Archive for S-T

On the Move, A Life, by Oliver Sacks

Everyone generally enjoyed On the Move. It was good to read a biography of someone who lived life to the full, with an added fascination that the stories were all true. Some comments:

  • Sacks was a one-off — an important man in his field.
  • Admiration for range of his interests and experiences: made me think ‘what have I done with my life!’
  • Driven by compulsions, and this was overwhelming. He was obsessive about many things: e.g. body building and drugs
  • Amazing that he met so many famous people: that was kick-started by his time at Cambridge, and he has a good head start in life from his impressive parents.
  • Good to read a book about a positive experience of a man coming out in the ’50s, and he was brave to do that — meeting his first partner from an ad in a phone box.
  • He’s somewhere on the Asperger’s scale – he found it hard to empathise with people unless he was in his white doctors’ uniform.
  • Also,  disinhibited about introducing himself to people and maximising any opportunity.
  • Struck by his recall and the amount of detail in the novel. Was that from memory or his compulsive note taking?
  • Sacks didn’t discuss informed consent. He used video  of his patients which would not be allowed today.
  • He was more of a describer than an analyst in his medical career, which may be a reason why he was rejected by the establishment
  • He had lots of brushes with death, but kept on escaping with his life.
  • Didn’t talk down to the reader
  • Is it physically possible to drink 70 cups of coffee in 30 hours?
  • It was a pity he introduced Billy in only a few pages at the end of the book

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Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Colm Toibin

On 23 April 24, 2019 we discussed ‘Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know’ by Colm Toibin. Three essays about the fathers of Oscar Wilde, W.B.Yeats and James Joyce; these were first given as lectures when Toibin was invited to give the Richard Ellman Lectures in Modern Literature at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia in 2017. They were subsequently adapted and heard on BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week.  Ten members attended the meeting.

This is a well researched somewhat academic work, with a lengthy Bibliography, by an author who is a joy to read in both fiction and non-fiction.

It is fair to say that all members who had read this book found it fascinating and enjoyed the many links which Toibin established between each of the subjects and their fathers, including ways in which they surface in their works.

Toibin lives in Dublin, as did each of his subjects during the same period in the late  19th Century. The Introduction is a joyful and sensitive walk around  modern day Dublin, in which the author links each of his subjects to streets, buildings, hotels, churches, libraries, homes and even particular rooms.  

A modern day tourist, armed with these twenty pages of the Introduction as a guide book,  will discover statues, monuments, plaques and many homes and studios where the three authors are commemorated, lived and worked.

It is a literary love letter to Dublin which brings the city vividly to life.

Each of the three authors was, in their different ways, the son of an influential and successful father, but each very different characters.

Sir William Wilde was a famous doctor with many medical papers to his name, as well as procedures named after him. However, he was also a travel writer, historian, biographer and antiquarian.  At age twenty six, he was already a member of the Royal Irish Academy and the British Association and was appointed Census Commissioner for the censuses of 1851,1861 and 1871. Sir William and Lady Wilde were established members respectable Dublin society. In spite of his having fathered three illegitimate children before his marriage, all of who he acknowledged and provided for. Quite an act to follow.

Being more familiar with the works of Oscar Wilde, may partly explain why several members found this the most interesting of the essays. Certainly the alleged misbehaviour of Sir William Wilde and the court case he faced was a fascinating foretaste of the court case which subsequently landed his son Oscar in Reading Gaol.

Yeats’s father was a brilliant and prolific letter writer as well as an impoverished artist who seemed unable to ever actually finish a painting. The story of his self portrait makes fascinating reading. For the last 15 years of his life he lived in New York and was supported by his son.

Opinions varied on this essay which contains long extracts from his letters. One member found it the most interesting, whilst others found the essays on Wilde and Joyce the most fascinating. Several members lamented our lack of knowledge of Yeats’s works.

The final essay, on Joyce’s father demonstrated how Joyce had modelled Simon Dedalus in Ulysses on his father who was a singer, a drinker and a storyteller unable or unwilling to provide for his large family.

Inevitable discussion turned to Oedipus complex.  Each of the three authors despised their fathers is some ways. Did they feel constrained by their them ?    To what extent did each feel the need to compete ? to be different ? to deny or to support ? Clearly each needed to make his own mark in a different way than the father.

Against the background of Dublin society at the turn of the century, issues such as Home Rule, the Anglo-Irish, the behaviour of powerful members of the establishment and the  links between influential families are threads which are constantly present and which help bind these three essays together.

It is a tribute to Toibin’s beautiful writing that following our discussion of this fascinating book, the group then chose another of Toibin’s novels as a future read.

GJB.

 

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Golden Boy – ABIGAIL TARTTELIN

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

This is her second book. It was described as a “dazzling debut” by Oprah’s Book Club. Published in 2013, the book has rapidly been translated into numerous languages and saw the author listed amongst the Evening Standard’s “25 people under 25.

It’s about an intersex teenager and, as such, is rare. There’s a family in crisis, a fascinating exploration of identity, and a coming-of-age story

I now understand why some politicians want more time to spend with their family.

It’s accessible; written in a popular style and I wanted to keep on reading to find out what happened next. It’s written for the mainstream, no for some minority audience.

All families have secrets. The Walker family is good at keeping secrets from the world. They are even better at keeping them from each other. When a childhood friend abuses his trust in a horrific way, the family starts to unravel and, ultimately, seek to try to come to terms with its secrets.

Golden Boy won a 2014 American Library Association ALEX Award for Best Adult Books For Teen Readers and was shortlisted for a LAMBDA award for debut LGBT fiction!

But, after all that football, how did max cope in the changing rooms?

I liked the multiple narrators, seeing the characters through their own eyes and those of other people, and how they appear differently in each.

