Category Archives: France

68th Discussion: Julie Maroh’s Blue is the Warmest Colour

9781551525143_BlueIsTheWarmestColorThis discussion note is written by Brian (who blogs at Foreign Influence).

Blue is the Warmest Color drew a nice group of twelve folks together and provoked all of us to make comparisons, even when we tried to avoid them. We compared the book and the film. We compared the book (a graphic novel) to an imaginary “traditional” novel (without images). We compared the English version to the original French. And, we compared images of female nudity with images of male nudity. All-in-all, it seemed a good way to go about discussing Julie Maroh’s book.

 

Opinions were split on this book—as were opinions on the film—and the fact that not all of us completely liked it, let alone were completely satisfied with it, might have been what inspired the three-hour conversation.

 

In some ways, the tone was set early on by Vicki, who summed it up as, “…like a European/Art House version of a Korean drama…. I hate to love Korean Dramas.”

 

Cowen asked what the director (Abdellatif Kechiche) saw in the book to make him want to adapt it, and this led us further into our comparisons.

 

urlWe discussed the title, which, as Ken noted stressed the warmth rather than coolness of blue and Vishakah pointed out might be a reference to the idealization of a lover that runs through the book. We went on to talk about the use of color and b/w throughout the book—with Andrea and Vishakah lending some expertise in the genre, and we all pointed to our favorite images. Brian stressed that the last page was his favorite page of the book.

 

Looking into the characters a bit more, Sara asked if we thought Clementine was lesbian, bisexual, or curious and how that affected our reaction to her. Raj said that Emma definitely is a lesbian. Yi-Sheng and Ken also drew out points about the youth of the writer and the charm of the teenage drama in the book. They both focused on the theme of “innocence” at different points in the discussion. Cowen found parts corny and melodramatic. Sharad compared the book overall to a young adult novel.

 

Several folks questioned the balance of the timeline and the narrative gaps. We wondered if the book had originally been serialized. We also wondered if the unbalance might be a sign of an inexperienced writer.

 

We also wondered about a couple of particular scenes in the book. Why would anyone walk around a clandestine lover’s parents house in the nude? What exactly were those pills Clementine was taking? How did we respond to the portrayal of Emma and Clementine’s “mature” relationship? Raj raised the comparison to queer couples where one is completely out and the other is completely private. Vicki asked about the slut shaming in the book and film. Several people asked if Valentine was a good friend or not? We kept wondering if Blue truly is the warmest color?

 

In the end, some folks liked the pages without images quite a bit. Andrea thought it was a good message for young readers. And even some who did not like the book as much still thought it was worth considering if it is a work of art, if it is compelling, and if alters some ways we might tell stories about gay, lesbian, and queer lives.

 

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Filed under Family, France, Graphic Novel, Julie Maroh, Lesbian, Love

62nd Discussion: Ellis Avery’s The Teahouse Fire (or Q&A with Raj)

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Poor Raj! He set such a beautiful table, and no one came for the book club. Aaron had emailed Raj a list of questions beforehand to moderate the discussion, but since no one came, Raj decided to answer them.

 

Questions for Teahouse Fire:

  1. On p. 284, there is a Japanese phrase “ichigo ichie” for the tea world. It means “one moment, one meeting,” or in the deepest sense, it means there are no mistakes in life. What does this phrase mean about life in general? Does the novel embody this phrase? Which character, do you think, apply this philosophy?

avery - The_teahouse_fireIchi-go ichi-e is linked with Zen Buddhism and concepts of transience, particularly depicted during the tea ceremony conducted in the style of famed tea master Sen no Rikyu where unique scrolls, tea bowls and flowers are set up in the tea room. In the context of tea ceremony, ichi-go ichi-e reminds participants that each tea meeting is unique. This is also true that there is has been no repetition of the set up for the varios tea ceremonies in the book. In each of the tea ceremony, the host and guest had one unique experience that lead to friendship or disaster

In a deeper sense, it is about Aurelia meeting Yukako in the teahouse that night of the fire – it is that one moment, one meeting that changed the courses of their lives. Towards the end, in the same tearoom, Aurelia kissed Yukako and again changed the course of their lives.

  1. What are the similarities and differences between Western and Japanese cultures in the book?

Similarities:

Mary vs Goddess of Mercy.

The status of fallen women is the same – Aurelia’s mom and Kenji’s girlfriend Aki – outcast.

