Bray’s Blog of Books (Jan-Mar, ’17) . Some book reviews by Errol Bray.

 

errol-bray

Sunday, 16 April 2017 – Having finished last night my SECOND book from the Reading List I’m putting brief notes about them first. TWO books when I usually don’t read any listed books??? Well, this month the genre is SciFi (neither book is at all gay) and that’s what I’m researching right now for my current novel (Oracle: 2121 – watch out for it in about 3-4 years time).

 

Clade by James Bradley. (Penguin/Hamish Hamilton; 2015)

I have to say I disagree with the eminent people and journals who praised this book. What one calls “Thrilling, chilling and riveting” I thought was pretty boring and banal. The dull, steady tone of the writing seemed almost determined to stop me getting excited. And none of the events – even the supposedly sensational bit near the end (which just peters out to …. nothing) – has any pace of excitement or even real danger. Having watched TV reports on that cyclone recently, the flooding was a much more engaging experience than reading this novel. Surely, a novel is supposed to be more than an objective statement of events. There seemed to be no developing story. On page 58 I wrote a note saying that I hadn’t had any real desire to keep reading for about 20 pages and was only doing so out of “duty”. I wrote, “I keep asking when will something interesting happen? So far have never asked ‘Wonder what happens next?’” Yes, it’s very predictable. BUT the actual events aren’t by their nature boring. It’s just the bland way he writes about them. The almost obligatory autistic character had some interest but even that died off in amongst the tedious writing.

 

 

The Fold by Peter Clines. (B/D/W/Y, New York; 2015)

More interesting as a story but incredibly irritating. My interest was roused at first by the idea of folding a map so places are brought close and instant travel is possible. This is how my aliens travelled in a novel I wrote 20-odd years ago (The Eleventh Joke – never published), not that I invented the idea. I read it in a New Scientist mag and then in 1994 the Stargate movie came up with the rings business and the wormholes.

Maybe I missed the comic tone of this book and wanted a more serious approach to the adventure. I was really irritated by the constant smartarse dialogue – a total cliché now in American movies, TV & (apparently) novels. No matter how dangerous or tense the situation the characters can manage to wisecrack – in this book one of them can even manage to say “Fuck me” several hundred times and on numerous occasions the response to that goes something like, “Too busy right now. But later?” I started noting my irritation on page 23 – I rush to point out that I purchased these 2 books so allowed myself to write notes in them. I was impressed that the main guy Mike had such a high/rapid IQ that he had to count to 5 before answering so people wouldn’t think he hadn’t listened or thought about the ideas. (I know people like that!) BUT that was p37 and I got heartily sick of everyone in the damn book doing various counts for various reasons. Mike had about 10 different reasons to do a count. Also later (p189) we are given a little lecture on how all bright people have social problems (US cliché again!). At p145, I pencilled in, “If someone says sorry one more time …” The pace is fairly brisk but I still was annoyed by the constant “cultural” references to TV shows and movies. (Probably part of the jokey, let’s-not-take-this-too-seriously, style of the story-telling.) The number of pointless descriptions of minor – no, totally insignificant – details is annoying because so pointless.

Is it an interesting story? Well, sort of. Towards the end the laying on of mega-huge twists becomes a bit too “horror” rather than SciFi. But the overall tale is again marred by the standard (mostly US) approach – this is an American-male-saves-the-world while breaking all the rules and keeping everyone, even his own team, in the dark. At least Mike does have some special qualities – ultra-photographic memory & Einstein-like IQ – but even though he’s not a he-man type the book still has him wounded to the point of near death at least 3 times while allowing him to carry off amazing physical feats. To be fair, a few other characters do the same thing, including some of the women. And even though none of the team knows what is happening, how it is happening, or how to stop it, they are determined not to seek outside help. When they finally do seek a bit of help it proves inadequate and the team – led by Mike – has to resolve it all themselves. It’s an absolute cinch that the movie will star Bruce Willis as Mike.

