Archive for January, 2013

In One Person John Irving

IOPI enjoyed A Prayer for Owen Meaney but found that this book had many similar themes: a private school setting, a boy with pronunciation difficulties and wresting. Indeed, the narrator of this story is also a writer who is accused of writing about the same themes repeatedly.

The narrator’s teenage sexuality is realistically portrayed: fumbling with a girl and fancying bullies. So too is his desire for knowledge yet he is prone to gaffes, such as not knowing that James Baldwin was black.

He is, however, obsessive, for example about who told a particular story, like someone four years younger and about a ‘training bra’.

He makes some profound statements such as, ‘we are formed by what we desire.’ and “We already are who we are.”

There is the occasional nice turn of phrase, for example arrested development is described as bugs in amber.

However, there are some odd expressions for an American: ‘pissed off’ tends to be English. I thought Americans simply said ‘pissed’

The helpfulness of the librarian reminded me of Jeanette Winterson’s story, and the geekiness of librarians who see books as collectibles rather than as things to ponder is evident in her statement that is was a waste of time rereading any book when there are so many other books.

I didn’t like much that followed the introduction of AIDS to this book – I have previously avoided books that deal with it.

Members of our book group had mixed feelings about this book. Most didn’t like it, for example: ‘It was the opposite of a page-turner.’ ‘Two-thirds of it was a page-turner but he lost his way.’ ‘I liked his quirky start but, by the end, I wanted to fill him.’ ‘I enjoyed quite as bit of it but I wished he’d got on with it. It needed a sharper focus. It was repetitious and needed editing.’ ‘I didn’t /couldn’t finish the book- I really HATED it – difficult to put my finger on it- but it seemed lacking in any kind of narrative drive- very rambling. Also just like a long list of activities- like a big “what I did at the weekend” but for a whole lifetime instead? Or rather who I slept with during my lifetime? Didn’t seem to have any feelings or thoughts or “interior life”.  I just couldn’t engage with the narrator or the story.’ ‘Tedious.’ ‘There is more to people than simply labelling them ‘tops’ or ‘bottoms’.

There is something very unrealistic about this book. It is mainly about school and its aftermath. There cannot be that many people who keep in touch with most of their schoolmates throughout their life and hardly meet anybody else.  Nor can there be that many cross dressers in the same cohort.

The people in the book are also very insular. Despite living in a small town, there is nothing about the outside world except for the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Nothing about McCarthyism for example.

Bisexuality needs to be understood more but this book won’t facilitate it.

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The God Box – Alex Sanchez

(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a TGB‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

If you know a teenage boy who is scared to accept that he is gay and who also goes to an evangelical/charismatic/fundamentalist church, then this book would be a great help to him in sorting out what the Bible actually says and about how God is not some sadistic monster who is going to send him to Hell.

Paul, who is really Pablo, is from Mexico but he desperately wants to fit in with the ‘jocks’ in his school. He has a girlfriend but this is really a best friend thing with no passion though it serves as a cover for his real feelings which, he is convinced, is ‘a passing phase’. A relative pointedly asks him is he really loves her because, if not, he will hurt her. He is hiding before the ‘no sex before marriage’ rule to avoid any physical contact with her apart from a dutiful peck in the cheek.

He feels very threatened when an out gay Mexican, Manuel, joins his class. He feels that if he befriends him, as the new boy wants, he will be seen as gay by association.

The ‘God box’ of the title is a receptacle into which he puts written prayers. All his prayers seem to have been answered in the affirmative except two: that his mother wouldn’t die (which she did when he was aged twelve) and that he wouldn’t turn out gay.

The school’s bible study group is dominated by fundamentalists: the boys play ‘proof text volleyball’. Speaking about Manuel, some of the girls argue that Jesus accepted everyone as they were, went out of this way to befriend the marginalised and was non-judgmental. The boys insist, however, that whilst Jesus accepted people, he expected them to change their sinful ways. The biggest argument happens when Manuel turns up and the leader decides to abandon the prepared topic, the Sermon on the Mount, and studies Sodom and Gomorrah instead. Manuel quickly counters the homophobia of the group leadership by asking some very troubling questions about the text, suggesting that its meaning is very different from the way it is interpreted by fundamentalists. Paul goes home and starts to look up cross references and discovers that other mentions of Sodom in the bible are all about inhospitality: nothing to do with homosexuality. This is all well and good but I don’t think that even an intelligent teenager would be able to deconstruct biblical interpretation as easily as that in one night or reckon that thee advice to consider historical and cultural context in its writings might also apply to issues of sexuality. For most, it takes a study of biblical criticism at university level or at least a good, plain book written by someone who has. (Paul wants to be a minister but I doubt that his sort of church would send him to a seminary that did such biblical criticism.) I know one student who did coursework on this topic at A’ level (Philosophy and Ethics) who was heavily reliant on the work of Daniel Helminiac (so it came as no surprise when the author cites this book in his epilogue.) but he was exceptional.

