Category Archives: Book Club Themes

Book Discussion: Homosexualities, Muslim Culture, and Modernity by Momin Rahman 

Attendees: Veronika, Jon Gary, Alexis, Pey, Colin, Edwina, Jun, Hui Qing (?), Raj, and Aaron.

Awesome discussion.

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Filed under Academic, Politics, Queer, Religion

Discussion: Larry Kramer’s FAGGOTS (1978)

urlA cozy, intimate discussion between Timmy and Aaron, like when the book club first started.

We discussed about:
-the run-on, stream-of-consciousness sentence structure.

-whether it’s dated (Timmy said parts are, Aaron thinks it’s refreshing).

-the sex: there are all kinds of sex, they can initially be sexy but eventually become farcical and comedic. It also seems like the sex acts define the person; we remember the character by recalling what sex acts he engages in. Sex is also separated from love, but it is also sex without shame.

-characters are doubles of each other, no distinct personality (Winnie and Timmy, Wyatt and Bon Bon, etc). They become one-dimensional, commercialized images, but there is also an insistence on the body.

-the issue of gay men with their fathers.

-although the gay men seem to be in  living hell,  the ending is a silver lining with Fred Lemish having a epiphany of what he wants.

Timmy concluded that although he didn’t like the book, he urged everyone to read it once as an initiation into the gay world.

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Filed under Class, Classics, Family, Gay, Larry Kramer, Love, USA

Queer Book Discussion: Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964) by Hubert Selby, Jr.

The best part about this book was how real it was. The worst part about this book was how real it was. Unanimously, both attendees of October’s book club meeting (Raj and Veronika – yes I totally procrastinated writing this because in true Veronika fashion I turned up without finishing the book) agreed that the raw, unfiltered writing was what enthralled and revolted both of us. I was hooked from the very first paragraph-long sentence, from the very first string of Brooklyn vulgarities, from the unabashed pervasive violence and from the flagrant defiance of conventional punctuation, sentence separation and spelling rules by Hubert Selby Jr. His immersive writing meant that we felt very much a part of this obscene world.

The fact that it was banned by British courts in 1967 made me excited to read it, though after reading a couple of explicitly violent scenes that honestly caused bile to rise in my throat, I can see how discretion is advised for sensitive readers.

Raj and I, being the only two who turned up, spoke at leisure about many aspects of the book. Raj has been to Brooklyn, and was able to say that the book was ‘very Brooklyn’ with authority.

We talked about the absence of religion in the book.

We talked about how what little love was depicted in the book was sadistic, sick and nauseating to read of.

We talked about how territorial the Brooklyn in the book was and how brassy the sex scenes were. We lingered on the idea of masculinity and how regardless of whether the characters were straight, gay, transgender or drag, they made a show of their masculine base, be it their brawns or their brains – the drag queens constantly needed to spar with their words or outshine with their wit.

We talked about the lack of any strong female characters, how the female characters resonated throughout as resourceful women who took on the childbearing roles, provided for the family (when the men mostly didn’t), who stuck to ‘their’ men through thick and thin (even when abused) and who generally had no self-respect as they conflated their domestic roles with martyrship.

Oh boy did we talk about Tralala. Raj pointed out how she was the only empowered woman in the book, and how even so, she seemed to be more of a ‘man trapped in a woman’s body’. We talked about how the men get bashed but never raped, and we talked about how irresistibly grotesque her insatiable sexuality was to read, and there was a tone of awe, maybe even respect with which we talked about how little she cared as she died.

We talked about how only tough queers were shown. Weak fragile queers were not shown, only weak women. Yet we didn’t raise the idea that Selby Jr. was a misogynist, just an accurate writer portraying an uncomfortably real world.

We also spoke at length about Harry. I initially hated him, but as Raj spoke about how, dislikable as Harry may be, he was an important to the union precisely because he was a convenient target of dislike by the corporate people, I started to, well, not like, but at least not thoroughly hate his character.

And of course, we enjoyed Raj’s Brooklyn-themed spread, with the beer cocktail, meatballs, sausages and cheese melts. Unfortunately, not a single bennie was in sight.

