Reading Group: 2000 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 2000

(in reverse chronological order)

 

The Left Hand of Darkness
December
2000
The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. LeGuin
1969 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – December 14, 2000

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 22 of us at the December 14 discussion of Ursula K. LeGuin's 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. It relates the experiences of Genly Ai, a black ambassador from earth who has come to the frozen planet Winter (also called Gethen) to invite its people to join a confederation of planets. Ai must confront his presuppositions about himself and gender in this world where once each month the androgynous inhabitants randomly transform into either male or female form.

Left Hand of Darkness won every award for Best Science Fiction novel when it was published, and has remained a popular and esteemed work for over 30 years. The first third of our discussion was marked by universal, although sometimes tempered, praise. Several people commented that the most impressive section was the final third, which explores the growing love of Ai and Lord Estraven (Ai's Gethenian political ally). Much praise was given to LeGuin's narrative drive, as she tells of the weeks the two protagonists spend crossing a frozen wasteland. We also talked about how she explored those events, and the powerful emotions they raised, by cutting between Ai's and Estraven's respective first person accounts. Some of us could see, and feel, the bitter cold of this alien world.

At this point, our discussion became especially heated when a regular member said that he loathed everything about the novel, and could only - barely - force himself to read the first third. (I'm sure I'm not the only one who thrives on a diversity of opinion!) We now turned out attention to LeGuin's style. Some found it vague, with insufficient detail to make the alien world immediate, or even comprehensible. Yet others were struck by the economy of language, and by how she provides just enough information for us to use our own imaginations to fill in the gaps. We looked at the description of the city of Mishnory in Chapter 8, a passage which - as you will see - could support either of the opposing views about LeGuin's style:

In the weak sunlight between autumn showers it was a queer-looking city, all blank stone walls with a few narrow windows set too high, wide streets that dwarfed the crowds, street-lamps perched on ridiculous tall posts, roofs pitched steep as praying hands, shed-roofs sticking out of housewalls eighteen feet above ground like big aimless bookshelves - an ill-proportioned, grotesque city, in the sunlight. It was not built for sunlight. It was built for winter. In winter, with those streets filled ten feet up with packed, hard-rolled snow, the steep roofs icicle-fringed, sleds parked under the shed-roofs, narrow window-slits shining yellow through driving sleet, you would see the fitness of that city, its economy, its beauty.

Another problem which some people had with the novel was LeGuin's extensive use of invented names, for everything from time to alien customs to countries. LeGuin provides a glossary of the Gethenian calendar and clock, and I posted online a study guide for the novel which includes a comprehensive dictionary. But, understandably, some of our members were dissatisfied with having to look up vocabulary words on every page. Others were fascinated by the wealth of detail which LeGuin (whose father was the eminent anthropologist Alfred Kroeber) used in creating such a meticulously detailed world; they were drawn deeply into the story and characters.

Some of the most deeply felt responses to the novel came from our women members, who told about their personal experiences when first reading it several years ago. One woman told of how the possibilities of gender difference helped her break away from the restrictive, conservative religion of her childhood and come out as lesbian. (No doubt LeGuin would have been delighted to hear of the impact her novel could have.)

Although the consensus was that the novel is a unique exploration of gender, by referring to the Gethenians in the masculine it colors our perception of them. LeGuin agrees with this criticism (in essays written after the novel); and in an as yet unfilmed screenplay, she has created a gender-neutral pronoun. Since we spent a great deal of time talking about this issue, I'm quoting LeGuin's response - in an interview which I've posted online (URL given two paragraphs above) - at some length:

"[In my screenplay] I've made up a pronoun. I referred to Gethenians not pregnant or in kemmer by the invented pronoun 'a' (pronounced "uh") in the nominative case, 'a's' in the possessive case. I thought, 'Since it was to be used only for dialogues, you can do it without driving people mad.' You see, this is the main trouble with made-up pronouns, to read a whole novel with something in place of he or she is just not possible. Actually, 'they' used to be the English genderless pronoun until the 17th or 18th century, when the grammarians declared that 'he' was the generic, but it's quite arbitrary...."

LeGuin also regrets - as did many of us - that she did not more fully explore same-sex attraction, and love, between Ai and Estraven in his male form. In her defense, one member pointed out that the novel was published the same year as Stonewall, when silence surrounding GLBT issues was the norm.

Our discussion also touched on some other themes, including the parallels between Ai's and Estraven's outer journeys (through space, or the arctic wastes of Gethen) and inner growth toward deep understanding and love. We also mentioned - perhaps too briefly - the importance of Taoism to LeGuin. The study guide (URL above) contains an exhaustive analysis of the novel by Prof. Rebecca Rass, including this passage on one of its overarching themes:

"The entire story of Left Hand of Darkness strives toward the establishment of harmony and wholeness on the personal, national, and cosmic levels. The book begins with the disruption of the balance between the two countries of planet Winter, which is threatened with the eruption of the first war in its history. The two protagonists, citizens of different planets, are widely apart. From that point on the story moves toward restoring the balance and harmony between the protagonists, between the two countries on Winter, and between Winter and the rest of the universe."