Maybe the separate jokes and the whole-book joke just didn’t work on me. Also it seemed weird to me that in 2015 a character would name her cat “Isis” and the characters would use that word as “a safe word” when they go into a dangerous situation (p253). Is that a joke? The appearance of 2 people in black suits at the end of the book offering Mike a job in a mysterious, deeply secret organisation … Is that a joke?

 

 

Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss. (Orion Books, London; 1958, 2000) (another SciFi)

Aldiss is (apparently) one of SciFi’s great story-tellers. I was fascinated by the fact that this novel was written in the late 1950s – in a note he says the 2000 version has “alterations here and there” – because he presents psychology/psychiatry as a religion in the far future period it’s set in. The common greeting from these folks is, “Expansion to your ego, son/sir/madam/ etc.” And the response is “At your expense, friend/father/etc.” Doesn’t entirely make sense to me but I probably don’t know enough about Freud. The story is hard to grasp for quite some time, in fact I gave up after 40 pages and then some months later tried it again and pushed through and felt moderately rewarded. As it takes Aldiss almost half the book before several vital bits of info are released and a further several chapters before the reader has enough data to understand the story and even then a couple of very nice twists near the end, I won’t give anything away.

 

It is published with a cover masthead declaring “SF Masterworks” – so it must be good. And I’m glad I read it though obviously I was a bit slow at realising what was really going on. As well as trotting out “Froyd’s” theories as religion it has a fairly backward view of women’s roles in this futuristic society. Froyd knows what might have happened if any of the characters turned out to be gay.

(NOTE – Aldiss in mid-career wrote a very explicit sexual-blossoming-of-a-young man novel. It’s cover is pornographic. It’s called The Hand-Reared Boy. The adventures are all heterosexual. An Observer reviewer wrote, “So filthy, I read it with the door of my office closed, as if afraid of being caught.”)

 

ADDING TO my Isherwood/Auden collection – with 1,800 pages (in 3 volumes) of CI’s diaries, 10 novels & fictional/biogs, & 2 books about his spiritual life (not to mention the various DVDs relating to “Cabaret” & his life) PLUS 3 books of WH’s poetry & philosophy & his biog, I couldn’t resist buying (on sale) the 670pp biography of Stephen Spender, famous poet who went to Oxford with Auden, and maybe/maybe-not to bed with both of them as one does when one is at Oxbridge in the early twentieth century.  Stephen Spender: A Literary Life by John Sutherland (Oxford Uni Press; 2004.) Although Sutherland is a professor at a couple of impressive universities his writing is very lively and draws you in. He tells a terrific story about life amongst the great writers, great artists, and the famous of Spender’s time (Francis Bacon, Hughes & Plath, Stravinsky, TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, Dylan Thomas, WB Yeats, Gore Vidal, Gide & Camus, etc etc) as well as about Spender’s life and work. If anything the detail is almost too much but the number of fascinating anecdotes makes the long read worthwhile. Part way through this book I found a 2nd hand copy of his Journals (1939-1983; from 30-74) in a bookshop and find it interesting to cross-check it against the huge biog. Interesting that Spender in his journal gives 7 pages to his meeting with the gay spy Guy Burgess in Moscow in 1960, but the biog only gives it a couple of paras.

GAY LIFE – he followed Auden and Isherwood to Berlin “for the boys” and had a busy gay life. At 25 he fell in love with a woman and married her while still on with his gay lover who went off to the Spanish civil war. Spender had to rescue him. Divorce came soon after. Later (1941) he married again and stayed married until his death (1995). He had two children.  His daughter married Barry Humphries who became close friends with Spencer. He was eventually knighted and lived until 85. Even near to his death a critic of Spender referred to him – “… as a nut, a pimp, a homosexual, and a woefully imperceptive husband.”

A fascinating historical view of the 20th Century through the life of one man.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Hard by Wayne Hoffman (2006) A Review by John Cook

hard

You can update on Hoffman at http://www.waynehoffmanwriter.com/ and listen to an interview at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=We1e_WkcEV0 (oddly enough with an American Pilipino, given the role of another prettier in ‘Hard’). This book was written in 2006 about New York gays in the 1990’s with certain lifestyles and issues highlighted. It is now between 11 and 20 years since those times and some things change and some don’t. The young (26) man becoming a bear is now confirmed in that variety and is now married (obviously to his male partner) while his latest book  ‘An Older Man’ (2015) is more reflective of contemporary times.

