Monthly Archives: May 2011

20th Discussion: Colette’s Cheri and Last of Cheri (19 May 2011)

Everyone was excited to kick-start this discussion. Timmy exclaimed this is the straightest book we’ve done. Raj loved the book as he believed it was very “French.” Nicole observed that the characters are very well flashed out, especially when Colette writes on women’s psyches. However, Nicole thought that the book has no direction while Timmy found that second part draggy, saved only by the character development of Edmee. Raj argued that the draggy-ness reflects the lift that Cheri leads.

1. Themes

a. War: Aaron noted the prominence of the theme in so many of the books we have done and questioned if a writer could only be considered as “serious” when s/he has written a war novel. He also noted this novel is about post-war trauma, relevant to soldiers today. Nicole suggested that the War is too big an event to ignore. Raj further said that the specificity of the war makes the novel realistic and that war affects the GLBTQ community very much (we thought of the Pink Triangle used to mark out gay people in Nazi concentration camps in WWII). Moreover, Raj claims that the war makes Cheri an outcast, like a gay person.

b. Relationship Between Women:

i. We were all fascinated by the complex relationship between Lea and Charlotte: rivalry, respect, jealousy, cunningness, trying to get the upper hand of each other – and perhaps a different kind of love?

ii. Nicole suspected that the relationship between Lea and the Princess is more than friends from the obsessive descriptions of the women’s bodies and clothing.

c. Race: Aaron suggested that Cheri is described as an African and Chinese because he’s as unformed as an animal. Raj said it may be due to his exoticness. Timmy said Cheri is as flexible as a Chinese acrobat and has big ding dong like an African.

d. Nostalgia: The Pal is a queer character and both Raj and Timmy suggested that she’s a drag queen. Timmy noted the obsession of the Pal with Lea, collecting Lea’s old photos. Nicole suggested that the Pal’s apartment, which Cheri visits often, acts as a space of escape from his mother and wife. Timmy pushed the point further to say the apartment represents to Cheri what life could have been for him and Lea. Raj said that the scene suggests a nostalgia for the past; Cheri even wants to die in the past.

2. Characters:

a. Cheri: Raj claimed that Cheri is not a man but a lesbian. Aaron wasn’t convinced because there are scenes that explicitly point out his manhood; Cheri is, Aaron thinks, effeminate but not definitely not emasculated. Aaron was also amused by the inversion of roles, that Lea, a prostitute, pays for Cheri’s decadent lifestyle. Timmy noted the gay scene between Cheri and Desmond and he also observed that Cheri never grows up as long as he is with Lea. Nicole suggested that Cheri is finding a purpose in life – but fails.

b. Edmee: Timmy’s brilliant analogy: “Edmee reminds me of Jeanette Aw’s in Little Nonya.” Aaron said that Edmee should be a very sympathetic character. She behaves with utmost propriety, defending her husband when she doesn’t love him – but, Aaron asked, why is she demonized in the book? Raj suggested that it may be because she couldn’t manipulate Cheri.

3. Scene Analysis: We questioned but couldn’t find out the reason of Cheri’s vacillation after he spends the night with Lea, betraying his wife. Raj claimed that they are using their heads and not their hearts. Nicole and Timmy both said that Lea handles the situation much better than Cheri.

4. Aaron concluded that although there aren’t any explicit lesbian scenes, the value of this book lies in its normalization of sexuality, such as intergenerational love, relationship between women, and prostitution. These relationships are usually treated with scorn but here, Colette normalizes them. If these relationships are normal, then naturally gay relationship is normal too.

Thanks to Raj and his champagne, figs, cheese and strawberries with freshly-whipped vanilla cream!

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19th Discussion: Colm Toibin’s Mothers and Sons (20 Apr 2011)

Book club started off with three members having lukewarm responses to the book (Raj: “no new material and no excitement in the stories”; Timmy: “repressed emotions not expressed, painful”; and Nicole: “repeated themes”). On the other hand, Alex liked the 2.5 stories he read and Aaron claimed it is the best book the book club has done. They adored the style, a “surface” writing that brings out the depth of emotions; and the complexity of characters, neither condemning nor apotheosizing them.

1. “A Song”: Alex’s fav. Alex reasoned that the lack of climax in the story mirrors real life. He also found the relationship of the mother and son heartbreaking: they probably think of each other over the years yet they do not want to break the silence.