As our discussion revealed, Left Hand of Darkness is a complex - and still controversial - novel which may best reveal itself after rereading.

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The Coming Storm
November
2000
The Coming Storm – Paul Russell
1999 novel

SPECIAL: Mr. Russell joined us for questions & answers

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

  • The Coming Storm – Amazon.com resources
  • The Coming Storm – publisher's web site for the novel
  • Paul Russell's Vassar Faculty web page – includes e-mail; if you don't finish reading the novel on time you must get a signed excuse from Prof. Russell [just kidding]

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – November 9, 2000

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 32 of us at the November 9 discussion of Paul Russell's 1999 novel, The Coming Storm. That same night we were fortunate to have a special Q & A session with the author, moderated by our member Joel W. Thanks also to Christopher Bram (whose novel Gossip was a rousing success with our group last summer) for helping arrange Mr. Russell's visit, and for particpating in our discussion.

The Coming Storm explores the complexities of contemporary relationships - primarily gay - by interweaving the lives, and perspectives, of four characters at a private academy in upstate New York which caters to the underachieving sons of the wealthy. The story revolves around Noah Lathrop III - an unstable but creative 15-year-old - who falls in love with new teacher Tracy Parker, an attractive gay man of 25. As their affair precipitates the novel's crisis, it both unsettles the "companiable" marriage of the school's deeply closeted headmaster, Louis Tremper, and his complex wife Claire, and forces some of the school's darker secrets to emerge. The "coming storm" of the title assumes multiple literal and symbolic meanings throughout the novel, not least of which is AIDS.

This novel was enthusiastically commented on by many of our members, who pointed out its psychological insight, lucid style, and provocative form. Some were also impressed by how imaginatively Russell drew on such diverse earlier gay novelists as E.M. Forster, Thomas Mann (also the subject of Louis Tremper's never-finished study), and, more recently, John Knowles, whose A Separate Peace is invoked on several occasions.

Regarding Russell's style, a few members found its sometimes complex syntax and use of metaphor too "literary." But others were struck by its flexibility, as it allowed for both psychological subtlety and striking imagery.

Although there was comparatively little dramatic action, many found the novel riveting because of its four main characters. Many of us were moved by their surprising, yet understandable, vacillations between honesty and deception, desire and indifference. These were living, breathing, and deeply feeling men and women.

Several people - including our women members - commented on the exceptional insight Russell brought to his principal female character, Claire. Also praised was the wide range of gay men depicted, from the sixty-ish Louis Tremper, to the twenty-something Tracy (and his circle in Manhattan), and the teenagers Noah and "the Fatwah." It was remarked how rare it is to see such multi-faceted, and cross-generational, portrayals of gay characters.

The most controversial aspect of the novel is, of course, the 'older man/younger man' relationship, although there is only 10 years difference between Tracy and Noah. Several people were adamantly opposed to this, arguing it is damaging to the young man's development. Others pointed out that Noah initiates and sustains the affair, and that the novel gives full shrift to the emotional - and ethical - complexity of the relationship.

The novel's formalistic structure was also discussed. Russell reveals the action by alternating between his four main characters (in sequence: Louis to Claire to Tracy to Noah, then back to Louis, etc.). This creates a compelling - and purposefully ambiguous - texture, as we see events refracted through four clearly-defined, but shifting, perspectives. The technique was compared to the four "voices" of a string quartet; which is not far-fetched considering Mr. Russell's strong background in music. (Also praised was the wonderfully eclectic "soundtrack" - from Bach and Richard Strauss to contemporary rock - he weaves throughout the novel.)

Russell was criticized by some for not including a sufficiently diverse range of viewpoints. It was suggested that including an extremely different voice - such as the rigid "born again" Christian coach Brill - would have given the novel an even more expansive scope. (During the Q&A, Russell said that if there had been a fifth voice, it would have been Brill's.)

In the words of Claire, near the novel's end, "Would it change anything at all to know the whole truth, each side of it, every facet and angle? Or would the result just be flat-out contradiction...?" Russell forces us to confront that knotty question, as well as many complex ethical dilemmas, through his exceptional novel.

We were very fortunate to have Mr. Russell join us as a guest, for a Question & Answer session, following our discussion. Following are some highlights of that Q&A.

PAUL RUSSELL'S COMMENTS – FROM OUR Q & A SESSION

Paul Russell told us that originally he had planned to be a composer. At Oberlin Conservatory he had a crisis of conscience when he felt that some of his peers were so much more impressive. He went to Germany for six months, but found the local dialect in Schwabia so incomprehensive that "I became a mute." It was at this time that "I fell in love with the possibilities of words more than with the possibilities of music." Within 24 hours of arriving back in the United States he started writing a novel, at the age of 18. Mr. Russell pointed out wryly that "this was a full 15 years before I was to have my first novel published." During that time he earned a Ph.D. from Cornell in English Literature and a Masters in Creative Writing. Mr. Russell is the author of four novels - with more underway - and a Professor of English at Vassar College.