 

As a period piece, I found enough to enjoy here. The tone is very much in the mode established by Larry Kramer’s ‘Faggots’ and revisited regularly by authors like Edmund White and a stable of others. I found the balance of sex (plenty of it and quite explicit – not a read for your Nana), contemporary politics and sex issues, characterization and narrative a bit out of balance.

 

I found it a little difficult to keep track of the characters and their interactions though this eased a little with time. The two clearest characters are Moe, the 26 year old ‘best cock-sucker’ in Manhattan who essentially narrates and is a central figure in the newspaper showdown as a writer/author/would-be academic and Frank de Soto the wealthier misdirected crusader wounded by the early phases of the AIDS years into a kind of blind single-minded opposition. His behavior in slyly removing a condom mid f***k was, for me, one of the few key interesting moments as Hoffman strove to explain the behavior. I thought it linked well with the central issues of the emergence of ‘undetectables’ and the decision some gay men had to confront with regard to serodiscordant partnerings under some conditions and the kind of confusions that still rein in some minds.

 

Understandably enough, marriage is a non-issue though ironically, as indicated initially, that has filled much of the intervening time and as even borne fruit with the author. The issue of when bareback sex can responsibly occur remain as lively as ever (something I know from personal experiences with my circle of friends) though a lot of pornography shows little enough awareness.

 

A relatively light read (quite funny at times), something of a blast from the past that retains a surprising degree of contemporary relevance.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Natural by Ross Raisin (2017). This review is by John Cook

A Natural

Ross Raisin is quite a talent who clearly relishes the ‘under’ side of life as in his previous books. The title of this work can be seen in that vein as it telegraphs an interest-grabbing duality. It is common enough to talk about a talented person (sport, arts etc) as being ‘a natural’. Less likely, though equally real, we have all asked ourselves how ‘natural’ is our homosexuality? Raisin has drawn these two themes together in the conventionally unlikely theatre of English professional football. Anyone who looks at the number of professional players who have outed themselves in that context realises that either this is the perfect selection process for heterosexuality or there are lot of deeply closeted players. There have been a few including one tragic example (Justinus Soni “Justin” Fashanu) and publicly stated messages of support (rainbow laces) but almost no one has ventured out.

 

I am very ignorant of soccer (age showing again) except in my very early childhood though I have had friends deeply embedded in the game as organisers, fans and fathers or sons of players. Likewise, I am entirely ignorant of the overall processes of talent location, training, payment and general living conditions of the full range of players at all levels but especially in the British scene. Most of us are familiar with the publicity that surrounds the ethereal upper echelons of the game (same with most sports) and WAGS (there is one minor one that plays a key role in this story) but would be totally ignorant of the bottom feeders striving at the lower club levels to find their way to glory and some measure of economic success.

 

Raisin places Tom Pearman in exactly that context. He is a 19 year old with a record of youth attainment and experience of the football ‘schooling’ system. His family and friends live his experiences with and through him. He is playing at the bottom level of the League (literally) and wants powerfully to advance his career. His life is built totally on developing his body and skills to that end. He presents a little differently as he is more carefully considered individual, somewhat interior and reflective of what he experiences around himself. There is a reason for this as he begins to gradually realise the growth of feelings in himself for other men, experiencing the full range of responses to those feelings which become ever more pronounced engendering fear and an uneven determination to suppress them. As a ‘natural’ homosexual he fails and, as his career passes through highs and lows, he gradually develops a relationship which is going to present him with terrifying prospects and a powerful need to interrogate himself on what role his homosexuality has to play in the life he has set out to pursue. Sorry, you will have to read to get the details and the outcome.

