Tag Archives: LGBTQ

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  352

Published:  January 9, 2018

Format:  E-book from Netgalley

 

 

 

 

I absolutely loved this book!  It was incredibly well written and forces the reader to ask important questions of themselves.  It is a wonderful exploration of mortality what comprises a good life or a life well lived.  Most of all, it was simply a delicious read… a book that pulls you in and unravels beautifully.

The premise is that 4 siblings living in New York City in 1969, aged 7,9, 11 and 13, set out to visit a psychic to learn their futures.  They enter her apartment one at a time and are each told the date of their death.  They do not share this information with each until about a decade later when they are all up on the rooftop of their home chatting one night, while home for their father’s funeral.  The only one who does not share his death date is Simon, the youngest, who simply says “young.”  From here, the book tells the story of the life lived by each sibling in chronological order of death dates.  Unbeknownst to them, this marks the last time the four of them are all together.

Simon’s story is first.  Klara, the only family member recognizing that Simon is gay, invites Simon to run away with her to San Francisco the following morning.  Simon does and embraces the freedom to be openly gay, practice ballet and sleep around.    He does enter into a serious relationship with Robert, a handsome dancer.  However, Simon feels that he is not meant to have the life with a career, house and partner.    “If the prophecy is a ball, his belief is its chain;  it is the voice in his head that says Hurry, says Faster, says Run.”   Just when he seems to have accepted that he might deserve love, Simon dies of AIDS before AIDS even has a name.  He has lived life fully and sometimes recklessly.  He has run away from home without finishing high school.  He hasn’t seen any of his family members in all the years he was in San Francisco, aside from Klara.  Has the knowledge of his death date forced him to live recklessly and hard, to take chances?  Or have these things just led to early death?

Klara’s story follows.  Klara, named after her maternal grandmother, has been obsessed with magic from a young age, having looked up admiringly at the life of this woman (her namesake) who had performed the “jaws of life” through Times Square.  It is a death defying act where she would slide from the top of a circus tent to the bottom suspended only from a rope that she holds in her teeth.  Klara begins performing her own act in San Francisco and calls it “The Immortalist.”  Klara ends up marrying Raj and has a daughter.  As Raj takes more and more control over the act and the magic, Klara slips more and more away and into alcohol.  Klara has always believed in the magic.  She begins to believe in the reality of it as well.  She hears Simon and Saul talking to her through raps in the floorboards.  She produces a strawberry during a magic trick that she hadn’t expected herself.  Her magic is her religion.  The reason she practices magic is the same reason a rabbi practices Judaism:  to give people faith.  “Klara has always known she’s meant to be a bridge: between reality and illusion, the present and the past, this world and the next.  She just has to figure out how.”  She feels that she must prove that the old woman’s prophecies were correct.  In taking her own life, does she accomplish this?

Daniel is an atheist because of the old woman.  He feels angry and ashamed.  He has vowed that no one could have so much power over him, whether it’s a person or a deity.  Daniel feels wounded and bitter over the drift of family.  He is married, childless, and recently suspended from his job when he invites Raj and his daughter to visit them over Thanksgiving.  Daniel’s job has been working for the military deciding which men are fit to go into combat.  Daniel and Raj end up fighting bitterly criticizing either other deeply.  He, like Klara, begins drinking more.  He becomes obsessed with old woman as the date of his death approaches.  Upon learning that the FBI has stopped their pursuit of her, he pursues her himself.

Finally, Varya who has been granted the longest life, has devoted her life to her career which focuses on aging and longevity.  Varya worries that her primary motivation is fear.  “Fear that she had no control, that life slipped through one’s fingers no matter what.  Fear that Simon and Klara and Daniel, had, at least, lived in the world, while Varya lived in her research, in her books, in her head.”  She works with primates and part of the research is to show that by restricting  food, the monkeys they will live longer.  The monkeys are stressed, emaciated and now self-harming.  A young journalist, named Luke, has been granted the rare opportunity to interview and follow Varya over the course of a week to learn more about the research in this highly secure facility.  At the end of the week, Luke finally reveals to Varya that he is not a journalist, but works at Sports Basement in retail.  He is her biological son, the one she gave up for adoption after a brief affair with her professor in college.  Varya is forced to re-examine her life.  She connects with Robert, Simon’s parter.  She admits to Gertie the story of the fortune teller.   She finally comes to accept her own mortality.

Intelligent, moving, magical and lovely… there is just so much to enjoy within this book.  The premise is awesome.   The writing is excellent.  This is a book full of characters to love, empathize with and worry about.  It brings up all kinds of questions for the reader, making it an excellent book club book.

