Category Archives: Ecology

Movie Discussion: The Chinese Botanist’s Daughters (2006)

Attendees: Raj, Timmy, Asy, Fiona, Mya, Vicky, Reynard, Shawn, Aaron, Henry, Olivia.

We discussed The Chinese Botantist’s Daughters, directed and written by Dai Sijie, a French-Chinese, who writes in French, although he is a Chinese national. The themes that we talked about: nature/locationreligion, music/soundtrackrebellionpoliticsrace, and family.

In particular, we looked closely at the drug scene in the steamroom where hallucinogens are used to induce buried memories (of the Western mother), prompting Liming to cut her hair short and don a man’s uniform; why are drugs associated with homosexuality? And why does Liming fall into a heteronormative narrative of being a “man”?

We also talked about the phallic symbols in the movie and how male sexual desire needed to be extirpated in order for lesbian love to rise.

We also reached a conclusion that the rebellious actions are sometimes pointless and, coupled with the paradisal locale, the Western corruption into a carefully cultivated isle can be read allergically as serpent destroying Eden (Liming as the serpent, An as Eve, her brother as Adam, and the father who created the isle as God) or politically as Pro-China. The political aspects, we concluded, are so patent in the movie that we didn’t believe Dai Sijie when he claimed that his movies aren’t political.

Furthermore, in the last scene, which moved many of us, an educator and religious leaders support the lesbian couple; we read this as a form of resistance against the state laws. We thought the “Bury the Gays” theme deserves 10000 eye-roll, but, like all tragedies, their deaths make the movie more poignant.



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Filed under China, Dai Sijie, Ecology, Family, Lesbian, Politics, Race, Religion

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.


  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

61st Discussion: Maureen F. McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang

Moderator: Aaron
Attendees: Dominic, Faizal, Hisham, Javin, Jiaqi, Timmy

mchugh, maureen - chinamountainzhangThis is one of the rare times that we decided to do a (gay) science fiction book. Everyone had something to pick on with the book – from its setting (Javin found it “unnecessary” and depressing, Dominic thought it was a dauntingly boring disturbia, Jiaqi didn’t think there was enough “sci-fi” and advanced technology to classify it as futuristic) to the writing style (Raj didn’t find it appealing, Timmy thought it was too static and sterile) and even to how prehistoric some concepts were (Aaron scoffed at the idea of cruising despite being set in the future).

1. Structure: Jiaqi liked the diversity in showcasing the varied characters, which Javin disagreed with as he could not invest in them as much. Raj hated having to connect all the dots, which Aaron added made the book all the more messy and chaotic. Hisham felt that it could have been done better.

2. Homosexuality: Everyone agreed that homosexuals were stereotypically portrayed here, from the rich ang mohs to the Chinese gays with the inability to say no to everything. The happy ending that Zhang received drew ire from Aaron and Javin, who felt like it was forced, though Raj and Jiaqi thought otherwise, even if it was clichéd.

3. Women: Portrayed negatively except for the Korean woman (Jiaqi), and the doctor, who came across as domineering (Hisham).

4. Racism: Raj quipped that despite being set in the future, the only thing that was progressive was the food. Aaron pointed out that the Chinese characters suffered terrible fates, eliciting a rather long racism rant.

5. Relationships: The gay relationships featured came across as passive (Dominic) and devoid of love (Javin), to which Jiaqi vehemently opposed, commenting that it was filled with affection. Timmy noted that the heterosexual relationships showed the most growth throughout the book.

Dysfunctional, queer (Aaron) and atypical (Raj) were used to describe the familial relationships, though Jiaqi thought the families featured were portrayed normally.


1. Jiaqi didn’t think Angel was a fully developed character, and whose only sole purpose in the book was to be the information superhighway to Cinnabar, according to Dominic. Aaron saw her as a fag hag, to which Javin quipped that her being a fag hag gave her the opportunity to win races.

2. Everyone agreed that Peter was the most well-adjusted out of all: partly because he came off as relaxed and was able to come to terms with himself (Javin), and mainly because he was ang moh and didn’t worry about others’ opinions (Raj). Jiaqi deduced that Peter had it easier than Zhang. Peter is Javin’s favourite character.

3. Aaron thought that as a character, Cinnibar was not properly fleshed out.

4. Raj viewed Matador as another typical young gay boy who didn’t give a hoot about the world, to which Aaron concluded that he was another whiny bottom who just wanted to be taken care of.

5. Based on our observations, Hai Bao was set up as Zhang’s (life?) mentor. His suicide served as a milestone in Zhang’s life, causing him to “wake up” from his “catatonic” state.

6. We looked at Martine as a repressed being who had difficulty expressing her emotions. Timmy envisioned her to be like the ultimate on-screen ice queen, Tilda Swinton.

