For more than three decades Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City has blazed its own trail through popular culture...from a groundbreaking newspaper serial, to a classic novel, to a television event that entranced millions around the world. The first of six novels about the denizens of the mythic apartment house at 28 Barbary Lane, Tales of the City is both a sparkling comedy of manners and an indelible portrait of an era that changed forever the way we live.
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Tales of the City, published as a book in 1976, started out as separate, short articles in a San Francisco newspaper serial. As a result, this book is a true depiction of the City in the 1970's. Many references to items of the 70's come along in the descriptions and the dialog of this story. The book contains several story lines, all centered on the denizens of 28 Barbary Lane, an old house that now consists of several rental apartments, occupied by young renters, all under the benelovent eye of the landlady, Mrs. Anna Madrigal.
The characters are brilliantly drawn by Maupin, and you end up liking almost everyone, even the not very nice ones. All the characters are 3 dimensional, each with his or her own failings, strong points, and flukes. And they nearly all have heart. It's all too complicated to go into detail in a review, but the reader really ends up caring about these people and what happens to them. The separate story lines all sort of intersect with each other from time to time, and I was left feeling joyous, and sad, and happy for having gotten to know each of the main characters. Mrs. Madrigal is my favorite, as I think she is for most readers.
The writing is so well done, and so wittty and funny, that it was a joy to listen to, especially with the superb narration by Frances McDormand. I am so glad that there are 8 more Tales of the City books for me to read/listen to and savor! One caveat: this book is set in 1970's San Francisco, as the hippie era was ending and the LGBT community was becoming more vocal. If free love, drugs and gays make you nervous, you probably should skip this one.
Maupin's Tales of the City series is the most well preserved slice of popular culture ever captured in fiction. Tales and its sequels follow the loves and lives of nearly every imaginable type of person in post sexual revolution, pre-AIDS San Francisco.
These beloved books hold up because reading them is as good as time-travel back to the seventies. It is the seventies captured in real time as each chapter was first published in the S.F. Chronicle each day long before they were ever bound into a book.
The intricate overlapping lives and loves of the characters are what make these stories so delicious. (Calling them a "soap opera" does this work an injustice.) The repartee among the characters is priceless. If you've read these books you likely consider Michael "Mouse" Toliver, Mona, MaryAnn, and the very elegant Mrs. Madrigal amongst your best fictional friends. Of course an open mind is needed because relationships and sexuality of all types are major themes of these books. Prudes and/or the homophobic need not apply.
Unlike earlier versions Maupin allowed every single word of his books to be professionally narrated instead of doing just selected parts himself. As for the actual audio recordings, a woman narrator is appropriate since Mary Anne Singleton is the main protagonist. Frances McDormand reads with relish as if dishing gossip like a best friend. There is plenty of character in her voice without overacting. She does not attempt to mimic the delivery of Olypimia Dukkakis, Larua Linney et. al. from the HBO television series of this book which was a wise choice. The sound quality is superb. The intro by Rachel Maddow is short and all too sweet.