Tarttelin has described how she explores intersex to look at gender roles, expressing the view that, “I don’t particularly think men and women are very different”. In discussion with Interview Magazine, Tarttelin comments that gender is arbitrary, but “a lot of it is socially constructed”. She is concerned that some mainstream analysis of trans children exhibits a narrow world view and limited expectations of gender roles. Nevertheless, she argues that gender determines “whether you are physically intimidating vs. being physically intimidated”. Interviewed at Goodreads, Tarttelin says, “I could explore gender through the eyes of someone who had no need to define themselves as either male or female, but was pressured to do so by their family and community”. She deliberately placed her protagonist within an “‘average’ community and a loving family”, saying, “I often feel characters with alternative genders and sexualities are treated as outsiders in art, when in fact they are us, and they belong inside our communities. I wanted Golden Boy to take place in a town that readers could see as their own town”.[

 Fundamentally, autonomy is the issue at the heart of this book, rather than intersexuality

I wondered how true to life this was and then discovered that Golden Boy has also been well received by intersex audiences. The director of Intersex Campaign for Equality, describes the book as a “thoroughly engrossing novel with a pioneering perspective … The novel explores heavy, complex these with a disarming wholesomeness that elicits nostalgia for the novels of adolescence, making it a perfect fit for teen readers as well as adults.

Karen, a career-oriented lawyer whose self-conscious attitude especially toward outward appearances and the paranoia of what others may or may not think, compel her to be instinctively unhappy and controlling.

Steven, a moral and understanding father, yet busy lawyer whose active ambition tears him away from the knowledge and experience of his children’s emotional turmoil.

Max, an attractive, intelligent, athletic, obedient, and favoured all-star both amongst his peers and his family, is the center of the story’s narrative and the Golden Boy in which the book is named.

Daniel, Max’s highly intelligent, younger brother is an inquisitive, creative, but often overlooked little boy whose avid love for robots and video games affords him an escape from his mother’s critical eye.

Sylvie, a quirky and independent-thinking, social outcast befriends Max in a special way that essentially shows him a window to acceptance and love.

Hunter, Max’s childhood friend not only knows Max’s secret, but abuses it, which catapults and endangers their relationship to a complex level.

And Archie, a doctor who inherits the knowledge of Max’s crisis who learns to be an active advocate on his behalf and possibly others like him.

Interview with Author:

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis https://zaraalexis.wordpress.com/2013/05/21/book-review-and-author-interview-the-golden-boy-by-abigail-tarttelin/

  1. The subject of gender is a complicated one. What made you decide to write a book about the intersex experience?

I was thinking more than ever about how living as one gender or another defines us, and I began to believe that the differences between us are less biological and more to do with how we are treated by each other, and what treatment we accept. Having seen XXY in 2009, an Argentinian film featuring an intersex protagonist, I began to wonder how someone who was brought up as a male might feel to suddenly find their body insisting on their womanhood, and if approaching questions about gender from this perspective could highlight how gender makes a huge difference in our experience of the world, particularly in terms of our physical vulnerability and social expectations of how we should behave. In researching intersexuality, I came to understand that conditions that weren’t life threatening were being treated as such. I was particularly perturbed by statistics and stories about the loss of fertility and sensation experienced by individuals following operations on intersex children, and the parallel between this and the way women today disregard their own comfort to perform painful rituals to maintain their beauty and acceptability in society.

  1. What do you think is most challenging personally and socially for an individual who is intersex?

Society’s preconceptions and constructions surrounding gender force intersex individuals to make choices for the benefit of acceptance and not their physical health. In the case of Golden Boy, Max feels so much pressure from so many people to conform to these standards, but these standards are arbitrary and Max is a healthy individual. I do think standards are changing, and on blogs like Tumblr, there are certain courageous young people choosing or inventing their own gender labels, or deciding not to label themselves at all.

  1. How can people help in better supporting an individual who is intersex to ease those challenges?

Finding an online community like Tumblr where people can explore how to be, while remaining as anonymous as they like, could be really helpful in the case of intersex individuals. I think meeting people of any  ‘non-binary’ gender identity would help to realise that they are plenty of ‘different’ people in the world, and at the same time aiming to break down stereotypical gender roles within your community and household, so that there weren’t these strange, arbitrary lines drawn between us, would be beneficial to intersex people as well as women, men and LGBTQIA people in general.

  1. Do you think gender is more influenced by genetics, or an individual’s environment, or both?

I do strongly believe in genetic determinism, which is to say that the genes of an individual, along with environmental factors, determine the physical and behavioural development of an individual. I think more of our behaviour than we know can be attributed to our instinctive need to contribute to the evolution of our species, whether that behaviour be our urge to create art, or argue, or fall in love with a member of the same gender. When it comes to gender, aspects of our genetics, particularly our sex chromosomes, are significant factors in our development, but ‘gender’ itself is a human invention, a word we use to define the difficult to define, the in flux, the strange and unknowable. Like ‘gay’, ‘straight’ or ‘bi’, ‘woman’, ‘man’ and ‘intersex’ are finite terms human beings use to describe things that are not truly finite.

  1. The character, Max, in your book wasn’t told the details of his intersex genetic makeup, nor was his intersex spoken about or addressed by his family, and this seemed to be a crucial mistake in raising him since he had to deal with many unanswered questions about his gender growing up. How does a parent of a child who is intersex raise him/her in a healthy environment without imposing gender upon his/her child until which point the child may identify him/herself as a boy, girl, both, or neither?

To be honest, I think parents of children of all genders – intersex, female, male etc. – should attempt to bring them up neutrally with regards to gender. This is such a hard thing to do, particularly when there are many outside influences on children, and I applaud any parent who is making that really courageous and fairly self-sacrificial attempt. I think it’s important to read up on the subject to make yourself aware of how, for instance, toys are marketed in a gender-specific way, or girls are expected to be less rambunctious than male children, and how meek or fearful behaviour in a boy is often punished, but accepted in a girl. I’m currently reading Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind the Sex Differences by Cordelia Fine.

***

  1. You included statistics on intersex in your book. What is the ratio of individuals in the UK/Canada who identify themselves as men? As women?

I am not personally aware of a study that demonstrates the ratio of individuals who identify as male or female in Canada or the States. But if you find one, I’d love to be!

  1. Can babies who are conceived by individuals who are intersex, come to full-term and survive?

Not in every circumstance, but sometimes yes. For years intersex individuals were widely regarded as infertile by the medical community but, although certain conditions like CAH require immediate treatment to save the life of the baby, it is now known that intersex individuals can be fertile and thought that infertility in the past might have often been due to operations on the genitals at birth.