The following responses are transcribed from Mr. Russell's responses to some of our questions:

ON AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ELEMENTS: This novel is not autobiographical, yet it is simultaneously completely autobiographical and completely invented. [The following is from a published interview with Mr. Russell conducted in 1999: I put everything and nothing of myself into my characters. All my characters are pure invention; at the same time they are composed of many shards and fragments taken directly from reality. I'll steal a gesture from one person, a habit of speech from someone else, an anecdote I heard somewhere and partially misremember, some half-recollected memory from my own past, a few fond fantasies about what other people think and feel as they move through the world, put them all in a box, shake a few times, and voila, there's a character. (Well, would that it were quite that easy!) In a sense, nothing about my characters is invented, while at the same time they do not resemble in the least any single flesh and blood human being.]

ON TRACY & NOAH: On purpose, I did not give Tracy the depth of Louis and Claire. That does make Tracy problematic. Tracy was intended as an "entry character" for many gay readers, but by the end of the novel the complicated Tracy compels some readers to identify more with the closeted Louis. And Noah is dealing with questions in a new generation which his father - and which Louis Tremper - did not have to deal with. And that includes AIDS, which overshadows the novel, yet it is not the focus: it is where we are and where we have been.

ON THE NOVEL'S STRUCTURE: I'm something of a formalist, presenting The Coming Storm through four rotating voices in a consistent order. I wrote it from four points of view because I believe fiction is not authoritative. It contains multiple truths - it is a polyvocal work - and the end result is an ambiguity which cannot be unentangled easily. My job as a novelist is to articulate a textured response from multiple perspectives. A book is a success if I'm still thinking about it a week later, which is one reason why I like works to be open ended.

ON THE NOVEL'S STYLE: At the time that I began writing The Coming Storm, I spent six months reading Proust with seven of my students [at Vassar] enrolled in a special seminar. I was especially struck by Proust's tone, which is richer and more elevated than we are used to in contemporary fiction. Although I certainly do not compare my novel to Proust, I was aiming for a slightly more elevated tone than I had used in my earlier work.

ON AN AUTHOR'S OPINION: An author's opinion is just one opinion. The author becomes just one more reader of his/her book. It does not matter if Shakespeare "knew" he was putting X, Y, or Z into his plays. What's important is what the reader brings to and takes away from the work.

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer
October
2000
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) & Suddenly Last Summer (1958)two plays by Tennessee Williams

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – October 12, 2000

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 20 of us at the lively October 12 discussion of two well-known Tennessee Williams plays: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) and Suddenly Last Summer (1958).

Much of our discussion focused on the connections between Williams's own - sometimes tragic - life and the two plays. Our group held many different opinions about the extent to which Cat and Suddenly reflect both the constrictions of 1950s society and Williams' personal vision, which may have been dictated, at least in part, by internalized homophobia.

Several people found the plays bleak, even morbid, as the major gay characters either descend further into alcoholism and despair (Brick in Cat) or are literally torn to shreds by former tricks (Sebastian in Suddenly - although mercifully this happened before the play begins).

Others pointed to the positive dimensions of the gay characters, including - in Suddenly - the talent (perhaps even genius) of the poet Sebastian, and - in Cat - the lifelong devotion, and immense success, of the gay couple (Peter Ochello and Jack Straw) who founded the plantation which they willed to Big Daddy. But it was noted that none of those characters ever appears onstage; all have died before either curtain raises.

We also discussed Williams' attitude towards women, as depicted in these two plays. We focused on Maggie in Cat. Some people admired her strength of will and earthy vitality. But others were dismayed that not only would she willingly remain married to a gay alcoholic husband - to whom she was obsessively, and futilely, in love - but that she would coerce him into making her pregnant.

We also discussed Williams' style. Some found it strikingly original and lyrical, while others thought it melodramatic and bombastic. We noted, even in the progression from Cat to Suddenly, how Williams was becoming more abstract, even allegorical. (This trend continued until his untimely death in 1983.)

Williams was criticized by some for trying too hard, and self-consciously, to create a poetic theatre. Characters in Cat and Suddenly were intended to embody his social and philosophical ideas about the human condition, but they never achieved the psychological depth and vitality found in his earlier masterpieces The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. (Many people praised Streetcar as one of the greatest American plays.)

Others championed Williams' supreme theatricality, noting that his plays were meant to be acted and not merely read. It was also said that Williams' major plays are now more popular with leading actresses, around the world, than in his own lifetime.