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Discussion: Alison Bechdel’s The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For 


Veronika wrote: 

I really like the comics I dipped into. The way she captures every day politicising in the slice of life format is compelling for busy adults… I like the sustained way she did comic too! It’s not easy to create an appealing comic strip that panders exclusively to adult tastes. I mean, I usually associate comic strips to anthropomorphic animals or hyperbolic characters so at first flip it took a while for me to get used to reading unusually dense language for comic strips. I kinda see why XKCD strips the artwork to stick figures now, cause the dialogue is the focal point. For this, there were times when I felt a little too overwhelmed at the cramped drawings and dense text in the comics. Aaron did point me to a rather poignantly done comic strip in 2004 following the 9/11 event, and it was nice to see the art carry the weight of the message for once. I agreed with Aaron’s point that he finds the depiction of the fat or non-standard beautiful characters interesting. It adds to the raw, Real feel of the comics. Aaron thinks it is problematic that the text itself while promoting diversity, fails the inverse Bechdel test. However, I personally don’t think it’s problematic.


Aaron wrote: 

These are some of the discussion questions that I have prepared: 

1. In our discussion on Fun Home, we didn’t like the narcissistic nature of the graphic novel. In the introduction of DTWOF, Bechdel confided that she submitted a manuscript of a novel to Adrienne Rich. Rich rejected to publish  the novel because she, like us, found the storytelling narcissistic. But DTWOF comes in episodes, not a whole coherent narrative. Do you think DTWOF is narcissistic too? Or does the episodic form make the comics more inclusive and universal? 

2. The Bechdel Test originated from DTWOF. Think of your favorite movie and apply it to the test. Do you think the test is accurate or reliable? 

Now apply the inverse to DTWOF. Are there more than 2 male characters interacting with each other, talking about nonsexual topics? How are men generally portrayed in DTWOF?

3. In this interview, why did Bechdel feel uncomfortable about her characters being role models? 

4. In the same interview, she stated that she stopped DTWOF after more than a decade because it was no longer profitable. Does this affect the artistic integrity or the advocacy element of the comics for you? 

Also you may want to relate it to the characters in the comics who stick to their principles and those who don’t. 

5. In the interview, what is the “homosexual agenda” according to Bechdel? How is it reflected in her comics? 

6. Bechdel is constantly worrying about the homogenization of the world because big corporations are taking over the world. How does she negotiate that in her comics? 

7. What are some of the things that shock you in the comics? If you’re a gay man, what is the difference between the lesbian scene and the gay? 

8. Bechdel prides herself for being a feminist, which to her also means being antiestablishment. Is there a contradiction publishing things to make money?

9. Fat studies / disabled lesbians. Discuss. 

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Filed under Alison Bechdel, Class, Disability, Family, Graphic Novel, HIV/AIDS, Lesbian, Love

Discussion: Beijing Comrades (Lan Yu) by Bei Tong

This was the night when minority races were racists, starting with Raj saying “All Chinese homes have prawn crackers what!” With the Chinese theme, we had beer cocktail, dumplings, mooncakes, and eclairs.

Attendance included Veronika, Pierre, Calvin, Chams, Raj, Timmy, Asyraf, and Aaron.

We asked questions about the authorship as Asyraf noted that it felt like a female writing fan fic, not unlike the Japanese boys love manga genre, written by women, for women. Chams wondered if the book would be more organic in its Chinese format.

Themes:

1. Death: Most of us expressed our disappointment at diabolus ex machina of the sudden death of Lan Yu when they are about to live happily ever after. Pierre noted the trope of the time. Chams claimed that the sad ending makes the story more poignant. Raj playfully suggested that perhaps that author is saying that the person who screws around is better for survival (in Raj’s words, “Cheebyes always live”), although Pierre rightly noted that we were assuming that staying alive is a good thing.

Aaron brought up the history of sad endings. EM Forster wanted a happy ending for Maurice, but the only way he could envision them together was to remove them for society, staying in isolation in the woods. Like Forster, Bei Tong just couldn’t envision a happy ending in the 80s. Veronika pointed that that this is especially true in the age of HIV/AIDS in the 80s. Han Dong associates sexual diseases with angmohs, Raj noted.

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2. Communism, Money, and Love: There are several communist references in the book: Asyraf noticed that Han Dong means “defend Mao Ze Dong”  and Chams said Han Dong is conformist, when compared to Lan Yu.

Aaron noted that in the postscript, Bei Tong wrote that she was surprised to come across such strong love existing in a capitalist society like USA. In short, Beijing Comrades argues that money is bad for true love, that is, a true form of communism is actually good for love.

Timmy said, “Chey. So typical of Chinese. You Chinese love money, you can talk about money the entire day. Lan Yu is the true Malay, giving up money for love.”

Raj chimed in, “Yeah la, Chinese people are very good at saving money.”

Asyraf shrewdly noted the irony: Han Dong embodies a good communist, and he hates anything Western (from angmohs to their food), and yet he is so good at earning money, and he uses money to buy boys.