  1. Is it more likely for an individual who is intersex to have a baby who is also intersex?

Not that I’m aware. The rate of certain conditions is higher in some populations than others, but certainly not every intersex condition is passed down from a parent. As I understand it from my research, it is more likely for an intersex baby to be born to a female-male parental partnership, and for a female or male baby to be born from an intersex parent, than the alternative.

  1. Of all the characters in your book, who is your favourite one? Your least favourite one? Which character in your book was your favourite one to write?

Max is my favourite, but I’m very fond of Sylvie too. They are both heroes in my book. The Daniel/Max scenes were probably the most fun to write, but Max was certainly the most interesting character to be inside. I don’t hate anybody in the book, I try to present all characters – even the ‘bad guys’ – ambiguously.

  1. Of all the characters you have created, who do you believe is most like you?

There are aspects of me in every character in Golden Boy, but I’m probably most like Max and Sylvie. A little less bold than Sylvie, and a little more insistent than Max.

  1. What first inspired you to become a writer?

Everything inspires me to write. Writing is a compulsion for me and I can’t stop!

  1. Who are your favourite authors? Which authors do you think have greatly influenced your work?

When I was sixteen or seventeen, my English teacher gave me a copy of The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan, and I realised that I could write about anything, literally anything. Until then I had just read the classics, and although I love them, they didn’t show me that contemporary culture was an acceptable topic for a novel. I don’t have specific favourite authors, but one of my favourite books is The Good Women of China by Xinran.

***

  1. What are your top three favourite books?

I couldn’t choose three! I think the point of books is to read hundreds. Three of my favourites are The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson, The Women’s Room by Marilyn French and Just Kids by Patti Smith.

***

  1. What book are you reading right now?

Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani. It’s phenomenal, and because we share the same US and UK editors, I know Sahar and she is SO lovely, so for both these reasons, I recommend people read her book.

***

  1. What does your working schedule look like? What is your writing process like?

Right now it’s crazy, because we are in the run up to publication and at the London Book Fair so I am getting my website up, meeting my publishers, doing reading events – which I love! When I am writing, I switch that world off. When I am beginning a novel, the writing comes in dribs and drabs. When I reach 21,000 words (my tipping point), I run away from society and write for five to six hours non-stop every day to get the first draft done. Usually this takes about a month.

  1. What are you working on right now? If you’re working on a second novel, can you tell us a little bit about it?

My second novel has to be in to my publishers in a year. I have a few ideas but I haven’t begun to write them yet! I am looking forward to touring the US and Canada and making notes about the different places I go to. I think that might get me inspired!

  1. What are some techniques you use to combat writer’s block?

I think you just have to ease up on yourself and not be mean to yourself! I can push myself too hard, where the best writing comes instinctively. The best thing to do is to get out into the world and live your life – that’s the really inspiring stuff.

  1. What do you like to snack on when you read or write?

Sometimes to keep myself going I get jelly babies. It doesn’t help, but my Mum always gets them when she needs a bit of a sugar rush and I’ve picked up the habit just because it reminds me of her! I tend to neglect food when I’m writing because I get too distracted by it’s yumminess, but I always think a big, hearty meal after a good writing session is needed, because it does take a lot of energy! I like a nice beef burger and fries!

***

  1. What kind of music do you enjoy listening to when you’re working on a novel?

Usually nothing, but I do like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and if maps was playing over and over in the background, I think I could write. I listen to The National a lot but that makes me get up and dance too often.

Yeah, for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs!

***

  1. Which is your favourite genre to read? To write?

To read: literary fiction, whatever that means. I like a book to be lusciously written, with beautiful prose and words I don’t know. I like to get to know a character and learn something meaningful about life. I don’t really read thrillers that often, unless they are the quiet, intense, character led kind. I think I’m still finding my voice in terms of writing. I enjoy writing in the first person, and I hope my use of language will continue to develop.

  1. What’s your favourite saying or quote?

“Worry is like a rocking chair, gives you something to do but it doesn’t get you anywhere.”

That’s from Van Wilder, Party Liaison.

  1. You’re house is on fire! What three things would you take with you before escaping the smoke and the flames?

Laptop, humans (includes one teddy bear), hard drive.

  1. If you could have dinner with three people at the same time, who would they be and why?

My Mum, my Dad and my brother. It would be hilarious.

  1. If you could describe yourself in only three words, what words would you use?

Cheerful, hopeful and interested.

  1. What do you enjoy most about creative writing?

A lack of boundaries.

  1. What’s the best advice you can give someone who’s an aspiring writer?

Don’t throw everything else away. Live your life out in the world too, because a writer’s words are only as good as their inspiration.

Thanks, Abigail, for taking the time to share a little bit about yourself and your thoughts on your new novel, The Golden Boy! It was certainly a pleasure to read the book and to get to know you through this interview. Congratulations on your publication and the best of success for your next project! – Zara

***

Quotations:

“I guess you’d maybe be under this category?” I say, pointing to ‘Not XX and not XY.’
“I guess so. Wow. One in one thousand, six hundred and sixty-six births. That’s a lot.”
….”Though, I had an oveotestis when I was born, and it says here that’s one in eighty-three thousand.”
“…What’s an ovotestis?”
“Um…where you have tissue of both an ovary and a testes in the same gonad.”

“absorbed your twin in the womb, giving you both your own female genitalia and his male genitalia.”

You’re in Sylvie’s bedroom, says my brain.
Yup
Are you gonna do it with her?
No, how can I?
Oh, go on. You want to bury your face in her hair so bad. What’s the worst that could happen.”

“due to societal pressure to be normal and fear of differences, being intersex may just ruin their life.”

“I don’t get what the difference is between a girlfriend and a friend who is a girl. Max has said things about them being attractive, but is that the only difference?”

 Now I’m too tired and scared to say anything positive, to be proud of who I am, to be a good big brother to Daniel, to be anything but indifferent. I don’t believe in anything I used to believe in anymore. Growing up, you believe the friends you have are good people, you believe your parents are always right, you believe that when the hard times come, you’ll know what to do, you’ll get through it, you’ll be the hero.