7. Aaron selected Zhang as his favourite character; citing his determination that gave everyone hope. Jiaqi liked that he was funny, relatable and sympathetic.

The question as to whether he was a depressed individual elicited two responses – Jiaqi, Dominic and Timmy didn’t think that he was ever in that state in the first place, while Raj and Aaron believed that he was.

We also questioned his decision/motive of revealing his sexual orientation to San Xiang at the end, and wrote it off as him finally accepting and being comfortable with himself.

In rounding up the discussion, everyone generally had nice things to say about the book – that it was interesting (Dominic), an “MRT-friendly” read (Raj), likeable and memorable characters (Jiaqi) and being enjoyable overall (Timmy). Aaron appreciated the literary values the book brought across, and being one of the only few books that saw the gay man eventually getting his happy ending (pun not intended). Hisham profoundly expressed that the book made our #firstworldproblems seem minute in comparison. Javin succinctly summed it up best: “It’s a gay book.”

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Filed under China, Class, Colonialism, Ecology, Family, Gay, Love, Maureen F. McHugh, Politics, Post-Colonialism, Race, S/F, Space, Technology, USA, War

58th Discussion: Annie Proulx’s Close Range

Moderator: Aaron
Attendees: Alexius, Hayden, Jiaqi, Raj, Timmy

Thank you Raj for being the awesome host that you are as well as the food spread. (T: You stop traversing the world can?!)

OPENINGproulx, annie - Close-Range

Timmy made a sweeping statement in kicking off the discussion, proclaiming that Proulx should not be allowed to write. Raj thought the deaths were too gory (“everyone died horribly!”) and that Wyomingans were described like animals (“dangerous, horrible, uncultured”), which resonated with Alexius’ opinion that the characters were “dirty and unhygienic.”


(Since most of us only read the minimum requirement (i.e. Brokeback Mountain), we focused our discussion on that short story.)

Is the book homophobic? From Raj’s POV, it was another stereotypical portrayal of homosexuals and how they do not end up together (like, ever), and how unsympathetic Jack’s death was…

…which led us to the question whether Jack’s cause of death was really as per what Lureen claimed, or was he (gay) bashed to death. Jiaqi didn’t think it was the latter, though he noted of the irony of his death involving a tire iron.

We talked about the Jack and Ennis brawl before their final parting, and inferred that that was their way of expressing their feelings since they did not know how to. Aaron viewed it as them loving each other, thus them fighting.

The inclusion of their confrontation scene was to depict conflict (Timmy) while, at the same time, showcase how homosexuality was seen during that time period (a “challenging environment,” according to Jiaqi).

In contrast with the abovementioned, we all agreed that the back hug displayed a tender emotion between Jack and Ennis, perhaps the only emotive act. To Aaron, the act itself was not based in sex and was the most normal, natural illustration of a relationship throughout the entire book.

The most crucial question was posed by Aaron: “why was the sex scene important?” Raj commented that it was a consummation of love, which was “hot, consensual and clearly not homophobic,” according to Aaron. Jiaqi saw it as a realistic portrayal of sex between two males.

We discussed about Brokeback Mountain itself, which the two did not revisit so that – according to Timmy – they could “shroud it in a happy memory”, and Mexico, which we deduced got Ennis jealous when he found out that Jack has been there multiple times to “sample other goods.”

Is Joe Aguirre gay? We pondered briefly on this, before Aaron finally said no. Timmy quipped that he may be voyeuristic though, with Raj following suit by pointing out the binoculars that he has on him.

Timmy went at length explaining his “closet theory”, in reference to Jack hanging Ennis’ shirt inside his shirt, sharing one hanger, in the closet, as a reaffirmation of his love for Ennis. Everyone agreed that this scene ended the book on a positive note.


Jiaqi picked both Jack and Ennis as his favourites, specifically the former for being ahead of his time (going to Mexico and subsequently wanting to move in with a new cowboy) and both overall because of their touching love story.

Inez from the Pair a Spurs short is Raj’s favourite, because she was daring, had wonderful spurs and beautiful shoes… basically full of attitude.

Aaron’s pick was the nameless narrator from the short story A Lonely Coast, describing her as contemplative.

Timmy jokingly cited Alma as his favourite, because of her ability to multitask (doing the dishes while questioning Ennis).


Ending the discussion on a positive note, Raj thought the Brokeback Mountain short was nice, just like its scenery, and that the portrayal of love in the story is poignant. He even declared that Proulx redeemed herself with that short story.

Jiaqi agreed with Raj, as well as thought that the story was vividly realistic.

Aaron enjoyed the beautiful prose Proulx employed as well as how she truly “trusts her readers” by allowing them to make connections throughout the entire book. He truly believes that the characters are alive to the author and that’s what made it all the more enjoyable for him.