2. “Use of Reason”: Raj’s fav. because of the realism. Nicole noted the theme of violence that adds to the realism. Timmy noted the lack of father figure in the book, except for the nameless narrator in this story. (We didn’t talk about the significance of the anonymity.) Nicole brought out how emotionally detached the character is and Aaron linked the points together: the character is stoic because of the death of his brother, Billy, which his mother points out in one of the rare moments of her sobriety. That’s why only after what the mother says does he have an epiphany, to burn the stolen paintings. Burning, Timmy suggested, is a way of letting go.

3. “A Journey”: Nicole’s fav. Nicole pointed out how empowered the mothers in the stories are. She also notes the helplessness of the son, incapacitated by his depression.

4. Timmy and Raj, on hearing about power women, talked about “A Summer Job.” They had an impression of the mother pushing her son to her mother although, Raj pointed out, the ending is ambiguous. Do we truly understand the son?

5. Another powerful mother figure is “Name of the Game,” Timmy’s favorite. He enjoyed how a strong, independent single mother rises against all odds to provide for her family. Alex kept having an impression that the single mother has to fend off advances from men; at any moment, Alex expected the mother to “suck dick,” which she doesn’t. Aaron didn’t like how the daughters aren’t developed properly as characters. Raj stood up for the son in the story: how could the mother sell away the family business? While agreeing with Raj, Nicole and Aaron batted for the other team: Nicole said perhaps the mother doesn’t want her son to follow in his father’s footsteps while Aaron commented that the mother has her own life to lead, a life without prejudice from the town people, and besides the son is too young to know any better. We all agreed it is a nasty business altogether.

6. “A Long Winter”: Aaron’s fav. He liked the sexy scene of the policeman and Miquel, a scene which Timmy calls “eye-fucking.” Aaron argued that there is an incestuous element in Miquel’s love for his mother, evident in how he smells her underwear. The rest of the members disagreed. Aaron then went on to strengthen his incest point, by pointing out Manolo, the manservant, is a stand-in for Miquel’s mother, and Miquel has desires for Manolo, although the manservant is asexual. When talking about the ending, Aaron couldn’t fathom why the father-son duo hates the vultures so much and Nicole elucidated that the vultures are metaphors of the town people, feeding on gossip. Small-town gossip seems to be the running theme in the book, besides mother-son relationships and Catholicism.

7. “Three Friends.” This will probably be Alex’s favorite had he read this. Nicole points out that the rave party is cathartic for Fergus, for him to lose himself in spite of his grief. Aaron wondered aloud if it is because of the mother’s death that allows Fergus to enter a relationship or if it is because Mick sees Fergus’s in a different light at the funeral? Either answer seems probable.

8. “A Priest in the Family” is a crowdpleaser, we all loved it. Timmy thought that the initial suspense is that the priest wants to propose to the mother. Raj suggested that the mother keeps delaying the meeting with the priest because she already knows; mothers always know. Aaron pointed out how complex this mother is: she dislikes her son’s behavior yet she stands by him. Timmy continued that in these 9 stories, no matter if you despise or dislike the mothers, they are always there, and always true, and they are neither good nor bad, just making the best out of a bad situation. Raj noted that in all the stories, even though mothers may not be prominently featured, their presence is always felt and is pivotal.

We didn’t booze because Isaac wasn’t around. Special thanks to Raj for his cocktail and tea!

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18th Discussion: E. M. Forster’s Passage to India (17 Mar 2011)

Timmy kicked off with the discussion to say that the novel is “as dry as my sex life.” Although Aaron agreed that the novel is slow, he said that it is because India is described so well, as if it is another character, not a location. The novel is really a tribute to India.

1. Mrs Moore: According to Timmy, she is the “Betty White” of India. Alex brought up: Why is she punished and killed off? There isn’t even a proper burial for her. Nice person dies horribly. Aaron thought that she’s punished because she lacks the courage to do the right thing, to stand up for Aziz. Aaron then asked two questions: Why is she the one who is sympathetic towards the Indians? and What is the significance of associating the wasp with her throughout the novel? To which, Raj replied, it is the philosophy of Mrs Moore not hurting the wasp that brings her close to the Indians whose philosophy is to respect all things, even ugly ones; there is a little of god in everything.

2. Fielding: The relationship of the white people with the locals reminded Aaron of the current Singapore’s situation. Alex commented that it might not be a race issue, but a power one, between the oppressor and the oppressed.

3. Homoeroticism: We pointed out several scenes of homoeroticism. Alex suggested the stud ripping the small hole in shirt is metaphorical. Aaron read the last scene of the book full of significance. Raj thinks that there is something going on between Aziz and Ralph, not Fielding.

