Reading Group: 1999 Discussions

LGBT Community Center NYC The Gay & Lesbian Reading Group, based in New York City, is a friendly and diverse discussion group founded circa 1982. We welcome everyone interested in GLBT Literature, and appreciate all points of view. We read contemporary and classic works of GLBT-related fiction, non-fiction, drama, and poetry. Join us the second Thursday of each month, 8:00pm at the LGBT Community Center, 208 West 13th Street, NYC.

In addition to many GLBT Literature Resources, this site also archives information about the G&L Reading Group from 1997 to today, including all of the books we have discussed.

Books & Resources: 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002 | 2001 | 2000 | 1999 || Books Only:  1998 | 1997 || Full Index

Books Discussed in 1999

(in reverse chronological order)


Dream Boy
Dream Boy Jim Grimsley
1995 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

  • Dream Boy – resources (including reviews, readers' comments, and an exclusive interview with Grimsley)
  • GLSEN – since this is a novel about gay teens, here is the organization for GLBT and straight teachers

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – December 9, 1999

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers – especially to the returning and first-time women – who were among the more than 30 of us at the lively discussion of Jim Grimsley's 1995 novel, Dream Boy. Everyone stayed afterwards as Joel W. read from his (as yet untitled) erotic supernatural novel-in-progress.

Although some people were moved by Dream Boy, many others found it hollow, especially in its two protagonists: Southern teenage boys who fall in love. there was too little psychological, and emotional, depth to the boys and to the other characters. Several people also remarked that the author's primary interest seemed to be in creating a lyrical, minimalist prose style. This was seen as detrimental to the novel, which featured many gaps both in the "backstory" and even the primary action.

One member quoted Hemingway's famous remark that an author can leave out anything, so long as s/he knows what's being left out. Many people felt that Grimsley's biggest problem was that he actually did not know what his book was lacking.

Regarding the (probably?) supernatural "resurrection" at the end, many people scratched their heads. Some pointed out that it was consistent with Grimsley's use of Christian motifs; and that he had foreshadowed it throughout. And people who liked the novel thought it was a moving embodiment of the power of love, which enabled the murdered boy to rise from the dead to be with his beloved.

Several of us remarked that such a romantic, and spiritual, theme is powerful indeed, but that the author did not manage to realize it in Dream Boy. Since this was only his second novel, perhaps the future holds great promise for Jim Grimsley.


Claudine – Colette
1900 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – November 11, 1999

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers - especially to the returning and first-time women - who were among the more than 20 of us at the genial discussion of Colette's 1900 novel, Claudine (we focused on the first part, Claudine at School, of this cycle of four novels).

We were fortunate to have several members well-versed in the life of Colette (Sidonie Gabrielle Claudine Colette; 1873-1954), who also wrote the famous novels Chéri (1920) and Gigi (1945). We learned about Colette's privileged and intellectually stimulating childhood; her three husbands (each one younger than his predecessor); and her several affairs with women, including a long-term relationship with "Missy."

We also discussed how a novel so open about same-sex relationships could become - a century ago - a runaway best-seller. One explanation was that lesbians (as distinct from gay men) were not seen as "threatening" by French society; in fact they were part of a decades-old literary tradition (including such male authors as Gautier, Baudelaire, and Louÿs). In fact, Colette's (first) husband Willy, a well-known publisher, originally released the novel under his own name.

Almost every aspect of the novel was praised, including the flowing style with its pungent metaphors, the rapid pacing, and the deep love of nature. Perhaps the most admired feature was the fresh and candid perspective of the title character. It was also noted how unusual it is for a popular character, like Claudine, to be the central character of a novel (much GLBT, and general, fiction is from the point of view of an "outsider"). As one male member put it, "Claudine is the girl I always wanted to be."

We also talked about some aspects of the novel which several people found troubling, including the casual sadism ("little Luce" begs Claudine, with whom she's in love, to beat her... and Claudine happily complies).

The primary complaint of the one or two people who did not like the book was that Claudine does not develop. However, others mentioned that in the series' final three books (covering the next few years of Claudine's life), she does. She gains, through sometimes hilarious and sometimes painful experience, a deeper perspective on life, love, and herself.

As one member (a high school teacher) remarked, there are still plenty of Claudines around today: savoring life, raising hell, and growing up in their own inimitable ways.

COLETTE IN THE MOVIES: Several people asked, What films have been adapted from Colette's works (other than the outstanding Lerner & Loewe film musical Gigi (1958)? The answer: a dozen more, including a 1937 version of Claudine at School (which Colette disowned, but which one viewer liked enormously). You can find the complete list in the Links section above.


