Archive for September, 2012

The World of Normal Boys – K. Soehnlein

(We have not discussed this in the group and this review is in a personal capacity.)

Starting a new school, having unusual hobbies, being unsure of yourself, wanting to fit in: all of us remember this stage of teenage life, which the author describes well. Hanging out with the bad boys, doing drugs, having illicit sex to throw off the mother’s boy image are also common experiences as are bunking off school to avoid PE lessons. Perhaps less common, the teenage boys ‘experiment’ sexually whilst fiercely proclaiming that they ‘ain’t queer’, though I suspect everyone remembers the intensity of one’s first orgasm.

The main character begins, as teenagers do, to see his parents in a new light. His mother escapes into alcoholism while the father distances himself from emotions: when one of his sons has a serious accident, it is a technology challenge for the father to adapt the house so as to make it disabled-friendly.

The book captures the spirit of the 1970s well, its music and that dreadful fashion mistake known as the tank top.

Although I found this book very engaging, I would not go as far as the reviewer in The Advocate who described it as ‘a cross between the film American beauty and Edmond White’s A Boy’s Own Story.’

A bit of proof reading wouldn’t have gone amiss. The boy sees his mother smoke inside the house ‘for the first time’ on two occasions.

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The No-Nonsense Guide to Sexual Diversity (No-Nonsense Guides) Vanessa Baird

(We have not discussed this in the group so this review is in a personal capacity.)

I only purchased this book to support a new bookshop (Hydra on Old Market – worth a visit and they do great coffee), and to support The New Internationalist (which I ought to read regularly, given my views, but find heavy-going and then feel guilty about it! –  the No-Nonsense series is a handy digest of archived articles) thinking that I was already well-read in this area. However, I learnt a lot.

There is a global overview of attitudes towards what some would see as ‘perversions’ or ‘deviations’,  the hidden history of those who, over the centuries and across the continents, have hidden their true sexual identities and loves.

Globalisation is seen as a mixed blessing. With increasing international communication, not least through the internet, minority groups living under oppressive regimes have been able to join hands and network with those who have won many struggles towards inequality and who can advise on strategy. On the other hand, capitalism cop modifies everything and whilst it targets minorities as sources of income it also inculcates images of what is ‘normal and religious right-wingers bankroll churches and other groups in the third world who then lobby politicians and law makers in an attempt, highly successful in Nigeria and Uganda, to hold back progress and further oppress people. Globalisation has helped many people to have the courage to come out but their very visibility has led to increased persecution and violence.

Straight people and societies seem highly threatened by sexual diversity. ‘Family values’ and the core of a nation’s social cohesion are seen as being at risk so religious teachings are co-opted to inculcate guilt, science to explain causes and discover medical ‘cures’ and the legal system to punish difference.

A spokesman for the US Family Research Institute has claimed that homosexuality is too powerful to resist because it provides better orgasm than heterosexual marital sex, which ‘tends towards the boring end.’ One wonders how he knows this.

I was challenged by the topic of trans people. I thought that I was liberal in believing that if gender roles and behaviour weren’t so fixed, people would not need a ‘sex-change’ operation but could simply be themselves without society’s opprobrium. That is not how trans people see the issue. There is something very strong about the way that people inhabit their bodies.

Intersex people challenge our binary assumptions. If God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, how do the ‘moral majority’ view God when he made Adam and Eve in one body?  And do those who crusade against female genital mutilation ever think to challenge those parents who seek ‘gender realignment’ operations for their ambiguous-looking children? Interestingly Columbia is one of the few countries where this is illegal, in recognition of the child’s right to self-designation.

There may be some surprises for some, for example that Muslim societies have historically been far more tolerant of diversity than Christian ones. Also, Judaism is not monolithic. Some Cabbalists have seen homosexuality as an attempt top restore the original androgyny of Adam and, thus, the image of God in human beings. One of my heroes, Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, prophetically, that by oppressing sexual minorities, ‘We make them doubt that they too are children of God – and that must nearly be the ultimate blasphemy.’ Puritans who make a fuss about their right to wear a cross at work, who feel they are being persecuted, who tut tut at swear words, take note.

This is a matter of life and death for many, not just a fashionable cause, and the book includes a useful list of political and campaigning groups and an up to date guide to laws around the world about the age of consent and the laws which affect sexual minorities.

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The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Some of us knew little about the Iliad and were apprehensive when this book was chosen but we were pleasantly surprised at this moving, well-written story by an author who took ten years to write this, her first novel. One said, ‘I couldn’t put it down.’ Another, that she is a better writer than Mary Renault. (Though the trite phrase’ I am sorry for your loss’ leaps off the page as out of keeping.

The author is primarily an historian so the novel is straightforwardly linear with no modern gimmicks such as flashbacks: a period novel without heavy encumbrances which gives a feeling of what it would be like to be a Bronze Age warrior (and what is like to be a woman, of low status, disposable.)

The first part appeals to those gay men who like coming of age stories, with gradual self-discovery, a feeling of being ‘different’ ands tender, exploratory sex scenes, though this woman writer is a bit coy when it comes to describing ‘the action.’

Some found the interventions by the gods somewhat strange, though in our largely secular society, there are plenty of superstitious people who believe in similar things. The gods are, however, amoral and it is the narrator and gay man, Patroclus, who is the moral one and the healer (cf the shaman in other societies).

Some of us found it odd that Patroclus continues to narrate after his death while others viewed the whole story as having been told by the spirit of Patroclus.

Others wondered about the absence of Achilles’’ heel, though the author points out that, “There is no such thing as a definitive Greek myth.  Examine the tales of any hero and you will find at least half a dozen variations.

“Achilles’ most famous myth—his fatally vulnerable heel—is actually a very late story.  Our earliest account of it is by a Roman author, almost a millennium after the Iliad and the Odyssey were first composed.  During those thousand years a number of other stories popped up to explain Achilles’ seeming invincibility, but the Iliad and Odyssey contain the simplest: he wasn’t really invincible, just extraordinarily gifted in battle.  Since the Iliad and Odyssey were my primary inspiration, and since their interpretation seemed more realistic, this was the version I chose to follow.”  (See her study guide at

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