4. Nature: The issue of whether Aziz attacks Adela in the cave cannot be resolved but the cave, as part of nature, is interesting because, as Alex pointed out, it is a space of nothingness. Aaron suggested that the space is a space of honesty, where one could finally be honest to oneself, which leads one to a kind of epiphany. Alex asked, “But why doesn’t Aziz get an epiphany?”

5. Racism: Timmy asked if this book exoticizes India. Raj, perhaps the person who is most qualified to answer the quesion, said no firmly as Forster, Raj claimed, understood the Indians very well and portrayed the Indians accurately, no less, no more.

We forgot to talk about religion.

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17th Discussion: Fan Wu’s February Flowers (17 Feb 2011)

We missed the zen of Isaac terribly.

1. Alex gave a brief summary of the book: it’s a Mrs Dalloway moment stretched to 200 pages, although Aaron thought it isn’t as poetic.

2. Characters:

a. Ming: Raj didn’t like the character because of the detached style of narration, as if it was a record of impersonal events, although Alex and Yusa countered that, as Ice Queens themselves, they could identify with the distance of trying to detach from the narration. Timmy detested Ming because she’s pedantic and narrow-minded but Yusa claimed that these traits might stem from her insecurity and immaturity. Aaron agreed with Timmy, citing that Ming’s listing of the books she read is a showoffish behavior although Alex and Yusa said that it is her way of finding experience in books.

The question of the night is whether Ming is lesbian. Raj claimed it doesn’t matter. Timmy said no or she’s confused. Alex and Yusa stated she may be bisexual. Aaron noted that her desire for men is only by their attributes, attributes that society deems worthy in a man (broad-shouldered, successful, intelligent, etc) but she has true emotional attachments to women – so she’s likely to be lesbian. Yusa continued the train of thought by saying that perhaps she is inhibited by the conservative society, which impedes her progress of her sexuality, especially when she’s timid and idealist.

Alex brought up the point that she isn’t interested in both sexes, except for Miao Yan; Ming is perhaps attracted to ONE person alone. Aaron was entirely against this idea of essentialism; it is romanticizing and ideological and anti-feminism, and as if we were always the same person across time and space. This riled Yusa up, because he believes in essence.

b. Miao Yan: Although many members obviously had issues with their own parents, Aaron thought that Miao Yan’s Oedipal hangup in a fiction is outdated. We questioned why Miao Yan and Ming are friends at all. At first, we said that it is because Miao Yan intends to make use of Ming but Aaron questioned this in a roundabout argument which the writer of this piece has forgotten what the argument is, concluding that Miao Yan is simple-minded. Their friendship, Raj brought up, is based on non-judgement. We also asked if Miao Yan knows Ming is in love with her. Raj claimed that Miao Yan likes the attention and is stringing Ming along. Yusa says such acts are cruel but happen in daily life.

c. We found Donghua, the masturbator, who is forever knitting very comical. Knitting needles as phallic symbol? we joked.

3. Themes:

a. Power/Men: We suggested that Miao Yan’s way of gaining power is to relinquish power. Aaron joked, “Just like a bottom.”

b. Why titled “Feb Flowers”? Timmy joked, “Because of the alliterative F.” Yusa emo-ed for a moment: “However beautiful the flowers, they are still cold. The lone traveller [something something something which leads to] perfection is death.” How tragic.

c. Space: Raj said, “It’s so crowded in China!” Aaron was interested in the migration narrative but we couldn’t think of anything to say.

4. Scene Analysis:

Many of us were most interested in the masturbating hunk scene, except Aaron who had bad encounters with a few Chinese who don’t shower. (Aaron is such a slut.) On the other hand, Alex was turned on by the stench of armpits. Remember, boys, if you’re dating Alex, don’t shower.

Raj noted this scene is about power, about Ming using her power. Yusa, however, said that Ming may be craving for experience, mistakenly thinking that once she has sex, she becomes a woman. Timmy reminded us that Ming and Miao Yan are doubles; Ming wants to be Miao Yan and Miao Yan could have been Ming. Yusa astutely pointed out that instead of extreme opposites, the two characters mingle into each other, and one has the possibility of becoming the other at any moment.

We went down to DYMK and it was a full moon night, so we talked about sex.

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16th Discussion: Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy (20 Jan 2011)

In general, we all like this book but sometimes we pretended to hate it. It is a very Asian book, which all of us can identify with.

1. Sexuality/family/ riots – Raj argues that because of the riots, Arjie’s sexuality is ignored and given space to grow. Aaron disagrees because the family doesn’t really know about Arjie’s queerness, and Arjie chooses to keep his sexuality a secret: “I now inhabited a world,” Arjie narrates, “my family don’t understand into which they couldn’t follow me.” Raj suggests that the family’s acknowledgment is tacit.