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
September
2000
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – Carson McCullers
1940 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – September 14, 2000

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 32 of us at the energetic and provocative September 14 discussion of Carson McCullers's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Incredibly, this now-classic novel was published in 1940, when the author was just 23 years old.

We began the evening with a special event: our fellow member Stuart Sherman as a young man lived with Carson McCullers in her home in Nyack, New York and served as her secretary/companion. Stuart shared his memories of Ms. McCullers, and answered our questions. With his permission, I have posted the complete text of his reminiscences about McCullers especially for our group.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter interweaves, gracefully and powerfully, the lives of five different people living in a small Georgia mill town in the 1930s. The central figure is the deaf mute Jake Singer, who listens to, but does not always understand, the four other main characters. There is a poor tomboy who dreams of being a composer (Mick Kelly), an angry, heavy-drinking Marxist (Jake Blount), a widowed tavern owner (Biff Brannon), and an emotionally complex African-American physician (Dr. Copeland).

One strand of our discussion focused on the novel's social dimension. We discussed how each character's unique form of loneliness stems from a different type of social ostracism, whether it was race, disability, politics, philosophy, or - most subtly - sexual orientation. Some members pointed out how McCullers grounds each character's unique point of view in a richly-detailed social and economic context. We see - and feel deeply - the world which produces each of these five outsiders.

A minor criticism of the novel could be that McCullers does not always achieve an ideal balance between the psychological realism of her characters and the symbolic (often political) significance which she wants them to embody. But there was agreement that throughout most of this lengthy and intricate novel McCullers does successfully harmonize character, setting, and theme.

To take one example, Dr. Copeland - the character we discussed most frequently - is both a fully realized character, with a complex "back story," and a potent symbol for the destructive force of racism.

Some of the highest praise went to McCullers' extraordinary use of form. Although the narrative voice itself (purposefully) does not change, McCullers enters fully into the thoughts and emotions of each of her diverse, fully particularized characters. She deftly interweaves their stories - and thematic implications - in the manner of a fugue. (Like Mick, the young McCullers dreamed of being a musician, and originally came to New York City to study at Juilliard: The passage in Part 2, Chapter 1, when Mick first hears Beethoven's Third Symphony is a tour de force.)

We also discussed how McCullers unified her novel by exploring, and dramatizing, the poignant theme of misunderstanding. Characters pass each other coming and going to visit Singer, but they understand each other even less than they do themselves. And Singer understands them least of all. He becomes the center of so many distraught lives only because, as a deaf mute, he seems to be an attentive listener.

The world of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is, indeed, a lonely one, filled with miscommunication at every turn. Yet it never descends into the nihilistic (although both Jake and Dr. Copeland head in that direction, for very different reasons) or the maudlin. McCullers is a poet of the loneliness and longing which permeate the world. And, despite her young age, she is also an artist.

Many of us were struck by the exuberance of her writing, including the novel's rich use of humor and deeply-felt - but never smarmy - sentiment. It may not be too much of a stretch to see the counterweight to her theme of moral isolation as the sheer power of her writing: art as connection, art as one form of salvation.

As GLBT readers, we also brought a special perspective to a work which contained much content - some of it surprisingly overt for 1940 - about sexual orientation. (As the narrator says in Part 2, Chapter 2, "By nature all people are of both sexes." That is an attitude which may have been shared by McCullers, who was bisexual.) We speculated whether Mick the tomboy might grow into Mick the lesbian. And we discussed the sexually ambiguous Biff Brannon, with his fondness for his dead wife's clothes and perfume. The most striking depiction of same-sex love was Singer, who longs openly, and wildly, for his Greek deaf mute friend Antonapoulos (committed to an institution for his antisocial behavior). Some people commented that the novel's most heartbreaking moments revolved around Singer's unrequited love for Antonapoulos.

One of the final passages we discussed concerns a brief moment, at the end of the novel, when Biff - alone and late at night - looked out his window and saw "At the far end of the next block two men, small from the distance and motionless, stood arm in arm together. No one else could be seen." After the pathos and tragedy which runs like a current throughout the novel, is this perhaps a moment of hope of connection, even of same-sex connection? Like so much in this multi-layered novel, the answer can only be ambiguous. Not an ambiguity from vagueness (as in some books we have discussed), but an ambiguity which reflects the complexity of lived experience.

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Christopher and His Kind
August
2000
Christopher and His Kind – Christopher Isherwood
1976 memoir

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – August 10, 2000

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 20 of us at the lively discussion of Christopher Isherwood's 1976 memoir, Christopher and His Kind: 1929-1939.

Although the discussion began with several people praising various aspects of the book - from its laconic style to Isherwood's "engaging persona" - there soon followed a chorus of dissenters, including one or two who "hated it."