3. Communism and sexuality: Calvin informed us the tension between Confucianism and communism. Communism wished to get rid of old “gods” and so Confucianism wasn’t popular. And Beijing Comradeexemplifies this tension. While communism means that people are equally valued for their production value, that is to say that being gay is ok since sexuality is not important in work, China is essentially a Confucian society in terms of being filial and producing heirs.

It is such a society that we see a shocking scene. Han Dong’s mother cries, and Han Dong says his love for Lan Yu is not as important as his mother’s wellbeing. Chams saw it as Han Dong taking the path of least resistance, as he is a conformist. Veronika put herself in Han Dong’s shoes and agrees with Han Dong’s thinking.

4. Gender: Seen in the communist/capitalist light, Raj notes that most people are commodities. Boys are bought for sex; women have sex with rich men who are potential husbands; and in a sense, women are seeing rich men as commodities.

We also talked about Han Dong leaving the curvy woman for the slim Lin Ping. Timmy scoffed, “Chey, so typical of Chinese.” Raj added, “Yeah la, Chinese fuck Malays and Indians, but marry Chinese in the end.” HAHAHA. How come so much Chinese bashing one?

In any case, there is much complexity about gender in the book. But since only two of us read the book fully, we didn’t delve deeply.

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5. Sexuality: In the essay attached to the end of the novel, Petrus Liu argues that because Han Dong doesn’t believe in labels, “Han Dong stands as an example of a failed gay identity” (379). But Asyraf, Calvin, and Veronika called on Liu’s narrowmindedness: Han Dong by sleeping with everyone is bisexual or polyamorous; just because he’s not absolutely gay does not mean it’s a “failed” identity. Aaron also said that Liu uses a Eurocentric point of view on Han Dong. Han Dong needs to overcome societal and familial pressures, which he does in the end, and admits he is gay eventually, even if he lacks courage to live the life. Isn’t an acknowledgement of his gay self an affirmative identity even if it doesn’t adhere to the Western notions of screaming to be out-and-proud? 

Petrus Liu also claims that since Lan Yu stumbles upon being gay–as Asyraf puts it succinctly that Lan Yu doesn’t choose to be gay–Lan Yu has a “non-identity” (379). But we disagreed with Liu. Obviously Lan Yu has a choice. He rejects a violent advance, and psychoanalysis, as Pierre noted. We also observed that Lan Yu goes out to find gay friends; you’re gay when you choose to make friends in the gay community. That is an identity.

6. Sex: Besides sleeping with men and women, Han Dong sleeps with “Annie” (drag queen) and HJ (guitarist who wears makeup). Why does Han Dong sleep with men he is not attracted to, Aaron asked. Both Raj and Pierre said that because Han Dong doesn’t know how to deal with relationships, he is experimenting.

Are there too many explicit sex scenes? Raj said, “Yeah, what’s up with emphasizing Han Dong’s big cock?”

Timmy responded, “Yeah lah, it’s so un-Chinese.” When asked to clarify if big cocks are un-Chinese, or if writing about big cocks is un-Chinese, Timmy declined to answer.

Aaron admired the sex scenes because they defy the hush-hush taboo secrecy of Chinese society.

Conclusion

As we always want to end with a positive note, nobody had anything good to say, although everyone who didn’t read the book were persuaded to read the book. Chams said in the tiring world we live in, it’s good to read a trashy book to relax. Calvin liked the purity and steadfastness of Lan Yu. Although Pierre said the book is dated, Aaron felt that it has captured a cultural zeitgeist at a particular point in history; he could identify with the struggles of Han Dong (“The struggle is real!); and the complexity of gay relationship between Han Dong and Lan Yu is universal and still relevant to reflect on our own modern gay relationships. Love is timeless.

 

 

 

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Filed under Bei Tong, Bisexuality, China, Class, Family, Gay, Love

Lesbian Book Discussion: Emma Donoghue’s ROOM

We were a lively, loquacious bunch: Pierre, Mona, Liz, Sharad, Raj, Brian, Alex, Javin, Veronica, and Aaron.

We started the discussion with whether it’s better to watch the film first, or read the book first. S and B had different opinions. B found the space in the film important, especially the personal space the Grandma needs away from Jack. 

P was insistent that Ma should have committed suicide before the birth of the child. Why wait till the hospital? B argued that Ma doesn’t commit suicide because of Jack; she has no existence before Jack. “Is this sexist to depict that a woman’s existence lies in her motherhood?” Almost everyone in the group replied negative, but Aa and P weren’t so sure it isn’t sexist.