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Discuss the title and it’s meaning/s in the novel.  Consider the Immortalists Jews, the Roms, Klara’s act and the characters themselves.  Do the characters wish to be mortal or immortal?
  2. How does knowing the date of their death affect the way they live?
  3. Daniel feels that the woman who gave the children their dates of death should be punished.  Why do you think he feels so strongly about this?   Does he believe her?
  4. Is it human nature to assume we will live a long life until faced with a life threatening diagnosis?  Does not knowing the date of our death confer a certain momentary immortality?
  5. Eddie O’Donoghue is like a thin thread that weaves through the siblings’ stories linking them together in some way.  Discuss the significance of this character and what he adds to the novel.
  6. When Daniel is researching the Roms, he writes down two proverbs: “our language is our strength” and “thoughts have wings.”  Why?
  7. Raj argues that magicians are analysts.  Klara tried to reveal some greater truth through her magic.  Discuss the contrast between these two ideologies, how it affected their marriage and lives.
  8. What is the relationship like between Raj and Ruby?  Does Ruby seem more like her mother or her father?
  9. Ruby develops a closeness with Gertie.  Why do you think she does this?
  10. The children are afraid all their lives to share their visit to the old woman with their mother Gertie.  When Varya finally tells Gertie about the visit, how does she respond?  Did this surprise you?  Do you think that hearing such a prediction in childhood versus adulthood would affect the person differently?  In other words, do you think that because they were children they gave this old woman’s words more credence?
  11. Do you think the old woman’s predictions were accurate or that the siblings’ reactions to the predictions made them accurate?
  12. Would you want to know the date of your death?  Why or why not?
  13. How do you think that knowing the date of your death would affect the way you lived?
  14. The children having grown up in a very religious household each abandoned religion.  Why?
  15. Do you feel that the old woman was doing a magic trick in giving the children their dates of death or was their some real  truth and foresight to her predictions?

Chloe Benjamin’s website

Review by Jean Zimmerman on NPR

LitLovers Discussion Questions

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  564

Published:  September 16, 2014

Format:  E-book

Awards:  Women’s Prize for Fiction Nominee (2015), Specsavers National Book Award Nominee for UK Author of the Year (2014), Walter Scott Prize Nominee (2015), Kirkus Prize Nominee for Fiction (Finalist) (2014), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Historical Fiction (2014) Europese Literatuurprijs Nominee (2015)

 

Wow!  What an incredible book.  Sarah Waters has created a marvelous piece of historical fiction set in England 1922 in a genteel Camberwell neighborhood.  The war has ended.  Many have died, including the protagonist’s two brothers and her father.  Those that returned from the war are disillusioned.  Frances Wray and her mother are left bankrupt by their father who squandered away their money.  They have dismissed the servants and are now taking in boarders.  Frances does all the cleaning and cooking herself, while her mother is out, so that she will not have to watch her daughter stooping to that occupation.

The boarders who become “the paying guests” are a young couple of the clerk class, Mr. and Mrs. Barber (Leonard and Lilian.)  Mr. Barber is talkative and makes Frances uncomfortable with his innuendos.  Mrs. Barber hides herself away at first, but soon she and Frances develop a close friendship.  As they grow closer, Frances divulges to Lilian that she had been in love with a woman, Christina, but was made to put an end to the relationship by her parents.  In a time when London has been devastated by war, the family brought down by multiple deaths and financial ruin, certain societal norms are not to be challenged.

The knowledge that Frances is a lesbian or had a lesbian lover seemingly creates a tension or barrier to their friendship.  Lilian avoids Frances until the night of Lilian’s family party which she had invited Frances to many weeks prior in Mr. Barber’s stead as he had a supper to attend that evening.

At the party, Mrs. Barber dances freely with several gentleman and even with Frances.  After returning home, they find Leonard has been assaulted and is in the kitchen with a bloodied nose and face.  Later that evening, Frances and Lilian return to the kitchen and embark on their steamy sultry love affair making love in the pantry.  The love affair continues and their feelings continue to grow until Leonard is accidentally murdered which is ruled a homicide.  This leads to a coverup, incredible tension, outing of other affairs, and the need for deep secrecy of their own love affair.

This book is amazing on so many levels.  The historical piece seems so spot on and well done.  There was never a point where anything seemed even questionably out of the time period.  I felt as if I were dwelling in London in the 1920s alongside these characters.  The character building and tension that was created were so well done.  I must admit I was getting antsy during the investigation and the trial that seemed to go on for so long, but that was the point.  It keeps you on the edge of your seat.  It keeps me questioning Lillian’s motives while still hoping the romance will last.  This novel would make an excellent independent film with sexy enthralling characters.  It would be amazing!  It is an incredibly written book that I highly recommend to everyone.  The one caveat is that this book can seem to be going very slowly at some points, which didn’t bother me, but might not appeal to some readers.