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Filed under Annie Proulx, Class, Ecology, Family, Gay, Love, Politics, Race, Short Stories, USA

54th Discussion: Kathleen Winter’s Annabel

ANNABELSpecial thanks to Raj for organizing a Christmas party for this discussion.

It seemed that everyone, except Aaron and Amit, disliked the book: it’s depressing (Alexius), too slow in the latter half (Timmy), grating style (Raj), and forgettable one-dimensional characters (Amit). Har didn’t read it because he disliked the cover. Javin, Luke, Ben and Gil lent their moral support.


1. Parenting:

(a) mother: Raj claimed Jacinta wants to raise Wayne as a girl, not a boy. Timmy agreed, saying that’s why Jacinta encouraged Wayne’s interest in synchronized swimming. Aaron, on the other, believed that Jacinta would raise Wayne as s/he is, as an intersex.

(b) father: Raj and Timmy thought that Treadway has no love for Wayne, but Aaron argued that Treadway shows his love in actions.

(c) Thomasina: Both Raj and Timmy thought that Thomasina loves and understands Wayne. But Alexius pointed that that she is using Wayne as a substitution for her dead daugther. Aaron saw her as the villain of the novel because she makes use of Wayne to cope with her grief selfishly, and makes very bad decisions.

2. Marriages: Amit observed the only happy married couple is Thomasina and Graham, and that’s because, Timmy said, Graham is blind. Aaron opined that since blindness is a classic Freudian symbol of castration, then it seems that a happy marriage is between a woman and emasculated man.

3. Sexuality: Although the portrayal of Mr Henry seems homophobic, the ambiguity of Wayne’s sexuality gives the book an inconclusive stance on homosexuality. However, Amit averred that the author seems to skew Wayne to his female self, and to like women.


1. Peeling: Alexius read the peeling of skin as a sign of his puberty but Timmy saw it as a metaphoric rebirth.

2. Bridges: Alexius said it was the bridging of Wayne’s genitals to cause his pregnancy; Raj saw it as a bridging of both feminine and masculine traits.

Favorite Characters

Timmy’s and Raj’s favorite is Thomasina because she is a strong, independent woman who keeps it real. Alexius liked Steve. Following in Alexius’s footsteps, Amit liked a minor character, the kind make-up artist, and Wayne who reminded him of himself. Aaron stood up for the misunderstood father, Treadway, who prefers animals to humans.

As a conclusion, Alexius relished the synopsis on the back cover; Timmy, the unpredictability and complex characters and the name “Annabel”; Raj had not seen such a writing style; Amit generally liked it, especially the tender portrayal of Wayne as a human being. Aaron gave three reasons why this might be the best book we read this year: (1) the zen-like placid style mirrors the peace of forest and nature; (2) the author is compassionate and this compassion shows in the treatment of characters, even villains, and Aaron thought the world needs this compassion (although, Alexius chimed, the author isn’t compassionate to dogs); (3) the moral of the story: even if we are born a certain way, with our own defects, or encounter obstacles, like Wally, we can still overcome what we are given and make the best out of the situation. Despite adversities, there are little victories in life, and perhaps that is all that matters.

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Filed under Canada, Coming of Age, Ecology, Family, Intersex, Kathleen Winter, Love, Queer

48th Discussion: Mark Gatiss’s The Vesuvius Club

51PRDXDX23LBecause of the haze, we decided to cancel the meeting. But for those who have read the book, these are some questions to consider. Feel free to comment and discuss online.

1. The start of the novel is a rewriting of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, signaled by some keywords such as “Behold! Your immortality!” What is the intention of Mark Gatiss to do so?

2. In the beginning, Lucifer tells Everard a story of Ida’s death but we find out later that Ida is alive. Why does Lucifer lie? What does it show about him?

3. What is up with the corny names, Lucifer Box, Everard Supple, Midsommer Knight, Charles Jackpot, Creataceous Unmann, Christopher Miracle, etc?

3. Themes


a. There are many disabled bodies in the novel: Ida’s limbs, Everard Supple’s glass eye, Mrs Knight’s face, Prof Quibble’s wheelchair. To what purpose do the disabilities serve?

b. There are only fat or slim bodies in the novels. How are fat bodies portrayed? And how are skinny bodies portrayed?