In fact, it feels like the Lambda Literary Award-winning author is writing such a book, to deconstruct the bible, and couching it in a story form. But it makes for a very ‘wooden’, didactic story at this point.

Manuel is also a little too clever for his age. Deconstructing the Sodom story by asking if ‘all the men of the city’ wanted to ‘know’ the angels, that must mean that all the men were gay. What about their wives?  And he cites the epistle to the Romans where all things are declared to be ‘clean’ as trumping Old Testament purity laws about sexuality.

There are some authentic touches – as someone who lost a parent during my childhood, I sympathise with Paul’s fear that he might lose his father too, now that his mother has died.

There is also a damning indictment of schooling. The headmaster thinks of a Gay-Straight-Alliance cub as immoral. Teachers ignore homophobic comments and even overtly homophobic bullying. Some reviewers have questioned the need for a gay-bashing incident in the novel but it serves to show the serious consequences or schools which ignore the need for a homophobic bullying policy.

The ex-gay movement is exposed for what it is. Its representative’s body language gives away his unhappiness, though I doubt that a seventeen-year-old like Paul would be as good at reading body language as the book suggests. The ex-gay suggests that Paul wouldn’t be beaten up if he gave his ‘life to the Lord.’ Didn’t do much for Jesus, didn’t it?

The pastor thinks he is doing a good job by referring Paul to that movement but lacks insight into people. Pastoring that starts with the bible and not with people as they actually are isn’t true pastoring. When he says that the new ‘club’ at the school is a challenge to Christianity, I thought, so it jolly well should be – to that sort of Christianity anyway.

There are some good phrases, including the best retort I have ever heard to ‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’: ‘Who made Steve then?’ There’s also the ridiculous bumper sticker: ‘The Bible says it I believe it. That settles it.’ Manuel has a good riposte to the ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ cliché: So it’s OK to be left-handed as long as you use your right hand. People talk about ‘walking away from homosexuality’ but can you walk away from yourself? Best of all: “Did Jesus ever say,” Manuel continued, “I have come so that you can live life in a box?’ Or did he say, ‘I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly’?”

The author shares other things with his characters apart from being Mexican, I suspect. How much of this book is semi-autobiographical? All this other books seem to have the same central theme: an out gay who threatens a closet case and a straight jock.

However, it is a moving read that will recapture, for many teenagers anxious about their religion and their sexuality, those strong self-doubts which they have grown out of.

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The Great Cock Hunt- Alex

We have not discussed this in the group but it reminds me why our group TGCHdoesn’t ‘do porn’ at our meetings, though we have joked about it.

I saw what must be one of the most ‘explicit’ American television series, based on this book and was so intrigued that I ordered the book.

The author cannot write to save his life: words like ‘like’, ‘totally’, ‘whatever’, ‘dinner and shit.’

He is very repetitive – he reminds you about people he introduced just three pages ago, just in case you’d forgotten. We are not allowed to forget that most American males are circumcised so we are treated top detailed descriptions of the use of lube; sadly we hear little about condoms – it must be true that younger people take risks where HIV is concerned.

There is very little plot, except for the multiple encounters being loosely pegged around a college reunion, like most porn I suppose: simply a ‘blow by blow’ (literally) account of endless couplings. The author seems to have worked his way through an entire tennis club, and when he isn’t doing anything with someone else then we are treated to his fantasy world.

I have no right to moralise – when I was his age, if I could get as much action as he did I would have gone for it. But to ruin a good friendship with a girl friend because she slept with someone that I wanted – well no – friendship is worth more than a hundred furtive encounters.

There are some funny bits: Lizzie thinks it’s bad for you to breathe in the fumes from the scented candle. “The chemicals are probably really bad for you,” she said in all seriousness as she was preparing to inhale tar and nicotine and countless carcinogens.

And a description of cunnilingus as ‘his carpet cleaning capabilities’ by which ‘he had her popping like popcorn in a furnace and melting like boiling butter in a matter of minutes.’

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