But then the bad things happen and everybody lets every­body else down. And you realise that old friends can be bad people. Your mum and dad can’t fix everything. You’re not the hero you thought you were. It was just that you hadn’t had anything that difficult to deal with yet, so you didn’t know that you were really the coward. That you were really weak. No. I don’t believe in the things I used to believe anymore.

I already have apathy about everything surface-deep, and everything deeper is changing for the worse and it’s my fault: Mum, Dad, Sylvie, Daniel, all of it. I used to think I wasn’t trying at all to be the best brother, the best son, the best footballer, the best friend. Now I realise I was trying really /hard. I’m starting to understand that attempting to be perfect has been the goal of my life. Our lives. Attempting to be this fault-free, smiling person in this loving, happy family that fits so perfectly in this pretty, inoffensive little town. What was so bad about that goal, after all? Only that I couldn’t do it. That I let everybody down. I’ve been so down about it, so depressed thinking about all the balls I was trying to juggle that I’ve dropped, and now the cogs are turning towards total apathy about it all, everything, and all I can think is that I am a shell of a human being. I’m a pushover. I’m to blame.

It’s not Hunter’s fault that I didn’t push him off me, and it’s not Mum’s fault that I didn’t stop the abortion before that last second. I guess I wouldn’t have kept it, but I can’t help thinking that I might have, if things were a little different, because I’ve spent so much time recently thinking about it and feeling sorry for it, and crying over it. Because it wasn’t the poor baby’s fault how it was conceived, no more than it’s my fault that I’m intersex.

But it is my fault, how I’ve reacted to my diagnosis, how I’ve dealt with it. Who I’ve become.

It was my turn to make the hard decisions. I had to count on me and me alone to hold my life and my family together. But I let all the voices get too loud and I didn’t listen to my own voice, that central thing at the heart of me that was beating like a drum, insistent, like falling rain on a window, saying that I should stop, give myself time, that I shouldn’t just do what everyone else said, that I should fight back and be who I am rather than who everybody else wanted me to be. I’m not the hero boyfriend Sylvie deserves. I’m not the hero big brother Daniel needs. I’m not the perfect son my parents wanted. I’m not the champion, or the parent the baby needed.

Dealing with trans individuals in the clinic did not prepare me for dealing with Max, because being one gender and wanting to be another is a completely different thing, perhaps even the opposite, of feel­ing, as perhaps Max does, OK as you are, but forced to choose. As a doctor, most of the health issues we work with involve a clear-cut right or wrong way to be. It is not OK to be obese, it is not OK to have cancer, it is not OK to eat sugar all the time. Many moral issues are the same: it is wrong to be racist, it is wrong to pay men more than women for the same job, it is wrong to murder. Perhaps this is why intersexuality is so controversial. The ‘norm’ is to have two separate genders, and when someone presents as different from the norm, we think they are ‘wrong’, we call their condition a ‘disorder’. But how detrimental is intersexuality, really, to a person’s life?

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Infidels by Abdellah Taïa

Taïa, a Moroccan expat living in Paris since 1998, has published eight novels in French, and has adapted one of these, Salvation Army, for the screen. As one of only a few openly gay Arab writers, Taïa occupies a unique cultural and political perspective. While Taïa embraces the secular values of France, values that have allowed him to live freely, legally, as a gay Muslim man, his writing expresses a critical relationship to both his adopted land and his original home.

Set primarily in Morocco at the tail end of the twentieth century, Infidels follows Jallal, the gay son of a prostitute, Silma, from his childhood to his death. Silma is the daughter of Saâdia Tadlauoi, an introductrice––a woman who assists couples having sex on their wedding night. Saâdia makes sure that blood appears on the sheet of a newlywed couple, no matter what. The social curse of Saâdia’s profession, her public association with sex, follows Silma and Jallal throughout their lives.  It starts with the boy spitting – a memorable opening chapter

Silma works as a prostitute and Jallal himself is forced into sex work, raped by men in the public baths. Silma has a gift with men, passed on from Saâdia, an understanding of desire and intimacy that is foreign to most. Jallal shares in her secrets, and together they also share a love of movies. For the young man, watching television offers a way of seeing the world outside of the oppressive confines of his life.

The most brutal passage of the book comes when Silma is imprisoned by the Government’s secret police. She is tortured horribly and her sexualized punishments mirror the social discrimination and dehumanization she faced for the crime of her intimate knowledge. After her release, she flees the country, but her experiences sharpen her disdain for nationalism. Silma’s final story, of love before death and finding peace in her relationship with God, feels both satisfying and incomplete.

After Silma’s death, Jallal moves to Belgium where, lonely and disconnected from his new surroundings, he meets Mahmoud. Their relationship is positioned as a love affair, though it is never consummated, confined by the blossoming of Jallal’s growing religious devotion. His haphazard shift to extremism at the close of the novel is complicated, a product of his search for love, companionship, and acceptance. His journey reflects a crisis of identity.

We were already familiar with his writing style that uses short and oftentimes simple sentences. The clarity of its written style is like blank verse.

This book is variously travel narrative, poetry and fiction, built as a series of monologues by Jallal’s mother, his grandmother, his stepfather and Marilyn Monroe. Sometimes it’s confusing – who is speaking?

One member of our group found it tedious.

Issues include Islamic fundamentalism, the West’s relationship with its Muslim immigrants, and secularism versus faith.

Physically, the book is beautifully produced. The Sufism, the 99 names of God and the spinning were lyrical – but would a Sufi be an Islamist?

The comparison of explosions to heartbeats was good.

The author: The moment of inspiration for the story dates back to 2000, said Taia, when he accompanied a cousin of his in Brussels to visit a friend who had been hospitalized following an accident. The friend was a Belgian who had converted to Islam, and at the time, said Taia, “we all fell in love with him, he projected a rare form of beauty, of someone who truly has spiritual faith.”

One day, he told himself, he would write about that moment. He created the characters of Slima, the mother, and her son Jallal, in order to be able to describe that moment, back in 2000, when he encountered a moment of purity, in contrast to the confusion about Islam in the West, the growth of religious fundamentalism in Moslem countries, and dogmatic secularism in France that had been developing over the years. Taia said when he created the character of Slima, he had the 8th century Arab Sufi poet and saint, Rabia Al-Adawiya, in mind because of the “inner purity” of both women. Infidels is a complex and multi-layered work that is written a little like poetry, but reading between the lines important questions are asked and contrasts are posed: sociological and political violence (as in Morocco) versus submission, religious freedom versus secularism (in France), Muslim faith versus Islamic terrorism, and violence towards women and feminism.