Christopher and His Kind tells the "true story" - as Isherwood saw it - of the author of the novel Berlin Stories (which became the classic musical Cabaret) between the ages of 25 and 35. It follows Isherwood's artistic, political, and romantic exploits in England, Germany (when the Nazis were coming to power), Spain (at the time of the Spanish Civil War), other European countries, and wartime China. It ends with Isherwood and Auden - on the eve of World War II - arriving in the United States, where both would become American citizens.

Much of our discussion focused on ethical issues raised by Isherwood's life, rather than on the literary merits - or faults - of his memoir. Several people considered Isherwood (and Auden) a coward for "deserting" his homeland Britain just as the war was beginning. They pointed to Isherwood's friend, and rival, Stephen Spender who stayed in England to help with the war effort, while Isherwood made a beeline for Hollywood and a career as a screenwriter... and practitioner of Vedanta. (Spender's own fascinating memoir, World Within World, covers the same period and people as Isherwood's but from a very different perspective.) Isherwood's defenders raised the provocative question, Why should he - or any GLBT person - risk their lives for their country when it would imprison them for the "crime" of their sexual orientation?

Several people were moved, some deeply, by the memoir's central relationship, that between Isherwood and the German houseboy Heinz. They were together for much of the 1930s, establishing a loving - although sometimes volatile - life together. Isherwood's critics complained that the relationship was inherently exploitative because of the class and age differences between Isherwood, from a wealthy family, and Heinz, working-class and ten years younger. Others, however, were convinced of Isherwood's genuine love for Heinz (of his passion there can be no doubt), and pointed to the extraordinary efforts he made to help Heinz escape conscription into the Nazi armed forces.

Many of us delighted in the intimate portraits of his contemporaries Auden (his closest friend and sometime lover), Spender, and E.M. Forster. It was fascinating to see the possibilities, and strictures, in the private lives of these gay literary celebrities. Also entertaining was the dish on the real people whom he transformed into unforgettable fictional characters, such as Jean Ross who became Sally Bowles in Berlin Stories and Cabaret.

People who enjoyed Christopher and His Kind liked the narrative's momentum and graceful style, as well as its wry, self-deprecating sense of humor. Its critics were annoyed by Isherwood's technique - or affectation - of referring to himself in at least three different ways. He was either the 1976 "I" recounting his exploits - with noticeable relish - from almost 40 years earlier; "Christopher," his naive younger self in the 1930s; or "'Christopher'," the autobiographical but fictional central character of his early novels, including Berlin Stories.

Isherwood wrote several other memoirs and autobiographical novels, and spent much of Christopher and His Kind "deconstructing" them. This approach understandably created problems for many in our group, who had not read his other books. In general, it seemed that the more Isherwood one had read, the more one enjoyed the book at hand.

Despite all the self-references, many of us felt that Isherwood did not reveal enough about himself, or about the perspective from which he wrote this work. In 1940, one year after Christopher and His Kind ends, Isherwood underwent a life-changing transformation when he embraced Vedanta. This Hindu-based faith sees all reality as a single principle, Brahman; the believer's goal is to transcend the limitations of self-identity and to fulfill his/her unity with Brahman. It was suggested that the seventy-year-old Isherwood took special pleasure in vividly reliving his "bad boy" days of the 1930s, knowing that he was soon to start on a rigorous spiritual path which would continue for the rest of his long life.

One vital aspect of Isherwood - from his American years - which we did not discuss is his seminal involvement in the gay rights movement, both as spokesman and as novelist (in such works as his 1964 masterpiece, A Single Man). As Claude J. Summers wrote in The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage, "More forthrightly than any other major writer of his generation, Isherwood embraced the contemporary gay liberation movement."

For Isherwood, his life was his art, and both were marked by some exceptional developments. Christopher and His Kind is one crucial, but small, part of his whole story.

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Gossip
July
2000
Gossip – Christopher Bram
1998 novel

SPECIAL: Mr. Bram joined us for questions & answers

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – July 13, 2000

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 39 of us at the discussion of Christopher Bram's 1997 novel, Gossip. (This was our largest turnout since the Gertrude Stein discussion two years ago!)

For the first time in months, everyone liked the novel, although the reasons for liking it varied.

Gossip begins as a romance between Ralph Eckhart, a liberal West Village bookstore manager, and Bill O'Connor, a young right-wing journalist from DC. They meet online in a chat room, but agree to a "face to face" in DC. Sparks fly, and these two unlikely bedfellows become sexually and emotionally entangled. In a shocking twist - just past the mid-point - Bill is discovered murdered, and Ralph is the prime suspect. With the deftness of Hitchcock, Bram entangles Ralph in a complex net of snares and counter-snares as he tries to clear himself of the murder charge and find the killer.

Opinion was unanimous that Bram had crafted a first-rate page turner: part romance, part thriller, and part black comedy. Some members said they stayed up all night reading the book. For many, Gossip was sheer entertainment, an ideal "beach book"... even if you didn't have a beach handy!