 

I found the book a little difficult initially to get into as Raisin provides an incredible (but entirely believable) amount of detail about this young man’s daily life and routines and the club and family life that surrounds him. This can be difficult to accept (some might even reject the book on those grounds) but I gradually warmed to wanting to know and feel more and more of this situation that mixed the conventional and apart world of his sport. There is nothing here that is remotely sensational but all entirely believable. There are some weak points in the plotting that emerge late in this book but I do not include the conclusion in that assessment. Again, some might find it a little weak and understated but I found it very powerful in its simplicity and inevitability.

 

I warmly recommend this book as an eye-opener to a world about which I knew almost nothing and as a meditation on the continuing resistance of so much sport to the involvement of gay men and women.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Getting Away With Murder by Duncan McNab (2017). This review is by John Cook

Getting away with Murder

This book is something of a chronicle of my life (I am 76 in a month). I have lived so much of the life of the gay men revealed and discussed in this book. Whether it be the initial fear, self-loathing and closeted existence of the early years, the beats, the beaches, the baths, the bars (less so for me) as a secret separate world with its own culture, the fear of discovery and the effect that authority could have on one’s life and career, and yes, the bashings – I was there too (almost lost an eye). Living under the mantle of the late unlamented Joh Bjelke Petersen and his coterie of misfits and fundamentalist wowsers, a visit to the sin city of Sydney was always a pleasurable adventure. I knew most the places where these assaults and murders took place and the social venues mentioned (even stayed in the very first gay pubs and B&Bs). I can even report that the story of a helicopter being used to scan and round up gay men in Queens Park is true (I was there also).

 

Like many of my generation, I have had a growing familiarity with some of the stories of bashings and murders and the personalities described and have read, in a variety of sources, of the progress (or lack thereof) in pursuing the criminal cases set out. As such, there is little that was startlingly new for me with the exception of the role and behaviour of individual police, coroners and inquest hearings. This creates a new dimension that parallels the passage of these sad events in time. It is possible to make excuses and say that many of these authority figures are just creatures of their time and place, but that simply doesn’t cut it with me when there is clear evidence that wiser more thoughtful minds offered alternatives that were abruptly aborted, ignored or treated with contempt.

 

Can I offer one more perhaps unpopular thought that has long been with me. It is similar to the ‘time and place argument’ but it still irks me. I see a clear linkages between the beer-soaked biff-loving culture of many lovers of NRL and the behaviour of these young bash gang members (often Junior players or avid followers) ‘Get ‘im!’. I have seen research which looked at the impact of past club boozing culture on younger players and any reasonably aware individual is aware that elements of the problem remain both with alcohol and other drugs. NRL is a worthy and athletic game which has often done much to channel otherwise rowdy and possibly destructive young tribal youths and young mens’ urges into more socially acceptable directions. However, like the detailed example drawn by McNab of some Police involvement, I feel there has often been a climate of denial and ‘keep it quiet for the Club’ that has dogged this culture. (Sorry for the rant)

 

I have no intention of providing a detailed account of the content of this book but would like to suggest that it be ‘required’ reading particularly for younger gay men who need a reminder of just how thin the layer of acceptance can be and the darker clouds of denial, disliked and outright hatred that are always present. There are plenty of Fred Niles growing like weeds out there and they don’t need much encouragement to vent their feelings of disappointment, disengagement and pure malice.

 

This book is a worthy clearly-written exposition of a key aspect of gay life in Sydney and other parts of the world (varying degrees of intensity) which resurrects material touched on elsewhere in a variety of sources and modes. Its principal claim to fame is that it brings a clearer eye to the repeated self-serving failures of the key organisation that could have done so much more in the original context and then stubbornly refused to re-evaluate, with the wisdom of new experience and understandings, the probable errors of their past – the NSW Police (not the only offenders vide Dr George Duncan). This is not to say that there have been improvements in practice and personnel over the years (hopefully no more Police Commissioners carousing with Premiers on illegal unlicensed premises) but there will always be a lingering doubt that the prejudices and lack of understanding of the past have yet to be ‘put to bed’.

 

Looking at my contemporary world, I can only wonder at what may be the current practices in these respects if the words ‘gay’ ‘homosexual’ or ‘poofter’ are replaced by ‘ethnic bastards’?