Confessions of a Mask
Confessions of a Mask – Yukio Mishima
1949 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – October 14, 1999

First, a friendly welcome to all the newcomers - especially to the several returning and new women - who were among the 30 of us at the heated discussion of Yukio Mishima's 1949 novel, Confessions of a Mask.

Some people were surprised to learn that Mishima (1925-1970) wrote this relatively sophisticated first novel while in his early twenties. Others drew connections between the sadomasochistic obsessions of the narrator and Mishima's - and his young lover's - public suicides by ritual disembowelment and decapitation.

The novel's title raised the issue of whether Mishima was hiding behind a "mask" in telling this tortured coming-out story. It's known that many of the events in Confessions of a Mask did occur to Mishima. Yet throughout his life, he vehemently denied that the novel was autobiographical. Masks behind masks?

We also talked about the society and times in which Mishima lived. Although there was a substantial gay subculture in pre- and postwar Japan, the novel's narrator hammers us with his isolation and frustration. Some thought the final scene indicated that he might begin exploring sexuality outside of his (elitist and brutally sadistic) fantasies.

Several people felt that Mishima failed to explore the society which the narrator claimed was crushing him. Also faulted were the unconvincing portraits of women, including the major character Sunoko. However, some people were riveted by the narrator's intense, and narcissistic, focus on his inner life.

People who liked the novel seemed most impressed with the virtuoso passages depicting the febrile mind and emotions of the ambiguous narrator. Those who did not like it felt that the narrative was choppy, and that the "big scenes" were lifted from Mishima's extensive reading in Western (gay) literature, including Sade, Huysmans, Wilde, Gide, and Proust.

Whatever each of our opinions, there seemed a consensus that it was worthwhile reading one of the most famous of all gay novels, which also stands as a landmark of 20th century Japanese literature.


Emily Dickinson's Poetry
Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) – Final Harvest: Selected Poetry
edited by Thomas H. Johnson

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – September 9, 1999

First, a friendly welcome to the newcomers whose names I caught (with apologies to those I missed) – Fred, Serafina, Sharon, and Suzanne – who were among the 26 of us at the discussion of poetry by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). I think everyone was especially happy to see so many new and returning women, who comprised over a third of the people present: Welcome!

For the third month in a row, everyone (who spoke up) liked the reading. Are we on a roll, or what?

Although moved and fascinated, that doesn't mean that many didn't also find her poetry enigmatic. The discussion began when a member read a poem which intrigued him ("Her sweet Weight on my Heart a Night" - No. 518), but admitted he didn't understand all of it, including its (possible) lesbian dimension. That may have been an ideal way to start, since several people then shared their insights into the poem. And went on to present their own favorites.

We also talked about Dickinson's intellectual and spiritual background: mid-19th C. New England, torn between the rigidity of its Puritanical religious heritage and the progressiveness of Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau. We also discussed the rich social life she had, growing up in Amherst, Massachusett's most prominent family. And we explored her intense same-sex relationship with Sue Gilbert, a childhood friend who became her sister-in-law... and the lifelong recipient of three times more of her poems than anyone else, plus her most passionate letters (here is a link to an excerpt). We speculated about what could have caused the brilliant and gregarious young Dickinson to transform herself into the (often mythologized) recluse of her later years. Some felt that Dickinson was able to experience an extraordinary creative and spiritual life through the world of her own imagination (as she put it in one of her letters, "My Business is Circumference," meaning all of experience). One member thought her works revealed a distinct "lack of oxygen" (which, he clarified, was not to deny their intrinsic artistry and power).

Aspects of Dickinson praised included the astonishing range of her work - from profound anguish ("I cannot live with You" - No. 640) to playful satire ("I'm Nobody! Who are you?" - No. 288), from the eerie beauty of her allegory about mortality ("Because I could not stop for Death" - No. 712) to the whimsical but edgey snake poem ("A narrow Fellow in the Grass" - No. 986). We also talked about her complex - not to mention unprecedented and influential - use of ellipsis, where by omitting words she forces us to fill in the missing details ourselves. Other elements of her unique poetry singled out were her slant rhymes, irregular rhythms, idiosyncratic phrasing and syntax, and - perhaps above all - her emotional intensity.

Just found this link (September 12): Here is the first chapter of Open Me Carefully, edited by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith from Dickinson's correspondence. The book "brings new light to the meaning of the poet's life and work. Gone is Emily as lonely spinster – here is Dickinson in her own words, passionate and fully alive." Even this online excerpt contains several of her extraordinary letters to Sue Gilbert (Dickinson).