When he wrote the book, said Taia, it was “as if religious freedom could not exist in France.” With the book he wanted to make a space for his fictitious Islamist who, in most respects would be “against him”, but with whom he also has a few aspects in common. As Taia said in a recent interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Our monsters are like us.”

At twelve years old in Salé, Morocco, Abdellah Taïa touched a high-voltage generator and lay dead for an hour before surprising everyone and breathing again. He defied death and would have to keep doing it: as a lone effeminate youth in his neighborhood, he was a target of sexual violence every day. On one occasion Taïa cites as a turning point, grown men on the street yelled in the night to wake him, threatening rape, and though he lay sandwiched between his mother and seven siblings in a shared bed, no one sheltered him. He is an artist intimate with vulnerability and he is unafraid.

My aunt Massaouda, an ex-prostitute, who used to tell us scary stories in the night. The muezzin calling for the Muslim prayer five times a day, that’s something I always find beautiful, inspiring, and crazy: a human voice so loud five times in the world. The whispering of naked men’s bodies in the public hammam, a place for marvelous transformations. My silent tears, during many many years, when Morocco wanted to kill me at the age of thirteen by deciding to make me a sexual object for horny men in the neighborhood. I had to save myself and only cinema was my shelter and my tenderness.

No sooner had I finished this book when I read, in the newspaper The Week: The only surviving suspect from the Paris terror attacks of 13 November 2015 — in which 130 people were killed — has gone on trial in Belgium over the shoot-out with police in Brussels, four months later, that culminated in his arrest. Salah Abdeslam (pictured), 28, a Belgium-born French national of Moroccan descent, refused to answer any questions in court this week, but did give a brief speech in which he insisted that his silence didn’t mean he was guilty. “What I see is that Muslims are treated in the worst possible way,” he said. “There is no presumption of innocence. Judge me, do what you want with me… I am not afraid of you… I put my trust in Allah.”

 Quotations:

I’m perverse. The perverse old woman everyone needs. A bit of a witch. A bit of a doctor. A bit of a whore. The sex specialist. They all came to me for help and they all turned their backs on me. That’s how it goes.

I watched television. That was where I learned to see things more clearly. The connections between people. Evil. Good. Masks. Languages. Illusions.

I change realities, really and truly enter fiction, cross the border, take on other colors.

When you’re old, I’ll still be there for you, though everyone, all the others have cast you out. I’ll talk to God, He will forgive us. God already accepts us as we are. He made us this way. In this condition. In this situation. We accept His decisions. We listen to His voice. You hear Him too, don’t you? Every night, he tells me to watch over you.

Every night, God loves us a little more.

The others crush us, prevent us from seeing the light; more and more, they shut us into a hell they first invented for them­selves. But He, God, Allah, is not them, isn’t like the image they made of Him.

God is in me. He’s also in you. You’re the one who gave me God. I know you also give Him to others, the men who come to our house, sleep at our house, eat with us, get undressed and dressed again at our house.

You see, I’m like you. In misfortune and in power. Divine and orphaned. I’m made of the same stuff as you. I’m in you. In every body. Every night. Every dream . . . I’m human. Extraterrestrial. Everywhere. Nowhere. Man. Woman. Neither one or the other. Beyond all borders. All languages.

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MY CAT YUGOSLAVIA – PAJTIM STATOVCI

MCYPeople in our group were generally glad to have read it. It has fantastic episodes and intense descriptions of one’s inner life.

Here are also some loose ends – whom is the newe lover? How did he get here?

It’s essentially an allegory about identity, love, death, sex, and facing one’s fears, demons, and their past. It goes back and forth from the point of view of son, then mother, son, then mother, and by part 2, you somewhat lose whose voice is telling the rest of the story

It takes a while to work out who everybody is and how they are related to each other.

Despite a childhood history with ophidiophobic nightmares, he buys a boa constrictor and sets it loose in his apartment. The snake takes up residence under his sofa, driving away his few human visitors, and quickly adopts strangely companionable behaviors more befitting a dog than a reptile.

Emine is brought up in a quietly conservative village near the Kosovan capital of Pristina, she was married off to a man whose name, Bajram (“celebration”), belied his fierce temper, and it has taken her decades to pluck up the courage to leave him.

In the 18th and 19th century. British writer and Albanian advocate Edith Durham wrote High Albania in 1909, and described the customs she encountered amongst the Albanians of what is now northern Albania and Kosovo. The language she used to describe Albanians then calls to mind the trope of the noble savage today: men who kill for honour and women who spend their lives in childbirth or domestic servitude.

An urgent longing for love belies Bekim’s inscrutability. We find echoes of that same longing in Emine’s girlhood reminiscences. She is a fiercely intelligent daydreamer at odds with her strict and superstitious father. In one of the novel’s most affecting passages, she realizes that the objective of her education has always been to make her a more suitable wife.

There’s too much stereotyping – no Albanian man in My Cat Yugoslavia, apart from Bekim, is anything other than a rustic bigot, and no Albanian woman is anything other than a besieged housewife. The nuance and care afforded Bekim’s character doesn’t appear to be extended to his countrymen and women. It’s clear that Statovci means to depict the closed, conservative nature of Kosovar Albanian society when he describes Emine being sexually harassed in a marketplace and Bekim’s father beating his family

It’s a literal take on ‘crushing the serpent’s head’ in Christianity, though Islam doesn’t have a serpent in its fall myth.

The snake that Bekim brings into his apartment is both foreign and fear-inducing; most of his days he spends cooped up in a terrarium, just as many of the Kosovans in Finland felt penned in at their reception centres and gawped at when they stepped outside.