Others offered a more literary reading, comparing the relationship of Ralph and Bill to that of Louis and Joe in Angels in America. Several people praised Bram for achieving a Kafka-like effect - with Ralph trapped in a crushing yet oddly comic legal system - while remaining true to his own voice. (Bram has already created an impressive body of work, including the novels Surprising Myself, Hold Tight, Father of Frankenstein - filmed as Gods and Monsters - and the just-released The Notorious Dr. August.)

Some people thought that Gossip's characters lacked sufficient depth, that they were more types than flesh and blood. But others found a great deal of psychological insight, and pointed out the complex emotional - and ideological - evolution of Ralph.

There was agreement on the effectiveness of Bram's crisp style, with its judicious, but striking, use of imagery. To take just one instance, here is part of his description of the National Zoo (Chapter 5): "The zoo looked deserted on an overcast afternoon. It was so cold that most of the animals had gone indoors; a lone rhinoceros stood in its pen like a forlorn leather sculpture leaking steam."

Also praised was the narrative's momentum. Gossip moves like a bullet, yet rarely feels rushed or forced. And like a good mystery (though one can argue that it is much more than that) it cunningly peels back its many layers, one by one, until the final shocking revelation of who actually murdered Bill.

We were especially fortunate that - thanks to our member Joel W., a friend of Bram's - the author joined us for a friendly and informative Question & Answer session following our discussion.

Bram shared with us the genesis of Gossip, which began as a screenplay set at an independent newspaper like The New York Native, for which Bram used to write. In fact, Bram has a deep love of film: in addition to being an acclaimed novelist, he is a screenwriter, and he has worked as a film critic. But Gossip: The Screenplay came to surprise its author.

After Bram became aware of David Brock - the gay right-wing journalist who pilloried Anita Hill - his story took on both a new direction and form. He reconceived Gossip as a novel, and told it using a first-person narrator, in part "to avoid being overly cinematic." And the pivotal murder was now moved past the half-way point in order "to deflect murder mystery" conventions. The focus also became more political, both thematically and in terms of Gossip's milieu. And those wonderful strokes of black comedy became more pronounced.

Gossip may yet return to its cinematic roots. Screen rights have been optioned, and the filmmakers periodically show Bram the latest draft of their adaptation. When asked about casting, Bram got nods of approval for his personal choices (who may or may not be in the film): Ethan Hawke as Ralph, and Edward Norton as Bill. I think he can count on many of us being there opening weekend.

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Cavedweller
June
2000
Cavedweller – Dorothy Allison
1998 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – June 8, 2000

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 31 of us at the discussion of Dorothy Allison's 1998 novel, Cavedweller.

Although many of us had great reservations about Allison's novel, we once again enjoyed a lively - and provocative - discussion.

Cavedweller is a domestic epic, spanning the 1980s, centered on former rock singer/songwriter Delia Byrd. After the death of her second husband, she returns to live in her tiny hometown of Cayro, Georgia, and in the process discovers herself and the diverse natures of her three daughters. Although Allison has been a lesbian activist, several people commented on the minimal same-sex content in the book. (That was also true of Bastard Out of Carolina, her earlier novel which many of us had read, and which all of us found superior to the book we discussed.)

Our members who liked Cavedweller appreciated its hopeful message, as well as its expansive storyline and its "organic form," reminiscent of such Victorian novels as those by George Eliot. But the people critical of Cavedweller compared it unfavorably to Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, two writers Allison particularly admires. (For the record, we will have read four GLBT Southern writers between December 1999 and this October: Grimsley, Allison, McCullers, and Williams.)

One of the writers in our group suggested that Allison should fire her editor, since the novel was twice as long as it needed to be. Yet, curiously, she shortchanged us on such pivotal moments as the deathbed scene between Delia and her first husband, and on the "transformations" of several characters, most notably the daughters Dede and Amanda.

Some people found Allison's style elaborate; others thought it merely labored. Several people noted a monotonous uniformity in the (third person) narrative voice: Regardless of which character was the focus of a given section, the prose was essentially the same.

Many people remarked that they lost interest in the novel. It was suggested that this was because, as the story went along, characters mechanically solved their contrived problems. This made the book seem forced and hollow. Perhaps cynically, it was suggested that Allison aimed to write a bestseller, hoping for a slot on Oprah's Book Club or a movie sale. (In fact, Cavedweller was filmed as a made-for-cable-TV movie.) But while there is nothing wrong with crafting a crowd-pleasing saga, Allison failed to satisfy many of us.

Still, there were some beautiful and moving passages in Cavedweller (including Cissy's experiences in the caves); and Bastard Out of Carolina is an extraordinary novel. Whatever our reservations about Cavedweller, many of us are eager for Allison's third novel... whatever it might be.

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Sweet Days of Discipline
May
2000
Sweet Days of Discipline – Fleury Jaeggy
1993 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – May 11, 2000

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 26 of us at the discussion of Fleur Jaeggy's 1993 novel, Sweet Days of Discipline.