When asked what we didn’t like about the novel: R, V, Aa, P, M all thought it was densely packed, full of many noun-things. Aa called the novel unimaginative and predictable, which V disagreed. B said that the brother is superfluous. V thought the breastfeeding should have been developed later in the novel. L commented the story is isolated in its world, divorced from other current events. Al thought it is the bestest book ever.

roomWe talked a lot on fatherhood. B noted that fatherhood in Room is more complex than motherhood, because there are different types of fathers whereas mothers seem giving. V said that the Father’s rejection of Jack adds to Ma’s guilt. We also questioned why Ma doesn’t allow Jack to interact with his father, but S and B bored us and we didn’t pay attention. Something about attachment/abuse theory, Jack as a form of pure extension of Ma which she must keep sacred, but it seems going into the sexist rhetoric that a woman is unpure after rape.

Another theme we talked about was media. Hey, wanna netflix and chill? Donoghue claims Room is part “a satire of modern mores and media.” We should have discussed more on it.

We also discussed a scene where a gay couple appear. S, P, and Aa thought it is a manipulative scene, bludgeoning our heads with the message that children know no sexuality and can love a boy or a girl. The other members protested, and called the trio cynical.

On favorite characters, everyone seemed to love the Grandma and the step granddad, except for Al. Al thought the grandma represents the normalizing, heteronormative force of society; she teaches Jack how to be normal. Gross, right? L and J liked the kid and mother. Aa liked the reporter but he was booed by everyone—we are a pretty “democratic” book club. Al liked Raja the dog and the Room as a character.

R claimed Ma uses Jack as a pawn to get Sunday treats. The rapist giving Sunday treats and not depicted as a complete villain: L said, “The worst kind of evil has some good in it.” She was on a roll and had several good epigrams that night.

V pointed that the rape is not dealt with directly and B said that circumventing the topic is a sophisticated way of dealing with the topic: it’s a traumatic experience, one of the worst things that can happen to a woman, but yet it’s not the be-all, and end-all of a person’s life.

On narrative structure, Aa asked if it is strange to have the climax of the story in the middle of the book, and V said it is more thrilling after the climax. V also liked the child narrator, arguing that it’s a convincing voice.

How about the ending? Is it a good ending? Ma and Jack treat the room differently; Ma hates it but it is Jack’s world. L wondered if it is an allegory for wanting to return to the mother’s womb.

S views the moral of the story differently. He sees J as a carte blanche using concepts to understand the world: he uses different concepts to deal with situations in the room and in the world. The message of the story is not to have a message.

V ended the discussion by aptly summing up: it’s a feel bad, feel good book, a book that makes you see how awful the world is so that you feel that you’re lucky.

These are some of the topics that Aa had on hand, but there was no chance to bring them up:
-Queerness of Jack
-Sexuality of mother
-why is Old Nick deliberately kept out of the picture?
-psychiatrist and nurse
-Universality of the experience?
-Donoghue says that Room is “a battle between Mary and Devil for young Jesus.” How so?
-Room is inspired by Austrian case of Josef Fritzl, who locked up his own daughter whose son escaped at age of 5. James Wood, New Yorker critic, said this adaptation is “exploitative and a little cheap.” “The real victim’s imaginings and anxieties,” Wood argues, “must have been abysmal, in the original sense (unimaginable, bottomless), and the novel’s sure-footed appropriation of this unknowability seems offensive precisely in its sure-footness.” Jack’s cheerfulness and charm “lend the book an inappropriate lightness.” Do you agree with him?

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Filed under Canada, Emma Donoghue, Family, Lesbian

Dunno What Nth Discussion: Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On

simon-bazDunno what nth discussion because someone hasn’t written the past discussions yet. *passive aggressive mode on* Just kidding.

It’s back to the good old days, with Raj, Timmy and Aaron, like we were at the start of the book club 5 years ago. The book is a fan-fic of a queer Harry Potter—queer because he likes the person, not the sex—and a gay Edward Cullum.

static1.squarespaceThese are some of the things we talk about:

  1. Shallow and superficial: Simon wishes father is a footballer, mom is a model (8). All along, Agatha is trying to break out of the “blond cheerleader” typecast, yet at the end, she becomes the damsel-in-distress, and doesn’t even fight to save her life. She wishes she has nicer clothes so that she can die pretty (465). WTH.
  2. All characters are queer but with limited character development: Agatha seems to be the most interesting character because she tries to break out of her mold; none of the other protagonists does it. Simon plays his Chosen One role; Penny plays the Hermione role dutifully, and Baz the anti-hero.But Agatha struggles with her emotions, fakes her emotions (9, 74, 75), and claims “we are all monsters” (14), a deep thought coming from a putative “bimbo.” Unfortunately, the damsel-in-distress part is a big gaping plot hole.
  3. Treatment of LBGTQ characters: These characters are not human. Baz is a vampire, Simon becomes a dragon/devil caricature; and Trixie is half pixie. There is something homophobic in that.