The pet serpent becomes a peculiar character in its own right, its reptilian coolness and shedding of skin reflecting Bekim’s progressive loss of his own warmth. The book’s most notable animal, however, is the one in the title: an anthropomorphic talking cat named Yugoslavia, whom Bekim meets at a gay club. The cat quickly charms Bekim, despite sharing so many of the hatreds that torment him: the cat is anti-gay, anti-immigrant, and as selfish and abusive as Bekim’s father. Even so—and much as his mother did, for years, with his father—Bekim caters to Yugoslavia, bringing the cat home and attending to its every need.

Is the cat really aloof or is it afraid of exposing its neediness? There is more than one cat. The first cat talks. The second cat was abandoned, uncared for, unloved in the native country until rescued and restored to health. And finally, there is the black cat in a litter, “just normal, mongrel kittens,” in the author’s words, to distinguish them from the black and white cat who speaks, and the orange cat who doesn’t. The talking cat so full of himself could be the author himself, and the follow-on cats could be those who’d suffered during the war, coming finally to the children, those ‘normal’ integrated ‘mongrels’ who’d adjusted to their new environment in their adopted country and married with locals.

These relationships are as visceral – the boa constrictor’s intimacy crushes, almost asphyxiates – as those of family and home country. War destabilises and mangles identity – “We were vagrants,” Emine says. “We were stuck between the truth and the lies. We no longer knew what was real” – and it’s in these bizarre, intense interactions with animals that the reader gets a feel for the hybrid nature of migrant life.

In his History of Albanian Literature, linguist Robert Elsie describes the Albanian literary canon as lacking in eroticism. I would argue that this has changed over the past two to three decades, as more Albanian women have begun writing about love and sex (and writing novels, period).

Year after year, Kosovo is ranked as one of the most homophobic countries in Europe, which is why we need more protagonists like Bekim to normalise queerness and forms of love divorced from domination

However, somebody knowledgeable has pointed out: Kosovar Albanian characters inexplicably use phrases that belong to the Toske dialect of Albanian, which is not spoken anywhere in Kosovo. Someone else pointed out that those who left kept their language whilst those who stayed developed it.

The author: “When I told people where I come from, instead of interest, I many times received pity.”

This (the cat) unusual relationship, Statovci told me, may represent, for Bekim, “a different kind of love” from the others he has known, “stronger and more powerful, because it has crossed borders and walls. Maybe he thinks that if he can get someone like that to give him love and acceptance, he will be O.K.,” Statovci added. “Maybe he needs to feel that it is possible for people who think in a similar way the cat thinks to see him as more than a refugee or as a gay guy—to fall in love with him.”

Statovci has long been haunted, he told me, by George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” particularly the famous line “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” which Statovci called “a beautiful analogy of the world we live in.” Yugoslavia the cat may also remind readers of Behemoth, the demonic feline in Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita,” who mixes his devilry with charm, though Yugoslavia seems more devil than charmer. And midway through Statovci’s novel Yugoslavia becomes a regular house cat, which Bekim carries around. The novel never explains how or why a talking cat existed or what to make of his disorienting return to ordinariness. Had Bekim imagined Yugoslavia into existence out of desperation? Had something in him shattered, and Yugoslavia emerged? The feline’s shift may contain a cultural metaphor: in Finland, Statovci told me, “cats are domesticated, whereas in Kosovo they are seen as dirty.” But this only says so much. Perhaps, the novel seems to suggest, this is how a mind can break, folding in on itself, elaborate as an origami swan, until it is torn apart.

My Cat Yugoslavia is a work of fiction – from start to finish, but I do make use of some autobiographical elements

I also wanted to show the different levels of discrimination and racism and how integral and automatic it often is, with characters that are guilty of doing it and with characters that are its victims and with characters that first suffer from violence and then act in a violent fashion. Bajram, who himself has suffered from racism, ends up acting racist towards Finns and being more and more violent towards his family. Bekim’s mother, Emine, who loathes working Finnish mothers, ends up landing a job herself. The cat in Bekim’s story is ruthless towards Bekim, at first for no apparent reason, but later on starts showing symptoms of being a victim of bigotry. It’s the saddest thing ever when people who have confronted intolerance and hatred end up being intolerant and hateful, but that’s how it goes. What hatred generates and what it calls upon is hate.

I’m actually just turning in my master’s thesis on animal representations in some selected short stories of Ernest Hemingway and Franz Kafka

MCY 2Quotations:

“Gays. I don’t much like gays… How repulsive. Men’s hands don’t move through the air like that, and men don’t talk the way women talk. And men don’t wear such tight tops and wiggle their bottoms like that – like a prostitute, a whore!”

“When people on the television talked about the disputes between the Albanians and the Serbs, I didn’t bother listening; the news anchor might as well have been speaking in Chinese.” (To suggest Emine would be unaware of the roots of the Albanian-Serb conflict in Kosovo is laughable.)

He starts to use false names, like Michael and John, simply to “avoid the next question, which is, ‘Where are you from?’ ” “It’s one thing to tell someone you are Swedish, German, or English,” Bekim says, “and quite another thing to say you are Turkish or Iranian. It’s only very rarely that someone’s home country is of no significance at all.”

“I noticed the cat across the dance floor”

I had never seen anything so enchanting, so alluring. He was a perfect cat” with gleaming fur and muscular back legs.

Then the cat noticed me; he started smiling at me and I started smiling at him, then he raised his front paw to the top button of his shirt, unbuttoned it, and began walking towards me.”

I didn’t answer. He glanced quickly out of the window where the evening was beginning to darken and turn red. What if I stopped loving him or what if he could no longer bring himself to say it, or what if he fell in love with someone else or got a job on the other side of the world? Anything could happen. He could die.

…“Don’t think too much. That’s your problem.”

He moved his hand on my stomach; his fingertips felt warm and soft and his skin smelled of sliced almonds.

Then I said it too, because it would have been sheer madness not to say those words to a man like that.

only pretty and good at housework, or so I’d been told,

never heard of a single female politician, a female teacher or lawyer.