Father Issues:

c. Both Bella Pok and Venus obviously adore their fathers very much and seek revenge for them. Father issues anyone?


d. If we take Venus as a transwoman, how are the women portrayed, bearing in mind that Venus and Bella are the villains in the novel? Is it fair to say that women are either femme fatale or docile in the novel, showing a sexist mindset?

e. List some of the INNOCENT victims who die or suffer in the novel. How many are men and how many women?


f. What is the portrayal of homosexuals, Charles Jackpot and Lucifer Box, like?


g. What is the portrayal of Other races (other than whites)? Is it racist?


h. After Venus’s sex is revealed, whenever Venus is mentioned, the characters go, “Venus, that…. person,” instead of “that man” or “that woman.” This clearly shows the characters not knowing how to place Venus–male or female? But the characters also persistently use “he” as a pronoun on Venus. What does this demonstrate? Is this trans-phobic?


i. How does class issue come into play? Does it matter than Lucifer lives at Downing St?


j. Is there a metaphor about playing god when blowing up a volcano?


Filed under Bisexuality, Class, Crime, Disability, Ecology, Italy, Love, Mark Gatiss, Queer, Race, Transgender, UK

44th Discussion: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

fun-homeTimmy moderated the discussion at a place provided by Isaac’s company.

Our Initial Reactions to the Book

Aaron and Isaac liked the book for its literary value and complexity in negotiating binaries of fiction/autobiography, public/private and father/daughter; and Luke liked it for its MRT-friendliness; while Raj and Timmy found the book exhausting with no likable characters and its confusing  narrative technique, something that Javin brought up as an authorial intention; further negative criticism both Aaron and Timmy had was that the author-narrator was egoistic and self-centred.


1. Suicide?

Timmy asked if the father’s death was a suicide. Raj said Alison thought that the father died to steal her thunder for coming out four months before his death, showing how narcissistic she was. Everything had to go back to her: “He died to steal MY thunder.” Perhaps the fact that she tried so hard to convince the readers that it was a suicide shows the kind of person she was.

2. Effeminate Gay Men

The portrayal of the dad, Aaron felt, was effeminate and negative. Perhaps Alison’s hatred for effeminate gay men was as what Melissa said on facebook, that it was a form of victim-blaming.

3. House/Home

Aaron saw the tinseled house as Alison’s metaphor of her dad, living a lie, while both Raj and Timmy read it as the dad directing his sexual frustrations into useful work.

Timmy followed up with another question on the funeral home, linking the real home and funeral home together, signifying how two houses were funereal and showing a metaphoric death of the traditional family unit. Timmy also suggested that the term “fun home” is ironic because the real home was not fun and the term also breaks down the binary of “funeral/fun” or “death/fun.”

Timmy also brought up that house was a labyrinth, with people getting lost, and is a symbol of the characters losing their way.

4. Her Sexuality

Raj and Timmy brought up that while looking at a fashion mag, both her father and she admired the men for various reasons. Aaron questioned if she was blaming her father for her sexuality as in the comics, the author has suggested that she wanted to be a man so that the father could be interested in her. Aaron also questioned if she was a transgender, rather than a lesbian.

Literary Techniques

1. Doubling

Timmy and Raj noted how similar the father and daughter were and Javin conjectured perhaps it was the reason of her dislike for him.

2. Drawing

Raj didn’t think much of the drawing, saying the characters had little or no expressions, while Aaron thought the drawings depicted their emotions well by the body movements and eyes.

3. Symbol

Timmy said the symbol of “I think” from Alison’s epistemological crisis is obviously a symbol of a vagina.

4. Unreliable Narrator & Autobiography

Using the episode on Alison’s grandmother telling her the story of how her dad was lost in the fields, Aaron questioned the reliability of Alison. For instance, the postman was changed into a milkman, and the story was overdetermined that it became mythical and unrealistic. Aaron suggested that perhaps we should read the author as wanting us to have an epistemological crisis as she was having in the book, to question everything.

Luke said that the point of the lost father was to show Alison and the readers a different side of the father.

Can we trust the book as an autobiography? Isaac claimed that the author didn’t mention this was an autobiography and we can see this as a work of art to question the notion of what autobiography is.

5. Literary Allusions

Timmy thought the literary allusions were the author showing off while Isaac thought it was her way of making sense of the world.

6. Scene: Brother Lost at Christopher Street

What is the point of the scene? Raj said it was to show the father’s concern. Aaron thought throughout the memoir, she talked about her perspective and her dad, why shift the focus to her brother? Very strange.

7. Ending

We liked the ending of the book as Luke succinctly put it, it was very simple, she trusted him therefore she loved him. Isaac questioned, he was there to catch her fall but who was there to catch him?


1. Alison

We didn’t like her much except Isaac. We all thought she was full of herself, self-indulgent (Timmy), and smarmy (Timmy) but Isaac thought her brave to write an autobiography and she shows how fragile people can be, she was screwed-up because of her dad.

2. Dad

Luke found the dad ambiguously portrayed. Timmy said Dad was stoic  and demonized. Raj agreed with Timmy, saying that at least the father stuck around and his decoration of the house involving the children was his way of interaction and showing love for them.

