one: short, and simultaneously animated (if one were to read the novel alone, for enjoyment) and dense (if one were to read all the introductory materials and take an academic stance).

I couldn’t choose, so here are two teasers.

First, to outline pithily the opinion of our protagonist (a thin veil for the author herself):

(Couples) were the first bourgeois!

So boring!

Or more dramatically:

Chopped into bits, our feelings were still twitching, even though they were deprived of the very thing that gave them life.

I love the imagery: feelings not only made physical, but made to physically suffer.

Keep your eyes open for Women Lovers.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Growing Up Twice: Shaping a Future by Reliving My Past by Aaron Kirk Douglas

A raw, honest, and inspirational memoir about a young man growing into his own while mentoring another.

growing up twice

Growing Up Twice is Aaron Kirk Douglas’s memoir about acting as a Big Brother to an at-risk teen named Rico and how their interactions moved him to rethink his own upbringing. The sometimes unpolished language does not detract from a story that is powerful and heartfelt, and certain to appeal to a wide variety of audiences.

…Click here to read the full review.

This review was published on March 23, 2016 by ForeWord Reviews.

clarion 3 star

My rating: 6 Frisbees.

Beijing Comrades by Bei Tong, trans. by Scott E. Myers

A passionate, troubled love affair between two men is set in a time of cultural upheaval, in late 20th-century China.

beijing comrades

Translator Scott E. Myers’s introduction to Beijing Comrades is itself an engrossing story: the tale was originally serialized online, and the author–listed here as Bei Tong, elsewhere as Beijing Comrade, Miss Wang and other names–remains anonymous; Myers does not know Bei’s gender. This is the first English translation and the third version of the novel to be published, combining two previous publications and a new manuscript by Bei with an expanded story and explicit sexual detail.

Beijing Comrades is about Handong, a privileged, successful, egotistical businessman, and Lan Yu, a younger man of modest circumstances. When Lan Yu arrives in Beijing as a student, Handong immediately takes him as a lover. The older man had been accustomed to myriad sexual conquests of both men and women, defined by psychological domination and materialism, but this liaison is different, eventually coming to dominate both men’s lives. Over the years, Handong and Lan Yu strain to reconcile their relationship with a culture in upheaval: late 1980s China, experimenting with capitalism, approaching the Tian’anmen Square protests, increasingly materialistic and anti-gay.

While the dialogue is stylistically inconsistent, reminding readers of the fact of translation, the emotions of the story reinforce its realism. First-person narrator Handong is not always a likable character: he is cynical, profit-driven, fickle in love and often cruel. But these flaws make him credible, and even increase the impact of both men’s anguish.

Beijing Comrades is an important entry in the Chinese historical record as well as a moving, erotic and emotional novel.

This review originally ran in the March 25, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 7 dinners out.

movie: The Danish Girl (2015)

This review is spoiler-free. The movie does contain a surprise, so be careful what you read elsewhere.

danish girlThe Danish Girl is a film based on a novel of the same name by David Ebershoff, which is based on a true historical figure. That figure was born Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener, married a woman named Gerda and made a living as a successful painter. But when Gerda asks Einar to pose for one of her paintings in place of a female model who’s running late, the moment is eye-opening. Einar in fact has always held a secret identification as a woman, now named Lili. From this time on, she has come to stay. Lili Elba was one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery (or gender confirmation surgery, a phrase I like).

Gerda and Lili live in Copenhagen at the beginning of their story, and move to Paris when Gerda’s own career as a painter takes off. I found it not insignificant that Gerda’s time to shine coincides with Lili’s time of upheaval; Gerda too struggles with the timing. This is of course not the only problem Gerda has in adjusting to her new circumstances: she loved her husband, and as represented onscreen, their marriage was happy, healthy and loving. Not without some complaint and tears, then, but Gerda does in the end support Lili’s needs and her journey. This in itself is a lovely story: love conquers all.

The move indeed gives a rosy portrait overall, of this relationship and of Lili’s experience, her strength and bravery. It was beautifully done: the acting is exquisite, by both Alicia Vikander as Gerda and Eddie Redmayne as Lili. And I enjoyed the setting in time (1920’s-30’s) and place, although I’m not overly qualified to judge its realism. But I suspect things were not quite so picturesque in the real version. And of course there’s a lot of history that we don’t have access to, I’m sure. (The story [I suppose this means in turn Ebershoff’s novel] is based on Lili’s memoir, Man Into Woman, which is a great start.) In other words, it’s a movie.

But a very good movie, with a fascinating and culturally significant story, outstanding visuals – the paintings, the galleries, and Redmayne’s transformation into a lovely woman. The acting is tops. I found it dreamy and am glad I saw it. If you go see it, too – and you should – do avoid reading about this film or Lili Elbe’s life; I think it was worthwhile to discover it this way, spoiler-free, if you will.

Rating: 8 poses.
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