All of a sudden tanks and soldiers were filling the streets. When Albanians started being systematically removed from their jobs, from positions in hospitals and the police, and when it became impossible to study in Albanian, the situation turned desperate. There was no room in the city to breathe. The caretaker in our apartment building didn’t bother to clean the floors with Albanian residents. The bosses at Bajram’s office were sacked and Serbs were appointed in their place, and eventually Bajram too lost his job. Local authorities gave Serb-owned businesses tax cuts while general taxation for Albanians was increased. Albanians had to study in basements and private apartments, in secret, and teachers caught teaching Albanians were routinely attacked, gas grenades were thrown into civilian apartments, and innocent people were beaten up in the streets.

The air became thick and damp, heavy with the smell of burning, because it was breathed in turn by the desperate and the insane. I worried that I would wake up to find our apartment building on fire or that my children and I would be kidnapped and taken away, that we’d never see one another again. How was it even possible to experience hatred to such a degree that you altogether lost your sense of right and wrong?

When war broke out in Bosnia and we heard about the bru­talities to which the Bosnians were subjected—they were driven out of their homes, their houses were bombed, pregnant women were tortured and raped and taken to concentration camps—I wondered what was happening to this planet. At what point had humans turned into beasts that mauled one another, that held their neighbors’ heads beneath the water?

“What? What did you say about religions?” he interrupted me angrily and slammed his coffee cup on the table.

“Yes, at school the children learn about all different reli­gions,” I said warily and breathed out as calmly as I could.

Bajram hit the table with his fist so hard that coffee spilled from the cup. He stood up and walked over to me. I didn’t dare look at him because I could feel his expression without looking. It was red-hot, like a ceramic burner turned on full.

“Why have you sent our children to a Sunday school?” he asked and hauled me to my feet.

“I haven’t done that,” I tried to assure him. “In schools here they teach children about all religions.”

I tried with all my might to calm him down, to escape the ensuing conversation. “It’s part of their basic education, part of their curriculum,” I said and tried to slip free from his hand.

Bajram looked at me for a moment with that same expres­sion on his face, that bloodthirsty expression, the kind of expres­sion you see only on the face of one who is about to exact the final, ultimate revenge. He held my shoulders with both hands, moved his right arm round my neck, and began to squeeze.

The very next day Bajram marched into the children’s school and forbade the teachers to teach them about religion. Accord­ing to Bajram, the teachers had stammered in response, trying to lie to him, and said that this was an optional course about life philosophy in which the students were encouraged to think about the world and its various phenomena, including religion. At first Bajram had scoffed at them, dug his fingers into his fore­head, and shaken his head as though he had a headache. Then he asked them why he hadn’t been told about this. Its as if you’re trying to steal my children from me, he said.

When he came home he told me how he had shown them what’s what. I couldn’t understand how he seriously imagined he would be able to change their ideas of life by talking to them about Islam. On some level I admired his determination and resolve. He blindly believed in his own world and trusted that his own faith would save him from all imaginable sins for which he feared divine retribution. It wasn’t a bad way to live your life.

The following month Bajrara lost his job. He was genuinely shocked at this—despite the fact that he knew his employers had found out that he had been deviating from the prescribed syl­labus. He had been talking to the.students about Islam and told them their life philosophy classes were a pack of lies.

He had been given two options: he could either resign or he would be fired. Upon realizing the difference between the two and the implications they might have, he took the former option. After this he seemed depressed for a long time because he truly loved his job and had wanted to do it full-time, not just in the afternoons and evenings.

His employment record arrived in the post. Bajram looked at it for a while and slipped it into his desk drawer. He took it out again, read it for a moment, then put it back in the drawer. He did this so often that one day, when he had gone out for a walk, I took out the sheet of paper and read it for myself.

Employment terminated at the employee’s behest due to dis­agreement over interpretation of the school’s aims and values regarding equality.

That’s what it said.

At times it seemed as though what we saw on television couldn’t really be happening. It was a mirage, an unreal reflec­tion of unreal events. But it was all truly happening, the lives of every single one of those people had ended, and I felt like a coward for refusing to die in the conflict. We will all die one day, I thought, and there will be nothing left of us. Wouldn’t it be nobler to die back home rather than to run away? To die in battle rather than of old age?

When the news reported the events in Ratak on January is, 1999, we began to question the existence of God. What had that woman, gunned down, ever done to the Serbs? What had that child done, what had those desperate men done, men who real­ized their village was surrounded by Serb troops? And when those men saw the soldiers shooting randomly at innocent peo­ple, where was God then? Where was he? When men who had been captured were suddenly told, Run away, and when those men ran away up the hill only to be cut down halfway there, where was he? And when after this skirmish they showed video footage of an orphaned little boy weeping, what did God do with that child?

I told the woman that I didn’t particularly care for cats either, I am like my son. They are too erratic, too quiet. I said I couldn’t understand why Finnish people kept them as pets because in Kosovo the cat is considered a dirty animal.

She was convinced that this was not about a fear of actual snakes but about things the boy associated with snakes, the images and memories he had of them.

She was convinced that this was not about a fear of actual snakes but about things the boy associated with snakes, the images and memories he had of them.

Bajram showed the imam into the apartment and the imam followed him after taking off his snakeskin shoes and leaving them in the hall. His socks, the same color as his suit, were damp at the toes.

All at once my cat started hissing. It had walked to the edge of the boulder, its teeth bared, and began to hiss at something moving around in the long grass below us. The cat was lean­ing forward—it looked almost as though it might topple off the edge of the boulder. Its fur had become bristled and restless, and its sharp shoulders stood unnaturally high and its mouth opened and now looked extraordinarily large compared to the rest of its body…..The snake was plump and must have been about a yard long. It was clearly a sand viper, Vipera ammodytes, the most poisonous viper in Europe.

“Wipe it away and you’re dead, they said, wipe it and you’re dead, you fucking parasite refugee.”

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The Sins of the Cities of the Plain by Jack Saul

Written 12 years before Teleny, The Sins of the Cities of the Plain purports to be the memoirs of Jack Saul, a young rentboy or “Mary-Ann”. In the book Saul is picked up on the street by a Mr. Cambon. After they have dinner, Chambon invites Saul to recount his life story.

While some have accepted it as a genuine account, it is more likely to be an early form of the non-fiction novel. It is certainly pornography and even praises pederasty.