3. Mother

Aaron saw the mother as the villain of this drama. The father was fighting his own demons and had an excuse but she had none. She could have stopped the beating of the children. She could have walked out of the marriage and supported herself, being the strong independent woman who flew to Paris to marry a man. She was nonchalant to the children’s well being.


Despite disliking the memoir, Raj, being masochistic, wanted to read her book on her mother Are You My Mother? before condemning Bechdel completely. Raj called this book a gay Persepolis. Isaac reiterated that the autobiography is self-reflexive and has universal themes of coming out that LGBT can identity with and the characters, neither fully good nor bad, perplex and frustrate the reader. Timmy was convinced by Isaac and appreciated the book more while Aaron stood by his love-hate relationship that it was a good literary book but detested the narcissistic narrator-author as he believes that values, even narcissism, are transmitted through books subliminally.


Filed under Alison Bechdel, Class, Ecology, Family, Gay, Graphic Novel, Lesbian, Love, USA

41st Discussion: Ali Smith’s There But For The


Timmy wrote:

This week’s discussion was held at The Pigeon Hole as Raj was admitted into hospital with stomach ulcer (Get well soon!). Thank you to new attendees Andrew and Muslim for joining us this month.

Opening Words

We kicked off the discussion asking everyone’s thoughts on the book. Amit and Har are still reading the book. Amit found the book strange yet interesting, as well as very mysterious as it focuses more on the other characters. Har is appreciative of the novel’s suspense, and found the book anecdotal. Both Isaac and Andrew – the number 1 Ali Smith fanboys – liked the book too. Isaac enjoyed the witticisms and the puns. Both Timmy and Nicole thought the book is funny.

Alexius, however, didn’t particularly like it, feeling that the book was too tedious to be read and was not interesting.


“What does it mean? Why did the author decided to name the book as such?” asked Aaron.

According to Andrew, Ali just decided to name it like that because she “quite liked the phrase.”  He went on: “It doesn’t mean much, but (it) can mean things for other people.” The rest of us just nodded our heads as we didn’t know what else to make of it.


Isaac viewed the prologue as a modern fable, concerning youth and the passing of youth. He further elaborated that the man confronting his younger self might even be Miles himself. Alexius felt that this part caught his attention. He thought that the relationship between the boy and the man was never stated, and speculated that it could be alluding to paedophilia.

Short stories

“What’s the point of including them?” Aaron asked.

Alexius felt that the story itself did not hold much context, hence the short stories were add ons to beef up the book. Nicole, meanwhile, thought that the stories contributed to the characterizations. Aaron viewed them as reflections of art, and alluded to Miles’ quote to Brooke. Alexius referenced Jackson Pollock.

Dinner party

Har thought the entire scene was banal, though Timmy felt otherwise. He thought that the entire chapter perfectly captured the mood of the party very well, which Andrew agreed with.


During the discussion, we briefly touched on death and growing old (Aaron/Isaac); bullying, surveillance and the British system (Isaac); technology (Aaron); philosophy (Alexius); and modern life (Andrew).

We pondered on whether it is better to be cleverest, or cleverist. Aaron felt that the book did not achieve that.

Favourite characters

Amit liked Mark because we are able to glimpse into his thoughts. Aaron described him as hot, although Timmy begged to differ.

Miles was the hot favourite for this discussion, being liked by Isaac, Har, Nicole and Andrew. Brooke followed in second, with votes from Aaron, Andrew and Timmy. They found her precocious and lovable.

Alexius liked the boy in the prologue, describing him as “significant”.

Least favourite

Isaac found Genevieve pretentious and irritating.

Har started disliking Miles after he locks himself in the room.

Alexius cited the man in the prologue as his least favourite.

Last words

Isaac described the book as an anti-novel, almost like giving the middle finger as to how a novel should be written. Har intends to finish reading it, as he appreciates the writing style. Andrew remains as Ali Smith’s fanboy and described the book as a biting social critique of the harsh celebrity life. Nicole said she will have to read till the end; she does, however, like the characters and the tricks Smith employed throughout her novel.

At the other end of the spectrum… Amit remains indifferent to the book. Alexius, however, still finds it boring post-discussing the book, declaring it as too “textbook” and stylistic. He doesn’t plan on continuing reading it. Ernest too didn’t like the book, finding the wordplay too hard to comprehend, and the overall style as being too chunky and dry.

Aaron declared the interactions between Miles and Brooke to be magical, though in closing the discussion, he felt that overall it wasn’t a fruitful one. “The novel is indubitably technically brilliant but it either went over our heads and we couldn’t understand it, or it’s just meaningless that we cannot extract meaning out of it.” Oh dear.