Tales of the City
Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin
1978 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – August 12, 1999

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the more than 30 of us (our best turnout in months!) at the discussion of Armistead Maupin's 1978 novel Tales of the City.

For the second month in a row - albeit with a very different novel from To the Lightouse - almost everyone liked the book, some passionately. (Maupin tells the often hilarious interconnected stories of the residents - gay and straight - of the magical 28 Barbary Lane in 1976 San Francisco.)

Several members, who have lived in San Francisco, contrasted their experiences with those in the novel. To some Maupin's milieu seemed like a lost world; while others were reminded of people and situations they know in NYC today. We also compared the novel to the acclaimed, and faithfully-adapted, 1993 mini-series.

Maupin was praised for his fast-paced, lucid style; his wonderful, sometimes subtle sense of humor; and the compassionate yet probing way he handled a huge cast of characters from every social strata... and sexual orientation. Many, but not all, people enjoyed the cliffhangers which Maupin built into his saga (originally written as a weekly newspaper serial). Some also responded to the work's serious themes, such as self-honesty, responsibility, and the struggle to find genuine connection in a world in flux; while others felt that looking for "deeper meaning" was silly.

In any event, if you want the answers to such tantalizing questions as 'What is Mrs. Madrigal's secret?,' you'll have to read the next installment, More Tales of the City. (Somehow those of who who have read - and love - all six books in the series managed to not reveal the many later plot twists.)

Several people referred to Tales of the City as "a perfect summer read." It's certainly that; and perhaps a good deal more.


To the Lighthouse
To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
1927 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion


First, a friendly welcome to the newcomers, who were among the 20 of us at the discussion of Virginia Woolf's 1927 novel To the Lighthouse. Using stream of consciousness techniques, the novel explores two seemingly uneventful days - separated by 10 years - in the life of a large English family at their island vacation home. This was one of those rare selections which everyone liked, some enthusiastically.

Woolf was highly praised for her mastery of language, narrative form, and symbolism. The major contention over the novel regarded Woolf's handling of her characters. While many liked the way she explored them from a variety of shifting viewpoints, others found that they lacked psychological depth. It was argued that Woolf used her prodigious command of metaphorical imagery to obfuscate, rather than reveal, the fullness of her characters (including the three possibly same-sex oriented characters: Lily Briscoe, Nancy, and Mr. Carmichael).

As several people mentioned, To the Lighthouse is a novel which benefits greatly from re-reading.


Becoming a Man
Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story – Paul Monette
1992 memoir

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion


First, a friendly welcome to newcomers George and Mark, who were among the 17 of us at the impassioned discussion of Paul Monette's memoir Becoming a Man, which inspired an exceptionally diverse range of views. Some people found the book - about the author's painful coming out in 1950s and '60s New England - shallow, narcissistic, and "whiney"; while others praised its psychological insight, supple use of language, and emotional power.

Some were bored by what they saw as a repetitive series of unexamined incidents; others were deeply moved by Monette's dissection of the many stages he went through before finally being able to love a man.

We also talked about its relation to Monette's life, novels and poetry, plus the other two volumes in his autobiographical trilogy (Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir and Last Watch of the Night). And we compared Becoming a Man to such coming out books as Edmund White's disturbing A Boy's Own Story.


The Haunting of Hill House
The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
1959 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion


We talked about whether this was a novel of supernatural possession, the protagonist's madness (perhaps brought on by her repressed lesbianism)... or both. Other topics ranged from an analysis of Jackson's unique style (some found it mesmerizing, others boring), to the novel's relation to earlier and later Horror/Suspense Literature, to how it related to such paranormal phenomena as telepathy (Jackson was meticulous in her research).

As one critic noted, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House has unnerved readers since its original publication 40 years ago. A tale of subtle, psychological terror, it has earned its place as one of the significant haunted house stories of the ages.

Eleanor Vance has always been a loner - shy, vulnerable, and bitterly resentful of the 11 years she lost while nursing her dying mother. She always sensed that one day something big would happen, and then it does. She receives an unusual invitation from parapschologist Dr. John Montague, who organizes a ghost watch, inviting people who have been touched by otherworldly events. A paranormal incident from Eleanor's childhood qualifies her to be a part of Montague's bizarre study - along with headstrong Theodora, his assistant [and a lesbian], and Luke, a well-to-do aristocrat. They meet at Hill House - a notorious estate in New England. It is a foreboding structure of towers, buttresses, Gothic spires, gargoyles, strange angles, and rooms within rooms - a place "without kindness, never meant to be lived in."