Differences:

Bath rituals

Role of wife

Social order – Samurai, Traders and the untouchable working class

  1. Is Urako/Aurelia responsible for her uncle’s death? (Also note the molestation scene before the fire.)

She prayed for her life to change and she rather not have the uncle with her – shown by her praying to change her life before the goddess and also her uncle only showed up in nightmares later in her life as Urako. Also, she never bothered to find if her uncle survived the fire at all.

  1. Why does Urako/Aurelia have made up last names?

I believe that she doesn’t know her father’s name and that name “Bernard” was given by her uncle. Hints that her mom could have been raped by a priest was suggested by both Aurelia and her mom when she said, “Aurelia Bernard. Who is this Bernard, tell me? The Church hates truth, and the nuns hate it most of all.”

  1. Why does Urako have sex with Nao?

She wanted someone who desire Yukako to desire her as well. Also she believes Yukako desires Nao instead of her and she wants to punish her.

  1. Objects in the book often have significant meanings: the lightning cup, Yukako making a spoon out of Baishian’s wood for Urako, and Urako’s Catholic medal. What gives these things meaning? And what is the significance of these things? On a side note, does Yukako’s marketing on tea ware cheapen or ennoble the art?

Symbolism and subtle messages are very much a cultured Japanese behaviour – the book is full of hidden messages just like Urako’s closeted sexuality – classic example of her dress handing in the alcove.

Yukako’s marketing of the tea sets made them more of a commercial item rather than “ichigo ichie”- “one moment, one meeting”.

  1. Why does Yukako set Baishian on fire? What is the significance of fire and water in the book?

Yukako’s way of atoning for her mistake – she will never be able to host another tea ceremony in Baishian again – again on the theme of Ichigo Ichie.

You need fire and water to make tea – its sweet irony. Also Aurelia had a fire after a long journey over sea into Japan and after another fire she sails away from Japan.

  1. Yukaka appears to be half sister to Koito. Does it give her a right to teach Koito, a geisha, chado?

Yukako did it for other reasons rather than the fact that she is a half sister. Yukako , according to the book, has been key reason for women to learn tea. She also introduced this to the Geisha world through Koito. But whether she has a right – it all depends on who’s perspective you want to look from.

  1. During one teaching lesson with Koito, Yukako honors Urako’s Western dress. Why?

Yukako’s acceptance of the western influence into their lives. Also Urako is her first student.
teahousecover

  1. Why does Aurelia’s mother insist on calling her blond when she has black hair?

Maybe her real father had blond hair??

  1. Comment on the throwaway reference to Singapore as a name for a ship. Is it exoticizing Singapore?

Author wants to show the historic importance of Singapore as a port as well of the fact that Japan owned Singapore at one time.

  1. Incest: Comment on the rampant incest that occurs in the novel: Aurelia with her uncle, Yukako with her half brother, Nao; Kenji (Yukako’s son) with Akio (Nao’s daughter).

Its common in those days – people don’t get out of their circle and houses too much

  1. Why does Akio dress Koito in Yukako’s kimino?

Fantasy – Fetish – every man wants a virtuous wife who is a whore in bed!

  1. Discuss the male-female relationships in the book. Are there any positive ones? (Also look at mother-son relationships).

Yukako – Tai – positive

Tai – Tsuko – positive

  1. Discuss the male-male relationship in the book, especially the triangle between Nao, Hiro, and Akio.

There is a lot of brotherly love and jealousy by Nao to Hiro and Akio. Hierarchy in the teahouse is one the reason for this and class status.

  1. Nao’s class struggle.

Didn’t help when he married an untouchable gal !!

  1. Love: Does Urako love Yukako or Inko?

Different sort of love – Yukako is a sort of motherly-sisterly love – whereas Inko was more of her equal. Inko loves Urako more that Urako loves her while Urako love Yukako more than Yukako love her.

  1. Discuss the female characters (Pipe Lady, Yukako, Urako, Chio, Aki, Koito, Inko)

Really? Why??? There is too many female characters in this book!!!!

  1. Discuss the male characters. Are there any strong and positive male characters? Is this another male-bashing lesbian novel? (Mountain, Akio, Jiro, Kenji, Tai.)

There was no real great male characters , but at the same time there is no real male bashing. There are more mean gals depicted in this book than lame men. This book centres on women rather than men.