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Filed under Ali Smith, Class, Ecology, Family, Lesbian, Love, Politics, Race, Technology, Time, UK

26th Discussion: Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (17 Nov)

Edit: Thought we should mention that when the hot Korean guys sitting at the next table knew we are gay, one of them took off shirt on the pretext of scratching himself. If you’re that Korean, Aaron wants to know you!

Hilarious night. Alex was on a roll tonight and, like Aaron, found the novel frightening, unlike Timmy, Roy and Caleb. Glenn lent his moral support.


1. Homosexuality: Are Theodora (Dora from now) and Eleanor (Nell) lesbians? Timmy saw Dora as a free spirit and Nell as someone lonely – so no. Alex, on the other hand, construed the warmth of the two women as lesbians especially when Dora shares an apartment with a woman. For instance, the nightmare Nell experiences, which Roy found remotely eerie, is clearly (for Alex and Caleb) a scene of wet dream and masturbation. The hand that Nell holds in the dream signifies finger-fucking. And the increasingly violent knock that wakes Nell is an indication of her orgasm. Aaron brought up the love triangle between Dora, Nell and Luke – Nell is jealous of Luke over Dora; Nell hates Dora because she can’t have her.

2. Love VS Fear: Aaron claimed that the novel presents two solutions to a problem: to use love (Mrs Montague) or fear (the gang of four) to face an issue. If we see the novel as an allegory, then it can be used on any problems, such as homophobia: we can use love or fear to accept gay people. However,  Aaron noted that the novel works very hard against Mrs Montague, making her very detestable. Why? Alex and Timmy suggested that it’s because Mrs Montague doesn’t represent “pure love”; her love is selfish and is to serve her own purposes. Timmy called her “a typical Grade A bitch.” The novel isn’t making a mockery out of Mrs Montague; it is Mrs Montague “who makes a mockery of love” (Alex, 2011). That’s why she needs to be caricatured.

3. Science: This became murky for us. Timmy argued that Mrs Montague’s scientific methods don’t work but Aaron was confused: isn’t her the non-scientific method? Whatever it was, Alex concluded that science couldn’t solve everything.

4. Mothers/ Family: We agreed that what happens within the house is the manifestation of Nell’s repression. Roy noted that she feels guilty for the death of her mother.  Caleb observed that Nell has no father. Aaron pondered over giving Nell a gay man’s background (i.e. absent father/strong mother). Alex suggested that perhaps lesbians are like gay men but with Electra Complex. Caleb implied that Nell is using using her mother as inertia, as an excuse not to move on with her life.

5. Gender/ Homophobia: Is it feminist or sexist to portray a crazy female protagonist who kills herself? Must the lesbian die? Alex said, “Duh. Of course it’s not sexist or homophobic. The tree that Nell runs into is a phallic symbol and she is trying to bring it down!” But, for a more convincing reason that it is necessary that Nell dies, see Doubling/Repetition.

6. Space: The space of the grounds and the space of the house affect the inhabitants. In a way, the house is a metaphor of the human mind. Caleb brought out the unstable mental state of Nell is because of her repression. A house “that closes its doors is always haunted by fear” (Alex, 2011). Given that Nell is a loner and the novel claims that “whoever walks the house walks alone,” she must die.

So obviously when Alex asked why Nell refuses to enter the smelly library, it was because the library is the vagina of the house and she isn’t yet a lesbian at this point in time, Aaron joked.


7. Nell: Alex and Caleb observed she’s crazy and socially inept. Tim suggested that Nell’s slogan, “Journey ends when lovers meet,” a sign of mental illness of repeating , comes true because Nell falls in love with the house, which is personified and has a character on its own. For the first time in her life, Nell finds a purpose and is happy.

Alex notes the aural similarity of “knell” and “nell.”

8. Arthur: ,besides being Mrs Montague’s boyfriend, serves to pussy-block Nell, said Timmy.

9. Luke: Timmy and Alex liked Luke who is charming and saves Nell but despite having no mother,  we all found Luke has not much of a personality and is rather flat.

10. Mr Dudley: is as scary as a watchdog, Timmy said.

11. Mrs Dudley: is a comic figure until Mrs Montague comes along and showers her with some love, Timmy noted. They were two desperate housewives.

Literary Devices:

12. Roy wondered the purpose of the prologue which leads Nell to the House. Timmy suggested that it is to contrast her behavior before and after coming to the House; to show her relationship with her sister, a repeated motif; and to show that Nell is shy and talks to women on her way.

13. Metaphor of Blood: The blood, we decided, is menstrual blood. Heavy flow-day for Nell, which causes her psychotic graffiti – naturally. Caleb mentioned that the act of Nell cleaning Dora off the blood is reminiscent of Nell cleaning her mother.