Although many of us had substantial reservations about Jaeggy's novel, the consensus seemed to be that, nonetheless, this was an exciting, and rewarding, discussion.

Sweet Days of Discipline tells the bleak coming of age story of a young woman at a post-World War II Swiss boarding school, which Jaeggy describes as an "Arcadia of sickness, where something serenely gloomy and a little sick is going on." The unnamed narrator develops a passion for a classmate, but fails to win her.

Some people admired Jaeggy's ornate style, comparing it to prose poetry. Others disliked the often vague use of metaphor. And many people commented critically on the narrative voice's emotional flatness. But the novel's admirers said that that was Jaeggy's point: the narrator's nihilistic stance is the outcome of her repressive - heavily "disciplined" - experiences.

To several of us, the narrator seemed overly ambiguous, and we wished that Jaeggy had provided at least a bit more concrete information. (An exemplary "unreliable narrator" - that staple of modern literature - is the governness in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw.) Jaeggy's narrator poses a provocative question at the end of the (unnumbered) eighth section (p. 37): "But how can emptiness be represented?" Several of us would argue that the author did not achieve a satisfying answer to that central stylistic - and thematic - problem.

On a lighter note, a woman in our group speculated on the outcome of a match-up between two boarding school protagonists in works we read recently: the vivacious title character of Colette's Claudine tetralogy and the world-weary narrator of Sweet Days of Discipline. The outcome? "No contest!"

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The Hours
April
2000
The Hours – Michael Cunningham
1998 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – April 13, 2000

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 28 of us at the discussion of Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1998 novel The Hours.

We discussed The Hours with frequent reference to the classic work which inspired it: Virginia Woolf's 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway (which our group read in May 1998). The Hours tells three interwoven stories, each centered on a woman in a particular time and place: the historical Virginia Woolf; Mrs. Brown, a frustrated housewife in post-WW II Los Angeles; and a present-day incarnation of Clarissa Dalloway living with her lesbian partner in the West Village.

Since many of us were familiar with both books, we frequently compared the similarities and differences between the two. For some, the Woolf and Cunningham stories became (fascinatingly) conjoined.

Opinion about The Hours was largely favorable, though all of the several women present had major reservations about Cunningham's novel. Many people were moved by the anguish, hopes, and dawning self-understanding of these three different, yet complexly interrelated, women. Others found the characters underdeveloped, lacking in psychological depth.

There was much praise for Cunningham's rich style, obviously influenced by Woolf yet still flexible and unique. However, some people found that his writing lacked the allusive and poetic qualities which make Mrs. Dalloway, for many, one of the 20th century's great novels.

Perhaps more moving than Cunningham's reimagining of Woolf was his vision (as described in Publishers Weekly) of "the possibility and depth of a communality based on great literature, literature that has shown people how to live and what to ask of life." Many of us agreed with that view, and applauded his achievement in this brief, but deeply resonant, novel.

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Regeneration
March
2000
Regeneration – Pat Barker
1992 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – March 9, 2000

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 25 of us at the discussion Pat Barker's 1991 novel Regeneration. We discussed that novel with frequent reference to The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, the remaining two books in Pat Barker's trilogy about World War I. We talked about how she intermingles historical figures (including poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wifred Owen, psychologist Dr. Rivers) with fictional characters (Billy Prior, who comes to dominate the trilogy).

Opinion about Regeneration was mixed, though leaning towards the favorable. Many people were moved by its depiction of the effects of war on the soldier/patients recuperating in a mental hospital before being sent back to battle. Others expressed reservations about the novel's psychological depth, saying that none of the characters felt sufficiently developed.

Some appreciated Barker's laconic style, which was reminiscent of screenwriting (in fact, Regeneration was recently filmed). Others found that her writing lacked the flexibility, and resonance, to fulfill the wide-ranging critique of war which she intended.

Several members had read the remainder of the trilogy, and were especially enthusiastic about the final volume, The Ghost Road. That novel focuses on a more complex Billy Prior, who has come to explore his bisexuality, and Dr. Rivers, as he relates the practices of Britain in World War I to those of a South Pacific headhunting tribe with which he lived years earlier.

Following our discussion, we continued our Authors Among Us Series with Aaron Hamburger reading the remainder of his new short story.

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Our Lady of the Flowers
February
2000
Our Lady of the Flowers – Jean Genet
1942 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – February 10, 2000

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 25 of us at the heated Genet discussion. Our Lady of the Flowers was the first novel by Jean Genet (1910-1986), written in prison in 1942 on scraps of paper hidden from guards.

Everyone agreed that this was a difficult work, with its nonlinear structure, hallucinatory style, dense use of metaphor, and characters who were thieves, prostitutes, murderers... or all three. However, many members felt the novel was worth the considerable effort required to read it.

