Category Archives: Classics

Book Discussion: Ann Bannon – Odd Girl Out

Zoe, Raj, and Aaron discussed Ann Bannon’s Odd Girl Out, which is the second bestselling paperback in 1957. We discussed about the significance of the title, and how the three women, Emily, Beth, and Laura, are “odd” in their own ways.

Emily is a strong, loyal, independent friend who doesn’t deserve her ending. (Actually what is her ending? we pondered.)

Beth is sexually ambiguous. She is portrayed as a butch, attractive to both men and women, but she refuses to make any decisions about her life until the end. Although she is a “leader,” she is not a good friend to Emily, not advising her to stay away from Budd.

Regarding Laura: We questioned about the stereotypes of a possessive, jealous lesbian. We also talked about the circumstances of portraying a lesbian in the 50s: it was prohibited to have a happy ending for LGBTQ. But Bannon circumvented the censorship law by creating a strong and independent character in Laura, although how Laura grows out of her moroseness and morbidity is not clearly shown.

The character development of Laura is one of the many plot holes we found in the novel. Who sabotages Emily’s double stitching of bra? What happens to Emily in the end? How come the perspectives in the novel shift suddenly? These are some of the narrative weaknesses in the novel.

However, it’s refreshing to see a positive male character (Charlie) in a lesbian novel, a rare sighting among the lesbian novels we have read so far.

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Filed under Ann Bannon, Classics, Lesbian, USA

Discussion: Larry Kramer’s FAGGOTS (1978)

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

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

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

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

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

-the issue of gay men with their fathers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We talked about the absence of religion in the book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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72nd Discussion: Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask

Moderator: Raj
Attendees: Alexius, Dominic, Ivan, Timmy

The biggest complain we had about the book was the way it was written: Dominic felt it was unlike the “Japanese style of writing”, comparing Mishima to Murakami. Raj thought the book was draggy, describing “mundane things in mundane ways.” Alexius did not like the ending and was left disappointed by the book. Timmy found it uninteresting as a whole.

For this discussion, we forewent our usual style and went through the book chapter by chapter.

Chapter One – which we deemed “Resurrection” because of an experience the narrator went through when he was four.

Believability
We started doubting the narrator’s credibility from the start of the book. Timmy thought it was all “fluff and bluff,” while Dominic opined that the book seemed like a semi-autobiography of the writer… a romanticized version of himself as the narrator.

Childhood
Timmy was amazed by how well-read the narrator was, even questioning his accessibility to such literature at that age. Raj added on his penchant for changing the (fairy) tales that he read, which added (and accentuated) his morbid nature from that age onwards.

Donning the mask      
According to Timmy, the turning point was when he started playing dress-up as Tenkatsu. This went on as he started being masculine in front of his cousins.

Obsession with death
“Maybe he finds life hopeless?” Alexius joked.

Joan of Arc
Raj noted the narrator’s disgust of Joan after finding out that the martyr was a she, declaring that incident as the “first disappointment of his life.” (Joan of Arc was Raj’s favourite of the book)

Chapter Two – “Boys with Toys,” because:

“The Toy”
The matter of the narrator referring his penis as “the toy” was brought up. Timmy quipped that the narrator thought his penis had a mind of its own; Raj observed that he was very detached to his member despite being an adolescent in this chapter. Alexius offered that perhaps he was ashamed of his homosexuality.

From St. Joan to St. Sebastian
Raj made mention of the narrator moving on from one historical figure to another, noting his preference for “virile, lean (guys) with muscles and wearing very little,” adding that St. Sebastian may have been the narrator’s role model at that point of time. According to Timmy, this may also be a continuation of the narrator’s sexual awakening. (St. Sebastian was Dominic’s pick as favourite.)

Omi
Was he gay? Raj and Timmy said no, while Alexius said yes. (Both Alexius and Timmy picked Omi as their favourites.)

Delusions of grandeur, S&M, and armpits were also discussed during this chapter. Overall, we felt that this chapter did not make a lot of sense – just like an adolescent’s mind, according to Timmy – and contained “too much fantasizing,” according to Raj.

Chapter Three – for which we termed “Regressed Suppression” as the narrator did not face any pressures from external forces, only internal conflicts.