14. Doubling/ Repetition: Aaron noted that Dora and Nell are doubles; they wear each other clothes, call themselves cousins, live in similar rooms connected by a bathroom. This is because they are duplicating the history of the sisters who have lived in the house before them. One of the sisters dies when her carriage is overturned at the tree–which is why Nell has to die in the same way.

15. Ambiguity: The hauntings could be maneuvered by Nell, who wants to get Dora in her bed – so said Alex.


Roy ended the night with a great quote from Stephen King saying that this is one of his favorite horror novels because of the economy of words. The novel ends with the same paragraph as the beginning. Too bad we can’t say the same for King’s tomes.

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Filed under Classics, Ecology, Family, Horror, Lesbian, Love, Shirley Jackson, USA

24th Discussion: Rose Tremain’s Sacred Country (15 Sep)

Thanks for all the moral support, peeps, David, Timmy and Nicole. Javin saw objectively the novel as good with complex characters and their desires but personally, he disliked the bucolic setting. Nicole liked it because it’s English. Raj was neutral while Alex thought that it is unoriginal. Josh liked its realism.

1. Characters

a. Grandpa Cord: Nicole’s favorite character 100 pages into the novel. Cord is adorable, fun, astute and open-minded. Josh said Cord has unconditional love.

b. Estelle: Josh’s favorite character. He argued that she shows a limited form of empowerment for women at that point in history; she is “sane in being insane” and see things clearly. He noted that what Estelle cannot achieve in her life, that is piecing pieces together, she does it by sewing. Josh and Nicole reminded us that the novel should be read historically, that is, Nicole mentioned, Estelle’s insanity could be a tool of oppression of men. Raj, Alex and Josh believed that it is very empowering for Estelle to lie still and order Sonny to impregnate her. Aaron wondered aloud if Tremain is critiquing the characters in the book: both Cord and Estelle are perceptive characters and yet none of them does anything to help Martin: is Tremain trying to say, “Kind intentions are not enough, one must act on it?”

c. Walter: Alex’s favorite character because Walter never gives up on his dreams but Nicole called him a spineless “wank” although he too grows balls at the end and goes after his dreams. After a discussion, we concluded that Walter’s sexuality is fluid; he likes the person because s/he is kind to him. Aaron brought up a quote found in the book, “Souls have no gender,” which is perhaps the moral of the story.

d. Edward:  Raj firmly believed that Indians have a prerogative on reincarnation and was flabbergasted by Edward but both Josh and Alex found him hot and philosophical.

e. Pearl: Aaron was quite repulsed by the angelic, 2-D portrayal of Pearl whom Alex called “a vacuous, boring woman.” Nicole added that even her name is a precious thing, not human. Josh defended Tremain and said that there are people, who are loved all their lives, who turn up nice and boring and colorless.

f. Georgia: We loved a minor character, a cougar who preys on Martin, who–Alex observed–is as violent as Sonny, Martin’s father. The irony, Raj said, is that she’s incapable to control her own emotional world when her occupation is Aunt Agony.

2. Themes:

a. Family:

i. Mothers & Sons: Alex and Javin claimed that Estelle (mother) doesn’t understand Martin although Josh disagreed with them. Alex and Javin said that because Estelle couldn’t understand Martin, she doesn’t help him. Nicole countered that Estelle is clinically depressed, which renders her incapable of actions in the first place. As a group, we saw Estelle’s apology as a  form of helpless; she realizes in the end that she ought to be supportive of Martin, which she has failed to do so.

Raj brought up the relationship between Gilbert the Dentist and her mother, that mothers always know sons’ sexuality. Alex noted a point that the crumbling coastline is metaphorical of the erosion of family. Aaron mentioned that all mothers should police their children, very hawk-eyed, and wondered what Tremain is trying to say.

ii. Violence In the Family: Josh shrewdly pointed that the Martin is perpetuating the violence he has learnt from his father, Sonny, when he tries to rape Pearl.

iii. Sibling Rivalry: Javin contended that Martin is jealous of Timmy because Timmy not only robs away Sonny’s affections but, to Martin, he believes he is a boy too and feels indignant when Timmy gets the attention that he should be getting. Aaron opined that while Martin treats Timmy with hostility, Timmy is always deferential to Martin. Josh continued that the sibling rivalry is because of the failure of the parents to love the children for who they are, causing the tragedy of their lives.

b. Rage/Hatred: Josh criticized that Martin is driven by hatred and rage and the novel is a journey for Martin to come to terms to himself and people around him. Whether this be true or not, Aaron imagined, “Wouldn’t you be angry and full of hatred too if you were born in a body of the ‘wrong’ sex? I know I would, especially when there is no support.”  Josh also very perspicaciously discerned that Martin hasn’t gone for a full operation yet and is still searching for himself.