Although Eleanor's initial reaction is to flee, the house has a mesmerizing effect, and she begins to feel a strange kind of bliss that entices her to stay. Eleanor is a magnet for the supernatural - she hears deathly wails, feels terrible chills, and sees ghostly apparitions. But the physical horror of Hill House is always subtle; more disturbing is the emotional torment Eleanor endures. Intense, literary, and harrowing, The Haunting of Hill House belongs in the same dark league as Henry James's classic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw.


Death in Venice and Tonio Kroeger
Tonio Kröger (1903) & Death in Venice (1911) – two novellas by Thomas Mann

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion


Despite the sometimes bleak worldview of Thomas Mann, the group was enthralled by his two novellas, "Tonio Kröger" and "Death in Venice."

As one critic summarized, "Tonio Kroger" deals with a homoerotic passion that is transmuted into heterosexual love, the relation between the artist and the confidence man, and the dichotomy between "art" and "life". Published on the eve of World War I, a decade after Buddenbrooks had established Mann as a literary celebrity, "Death in Venice" tells the story of Gustave Aschenbach, an aging writer who visits Venice. In the decaying city, which is besieged by a cholera epidemic, he becomes obsessed with an exquisite Polish boy, Tadzio. "It is a story of the voluptuousness of doom," Mann wrote. "But the problem I had especially in mind was that of the artist's dignity."

We also discussed "Death in Venice"'s acclaimed film version (by gay director Luchino Visconti) and operatic version (by gay composer Benjamin Britten), which several people had seen and found enthralling, especially in relation to Mann's original work.


The Persian Boy
The Persian Boy – Mary Renault
1972 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion


The group had high praise for Mary Renault's The Persian Boy, which traces the last years of Alexander the Great’s life through the eyes of his lover, Bagoas. As a boy Bagoas was abducted and gelded, then sold as a courtesan to King Darius of Persia, but found freedom with Alexander after the Macedonian army conquered his homeland. Their relationship sustains Alexander as he survives assassination plots, the demands of two foreign wives, a sometimes-mutinous army, and his own ferocious temper. As one person put it, after Alexander’s mysterious death, we are left wondering if this Persian boy understood the great warrior and his ambitions better than anyone.

Much of the enthusiasm for lesbian author Renault's historical novel came from her vivid way of bringing to life a world which vanished well over two millennia ago. Although some people wished her style had been a bit more "literary," others relished her ability to create a genuine page-turner which was as informative as it was engrossing.


Young Torless
Young Törless – Robert Musil
1906 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – February 11, 1999

Young Törless was highly praised by almost everyone present, not only for Musil's mastery of language (even in translation) but for its evocation of the fears, tensions, and even budding romance in a late 19th century boys military school.

As one critic summarized, Robert Musil (1880-1942) was born in Austria and served in the Austrian army during World War I, after which he worked as a civil servant as well as a writer and journalist. He is best known for his monumental unfinished novel, The Man Without Qualities. Like his contemporary and rival Sigmund Freud, Robert Musil boldly explored the dark, irrational undercurrents of humanity. The Confusions of Young Törless, published in 1906 while he was a student, uncovers the bullying, snobbery, and vicious homoerotic violence at an elite boys academy. Unsparingly honest in its depiction of the author's tangled feelings about his mother, other women, and male bonding, it also vividly illustrates the crisis of a whole society, where the breakdown of traditional values and the cult of pitiless masculine strength were soon to lead to the cataclysm of the First World War and the rise of fascism. A century later, Musil's first novel still retains its shocking, prophetic power.


Katherine Mansfield Stories
Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923) – Stories

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – January 14, 1999

On this snowy night, we huddled together to priase the lucid, evocative style and psychological penetration of the writer whom Virginia Woolf said she envied. Many of our members did not think that Woolf's envy was well-placed, while a vocal minority defended Mansfield as one of the world's great short story writers.

As author Elizabeth Bowen put it many years ago, "We owe to her the prosperity of the 'free' story: she untrammeled it from conventions and, still more, gained for it a prestige till then unthought of. How much ground Katherine Mansfield broke for her successors may not be realized. Her imagination kindled unlikely matter; she was to alter for good and all our idea of what goes to make a story."


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Mozart's Complete Works — not GLBT related but the musical bargain of the decade. All 600+ works on 170 CDs — see my notes


GLBT Literature: 990000

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SearchSite search

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