MiniReview: "Gay Life Stories" by Robert Aldrich

What is it?

A non-fiction book by Robert Aldrich, originally published in 2012, and issued in paperback in 2016. In over 70 small chapters, the author recounts the lives of gay men and women through the ages, from all parts of the globe. 


Didn’t Robert Aldrich direct What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? I love that film! When Bette Davis serves up a parakeet to her sister—

No, no, this is a different Robert Aldrich! He’s Australian, and he doesn’t direct films.


Oh. So it’s a series of mini-biographies, you say? Sounds dull. Is it all the usual suspects: Oscar Wilde, Radclyffe Hall, and so on?

No, that’s what’s so wonderful about it. He does include many of the great names from gay history, but most of the biographies were of people I’d never heard of. There are all kinds of people here: artists of all kinds, but also politicians, saints, spies, aristocrats, philosophers, activists. And from everywhere, not just Europe and North America, but Asia (a lot of Japanese and Chinese content here), the Middle East, Africa, South America.


Whew, that could be a bit dreary, couldn’t it, reading a long series of biographies? I’d rather watch What Ever Happened—

Well, this is probably not a book to pick up and read from cover to cover, I’d say. I spent a few months reading it. I’d read one biography a day. And at that pace, it was absolutely fantastic! A daily source of inspiration.


But is it repetitive? You know, so and so was born in this year, did this, fell in love with this person, died …

No, I have to say, it is beautifully written. The bios are long enough that they are much more than a series of dates. Honestly, I cannot say enough good about this book! It is chock full of fascinating stories. For me, it’s opened up all kinds of new avenues of discovery—books I want to read (there’s a nice bibliography), people I want to learn more about, and so on.


Does it provide lots of juicy sex details?

Not really. The author focuses more on how various individuals in different societies at different historical periods managed their same-sex love, and how their private emotional lives affected their public lives. As he says in the introduction, “Sexual orientation here is seen as emotional as well as physical—a question of intimate affinities, not just fornication; of love as well as lust.”


Sounds as though you’d recommend this book.

For anyone interested in gay history, I’d say it’s a must-read. And not only is it beautifully researched and written, scholarly without being the least bit dull, authoritative and wide-ranging, it’s also a gorgeous object. If you like books, you’ll love this: the typesetting, the design, the paper, everything! It’s one heck of a lovely book.


This is getting gushy, John. Don’t you have anything negative to say?

If I had to come up with something, I could mention that the type is quite small. You need to have good eyes to read this, or good glasses. I have the latter.


So are you going to hand out any stars (using the Michelin-guide 3-star system)? It’s a while since we’ve awarded stars.

2 stars. Go out of your way to procure a copy of this. I’m going to be keeping mine in a prominent spot in my library. I’ll be going back to it again and again.


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