Book club

CULTURE: QUEEN & COUNTRY

This month’s Q&C book club sees us preparing our summer holiday beach reads. We delve first into an American literary giant’s latest book about a life of reading, and a memoir by a gay conman serving 144 years in an American prison.

Any gay man who has yet to read any Edmund White, or worse still, never heard of him, should admonish themselves forthwith. Described by Nabokov as his “favourite American writer”, White is a prolific man of letters who has paved a dazzling path in gay literature of such high standard that, to me, his name could be uttered alongside literary giants like Roth and Mailer.

Anyone coming to White new should probably hold off on this new release, The Unpunished Vice, and instead perhaps start with any from his earlier holy trinity of ground-breaking memoir; namely A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room is Empty and The Farewell Symphony

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The Unpunished Vice: A life of Reading has been described as ‘an insightful account of the key role reading has played in the life of literary icon Edmund White.’ And while he made his name as a writer, it is through the books he’s read that he remembers his life. And what a life it’s been – born in Ohio, he moved to 1970’s New York in his twenties and has lived in Paris and Rome, fertile periods in his creative journey which became subject matter for some of his greatest works. He was made an officer in the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, has won multiple literary prizes and accolades and teaches at Princeton University in New Jersey.

His writing often lays bare his life in intricately human, sometimes shocking detail. Every aspect of his life is opened up on the page, and rarely anything censored. His anecdotes are astounding. Who else can lay claim to reading Henry James to Peggy Guggenheim in her private Gondola in Venice, and the early morning phone calls with Vladimir Nabokov, not to mention the copious amounts of sex he’s had which has inspired his writings–candidly described throughout most of his books. “In all my sixty-some years of writing,” says White, “I’ve never written to scandalise or arouse.” It’s a questionable statement, given the amount he’s written on his sex life.

But for White, each momentous life event is synonymous with the books he has read: Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, which opened up the seemingly closed world of homosexuality while he was at boarding school in Michigan; the Ezra Pound poems adored by a lover he followed to New York; the biography of Stephen Crane that inspired one of White's novels.

Blending memoir and literary criticism, The Unpunished Vice is an enthralling testament to how reading can shape one’s life and work. White’s larger-than-life presence on the literary scenes of America and Europe has translated into a fascinating and intimate compendium detailing how his life has entwined with the lives of some of the world's best-loved cultural figures.

With characteristic wit and honesty, White writes fluidly and with startling clarity, making ones own efforts seem paltry in comparison. Lacking pretentiousness and sentimentality, there is something in the heart of his work which makes it seem possible that one could achieve anything, professionally and creatively. The Unpunished Vice is an insightful and luminous account of a life in literature.

The Unpunished Vice is available now through Bloomsbury.

In 2009, Ewan McGregor and Jim Carey starred in the hit comedy movie I Love You Phillip Morris, based on the novel by Steve McVicker about the early life of four-time prison escapee, fraudster, thief and con-artist Steven Russell, who is currently serving a 144-year sentence in solitary confinement in Texas. Russell has now written the second installment of his life story, Life After Phillip Morris, described as the earlier book’s sequel. 

On March 20, 1998, Russell posed as a millionaire from Virginia in an attempt to legitimize a $75,000 loan from a bank in Dallas. When bank officials became suspicious and alerted the police, Russell feigned a heart attack and was transported to a hospital. Russell was placed on security watch but he impersonated an FBI agent and called the hospital on his cell phone to tell them he could be released.

U.S. Marshals later tracked down Russell in Florida, where they arrested him on April 5, 1998, when he went to retrieve a fax. Russell was sentenced to a total of 144 years in prison (99 years for the escapes and 45 years for subsequent scams).

As of 2010, Russell is in prison on a 23-hour lockup, only having one free hour a day to shower and exercise. His maximum sentence date is July 12, 2140. 

Life After Phillip Morris will be available on Amazon from July 13th through MB Books.

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