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Old 06-15-2020, 12:14 AM   #1
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June Discussion Thread • Chasing Rainbows, The World of Colour

It's time to discuss our book for June, Passing Strange by Ellen Klages.


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San Francisco in 1940 is a haven for the unconventional. Tourists flock to the cities within the city: the Magic City of the World’s Fair on an island created of artifice and illusion; the forbidden city of Chinatown, a separate, alien world of exotic food and nightclubs that offer “authentic” experiences, straight from the pages of the pulps; and the twilight world of forbidden love, where outcasts from conventional society can meet.

Six women find their lives as tangled with each other’s as they are with the city they call home. They discover love and danger on the borders where magic, science, and art intersect.

Inspired by the pulps, film noir, and screwball comedy, Passing Strange is a story as unusual and complex as San Francisco itself from World Fantasy Award winning author Ellen Klages.
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Old 06-15-2020, 04:29 AM   #2
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I first read this about 18 months ago, and at first it had me disconcerted, wishing the author would make up her mind what sort of story it was meant to be. But, by the end I found that that all the elements had wrapped up very neatly.

This second time around I enjoyed more because I was able to settle straight in and just enjoy the characters and the historical detail. I think the novella is a perfect length for the story. I think the title is a perfect match for the story - in all it connotations. And I thought Helen was a perfectly chosen character to reveal the story.

Through Helen, and the other characters' reactions to her, we see that prejudice is multifaceted. Through the array of characters we get to see how the victims of prejudice can become involved in perpetuating the problem - that one way of surviving in such a world is to take whatever advantage of prejudice that you can. And we see them holding together and supporting one another as a community, while even within their own community they were fighting distorted categorisations (femmes and butches etc.). I thought it was a cleverly constructed irony that both Helen and Haskel should be part of perpetuating a distorted view of the Chinese.

These complex interactions helped to make the story feel very real to me, even with its touches of fantasy. It all fit together very well.

On top of that we had some excellent historical fiction describing 1940s San Francisco. And it was all supported by a sweet romance and an entertaining story with a touch of mystery, and a touch of magic that - aside from the folded map thing - was even left open for you to accept or not as you pleased:
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“How do we know it’s not a trick?” Polly looked around. “That they haven’t just scarpered off to parts unknown?”
“We don’t. But if it was misdirection, it was brilliantly done, don’t you think?”

The main thing I would pick on with this story is that I found the booby trap less than convincing. I don't know if anyone here was as stupid as me as a child, but my experience with the suggested substance was painful rather than having the presumed result. (I still remember the burning sensation.) My experience suggests that to get the required result takes rather more subtlety.
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Old 06-15-2020, 06:48 AM   #3
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I did enjoy Passing Strange. I found the part of the story that took place in modern time to be good. I wanted to fond out more about Helen and the painting. Then the story shifted to the past telling us the story.

It was well written and a very enjoyable read. You care about the main characters. You want them to be together. They supported each other even though what they were doing was illegal back then.

The relationships where well done and the magic wasn't the focus I really liked how the magic was used.

There's a lot going on and it all works well.
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Old 06-15-2020, 01:05 PM   #4
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First, I quite enjoyed this book, and enjoyed it even more on a re-read. gmw has several excellent points, which I might get around to addressing later, but for the moment I want to focus on what to some is a bit of a sidetrack -- Treasure Island.

Treasure Island, to anyone who has lived in the SFBay area, is a toxic, radioactive, U.S. Navy dump site. So seeing what it was back in 1939, just before it got closed down and completely taken over by the Navy, was a revelation. And The Gayway? Too funny a name, given both the context of the story, and the changes to San Francisco since. The Wikipedia article on the Golden Gate International Exposition is worth a quick read, as are some of the cited references. I'm indebted to Ms. Klages for opening my eyes to something that I lived next to for 20 years and never knew much about.
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Old 06-15-2020, 08:21 PM   #5
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I hated it.