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What role does domestic work play in this novel?
  2. Discuss the role of class on the characters and their situations.
  3. How has war impacted these characters?
  4. Did you begin to doubt or question Lilian’s motives after Leonard dies?
  5. How do you imagine Lilian and Frances’ relationship will progress now that the trial is over?
  6. What impact did the murder and trial have on their relationship?
  7. Did you suspect Len of cheating?  Why don’t you think Lilian shared this information with Frances?
  8. Frances compares the notes of Lilian to the letters from Christina.  Discuss the similarities and differences.  Why is this important?
  9. Frances’ mother begins to treat Frances differently after Leonard dies.  Why do you think this is? What are her suspicions?
  10. Discuss the perception of lesbianism during this era.  Why was this out of the question for Frances’ parents to accept that she wanted to be with a female?
  11. Frances accuses Lilian of wanting to be admired which Lilian denies.  What do you think?
  12. Before Lilian arrives on the bridge after the trial has ended, Frances contemplates jumping off.  Do you think she was seriously considering suicide?   Why or why not?
  13. What is the significance in the end of Frances and Lilian being united by the words “I can’t?”
  14. There were several instances where Lilian wishes Leonard would die.  Do you think that his death was fully an accident?

 

Review in New York Times by Carol Anshaw

Sarah Waters’ website

Sarah Waters speaks about The Paying Guests in The Guardian

Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  279

Published:  October 20, 2015

Awards:  Stonewall Honor Book for Non-Fiction (2016);  One of New York Times 100 Notable books of 2015;  One of Amazon’s 2015 Best books of the Year: Top 100

Format:  E-book

 

 

I consider myself quite open to LGBT people and the movement for greater recognition and consideration, especially in terms of legal rights.  However, I also went to school at a time when transgender individuals were not coming out as such.  So, in a way, I was uninformed on much of the difficulties faced by transgender individuals and this book changed that for me.  It really opened my eyes to what it means to be transgender.  Being transgender in today’s society is easier than it’s ever been, but that is not saying much.  There are so many inherent biases built into our culture, that it takes a very loving, supportive family, school and community to create a safe environment for transgender children.

This biography does an amazing job of giving an unbiased straightforward approach to the life and struggles of the Maines’ who adopted identical twin boys at birth.  It was clear very early on that one of the twins, Wyatt, was identifying as a girl.  He wore tutus and high heels, played with barbies, and hated his penis.   Wayne and Kelly Maines were very loving parents who did everything they could to honor who their child really was. It took Wayne, an avid hunter and air force veteran, longer to come around to the idea that Wyatt was really a girl, but once he did, he fully embraced it. He became a huge supporter of his daughter and advocate of trangender rights in the public.

Amy Ellis Nutt, a health and science writer at the Washington Post, skillfully offers research, statistics and other information within this biography that provides insight into the history, politics, biology and sociology regarding this complex subject.

The Maines family found tremendous support in some places.  However, Nicole also had to endure the bullying and stalking behavior of a peer that led to her being banned from the girls’ bathroom in grade school.  The Maines family filed a lawsuit which they eventually won in the Maine Supreme Court against the school system in Orono bringing transgender rights movement even further.  This became the first lawsuit granting transgenders the legal right to use the bathroom of their perceived gender, rather than their biological gender.  Maine became the second state (behind California) to have such a law in place.

This is a book that might your perspective. It is a very timely with all the recent legal changes regarding transgender rights.  This book demonstrates the strength an courage of an amazing girl who had an incredible family to support her and together they helped to change the law.  I would recommend this to anyone interested in the subject.  I really think it is an important book for everyone to read, in order to grasp and understand transgenderism better from a historical, biological and most importantly personal point of view. 

 

 

 

Nicole and Jonas Maines

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nicole Maines

 

 

 

The Maines Family

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Discuss Wayne and Kelly’s different approaches to Wyatt’s gender dysphoria.  How does this change with time?
  2. Discuss Jonas’ role in the Maines family.  How does this affect him?
  3. Was your viewpoint regarding transgenders changed or affected by this book?  How?
  4. How do you feel about transgenders transitioning prior to puberty?  Does this seem young to make such a decision or crucial to prevent undergoing puberty and developing as the wrong gender?
  5. What do you forsee as the future for transgenders?
  6. Discuss the bullying that Nicole faced from Jacob?  Why did bullying in this case occur?  Discuss the groups that speak out against transgenders and the reasons they do so.

 

Boston Globe article that made Nicole’s transgender life public in 2011

NPR’s StoryCorp Piece on Nicole Maines

New York Times Review by Jennifer Senior

Review in New York Times by Lisa Miller