    That is not to say this book isn’t a book with good intentions. Baz’s difficulty of admitting he’s a vampire (262) mirrors the difficult coming out. His dad, preferring him to be Undead than to be queer, is heartbreaking (215, 279).

    Futhermore, there are two gay sex scenes between the homos, and gay sex scenes are always good, even if they are encoded. First scene: Baz and Simon’s fight scene with the dragon is written in erotic terms: “I did something I’ve never done before—something I probably wouldn’t try with anyone I was scared of hurting. [anal sex hurts.] I push I just push it into Baz” (239). “His arm straightens like a rodI push a little more magic. I worry that it’s too much… His shoulder is rock hard… it’s jerking itself…I stop pushing… letting Baz draw on my magic” (240).

    The second scene is more subtle (391).

  4. Sexism: No strong male characters, only strong female ones, like Fiona, Baz’s mother, etc.

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  5. Magic as metaphors:
    1. Class: The powerful magicians are always depicted as “rich and powerful,” kept within old families. Magic is also seen as hereditary, which reeks of biological essentialism; we can never transcend our DNA, which means the novel advocates a racist, sexist, homophobic philosophy.

      In a way, The Mage, wanting to liberate magic so that even people with a smidgeon of magic can go to Watsford, and eradicating school fees, can be seen as democratic.

      But Mitali, Penny’s mom, an Indian woman, who calls The Mage sexist for no apparent reason, wants a traditional Watsford, keeping magic for the best students. She also thinks that they are better than Normals (111, 261, 401). In a way, Mitali is supporting the system that oppresses her. Raj thinks that Mitali and Penny are portrayed as a stereotypical Indian family, which makes the novel racist.

      Unfortunately, the death of The Mage, especially at the hands of Baz from an Old Family and Penny, Mitali’s daughter, implies that Mage’s democratic ways are wrong; they revert to the old traditional methods.

      One could argue, as Raj did, that the Mage represents extreme democracy, ie, he is an extremist that he must be destroy. After all, in the end, he wants to be the most powerful magician of all time.

    2. Magic as Commodity: Magic is often viewed as something to be conserved and not to “waste” (38, 78, 186, 187); it is also seen as something to be “eaten” and consumed (47). We didn’t appreciate this cultivation of materialism.
    3. Magic as Objectification: Simon is often objectified because of his magic; he’s “power” (67), a “vessel” (123), “element” (181), “nuclear” (181, 242),  “generator” (258). Simon even objectifies himself, calling himself a “current” (337), and “I am magic” (455). Ebb is also a “generator” (284). Baz is used as a “wand” (254). Penny’s dad is a “book of footnotes” (247). Like the message of magic as a commodity, this sends the wrong message.
    4. Magic as ozone layer: Magic leaves holes, unfortunately, this is not explored further in the book.
    5. Magic as finding the right words (107)
    6. Magic as texture: Different people’s magic feels differently. An interesting concept that isn’t explored in the novel.
    7. Magic as Religion (197): If magic is seen as a religion, it would explain why Agatha finds it so hard to walk away from the magic community; to become a Normal is to be outcast.

      The theme of outcast recurs in the book, not just gay people—a vampire and a demon—are outcasts. Ebb’s brother, who chooses to leave the world of living to become a vampire, is ostracized by the magic community, and by Baz, Simon, and Penny who need his help badly, bearing in mind that Baz himself is a vampire and that Ebb’s brother is very powerful. Even the outcasts can outcast others.

      Ebb’s death can also be read as her rejection of her power. Because she rejects her immense power, because she lacks the training, she dies at the hands of The Mage.

      Superficially, this book seems to be a message of inclusion, but at a deeper level, the prejudice of the book shows. If you don’t want to be in the magic/religious community, you will be outcast and we will never accept you back, regardless of the direst situation. If you don’t practice your magic/religion, you’ll be punished, and in Ebb’s case, her punishment is death.

 

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Filed under Bisexuality, Class, Coming of Age, Ecology, Family, Food, Love, Queer, Race, Rainbow Rowell, Religion, UK, Young Adult