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Down the Hume by Peter Polites (2017). This review is by John Cook

Down the Hume

This is a somewhat bleak but revealing read. That said, there are occasional flashes of humour and worthwhile insight into some aspects of gay life with which I have had almost no experience. Count the ways. I have had a little to do with Greek-Australian culture but not a lot. I smiled at the description of weekend ‘Greek school’ but, apart from Tsolkas and a few others, I didn’t have a lot of insight – especially into a substantially dysfunctional family (father rejecting and vicious – mother loving, supportive but addicted and delusional) living in heavily ethnic urban areas. The world of drug use is not new to me and the author largely focuses on a painkiller with a name that echoes a range of commonly abused substances. I have had virtually no experience of  ‘Muscle Mary’ culture but have been a long-time observer of the semiotics of gay dress and speech which feature heavily in this story (especially clothing).

 

The central character, Peter, has a number of names including nicknames that make things a little confusing as it is the same for his lover and the author’s Christian name as well. Peter works in an old persons’ nursing home that is largely drawn with frightening accuracy from the viewpoint of a lowly worker who actually interacts with the patients he services. This provides an ancillary story of partnered older gay men and their treatment by family and society. Peter’s story has very little in the way of silver lining. He is deeply attached to his mother yet they share a key addiction. The back story of his family provides some answers for his current position and condition and is believable if somewhat unyieldingly gloomy.

 

His love life with his lover, Nice Arms Pete, is a case of hope over certainty (unfaithfulness, chemical, physical and emotional abuse) and there is a painful process of disabusement (is that a real word?) that readers follow (use of some typical modern hand-held technology here) wondering where it will end for Peter. The conclusion is more in the same vein with lots of tortured thinking and responses to admittedly often unpromising urban environments. I found myself yearning for some more hopeful and positive responses to this world for someone.

 

The sense of disillusion is quite overpowering in this novel and is matched by the story’s progress through the streets, parks and suburbs of an inner-urban environment (part of the departure route from Sydney on the old Hume Highway). Central to Peter’s world and life is the issue of chemical use whether it is Nice Arm’s use of testosterone and other unguessed chemicals often abused in his circle or Peter’s desire to dull his and his mother’s emotional pain with inevitable consequences.

 

This is a kind of variant on the road trip novel that is a journey through shadows and darkness.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Quarters by Errol Bray (2017). This review is by John Cook

The Quarters

The cover of this book led me a little astray. I rather expected a tale in inner city urban gang fighting with plenty of blood and guts and perhaps some human interest to add to the mix. It turned out to be that in part but much, much, more. The author set himself a sizable task with a lot happening, explanations needed and a extensive cast. Initially, things move along a little slowly as there is a lot to put in place and relationships to establish while things do become surprisingly edgier. The author uses a method of mixed length observational passages and added dialogue that, at times, read like lines from a play with directions. There are also chapter headings in the manner of a Victorian novel.

 

The structure is interesting with nods in the direction of some classical literary features (Homer?) while based upon the concept of an ‘apart’ community which has been forced in upon itself by always threatening external circumstances. It has to evolve within its own resources means of socialization and governance that cover the full range of human needs and survival. The method of delivery is rather like that of a chronicle, the age old concept of an observer who records largely dispassionately, though in this case, with more compassion, wit and humour, relaying the flow of events in this living social organism. There is a series of colliding events which spark changes, growth and sometimes loss. There is birth, life and death, at all levels, and plenty of it. There is hope, despair and resolution.

 

The author is closely associated with the world of drama and he mines this with a central role being given to a ‘street’ production of Hamlet and its sequelae providing a link with the ‘outside’ world along with other small commercial activities. A charming note is the use of a naïf ‘street’ Homer who provides a commentating voice from within on notes ranging from humour to deep tragedy.

 

With our larger world confronting another industrial revolution with the customary winners and losers and the seeds of so much dissatisfaction, loss and anger, a book like this is a timely reminder of how finely balanced our ‘civilization’ can be and the potential forms of chaos that are always waiting at the door, and sometimes within our very selves.