c. Country VS City: A common perceptive of the group is that we think country people would be more narrow-minded but Tremain doesn’t fall into this fallacy. Everyone seems to accept Martin for who he is: the country characters do it tacitly probably because they suffer much too and can understanding suffering, while the City people accept diversity, although Raj sharply pointed out that the City people are African and Australian, all outsiders, not English.

d. Love: Does Martin attend Pearl and Timmy’s wedding? Alex claimed it was ambiguous since Estelle hears Martin call her. Aaron pointed out how idiosyncratic Pearl’s reason for marrying TImmy, that is, he has hands that will never produce beautiful handwriting. Raj and Josh believed that she is merely settling. Raj argued that Pearl can never love Martin because Martin has killed Mary, while Aaron was more inclined to Josh’s thinking, that Pearl does love Martin and Timmy is a substitution for Martin.

e. Knowledge: What is the point of Timmy’s right angle? Aaron suggested that there are two angles to look at it: (i) the lines when extrapolated will never meet, as mentioned in the novel, and the non-meeting of the lines demonstrates the solitude and isolation each character feels. To support this assumption, Timmy tries to tell someone about his puzzlement with the right-angle and no one would listen to him. (ii) If the novel is seen as a bildungsroman, both Timmy and Martin try to make sense of the world through knowledge. Martin has his Book of Inventions. They need explanations to themselves why they are who they are. They are finding their way and they need information.

f. Gender: We loved the complex and balanced representation of both genders, without falling into the what-masculine-is and what-femininity-is trap.

g. Sexuality/Cougarism: Aaron, playing devil’s advocate, asked, why is Gilbert, the only gay man in the novel, incapable of loving, so callous? Is it homophobic? No direct evidence from the novel to this, but the group’s gut feeling is it is not homophobic because the novel is so sympathetic.

There are also many cases of cougarism in the book, notably, the Gypsy-Walter and Georgia-Martin.

h. Animals: include Marguerite, the hen (Raj’s favorite character); Sonny’s dog, Wolf; the Psychiatrist’s fish; Pearl’s visit to the Natural Museum where Pearl informs Martin about the myriad of animals; Pete who killed a dog because it was fucking him; a parable of two cubs eating up their mother bear who was snared in a trap. Even Timmy is described as a frog: “Timmy’s frog’s eeyes were filled with tears. ‘No,’ he replied. ‘Never. Not since I gave up butterfly.” Alex evoked the multitude of animals as “souls,” linking the animals with Edward’s theory of reincarnation. Edward says maybe Martin’s soul is a marmoset. Aaron claimed that Tremain may have two intentions: (i) Wolf is used to redeem Sonny. Sonny is obviously capable of deep devotion and love but his incapability to express his emotions mars his life. His emotional turmoil and pain in killing off Wolf is unimaginable. And (ii) See below 3b, Repetitions & Multiple Voices.

i. Politics/ War: Aaron asked for the significance of starting with the death of King George. Nicole regarded it as setting a timeline for the story; Raj proposed that it allows Martin a quiet time to reflect, and it’s a time to signify change while Alex stated the incident reflects the dynamics of the family. While all the reasoning are true and sound, we could not help to feel that there is something deeper that we were not getting, especially with the heavily political nuances going on in the novel and Sonny being a WWII veteran. Do the politics parallel the family structure in England?

3. Style:

a. Title: Alex inquired over the significance of the title. Aaron quoted from Grandpa Cord: “He said beass rubbings were ghostly things in two sense and everything important in life was dual, like being and not being, male and female, and there was no country in between. I sat on the toilet and… thought, Cord is wrong, there is a country in between, a country that no one sees, and I am in it.” In other words, Aaron surmised that Tremain is advocating a postmodernist world, a world that has shades from black to white, from male to female. That is the “Sacred Country.”

b. Repetitions and Multiple Voices: Many characters share the same fate: the mothers are police; the children move away; Estella’s trance, enraptured by a tap-dancer, in the asylum is repeated when Walter, Sky and Martin go to Pryland, biggest parking lot in the world, and Sky roller skates, captivating the men. Aaron asserts that the repetitions, the multiple voices and the animals all point to how Tremain writes about the human condition, that we, including the animals, share a common existence, a common history, a common story, we suffer in the world and so we shouldn’t cause more suffering to Martin, Walter, to humans and to other living beings. We should help alleviate the suffering by being sympathetic and understanding, as in shown in the sympathetic style and non-judgement of the author towards the characters. This is truly a tremendous, extraordinary, compassionate novel, a novel that makes the world a better place.


After the discussion, Raj, Aaron and Alex appreciated the book better and found it more meaningful.


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Filed under Class, Coming of Age, Ecology, Family, Gay, Lesbian, Love, Politics, Queer, Rose Tremain, Space, Transgender, UK, War