Raj found this chapter “bizarre,” which probably had to do with the myriad sub-topics we touched on but barely managed to delve deeper into:

  • The narrator acting more of a teenager, which included mimicking his peers (Raj noted his obsession with kissing, which he found interesting) in his attempt to appear straight;
  • His body, which he seemed to be embarrassed about;
  • War and the military (according to Raj, women were front and centre in this chapter because “the men went to fight”);
  • Voyeurism;
  • Dying young.

Chapter Four – “The Beginning of the End”

A continuation from the previous chapter, where the narrator was labelled “the last virgin alive” by Raj and his desperation to have sex (“everybody’s doing [and done] it, so I should too.” – Timmy) despite ending up not doing it. We didn’t get the chance to discuss more about Sonoko and their relationship.

“So when did the mask come off?” asked Raj.
“It didn’t,” Timmy replied.

And that concluded our discussion, followed by an apology from Alexius who regretted recommending the book as well as did not find it as appealing upon second reading.

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Filed under Classics, Coming of Age, Disability, Family, Gay, Japan, Time, War, Yukio Mishima

71st Discussion: Dorothy Allison—Bastard Out of Carolina

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

Attending: Raj, Alexius, Paul (a first-timer), Sharad, Brian, and Dominic

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Bastard out of Carolina is a difficult book to finish. The Boatwright family in 1950s/1960s Greenville County, South Carolina—kinship, poverty, violence, abuse, humiliation, self medication, criminality, illegitimacy, and constant questions of beauty and ugliness. For some of us, the book was too traumatic to read without multiple breaks. For some, it was overly complicated or unnecessarily melodramatic in places. For others, the pace of the book was distracting: too many leaps or slow lags without a steady narrative. Even after some of us did manage to finish reading, we kept returning to questions of realism, silence, characterization, and the place of this book in American gay culture. The book did lead to some arguments—even about the weather in that part of the Southern United States.

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Brian and Raj very much liked Bastard and the responses it evoked, even though Raj thought characters aged too quickly within the novel’s pace and Brian thought the novel could have developed some racial themes more fully.

Sharad and Dominic were generally positive, although more ambivalent toward the believability of the story and skeptical about the moral of the tale. Dominic summed the book’s message up as “Don’t be poor.” He didn’t like the presentation of that message.

Alexius and Paul didn’t like the book. Alexius thought Bone—the main character—never said or did anything; she never developed as a character. Paul thought the book tried to develop too many themes; it had little emotional depth. He asserted that his standard for gay and lesbian literature is Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, and that Bastard did not match up.

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After a long discussion of the poverty and violence in the novel in general, we talked about its portrayal of crime and incarceration. Going to jail makes these men adults, and you can beat someone in a fair fight or out of justified revenge as long as you don’t kill them. We noted that girls become women by having babies and boys become men by committing crimes.

(Bone is close to her Uncle Earle—the only (?) likeable male character in the book—and commits a crime with her cousin Grey. Does this put her between the men and women in the novel, like her Aunt Raylene, who late in the book describes her love for another woman?)

Then, we discussed the theme of fire. Many things and people burn in this book, and fire is always mentioned around Bone’s encounters with other girls she seems drawn toward—such as the Black girl in the apartment and the Albino friend Shannon.

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We also discussed race, skin tone, and hair in relation to questions of being pretty or ugly. Being pretty is a constant obsession in the novel. Everyone worries about it, and it is always related to being fairskinned and blond haired. Brian pointed out that the characters tease any children with curly hair, saying they are “from the wrong side of the family,” and Raj raised this question of the “curse” some children hinted at. Alexius linked this curse to themes of “destiny” in the book—to the idea that there is no way out of the cycles portrayed.

Raj brought up questions of the power of “unconditional love,” of course.

We discussed Anney in detail. Her jobs and economic situations. We discussed her relations with Bone’s unnamed father, her husband Lyle—who dies soon after their marriage—and her second husband Glen, the man-child prone to violent outbursts—who abuses Bone. Anney is a mother, a housewife, a waitress, and a mill worker. Always barely making ends meet. The ambiguity of one of the economic arrangements in the book led us to ask if Anney might have engaged in sex work of one sort or another once.

Considering themes of humiliation and legitimacy, we considered why Anney is so concerned about Bone’s birth certificate—even though no one else appears to be. Sharad thought it was a point of pride. Paul suggested it was a matter of social stigma. Dominic asserted that if being poor was bad, being poor and a bastard was even worse, and Anney wanted to keep Bone from that double humiliation.

We discussed whether or not Shannon’s immolation was a suicide or an accident. Raj and Dominic said, “Yes.” Sharad hedged. Paul said the scene was emblematic of being consumed by religion. Brian thought maybe. Alexius asked, “Who is Shannon?”

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The religious/gospel singing passages were interesting but didn’t garner much of our interest.

It seemed as if the book was introducing many homosocial/homosexual moments involving Bone: Bone’s links to Granny at first, the exchange of looks with the Black girl, Shannon, and then the “queer utopia” (???) of Aunt Raylene’s home. (Raylene who ran away with a woman once and now lives alone is also called “Ray.”) We debated if Raylene might be the moral voice of the novel but could not decide. Brian invested a lot in Raylene’s statement to Bone that, “‘People are the same,’ she said in a whisper. ‘Everybody just does the best they can’” and tried to find some morality in it.

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We asked about the book’s portrayal of straight culture. Paul thought it was stereotypical. Raj thought the story was biased against everyone. No one does well in this environment. Dominic reminded us that Anney and Lyle are a positive couple. But, Lyle dies right away, for no apparent reason. Sharad brought up ideas of toxic masculinity and constant economic dependency. Alexius mumbled something.

In closing, we brought out our favorite characters:

Raj: Granny doesn’t move! There’s stability to parts of this culture.

Dominic: Serving it real! There is so much food in the book, and Anney serves it all.

Sharad: You can’t get more right than the Boatwrights! The whole family is engrossing.

Paul: I didn’t like anyone.

Alexius: I liked the weather.

Brian: Raylene! Who doesn’t want to live alone at a bend in the river?

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Filed under Class, Classics, Dorothy Allison, Family, Lesbian, USA

65th Discussion: William Burroughs’s Queer & Allen Ginsberg’s Howl

queer.us.penguin.2010.200We started with Queer, and talked about how the introduction affected our reading (the murder of his second wife, and writing as inoculation).

Both Brian and Kelvin talked about space: Kelvin found it strange that Mexico is described as “oriental,” while Brian noted that it is an expat novel, happening in public, homosocial space with no sense of home. Signals of Lee’s status as an outsider abound.

We questioned on how to read the Arab human trafficking hallucination/fantasy (p. 67) and Lee’s predilection for the Aryan type: racism or the unreliability of narrator?

On the non-representation of women, we concluded there is an aversion of femininity and effeminacy in the novel. But strangely, when in general men overcompensate their insecurity and homosexuality by being hyper-masculine, we didn’t find it to be the case for Lee.

Aaron saw the two endings as hopelessness of human connection, and indicative of human isolation.

allenginsbergAs a transition to Howl, we talked about the similarities between the two books–drugs. Brian commented the Beat generation used drugs to alter consciousness as a way to overcome existential ennui, to rebel against the bourgeois and consumerism, to break away from the madness of monotony.

Kelvin saw Howl as a manifesto, as opposed to Queer as a quest. While Queer is pessimistic, Kelvin claimed there is hope in Howl. There is a representation of community in Howl.

We spiraled into a discussion of whether Howl is hopeful or not. We didn’t convinced Brian who argued that meeting Walt Whitman in a supermarket is how low America has fallen: Whitman’s fruits hanging on trees (nature) has become fruits in supermarket (consumerism). “It is,” Brian said, “potential we squandered.”

Thanks, Timmy and Jolynn, for beautifying Mcdonald’s.

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Filed under Allen Ginsberg, Classics, Love, Mexico, Poetry, Politics, Queer, Race, Religion, USA, William Burroughs

57th Discussion: Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited

waugh-brideshead-revisitedA great attendance: Suffian, Timmy, Har, Sam, Lydia, Gabriel and Aaron.