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Filed under Bisexuality, Class, Colonialism, Ellis Avery, Family, Food, France, Historical, Japan, Lesbian, Love, Race, Religion, USA, War

50th Discussion: Mia Farlane’s Footnotes to Sex

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Both Raj and Aaron didn’t like the book. Raj pointed out the cultural differences between the French and English, and disliked the long-drawn drama. Everything could be sum up in a chapter, he said. Aaron disliked it for whining about first world problems, and in the end, the author didn’t present her personalty in the book, all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Gavin gave the quote of the night: “If you persist, I won’t resist.”

We had drinks at DYMK.

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47th Discussion: Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt

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Raj, as our chef de cuisine whenever we hosted the discussions over at Tanjong Pagar, served up food inspired by the book – crepes with duck & fig and ham & cheese fillings, and duck and chicken & prawns spring rolls. Merci, Raj, comme toujours.

Aaron moderated the discussion; Amit and Luke were there to show their support.

What did we like about the book? Food and France, according to Raj, were the two factors that he approved of. Miss Toklas was also a contributing factor, whom Raj said reminded him of his lesbian friends. Overall, he thought the book felt “real” and was a nice read. Har enjoyed the way that the book was written; he appreciated its specificity and how accessible the text was. Aaron agreed, saying that the writing was beautiful and cited the first chapter as “amazing”. Timmy commended Truong for the thorough research she conducted for her first book.

Monique Truong's The Book of Salt

We questioned the meaning of the book’s title. Raj talked about the usage of salt in French cuisine, and briefly explained that for one to become the top chef in France, he has to master its cuisine. Timmy brought up the quote about salt existing in the kitchen, sweat, tears, and the sea, and viewed it as the ingredient that gives any dish its flavour. He alluded that life is not always sweet; there is always a little salt to give it more taste and flavour. Aaron opined that it is about ambition.

In Chapter 19, Miss Toklas instructed Binh not to use salt in his cooking. (“Salt is not essential here.”) What we have derived from that exchange was a showcase of who the superior in the house was (Raj); an indication of the characters, highlighting the charmed life Alice has been leading (Aaron); a no-salt diet requirement (Timmy).  “Because it may lead to high blood pressure,” Raj quipped with regards to Timmy’s observation.

We also talked about the significance of food in the book. Aaron thought the ways in which food was described was very sensuous, to which Raj explained that food was used as a form of seduction. “Trust me, I know it!” he boldly proclaimed. Har then brought up the plentiful mentions of rice within the book and what it meant. Raj quipped that it showcased how versatile Asians can be, i.e. being able to adapt to different kinds of situations as well as the varied tastes in men we have.

If food is the metaphor for sex, then what is love? Raj brought up the bit about quinces. (“To answer your question, Gertrude Stein, love is not a bowl of quinces yellowing in a blue and white china bowl, seen but untouched.”) According to him, humans and quinces are not dissimilar – “People have to be given the right amount of heat, to be cooked and simmered (like quinces) before they attain the ability to love.”

Binh, the protagonist of the book, was brought up, which led to a discussion on his name, and why there were instances of characters not using their real names when introducing themselves. Raj vehemently said Binh was not his real name. “We don’t even know his real name!” Aaron said, before proclaiming that names are important in that it gives one his identity. Timmy thought that Binh giving false names during encounters with other people was his way of creating a new identity for himself. Aaron added that Timmy’s explanation was akin to an outsider looking in, before further questioning Truong’s intention of creating him as a gay character on top of being a second-class citizen in a foreign country.

The pronunciation of Binh’s name was also briefly touched on, with Har asking whether this was racist as none of the Caucasian characters could even pronounce his name correctly. Aaron and Raj both agreed that “Ang Mohs don’t care”, further perpetuating the notion that they really are racist.

An example of Binh’s name being “mangled” is when Sweet Sunday Man started calling him Bee. Timmy felt that that was used as a term of endearment, while Aaron equated it to Binh being a “honey bee”. Raj then explained how Caucasians tend to call others by the first initial of their names, i.e. A for Aaron, T for Timmy, and so forth. Very Gossip Girl.

Despite his affections, Sweet Sunday Man still made Binh steal The Book of Salt. Gertrude Stein wrote about Binh in the book, which caused Aaron to question whether anyone – even the great Gertrude Stein – could describe him perfectly. The part in which Sweet Sunday Man said that Stein captured Binh’s essence perfectly only caused Raj to exclaim that “Americans tend to agree with their countrymen.” We all agreed that Binh did not particularly reveal his true self throughout the book.