2. Role Models – Raj thinks that Arjie learns from the women while Timmy reminds us not to forget Jegan, a virile young man, whom Isaac adores. Besides Jegan’s hotness, Isaac likes Jegan because he is the only one who sticks to his principles in the novel.

3. Lesbianism – Raj implies that, through the female tomboyish cousin, people are kinder to lesbian. However Aaron points out that that’s because the cousin hasn’t exhibited any outward signs–unlike Arjie who dons on dresses and puts on makeup–and girls can be sporty too.

4. Family – Aaron thinks that the Appa is the villain, breaking up the love-relationship between his wife and Daryl and ignoring the family’s welfare, although both Timmy and Raj point out that it is an Asian family where the man works and the wife takes care of family affairs.

5. Gender – Timmy admires Radha Aunty because she has all the positive traits of a woman, strong and independent like Destiny’s Child. Yes, Aaron agrees, but for all those traits, she doesn’t change things and acquiesces to an arranged marriage, instead of marrying the man she loves. This non-change is important to Aaron and Isaac because it implies that nothing changes… which will have repercussions on Arjie’s sexuality.

6. Love/Marriage: (1) Aaron thinks it is strange to fall in love with someone without even talking much to him (Rahda-Anil) while Raj says that it is a step-up from arranged marriages. (2) Aaron notes there are no happy marriages in this novel (3) One character in the book reminds Radha that marrying the man she loves would be estrangement from her family, and between family and love, Radha chooses family, depicting love doesn’t conquer all. To Aaron, this would mean that Arjie could not use love to justify his sexuality; family is more important and that means having children.

8. Determinism/ Powerless: Isaac brings up an A+ point, that is, the book is very deterministic, that nothing changes in the end, people are powerless against society and culture and norms, everyone lets Arjie down.

7. “Best School of All”: is Raj’s favorite story because it shows the empowerment of Arjie but Timmy thinks that Arjie abuses this power and is highly irresponsible for this is an issue that concerns many people, but Arjie is just selfishly thinking for himself and his beau. There is a great postcolonial possibility in this story that we forgot to discuss.

8. Style: Aaron thinks that the novel is a good cultural document and not a good literary novel while Isaac argues it is both. Aaron supports his statement by invoking the Chekhov’s gun rule, saying it is a series of short stories (and shouldn’t be marketed as a novel), with no development of many of its characters; while Isaac argues that it is just a postmodern style. Isaac thinks that the making sense of the world and the themes make it a novel, while Aaron says it’s more autobiographical as it doesn’t depict well-rounded characters.

It was a good discussion.

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15th Discussion: Pat Barker’s Ghost Road (20 Nov 2010)

Unfortunately, we were too busy to meet up but we thought this book was draggy.

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14th Discussion: Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (21 Oct 2010)

1. Real men talk about their feelings so we started off with how we felt about the book. Isaac liked the book but Raj had mixed feelings, claiming that at some parts, the book gets monotonous, which is because it is too real, describing the daily lives of the lesbians. Aaron questioned if this detailed description is deliberate on the part of the author, to demonstrate that lesbians are humans too, living everyday lives, like everyone else.

2. We talked about <b>the significance of the title</b>. Salt, as Isaac and Raj pointed out, was an expensive commodity for the rich, and so perhaps the love between Carol and Therese is as rare. Isaac and Aaron thought that the salt may come from tears, implying that love is something worth crying over.

3.Characters

a. Carol: Aaron found Carol as an indecipherable, ethereal and mysterious character, impossible to grasp. Raj and Isaac didn’t think so.

b. Abby: Isaac didn’t envy the position Abby is in but Aaron thought that if there is anyone with unconditional love, it’s Abby.

4.

a. <b> Relationship between Carol and Therese</b>: Isaac noted that Carol and Therese are similar and one would become the other. Aaron should have questioned if this is a good thing? What does the author mean? Are lesbians all alike?

They took a long time to consummate their relationship; Isaac said this waiting creates anticipation in the protagonists.

Isaac noticed that Therese grows up only in the absence of Carol, when Carol leaves her. When they are together, Carol only stifles Therese’s development. Raj disagreed with this.

b. Aaron brought up<b> Carol’s decision to choose her daughter over Therese</b>. If this is about happy endings of a lesbian love, Aaron argued, then Carol ought to have chosen Therese instead. Aaron’s point is that by choosing the daughter, Highsmith may be showing that homosexuality isn’t incompatible with family ties, an idea which was against the prevalent mindset at that time (and perhaps this mindset is still prevalent).