It started out boring and confusing, with too many characters to try to distinguish. Then it settled down to being Haskel and Emily, and I thought, okay, finally, now where are we going with this story? The answer was nowhere. Then it got to the magic painting nonsense, and I thought, What the ----? I am annoyed and angry at the hours I wasted.

The only redeeming feature was the mention of a variety of familiar song titles; in my head I could hear Sinatra singing Cole Porter, which made me want to dig out my CDs.

The book was heavy on atmosphere, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink as the backdrop, and light on story.

As annoyed as I was by the end, I read the magic painting stuff twice. Still have no idea what the heck was going on and where they were supposed to end up. And I don't care.

Did I mention I hated it?
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Old 06-15-2020, 08:55 PM   #6
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[...] Did I mention I hated it?
Hang on, let me check ... yes. Yes you did.

And I really hate to point this out, but the kitchen sink was in there too, it got a few mentions.

Sorry you didn't like it, but at least it was short so it should not have tied you up for too long.
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Old 06-16-2020, 06:43 AM   #7
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I, like Catlady, did not enjoy this book at all. It was a staggering disappointment to me as a gay reader, but I'll get to that.

Mechanically, the pacing was uneven at best. I felt like the historical accuracy was iffy, at best, and ignored some of the issues that the text itself raised. The characters were very one-note and stereotypical. And it is the stereotypes that drove me absolutely nuts.

Were you brave enough to google lesbian stereotypes, you would get tons of lists on sites as varied as CNN to Jezebel to Glamour Magazine. But almost every list shares these tropes:
  • History of parental abuse
  • History of male partner abusing a woman before she starts dating men
  • Attended college either in California or some incredibly exclusive East Coast women's college
  • Couples move in together immediately after a first date (sometimes known as U-Haul lesbian)

These stereotypes, particularly the first, have haunted gays for years and can be used in incredibly harmful ways against us. And every single one of them was in this novel in a real plot-related way.

You may be saying to yourself, "Well of course there would be parental issues in the 30s and 40s when this behavior was so frowned upon." But the thing is, in the book and in the stereotype, the abuse was unrelated to the child's sexuality. It was just there to create a trauma for the character. This sort of plot device is incredibly harmful because it conveys the underlying notion that a person is not born gay, but rather, is made gay by having a bad thing happen to them. This trope is actually frequently used against gays to demonstrate we are somehow damaged and in need of fixing, not born this way. From the Southern Poverty Law Center:

Quote:
Many anti-gay rights activists claim that homosexuality is a mental disorder caused by some psychological trauma or aberration in childhood. This argument is used to counter the common observation that no one, gay or straight, consciously chooses his or her sexual orientation.
Klages not only gave her protagonist a horrible mother, but she ALSO gave her an abusive male partner.

ETA: In my rush this morning, I did not address the latter two stereotypes - the colleges and the U-Hauls. This notion of educated lesbians being bred at Wellsley, etc., is exclusionary in a big way. It denies the experiences of poor and poorly educated gays and lesbians, particularly those of color. I was particularly bothered by the "oops started sleeping with my college roommate and we got caught" episode. Had I been caught with a woman as a teenager, I would have been either homeless or forced into conversion therapy (which would have been worse). All the women in this story have found their way on their feet somehow and that is just not the reality of it.

The U-Haul stereotype just smacks of desperation. It portrays women who are so desperate for domesticity that they will literally attach themselves to the first eligible candidate. By taking this immediate jump, partners do not actually talk about issues or discover habits that might make co-habitation difficult. It is also just lazy writing. Woman loses home and a woman with space and the financial ability appears and provides a loving home.

Even if I could have gotten past the stereotypes in general, the plot revolving around the need to rid themselves of the big, bad, man in a way that ends in his death was just too much.

I'm just vastly disappointed, and more so because this book got such acclaim.

(I'm not sure there is a way to not toe the water on politics here, so redact whatever you think necessary, issy).

Last edited by astrangerhere; 06-16-2020 at 10:25 AM.
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Old 06-16-2020, 07:04 AM   #8
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(I'm not sure there is a way to not toe the water on politics here, so redact whatever you think necessary, issy).
People are free to discuss political implications in books however they choose. Great post.
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Old 06-16-2020, 10:44 AM   #9
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An interesting perspective, astrangerhere.

I would argue that Haskel's unhappy childhood was offered as an explanation for her art rather than her sexuality, the text seems fairly explicit in this regard. I can understand how offering this sort of plot device can be harmful, but I think there is more context here.

For any author researching plausible backgrounds there is any amount of misery to be found in artist backgrounds. [Omitted various real life examples, I doubt we need them.] That art attracts those with unhappy backgrounds (or foregrounds, for that matter), is a pretty common trope in itself, of course. But my point is that the setting is as much an art and entertainment one as anything else, and so the tropes blur into one another.

Perhaps perhaps arguing that it's an arts trope rather than a lesbian relationship trope isn't all that helpful as regards the book's use of stereotypes, but it's how I read it and it didn't stand out as a problem.

For the rest, I don't read enough LGBT literature to offer comment on what tropes are common. Yes, the sexual involvement seemed overly rushed perhaps, but the book never gave me the sense that either woman was promiscuous (quite the opposite).


Off that subject, this page has some photos of Mona's: Before the Castro: North Beach, a Gay Mecca
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Old 06-16-2020, 11:21 AM   #10
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Sorry you didn't like it, but at least it was short so it should not have tied you up for too long.
Not short enough.

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I was particularly bothered by the "oops started sleeping with my college roommate and we got caught" episode. Had I been caught with a woman as a teenager, I would have been either homeless or forced into conversion therapy (which would have been worse). All the women in this story have found their way on their feet somehow and that is just not the reality of it.
There is a mention of what presumably was conversion therapy:

Quote:
Both were expelled. No time to say goodbye. She was packing when Jilly’s parents came to drive her to the country “for a rest.” A lovely place with green lawns and locked doors and treatments to help Jilly become a suitable wife for the understanding husband they would provide.
Typewriter in one hand, suitcase in the other, Emily boarded a westbound train before her own parents had the chance to decide her future.
On the other side of the stereotypes, I believe all the non-gay characters were portrayed as either bullies (men) or buffoons (women).

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The U-Haul stereotype just smacks of desperation. It portrays women who are so desperate for domesticity that they will literally attach themselves to the first eligible candidate. By taking this immediate jump, partners do not actually talk about issues or discover habits that might make co-habitation difficult. It is also just lazy writing. Woman loses home and a woman with space and the financial ability appears and provides a loving home.
After the immediate cohabitation, I had no sense of how much time had passed before they decided to jump into a painting (or whatever they did) for the rest of their lives. It seemed abrupt, to say the least, for a life-altering decision.

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Even if I could have gotten past the stereotypes in general, the plot revolving around the need to rid themselves of the big, bad, man in a way that ends in his death was just too much.
I would have preferred the story to be about his death and its aftermath; that was the only really dramatic event and it might have been interesting to explore its effects. But then suddenly we go all deus ex machina.
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Old 06-16-2020, 12:30 PM   #11
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There is a mention of what presumably was conversion therapy:
But my point is that she had an out. She was able to grab her typewriter and just land in a new, magical place where it all worked itself out.

Jack being roughed up and taken in by police was the most realistic thing to me, and even that didn't sit well. There was little acknowledgment of the horror that would most certainly have been inflicted on her by male guards when she was sentenced to 6 months. It seemed to be a scene for the sake of itself that did not give it the seriousness it deserved, but rather served to make Emily homeless and in need of Haskel's apartment.
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Old 06-16-2020, 04:47 PM   #12
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But my point is that she had an out. She was able to grab her typewriter and just land in a new, magical place where it all worked itself out.