Varying opinions were shared when we talked about Sweet Sunday Man. Was he in love with Binh? Was he purely using him for sex? Was Sweet Sunday Man vindictive, since he used Binh to steal the book? Aaron asked whether he was a bad guy through and through. Raj said the only reason why Sweet Sunday Man was called as such was because it came from Binh’s point of view.

Is this book homophobic? Aaron finally tossed out (one of) his favourite question(s). Raj said the book made it look like homosexuals cannot find love. Aaron also added that the book depicted homosexuals as evil; Binh was a stereotypical gay man; lesbians were painted as selfish bitches.

Aaron read out loud the last passage of the book, and asked everyone what it meant. Timmy correctly guessed that it was about suicide. We briefly discussed about the “you” mentioned in that bit, which could have been referring to his mother, or his grandmother. It could even be about love or just holistically used as a metaphor.

Speaking of suicide, we moved on to why Binh kept hearing the Old Man’s voice in his head. The best quote used to describe the father: “He is a bloody cibai!” (© Raj 2013). Har viewed it as Binh’s criticism of himself, while Raj felt that it was his way of fulfilling his father’s expectations of him. Timmy thought he was delusional, and then brought up the scene of him burying his father alive.

Binh’s paternity was also questioned, with Timmy believing that The Old Man was not his biological father due to his mother’s affair with the schoolteacher. Aaron, however, didn’t think it was plausible and instead, suggested that Binh may have made the story up.

Aaron noted that religion played a big theme within the book, though Raj was unsure whether the author was against it.

When it came to favourite characters, Har picked Minh (up until Chapter 8, anyway) as he found the sous chef cool and was often dishing out advice to his younger brother. Both Timmy and Raj selected the mother, who, according to T, was “the Destiny’s Child of Vietnam in the 1920s”, while Raj likened her to The Little Nyonya, who was always busy in the kitchen, has got the guts to go to a different church from her husband’s, and was accepting of Binh. In terms of least favourite characters, Timmy disliked the (ex-) Madame’s secretary, calling her a slut and a bitch. Raj chose Sweet Sunday Man, saying that he was manipulative and had the nerve to break it off with Binh on a Post-It note. He then cited Carrie Bradshaw’s cardinal rule on breaking up with anyone using a Post-It note. Aaron found the grandmother to be selfish as she sold her daughter off to be matchmade before killing herself, just so that she could join her deceased husband in the afterlife.

We rounded up the session by asking one another what we don’t like about the book. Raj thought that it was full of stereotypes, though overall, he does not and could not hate the book. Har found the food references too tough to follow, and after the discussion, thought the ending was horrible. Timmy, who by then could not hold back his vitriol, said he found the book boring and monotonous, joking that he would rather watch paint dry or grass grow than read it. He didn’t think there was any satisfaction from reading the book, and could not appreciate Truong’s writing style. Aaron thought the same. “The writing is so beautiful, yet it’s a beautiful nothing,” he poetically said.

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Filed under Class, Classics, Colonialism, Family, Food, France, Historical, Love, Monique Truong, Queer, Race, Religion, Time, Vietnam

37th Discussion: Comme Les Autres (2008)

We were too lazy to stick around for an in-depth discussion and decided to do it online. Here are some questions that you may want to consider and leave a comment. If you have other questions or other ideas about the movie, please feel free to comment too.

1. Why is the French title “Like the Others” change to “Baby Love” in translation? What is the significance?

2. There is a straight sex scene (to which the female movie-goer who sat behind me turned to her friend asked, “So he is straight?”). Why do you think there is a straight sex scene?

3. The gay sex scene is only implied while the straight sex scene is rather explicit and long-drawn. Is it homophobic?

4. Is it believable that a man would give up his long-term stable relationship for an unknown (in this case, the unknown is a future baby)?

5. Who else thinks Philippe is hot as hell?

6. What is the portrayal of class issues in this film?

7. What is the portrayal of family in this film?

7a. Every time the young boys ask difficult questions at the dining table, they are asked to leave. What do you make of this?

8. How would you characterize the love between Emmanuel and Philippe?

9. When Cathy asks Emmanuel to sit in her office, he first suspects that he has HIV before he figures out he is infertile. Is this homophobic in any way?

10. Emmanuel lives in Belville, a district with various races but how many non-White characters are there? Why?

11. Why is an illegal immigrant the surrogate mother? Do you think she’s being used by Emmanuel or even the director just as a plot device? What issues of illegal migrancy are brought up? Putting the film in Singapore context, do you think the director is for or against migrants?

12. What is the depiction of gender in the movie? Are there any caricatures of women?

13. In the last scene, it is suggested that Cathy sleeps with the black man. Is

14. Do you find this film funny? At which scenes and why? Are we laughing because of the loss in translation or is the humor universal? If you think that the film is funny, why do you think the director injects humor in a film with a serious theme?

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25th Discussion: Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian (20 Oct)

We all found the book dry although Aaron claimed that the day after he read the book, it hit him and he had an unexplainable fondness for it.

Roy provided us with some historical background: The Greeks were comfortable with pederastic behavior while Romans despised it and bottoms were especially looked down upon. Antinous, Hadrian’s lover,  was a slave from Turkey, and being a slave made it ok for Hadrian to fuck him – it appears that power play was more important than sex play. The apotheosis of Antinous’s death by Hadrian was meant to bridge the conflict between Romans and Greeks.

1. Characters:

a. Antinous: Roy asked how Antinous dies in the novel, as the death was ambiguous historically. Aaron misread the book, thinking that Antinous is jealous of Lucius. Timmy explicated the matter: Antinous sacrifices his life for Hadrian as an oracle has predicted Hadrian’s early demise if there isn’t a sacrifice.

(It is perhaps significant that not one, but two people commit suicide for for Hadrian. When Hadrian is utterly depressed with Antinous’ passing and wants death, a young doctor promises him a poison but goes back to the apothecary to consume the poison himself so that he doesn’t need to return to Hadrian. What significance is the theme of suicide? We didn’t discuss.)

b. Hadrian: Alex and Aaron argued that Antinous’ death could be avoided if Hadrian could give himself freely and completely to Antinous. Hadrian is trapped by conventions and customs–or is just emotionally scarred–and has to divide his attention between Antinous whom he truly loves and Lucius whom he sees as a frivolous, decadent youth.

Alex liked Hadrian because he was wilderness-fit, as opposed to gym-fit.

c. Lucius: Timmy said that if Lucius were alive today, he’d be a materialistic metrosexual. Aaron claimed that obviously Yourcenar is fictionalizing history to a certain extent because it seems that Lucius is punished for his ambition to be Emperor: once Lucius starts to work seriously, his illness begins and culminates in his death.

d. Characterization:  Overall, we as a group felt that the characters don’t have much psychological depth.

2. Themes:

a. Homosexuality: Roy and Timmy noted that Hadrian’s emotions are not one bit invested in his wife and it is a marriage of convenience. In many ways, homosexuality is portrayed positively.

b. Gender: Roy told us that historically, Hadrian’s wife slept around but this fact isn’t mentioned in the book. The reason why is tied to the character of Plotina. As Timmy, the champion and supporter of strong women, noted, Plotina is all-knowing and wise and she is the one who plots to get Hadrian to the throne. Hence, Yourcenar’s portrayal of Hadrian’s chaste wife and Plotina as a strong woman bring her gender-equality point across.

c. Religion: Roy related Hadrian’s war on the Jews because he doesn’t like circumcision of boys, a brutal act according to Hadrian. Aaron said that what Hadrian dislikes is the notion of a monotheistic religion which doesn’t allow the existence of other religions. Hadrian believes in diversity, even in religions.

Other themes include family, love, and war, we didn’t discuss in detail but we thought Yourcenar’s technique of “Tell, not Show,” as opposed to the usual literary technique “Show, not Tell,” means that these themes are self-explanatory and can be found directly in passages of the novel.

Style: Besides the “Tell, not Show” technique, Timmy and Alex noted that the scenes which could have been dramatic were toned down and glossed over.

Why choose the form of a memoir when a different form could have been more sensational and exciting? Alex said that it was just Yourcenar’s way of showing off: “Look how erudite I am.” Aaron, on the other hand, claimed that Yourcenar is very intelligent to pick a form to show her strengths–the research and the beauty of her lines–and cover her flaws (lousy characterization and, in turn, inability to capture a person’s voice, ie, dialogue). Roy, however, had a more favorable explanation: the fictionalized memoir was and still is (to a certain extent) an experimental, innovative and original genre.

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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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