On the part of Therese, Raj said that the act of forgiving Carol depicts Therese’s unconditional love. Isaac and Aaron objected to that Therese’s love is unconditional because Raj, Isaac and Aaron have different definitions of “unconditional love.” To Aaron, “unconditional love” should be strong and constant but Therese wavers and is tempted by a beautiful actress. Isaac said that Therese’s love is contingent on Carol loving her in return. A side note that Isaac pointed out is the interaction of Therese between the actress and between Carol is to show the growth of Therese, that she has become confident and possessed a gaydar.

c. There was a fierce discussion on <b>why Carol goes back to Therese in the end</b>. Aaron said that because Carol has already lost her daughter, she goes back to Therese. If she doesn’t, she would have lost two things precious to her. But Isaac and Raj disagreed, saying that the fact that Carol returns to Therese shows it is a conscious choice on Carol’s part. Raj pointed out that by going back to Therese, Carol would lose even that few-days-in-a-year with her daughter. Aaron could not concede this point to Raj and Isaac because he wondered how a few days with the daughter could be compared to years of companionship with Therese; in other words, the trade-off is worth it, and therefore it isn’t a choice at all. How could Carol live in misery for the rest of her life, pining for a few days with the daughter when she can have some form of consolation with Therese? Carol’s motive is important because it shows how she feels for Therese and the basis of their relationship.

On a side note, as someone who comes between Carol and Therese, the daughter doesn’t make an appearance at all, that is, she is always reported in the third person, and we wondered if there is a point to be made. If it were in a movie, the daughter wouldn’t even get a role. (we used “movie” to describe the book because the book’s details are very vivid, as if we were seeing a movie, instead of reading a book.)

d. Aaron wondered if Carol could fall out of love with Abby in two months, what security does Theresa have? Aaron also brought up the question what attracts Carol to Therese and vice versa. He thought that only the beautiful lesbians are together; the ugly one (Abby) ends up alone.

5. <b>Themes</b>

a. <b>Men</b>: In the past few lesbian books we read, men are portrayed negatively but Highsmith does something very different. Richard is the all American Boy, representing the majority of the then-conservative American society’s bias against homosexuality, railing at Therese’s gayness, stating that it is a temporary aberration. Richard is contrasted to Danny who is more rational and accepting of lesbians. Harge is the villian who robs Carol of her daugther. But all the men are treated very sympathetically. Richard’s position is understandable, having lost the love of his life. Even Harge, whose love for his daughter is strong, isn’t at fault; he just wants his daughter with him. Harge gives flowers to Carol on their anniversary, and we hear Carol calling him a hypocrite, which may or may not be true but what is true is that Harge performs a nice gesture towards Carol. Raj added that this is a case of “hate the situation, not the people.” Aaron linked the novel’s sympathetic portrayal to Ali Smith’s novel we read a year ago, since both authors are so sympathetic, showing their humanity and goodness.

b. <b>Money</b>: Two contradicting views appear: (1) Therese longs to become the attractive, glamorous Carol, not woebegone, impoverished Mrs Robichek. (This is obvious in the first meeting of Therese with the two women: both scenes are written in a fairy-like setting, and in both cases, the woman feeds Therese a “potion.”) (2) Therese keeps rejecting Carol’s fiscal assistance. The contradiction is: if Therese wants to be rich, then why does she not accept Carol’s money? Aaron jokingly said that the pittance Carol gives is nothing compared to living a lifetime of luxury with her.

(A sidenote is that all lesbians need to be rich?)

c. Nationalities: Aaron pointed out that all nationalities (of the American immigrants) are presented; Raj pointed out that the social classes are wide-ranging too. We like the all-inclusive representation of different experiences from different perspectives.

6. <b>close-reading</b>

a. “rapport between two men or two women can be perfect,” writes Carol in a letter to Therese. For Raj, it is a beautiful thing to say but it is said in such a way that it doesn’t bring out the full impact. Aaron wondered if writing this in a letter that says that they cannot see each other anymore shows much of Carol’s character. Aaron asked if, seen from the mouth of the author, this passage is didactic? Isaac said that it is not necessary so, since it merely shows the utopian vision of the author.

b. Aaron points out a touching passage that he loves very much: Carol wanted therese with her, and whatever happened they would meet it without running. How was it possible to be afraid and in love, therese thought. The two things did not go together. How was it possible to be afraid, when the two of them grew stronger every day? Together they possessed a miracle.

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