Our initial reactions to the book:

Timmy and Sam found it long-winded, beating around the bush, although Suffian and Aaron defended the winding style to mirror the plot of returning to Catholicism.  Strangely, Har felt the opposite of Timmy and Sam, calling the novel the Twilight of its time.

Suffian pointed out the autobiographical nature of the book while Gabriel lamented on the practicality of book sales.

Themes:

1. Catholicism: Lydia questioned if the book is pro-religion since everyone suffers under it, but Aaron cited the positive ending as pro-religion. We talked about the significance of the name Brideshead and linked it to John Donne’s “Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” which is often analyzed as the narrator being a bride of God. “God’s Bride” can also be the Church itself. Whichever the case, it is clear that Brideshead is a symbol of Catholicism, and eventually, the occupants return to the house, ie, Catholicism.

Everyone was bored by religious talk–Gabriel said “religion” is a word so often used it loses its meaning–so we moved on.

2. Men Desiring Men: Gabriel cautioned us on ahistoricity and said that the characters cannot be considered “gay” as it is a neologism. The characters should be known as men-desiring-men. And all men who desire men in the novel have to suppress their desires or face dire consequences. Lydia and Tim brought up the child-like nature of Sebastian, whose teddy bear is both a longing for his sexless childhood and a chastity ring for his budding desire for men. Suffian noted that the sexlessness in the novel paralleled Waugh’s own life when he was in the Oxford’s “Hypocrites”.

We also talked about Catholic guilt being sublimated in various ways, such as alcoholism, and post-coital cigarettes: you use one sin to substitute the other.

Besides Sebastian, Lord Marchmain‘s desire causes him to be a pariah among his children and people; Anthony Blanche is portrayed negatively as a “queeny gay” (Timmy’s words); and, Aaron argued, even Charles has to transfer his love for Sebastian onto Julia, settling for a substitute.

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Characters:

1. Timmy’s favorite character is Cara for her insightfulness and willingness to accept Lord Marchmain for who he is. Timmy cited extensively on Cara’s thoughts on homosexual love:

“It is a kind of love that comes to children before they its meaning. In England it comes when you are almost men; I think I like that. It is better to have that kind of love for another boy than for a girl… When people hate with all that energy, it is something in themselves they are hating. Alex is hating all the illusions of boyhood–innocence, God, hope.” (pp. 102-3)

2. We all had a soft spot for Sebastian whose struggles gay people can identify with. Timmy thought Alexius is rather like Sebastian.

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3. Lydia read against the grain, liking Anthony Blanche, who dares to live his life, but Timmy hated the one-dimensional depiction. Lydia both despised and empathized with the Julia-Charles relationship.

4. Lady Marchmain is an enigmatic character, manipulative but, according to Lydia, this is how Lady M is brought up and how she shows her love.

5. Rex isn’t a complete being because, Lydia and Har claimed, that there is some form of xenophobia at work, and because Rex is nouveau riche, his pursuits are with money, not his life.

Both Gabriel and Suffian liked all characters, as Suffian reminded us that even though the characters are flawed, all of them are very realistic.

Sam and Har didn’t change their minds about the novel after the discussion. Aaron said there are some hilarious parts in the books (Charles and his father; and the dinner scene onboard with Julia). Timmy and Aaron felt the book was beautifully written. This is Aaron’s favorite passage when Charles’s cousin chides him for hanging out with “Anglo-Catholics, who are all sodomites” and Charles defends himself:

“I like this bad set and I like getting drunk at luncheon”; that was enough then. Is more needed more?

Looking back, now, after twenty years, there is little I would have left undone or done otherwise… I could tell my cousin that all the wickedness of that time was like the spirit they mix with the pure grape of the Douro, heady stuff full of dark ingredients; it at once enriched and retarded the whole process of adolescence as the spirit checks the fermentation of the wine, renders it undrinkable, so that it must lie in the dark, year in, year out, until it is brought up at last fit for the table. (p. 45)

Aaron interpreted this paragraph as when one endures the years of pain and suffering, the pain and suffering will be useful one day. One day, all that darkness can be used as bursts of sunshine.

Lydia chimed, “So it basically means what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?”

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Filed under Bisexuality, Class, Classics, Evelyn Waugh, Family, Love, Religion, UK, War