Some people had trouble with the book's (raucous) subversiveness, where homosexuality and criminality are conflated - and where gender inversion is celebrated - in revolt against respectable ("mirthless" to Genet) middle-class prohibitions. Clearly, Genet is still able to provoke, and even shock, many readers.

Throughout the discussion, we related Our Lady of the Flowers to Genet's extraordinary life (with frequent reference to Edmund White's definitive biography). Genet spectacularly transformed himself many times: from young petty criminal to literary master (first as novelist, then as playwright) to political activist. We also touched on his relationships to such predecessors as de Sade, Rimbaud and Joyce, and to his contemporary friends Cocteau, Sartre, James Baldwin, William Burroughs, and others.

One complaint was that the novel lacked psychological depth. But some argued that it contained great insight, both personal and sociopolitical, albeit coded through a labyrinthine system of metaphors, drawn from Catholicism, Classical mythology, and Genet's own life. The latter element was the most complex, since Genet says bluntly that he is spinning (autoerotic) fantasies about himself and people he either knew personally or read about in the news.

We also shared our feelings about the novel's pervasive use of violence. While some found this indicative of self-loathing (akin to, say, Mishima's in Confessions of a Mask, which we read recently), others believed that Genet's experience in writing so overwhelming a novel was ultimately cathartic. They pointed to Genet's later, increasingly political, writings, and to his own life as examples of how this novel helped him explore, and emerge from, his "dark night of the soul."

Our Lady of the Flowers is a work which demands to be read - and reread - on its own extraordinary terms.

Following our discussion, we continued our Authors Among Us Series with Aaron Hamburger reading an excerpt from his new short story.

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Death Comes for the Archbishop
January
2000
Death Comes for the Archbishop – Willa Cather
1927 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – January 13, 2000

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 35 of us at the lively discussion of Willa Cather's 1927 novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop. Happily, we have now moved into our new, larger room. Following the 90-minute Cather discussion, we continued our new Authors Among Us Series when I read an excerpt from my GLBT adventure/horror novel-in-progress (thanks to everyone for staying).

As Cather wrote in 1927, the year Death Comes for the Archbishop was published, "many reviews of this book begin with the statement: 'This book is hard to classify.' Then why bother?"

That's still a valid question three-quarters of a century later, when it has landed on every "100 Best Novels of the Century" list, both straight and GLBT. It's an extraordinary - and beloved - work which, as some Reading Group members pointed out, looks ahead several decades to the "magical realism" of, say, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude. Death Comes for the Archbishop creates a rich tapestry - both historical and legendary - of characters, cultures (European, American, Mexican, and Native American), and locales throughout the late 19th Century American Southwest.

This novel (or "narrative," as Cather called it) appealed to a wide spectrum of our members, from Catholics to atheists. We had a lively range of opinions: many found it a work of nourishing spirituality, while others found Cather's own attitudes towards her subject (she was not a Catholic) complex. Some people were disturbed by the scant attention given to women. Several of us were unsettled by Cather's glossing over the imperialistic aspects of the Catholic Church's missionary activity in America (but then, she devoted an extended section to the brutal mistreatment of the Navajo).

There was near complete agreement on the power of Cather's spare, genuinely poetic style (her extraordinary use of color was singled out) and her compelling narrative flow, which counterbalanced her (fascinating) episodic structure. We also looked at some of her strategies to preclude cloying sentimentality: including the use of violence at key points (such as Friar Baltazar's fate at the hands of the Acoma Indians), and varying degrees of psychological insight.

We talked about her strategy of providing more traditional (novelistic) emotional depth to several minor characters - such as Jacinto and Eusabio - than to her two protagonists: the cultured Bishop Latour and his earthy, and more popular, vicar, Father Vaillant. Those two characters generated the most extensive, and heated, part of our discussion.

While Cather gave us an elaborately detailed background - both geographical and cultural - she compelled each of us to fill in an exceptional amount about the inner lives of the two protagonists. As GLBT readers, we speculated about whether a "gay interpretation" of the two clergymen was possible. Many felt that it was, especially in light of the final two chapters. Not only does that section contain the only extended scenes between the two priests together, but Cather also ends her novel with Latour contemplating at great, and passionate, length his youth together with Vaillant. (We Cather fans pointed out her penchant for consciously omitting salient details, which compels the reader to fill in the tantalizing blanks her/himself.)

Speaking of GLBT content, we discussed Cather's writing more than her life. If you would like the articles (which I recently distributed by e-mail) that explore her being lesbian, contact me and I'll be glad to send them. Or read the excellent article on her in The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage, edited by Claude Summers.

As one member pointed out, after you reach the end of the novel - with those suggestive portraits of Latour and Vaillant in mind - your re-reading of the novel will be affected in many ways. With a work as evocative, complex - and entertaining - as Death Comes for the Archbishop, most of us agreed that it is well worth a second reading.

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recommended

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

This search engine covers the entire website (GLBT literature, film, and all other pages) — results will open in a new window. You can also use the site map.

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