John Saul, also known as Dublin Jack, certainly existed. Although he managed to by-pass involvement in the trial of Fanny and Stella, he featured in two of the other major gay sex scandals of the Victorian era, the Dublin Castle and Cleveland Street affairs. The Cleveland Street scandal involved telegraph boys engaging in extra-curricular activities and at one of the ensuing trials in which the Earl of Euston sued a newspaper editor for libel, Jack’s testimony against his lordship was so frank as to be deemed “not fit to print” by the Times. Not surprisingly the jury preferred the word of a peer of the realm over that of a self-confessed and very cocky rentboy and the editor got jailed. Jack was lucky to escape prosecution himself but perhaps this was because he knew too much about the sexual peccadilloes of those in high places. In his memoirs Jack seems to be having a whale of a time relieving toffs and aristos of £50 notes and enjoying a champagne lifestyle. But his testimony at the Cleveland Street trial, which took place about ten years after the publication of Sins, suggests a somewhat harsher reality – £8 from his punters in a good week and at the time of the trial a mere ten shillings a week pocket money from a detective agency (presumably for agreeing to spill the beans about Lord Euston) which he was sending to his mum in Ireland. By then Jack would have been about 36 and was perhaps starting to lose his boyish looks.

Gamahuche = To perform oral sex, especially cunnilingus

Quotations:

it appeared as if a tremendous length of sausage had been stuffed down along the thigh of his right leg’ and ‘was it natural or made up by some artificial means?’

“ready for a lark with a free gentleman at any time.”

“On 19 August, the police burst into a house at 2 Howland Street just off the Tottenham Court Road, hoping to find George Daniel Veck. The self-proclaimed Reverend gentleman was not at home, but his ‘secretary’, seventeen-year-old George Barber, was lying in bed. Interrogated, Barber said that his employer was in Portsmouth, where Veck had probably been visiting his family. The police went to Waterloo Station and arrested Veck when he came off the train.

In his possession were various documents including letters from Algernon Allies, asking for money and mentioning a ‘Mr Brown’. This was the youth whom Lord Arthur Somerset had taken under his wing after the burglary at his club (or at the residence of Lord Colville of Culross, whichever one prefers) and put up at 19 Cleveland Street. Allies was much addicted to writing letters asking for money.”

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The Farm by Tom Rob Smith

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

Crime readers are on such friendly terms that they conflate books from Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland under the banner of “Scandi”. The author gained some fame in the UK with his TV series London Spy.

Daniel believed that his parents were enjoying a peaceful retirement on a remote farm in Sweden, the country of his mother’s birth. But with a single phone call, everything changes.

Your mother… she’s not well, his father tells him. She’s been imagining things – terrible, terrible things.In fact, she has been committed to a mental hospital.

Before Daniel can board a plane to Sweden, his mother calls: Everything that man has told you is a lie. I’m not mad… I need the police… Meet me at Heathrow.

Presented with a horrific crime, a conspiracy that implicates his own father, Daniel must examine the evidence and decide: who is telling the truth, his mother or his father? And he has secrets of his own that for too long he has kept hidden…

The picturesque but boring village ringed by isolated farms; a district dominated by a strong but taciturn patriarch; the disappearance of a vulnerable young woman, which is uncovered by an unreliable female investigator; the veneer of respectability that readers soon begin to suspect masks something rotten in the state of Scandi. But Smith, whose mother is Swedish, is playing a long game. The world he has created may initially appear full of enjoyably restful conventions, but any cliches in The Farm exist to wrongfoot us. This is a neatly plotted book full of stories within stories, which gradually unravel to confound our expectations.

The great bulk of the book is a two-hander between Daniel and Tilde as she sets out the evidence for her claims. It becomes a sort of therapy session: Daniel listens patiently as his mother brings forth notes and exhibits to back up her claims.

We hear very little about Dan’s partner.

In real life: Smith’s parents had retired from their careers as antique dealers in London to live on a farm in Sweden. As far as Smith knew, all was going well until the day his father phoned to tell him he suspected his mum was mentally ill. Hours later, she arrived in Britain.

‘She was slightly more animated than usual,’ recalls Smith, ‘but she would have been if she really had gone through a terrible conspiracy as she claimed. Otherwise she seemed normal. I was bewildered.’

Quotations:

I’m sure your father has spoken to you. Everything that man has told you is a lie. I’m not mad. I don’t need a doctor. I need the police. I’m about to board a flight to London. Meet me at Heathrow.

 

“In the service station …I washed my face with a dollop of pungent pink soap from the dispenser, straightening my hair, taming the wild strands.”.

 

“I was seated next to Mark, who was seated beside my dad, seated beside Anders, the four of us side-by-side…

If you refuse to believe me, I will no longer consider you my son…

“You mistrust that word?

Villain.

You think it sounds unreal?

Villains are real. They walk among us. … ”

“Here’s the crucial point. As the fact of isolation sinks into our consciousness we change, not at first but slowly, gradually, until we accept it as the norm. … It alters our notions of how we should behave, of what is acceptable, and most important of all, what we can get away with.”

 

“It was increasingly apparent that the way in which I listened to her story changed the story itself, and I reaffirmed my intention to present a neutral front, giving little away.”

 

“Do I even know my parents? My fondness for them had drifted into a form of neglect.”

 

“…Except when I was alone. I’d hate myself. It’s how we feel about ourselves when we’re alone that must guide our decisions.”
“Let me quickly remind you that the allegation of being mentally incapable is a tried and tested method of silencing women dating back hundreds of years, a weapon to discredit us when we fought against abuses and stood up to authority.”
“Standing at the point where these photographs were taken, you’re immersed in the most unbelievable quiet. It’s like being at the bottom of the sea except instead of a rusted shipwreck there’s an ancient farmhouse. Even the thoughts in my head sounded loud, and sometimes I found my heart beating hard for no reason except as a reaction against the silence.”
“I’d mistaken familiarity for insight and equated hours spent together as a measure of understanding.”
“cycling down the road. Her movements were erratic, almost out of control, pedaling at alarming speed as though she were being chased. As she passed the gate, I caught sight of her face. She’d been”
“You crave security, Daniel. You always have. Let me tell you. There is none. A great friendship can be swept aside in an evening, a lover changed into an enemy with a single admission.”
Children rot when they’re indulged in too much love.

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