 

Right from the beginning, there is a clear and developing interest in relationships and sex. This seems to intensify and deepen toward the conclusion, perhaps as a response to the evolving environment. These relationships cover the full range of human pairings in ways that are exploratory and largely satisfying.

 

Given the populations involved, the author has kept the dialogue largely free from rough language and any over-use of profanity which is often pointless and solely used for repetitive emphasis. The result is simple, clear expression quite capable of conveying the range of emotional contexts encountered.

 

This is a surprising not-so fantasy tale which is at once a possible harbinger and an entertaining tale.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Enigma Variations by André Aciman (2017). This review is by John Cook

 

 

Enigma Variations

I feel I have been sentenced, cooped up on a cruise ship as I am with two Aciman texts to read while I have started the more recent first – probably the wrong order of attack.  Nevertheless, it seems appropriate as people watching, listening and speculating is a popular activity for me on board, glass in hand. Aciman has a complex background, lectures prestigiously in Literary Theory and is a Proust expert. This shows as he brings an exquisite eye to thoughtfully examining and evaluating a series of evolving scenarios combining exhaustive analysis of what his characters are thinking/ doing with a delightful eye for beautifully evoked contexts, especially Summer on the Italian Riviera (no place names supplied).

 

This novel, and I suspect his previous, is about people observation but very internally and at great breadth and depth. Therein lies its great appeal or otherwise. Some will enjoy the depth of self-analysis and speculation involved while others may find it extremely tedious and self-absorbed. It is about a young boy (12 – 13 years old), Paul, initially as a youth and later a mature man, who responds in minutiae to what is said to him, a look, a glance, certainly every e-mail (later) is checked and examined for its meaning and significance. The mature man opens the story returning to the scene of his growing sexual focus as a bearded older man who wants to get to the bottom of the disappearance of his youthful focus, Giovanni the furniture repairer. He had been so obsessed with this 20-something handsome individual, he even ‘apprenticed’ himself to him in order to be closer to his physicality.

 

The style is easy enough to read though shot through with many literary and place references (Italian Riviera, NY Manhattan and Oberlin College). There are plenty of allusions to classical literature while old movies and opera are also mined as points of interest – again a problem for some readers. I will repeat it has to be said that problems may arise for some readers with these detailed external references and the extended nature of the self-examination especially with a young person however privileged and remarkably self-aware.

 

The piece is essentially about the nature of relationships seen from a very personal viewpoint – how they are initiated, play out and/or are incorporated into different phases of a life. In this sense, I enjoyed this kind of play as I have often reasoned that a great strength of the gay life (when seized) is the possibility of structuring one’s relationships without heteronormative requirements and with a fluid sexuality – certainly that is so in this case.

 

Add in the fact that the Paul’s voice is strongly two dimensional. He is intensely physically aroused and in search of physical satisfaction primarily and initially yet he is simultaneously constantly questioning and analysing the nature of his relationships, their progress and possible outcomes. This means that there is a continuing interchange between his physical life and his musings upon it. The writing on his physical observations, needs and responses is arresting and often lyrical.

 

There are three main phases in the novel which occasionally link and reference with answers to questions previously formulated. The first is his early adolescence (15-16 years old) enjoying his annual family summering on the Italian Riviera – is it an island? I am not sure. Certainly, the evocation of space, time and his budding sexuality is excellent, there is a mid section in NY focussing on a battered tennis centre in Central Park where he encounters someone who could become his rock bottom (and very understanding) partner. This is not to say that a publishing career and wife are not simultaneously possible – they are. There is a semi-final relationship which involves looking into his mid-years past and I found this extremely unlikeable – couldn’t bear the woman. And finally there is a coda ‘almost’ relationship that brings into focus those that are more enduring, even if surprisingly so. I now go to read ‘Call Me By Your Name’ which Google informs me has recently received been filmed with rave reviews. I look forward to it.

 

Clever, very clever, too clever perhaps, I think, for some readers. I enjoyed its detail and scope but failed to make the journey completely.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized