Attendees: Raj, Rachel, Maya, Asy, Vicky, Scott, Pierre, Timmy
Keeping in theme with the book, we had Mexican food to munch on as we animatedly discussed about the book. Continue reading
Attendees: Raj, Rachel, Maya, Asy, Vicky, Scott, Pierre, Timmy
Keeping in theme with the book, we had Mexican food to munch on as we animatedly discussed about the book. Continue reading
The book has been nominated for several important awards, but we–Chiams, Aaron, Alexis, and Juan–wondered why. It was an easy and gripping read, but there are many flaws. The writing is problematic such as the narratives of Harold and the incoherence of the narrative. It’s also not realistic in many parts, such as Jude’s incessant misfortune; the implausibility of diversity; and Willem suddenly turning “gay.”
We also talked about Yanagihara ignoring chronology (40 years in the narrative but no reference to the times); about the novel being “torture porn,” taking pleasure in pain; about the art inspiration behind the novel (images above); the friendship between the 4 men; the lack of woman characters; the architecture and food; and the likely-to-be-unconscious homophobia in the book (the HIV inspiration; the death of Willem; and homosexual pedophilia.)
All in all, this is a fun book to read but unfortunately, it is not good.
Attendees: Veronika, Raj, Aaron, Ben, Bien, Thomas.
We all like the movie very much. All characters are likeable; it’s a movie full of likeable and strong characters, a sympathetic portrayal of all of them. There is much joy and humor in the film, just as there is sadness, as if the director wants the viewers to cry; there is so much sadness that you are bound to identify with one of the character’s plight. We also talked about social class; the treatment and affirmation of sexuality; the feminism; and who is cuter: Arjun or Rahul?
Thanks Edwin for hosting us at DYMK.
Dunno 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.
These are some of the things we talk about:
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 rod… I 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).
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.
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.
You can watch the entire movie here:
Several of us found part of the movie melodramatic; the stationary, long takes slow; and homosexual relationship is depicted as physical lust, sinful and destructive to everyday life, not emotionally connected. Daniel also noted that despite the story being set in an orthodox Jewish community, the plot is cliché: a boy comes into a man’s family, destroys his way of living, and eventually they break up.
1. Religion/Sin: In a rather sadist scene where the Rabbi interprets abstinence as sinful, that we should give into our impulses, but Reb Aaron argues that restraint is a challenge god gives us to feel closer to him, Vishakah cleverly called on the catch-22 situation: there is no way you cannot not be a sinner.
a. Violence as fanaticism: The patriarch Rabbi stops the gay bashing of what might have been construed as violence, bordering on fantaticism.
b. Homosexuality and Judaism: Reb Aaron claims that being with Ezri brings him closer to god, making him more alive than he has ever felt. In one sense, homosexuality isn’t incompatible with Judaism because the more alive an individual feels, the closer she or he is to god.
2. Food: Daniel brought up using food as a form of communication. Raj pointed out that, within the limited power a woman has in the orthodox Jewish community, the Wife uses food to punish the Reb Aaron.
3. Water: extensive use of water as motif: spring, rain, burst pipe, etc. Dominic hawk-eyedly observed that the parallels and differences in the two scenes of Reb Aaron at the spring: on the second time, Reb Aaron has changed and comes to accept himself as depicted by his nudity.
4. Love: Victoria expounded that the type of love Reb Aaron has has his self-interest at heart.
5. Gender: Although the interaction of men with women is minimal, and although, as Vishakah pointed out that women have little rights within the community, Raj argued that even within the limited rights, the Wife is a powerful figure, in charge of the household and when they should have sex. The scene where she holds him like in a pieta demonstrates her power. Even her wig, as part of the mise en scene, allows her space to portray her progressiveness and femininity.
1. Camera Angles: Vishakah noted the camera acts like we are spying into someone’s world, waiting for something to happen (on that note, read D. A. Miller’s “Anal Rope,” about the camerawork in Hitchcock’s Rope acting as survelliance.).
2. Music: Victoria observed that both pauses and music create tension and discomfort, especially the music that is eerie at times, almost like a horror movie.
In the end, Dominic drew parallels between the movie and the newly liberated gay men he knows. Victoria and Timmy lauded the realistic and intimate depiction of an orthodox Jewish community. Aaron thought while the ending appears conservative—husband goes back to wife, gay man expelled from community—the movie is in fact subversive, telling the viewers that orthodoxy has but one heteronormative way of life, and doesn’t allow expression of selfhood. You feel for the characters: Sara who marries a man she doesn’t love, the Wife who is stuck in a passionless marriage, Ezri and Reb Aaron who couldn’t feel alive more. Living a life like that is wasted, the film advocates. In this way, the director is very smart, getting funding from Israeli government, and getting away with a subversive message
As for flaws, Raj felt that there wasn’t character development for some of the auxiliary figures. Daniel disliked the self-centeredness of Miranda. And Brian couldn’t get into the book until the second half where male characters are eliminated from the narrative. The novel, he noted, could be funnier. Aaron argued that Oyeyemi is trapped in a bind: she wants to write on women oppression but it is almost impossible to write “pure” feminist texts, like Gilman’s “Yellow Wallpaper,” that claim patriarchy drives women mad since the 21st century isn’t a patriarchal system anymore for UK where the book is set. In the end, Aaron claimed that there is no message in the novel, a beautiful nothing.
Although this was a fruitful discussion, we couldn’t phantom (PUN!) several things, such as the metaphorical possibilities of the house, the ghosts, the eating disorder, soucouyant, and goodlady; the use of different narrators; the style of using one word to connect the passages.
But Brian suggested that pica, domesticity of women, and circularity of narratives stem from the inescapability of structural patriarchy. Raj added that perhaps stopping reproduction is to stop the cycle of oppression of women.
Brian alerted us about the title and house as an allegory of British immigration laws, keeping black people out.
Strong woman characters are always a favorite: Raj liked Sade, a strong black independent oracle woman, while Brian, Ore, a well-rounded character with surprises. Daniel observed that the strong female characters are blacks.
We ended with nice words for the book: it makes a good movie (Raj); the kissing scene is well-written (Brian); pica is a fascinating topic (Daniel); and it is poetic (Aaron.)
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:
Ichi-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.
Mary vs Goddess of Mercy.
The status of fallen women is the same – Aurelia’s mom and Kenji’s girlfriend Aki – outcast.
Role of wife
Social order – Samurai, Traders and the untouchable working class
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.
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.”
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.
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”.
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.
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.
Yukako’s acceptance of the western influence into their lives. Also Urako is her first student.
Maybe her real father had blond hair??
Author wants to show the historic importance of Singapore as a port as well of the fact that Japan owned Singapore at one time.
Its common in those days – people don’t get out of their circle and houses too much
Fantasy – Fetish – every man wants a virtuous wife who is a whore in bed!
Yukako – Tai – positive
Tai – Tsuko – positive
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.
Didn’t help when he married an untouchable gal !!
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.
Really? Why??? There is too many female characters in this book!!!!
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.
Attendees: Alexius, Chason, Glenn, Javin, Jiaqi, Timmy
What did we dislike about the book? Everything about it.
Javin found the entire book “distracting” – from its style, to the proses and the subplots. The excessive subplots and red herrings also irked Timmy. Jiaqi thought the ending was too rushed and suggested that the book would have been more interesting if it talked of the motivation for the murder. Aaron deemed the book homophobic.
Jiaqi felt that homosexuality and homosexuals were not dealt deeply with in the book, though he praised its fairly realistic portrayal. Javin found it erratic and the homosexuals were not painted in the most positive light. Aaron added on that no characters in the book were comfortable with homosexuals. Glenn opined that this may be a depiction of the author through the niece.
Conclusively, Jiaqi commented that the book was not written to portray understanding of the LGBT community.
Women were also not favourably portrayed; Aaron questioned whether this was done intentionally or otherwise. Jiaqi noted that there were zero positive relationships between women. Aaron found the relationship between Kay and Lucy to be “encouraging”, though later intuited the two as Cornwell’s personas (the Republican and the lesbian).
Despite this flaw, we noted that the female characters were written as strong, intelligent beings that were, unfortunately, often horny and lonely. This was likely attributed to the lack of strong male companions and thus, the males were often treated as sideshow sex toys. Glenn remarked that during the time the book was being written, society at large (and thus, its characters) was not ready for strong females. The lack of positive portrayal served as “social commentary” of those times.
We briefly discussed the bathroom scene which included Chanel, which Alexius deemed as a “brand endorser.” Jiaqi found it to be a sympathetic scene, whereas Aaron quipped that even though Kay solves crimes, she still has to remain feminine and an elitist, i.e. maintain that “class factor.”
The topic of food was also touched on; according to Aaron, it appeared a lot throughout the book. “Why so specific?” he asked. Alexius joked that Cornwell was trying to be the next Martha Stewart. Javin viewed it as another way of conveying the “atas-ness” of the book and its lead character/s.
Aaron brought up the quote (“It seems this is all about people loving people who don’t love them back”), which he found poignant and stuck a chord with him. Both Glenn and him perceived it as describing of unrequited love.
Timmy questioned the inclusion of Psalm 107 (“They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep”) and its significance. Everyone agreed that it is about looking beyond the surface.
Glenn picked Lucy the niece as his favourite character as she seemed the most realistic out of everyone. Kay was Jiaqi and Timmy’s favourite for being a nice, complex human and a strong female. Both Javin and Aaron had no favourites, though the latter shared his favourite quote (as previously mentioned).
Overall, we enjoyed the book: it had a nice story for its time (Javin); it was an entertaining page turner with a strong female lead, which was rare (Jiaqi); and it had good pacing, with something coming up at every chapter (Chason). Despite its “backwards”, conservative mindset, Aaron found it likable. Timmy quipped that the book felt like an episode of CSI – “the Las Vegas version, not the Miami one.”
The only opposing view was from Alexius, who had DNR stamped all over the book and thus, paid more attention to his phone and apps rather than to the discussion.
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.
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.