Jack being roughed up and taken in by police was the most realistic thing to me, and even that didn't sit well. There was little acknowledgment of the horror that would most certainly have been inflicted on her by male guards when she was sentenced to 6 months. It seemed to be a scene for the sake of itself that did not give it the seriousness it deserved, but rather served to make Emily homeless and in need of Haskel's apartment.
Just about everything in the book seemed to skate along on the surface; I never felt an emotional connection to the characters. The abuse Haskel suffered from her mother and her husband didn't resonate for me. Nothing did.
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Old 06-16-2020, 06:47 PM   #13
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I enjoyed the book. I thought it was fun and quite charming. Though it was short, the descritive passages made the setting quite tangible, and appealing to read about. I liked all the characters.

I understand of the critiques, but I saw the book differently, and didn’t find either the gay or straight characters falling into stereotypes.

I didn’t think the scene with the pianist was just a device. It was distressing to read how the cop treated her, and I thought the author intentionally wanted to portray the abuse of power against lesbians in the 40s, and what was in store for her. It was awful to think about.

In terms of the two women, we were told Emily went home alone every night, though she had plenty of offers. Haskel had remained single for years. Emily wasn’t homeless; she just needed a place for the night. They had friends in common, etc., so crashing Haskel’s place seemed reasonable.

The connection between the two women actually began during the performance, before the fight. Emily recognized Haskel, saw how moved she was, and sang directly to her. Was their connection overly rushed? Well, people do hook up sometimes, and they were both young and functionally single. I can remember being young once too, lol, so it seemed plausible to me.

Like gmw, I thought that the childhood abuse was fuel for Haskel’s artwork. It functioned very similarly to the oppression and pain experienced by Kahlo and Rivera.

I didn’t think all the men and and straight people were abusive. Emily’s brother was loving, Rivera was good friend, Helen’s connections were kind, etc. Children, LGBT people and non-whites who have less social power experience more abuse - even more so in the 1940s - so its inclusion in the story seemed realistic to me.

Having a little magic thrown in was fun. Yes, it was cheating, and I usually hate Deus Ex Machina, but in this case it was satisfying. It was so implausible that I enjoyed it - like sticking my tongue out at the abusive and discriminatory laws of the day.

Sorry for being so longwinded. And I hope this doesn’t seem argumentative. I do appreciate the seriousness of stereotypes and can see how this book is open to that critque; I just saw the author’s intent differently.

PS: Just a quick postscript to say the magical escape, and the exploding painting reminded me of the movie “The Sting”.

Last edited by Victoria; 06-16-2020 at 07:01 PM.
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Old 06-16-2020, 08:06 PM   #14
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Jack being roughed up and taken in by police was the most realistic thing to me, and even that didn't sit well. There was little acknowledgment of the horror that would most certainly have been inflicted on her by male guards when she was sentenced to 6 months. It seemed to be a scene for the sake of itself that did not give it the seriousness it deserved, but rather served to make Emily homeless and in need of Haskel's apartment.
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I didn’t think the scene with the pianist was just a device. It was distressing to read how the cop treated her, and I thought the author intentionally wanted to portray the abuse of power against lesbians in the 40s, and what was in store for her. It was awful to think about.
I thought this scene was distressing to read too, as an implied method of assault and humiliation. I think it served both purposes, a convenient plot move for Emily to need a place to stay and historical context. After that scene, I did my own research on the three-article rule and how it was used by police.
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Old 06-17-2020, 09:02 AM   #15
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Join Date: Mar 2008
Location: Nova Scotia Canada
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Quote:
Originally Posted by gmw View Post
On top of that we had some excellent historical fiction describing 1940s San Francisco. And it was all supported by a sweet romance and an entertaining story with a touch of mystery, and a touch of magic that - aside from the folded map thing - was even left open for you to accept or not as you pleased:
.
I really enjoyed the historical portrait aspect as well. As someone who came of age in places like Mona’s a few decades later, I also found her descriptions very accurate and well done. It brought back a lot of fond memories. I was a bit surprised to see so many similarities between California and much small communities in Canada.

Last edited by Victoria; 06-17-2020 at 10:49 AM.
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