‘Arctic Summer’ by Damon Galgut. (Atlantic Books, London; 2015)

A review by Errol Bray.

This is a book that I DID give up reading about two-thirds through a couple of years back. That was because it’s a “factional” novel and I don’t usually trust those. But as it is about two of the great loves of E.M. Forster’s life I decided to finish it. All my worst fears came true. Forster is sort of a passion of mine – the movies as well as his writing – so I am probably biased. I want his story to be told more fully and I kept wondering how much was being made up by Galgut. With Forster it seems much can be dug up from his extensive journals/diaries and from the volumes of letters he wrote but just 10 pages before the end of this novel Galgut describes a scene in a restaurant when Forster had become famous (for “A Passage to India”) and people at a table were looking at him and talking about him. Forster listens in to their conversation, hidden behind a pillar, and it’s comic but then Galgut tells us that Forster was so embarrassed at doing this that he never noted the incident in any of his diaries or letters. In other words, Galgut made it up.

Okay the book is well written and I guess anyone writing about a famous writer is entitled to choose certain aspects to emphasise – here it’s Forster’s great loves for an Egyptian man and for an Indian man. Galgut also tries to “create” the influences that made Forster take up working again on “APTI” after long neglect. Of course, anyone knowing much about Forster would know that his inspiration to continue working on what was to be his last novel came from T.E. Lawrence who gave Forster a typescript copy of his great masterpiece, “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”. Forster duly became inspired and did write about that in his diaries.

There is a brilliant biography of Forster – which I’m sure I raved about at a QR meeting – written by Wendy Moffat , “E.M.Forster – a new life”, which reveals the scope and complexity of his life. It was a so-called respectable life of an admired homosexual writer who was closeted all his life and only allowed his gay novel “Maurice” to be published after his death. He was a virgin until he was 36 and lived until 91. Most of his life he lived with his mother. He was known and admired widely in English literary circles. A few facts to show the range of his life – He knew Lawrence (both T.E. and D.H.) & was on the witness list for the obscenity trial against “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”; a friend of Virginia Woolf & Leonard; mentor and friend of Christopher Isherwood & was the only literary/arts person to farewell him and Auden when they left to live in America as World War 2 was breaking out & they were regarded widely as cowardly traitors; co-wrote the libretto for the “gay” opera “Billy Budd” (composer Ben Britten); had several meetings in the US with Kinsey but never spoke of his sexuality to him; was Private Secretary to an Indian Maharajah; stopped writing novels after “APTI” because he was tired of writing about hetero romances and not able to write about gay relationships though he did continue to write short stories with gay-ish themes; was an acclaimed essayist and uni lecturer; and his last two lovers were both policemen.

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‘Steppenwolf’ by Hermann Hesse – Translated by David Horrocks. (Folio Society; 2018)

A review by Errol Bray.

I recommended this without reading it as it’s a renowned ‘masterpiece’ by a Nobel Literature Prize winner (1946) and its description in the Folio literature was intriguing. Not a “werewolf” book, of course, but dealing with clashing inner personalities made it sound pertinent for gay readers. The idea of a book within a book was interesting too. In fact, Folio has sewn a smaller-page book into the binding of the main book. I have for some time been wary of translated books – reading as I mostly do for writing style, seeking help for my own attempts. This version seems very well translated and acknowledges that the original English version was badly flawed. Anyway, this one is a pleasure to read.

By two-thirds of the way through I was fascinated by it, declaring it a masterpiece to friends and I still would highly recommend it. Even the semi-essays about Goethe, Mozart and Steppenwolves and other philosophical topics I found fascinating (and usually don’t; I want a good story and some action). Even though I thought it was being dragged out a bit too much I enjoyed it and read at a much faster pace than usual. His ideas on the multiple-personalities naturally occur in people are well put and interesting. I thought that stuff would be particularly interesting for LGBTQI people.

However, once I got into the last 50 pages and the events of his “Magic Theatre – For Mad People Only” I was very disappointed. It was almost as if he wanted to deny the difficulties and sorrows of his Steppenwolf character and say as long as we play some of these weird games – some of which made not much sense to me – we’ll all be okay. Out of respect for the first sections of the book – that I still call brilliant – I read to the finish but was tempted to stop many times. I was even more disappointed to read his “Author’s Postscript” – written many years after the novel was published – saying that he was disappointed that this book was widely misunderstood and that people did not appreciate the over-arching “timeless world of faith” and that the Magic Theatre material demonstrates a “cure” for the Steppenwolf and that the book is “by no means the book of a man despairing of life, but of one who believes”. Well, that’s me well and truly fooled.

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‘The Well  of Loneliness’ By Radclyffe Hall, 1928.

A review by John Cook.

I was grateful that this book was listed for this month as it is regarded as the first lesbian novel with a laurel for being banned. I had certainly heard of it but had never read it. It was interesting that the group had recently looked at the story of Anne Lister who in many ways lived the life fictionalised by Hall but with more control over her circumstances. Like many, I am also aware of some Victorian women who managed a range of different lesbian lifestyles, so the main surprises were focussed on a more detailed examination on the life of an upper-class lesbian woman from late Victorian through Edwardian and Georgian times with suffragism, WWI and post-war Paris as foci.

The book is not auto-fiction but contains a great deal of influences coming directly from Hall’s life. It is unsurprising that she was heavily marked by Havelock Ellis describing herself as a congenital invert (a self-wounding term) and by her Catholicism with its heavy admonitions mixed with the spiritualism and reincarnation fashionable during those years. Her own love life saw a number of different lovers with some more enduring and with some sizable age gaps. Unlike Stephen, she did not come from a privileged background with none of the background skills (scholar, linguist, equestrian, fencer, business woman) which her protagonist possesses. She did write, however, and travelled extensively in European circles. One droll remark towards the end of the book does refer to her real life as she bred and showed dogs in her later years.

Stylistically, the book has problems for a modern reader. It is longish at 440 pages and tends to enjoy long periods of rhapsodic descriptions which sometimes come close to boring (the Wye R valley) yet are sometimes very well done (working on the front in WWI as an ambulance driver). However, even in more narrative passages, the tendency is still there. This may well be a matter of what was expected ninety years ago but does encourage some speed reading today.

The central character is the only child of landed aristocratic parents with long deep roots in their country estates at a time of extreme self-satisfaction in a world that seemed fixed and enduring. I found myself constantly irritated by the brief glimpses given of serving persons of all kinds whose  difficulties rate very little mention. The father wants a son (primogeniture!) so names his daughter Stephen which is remarkably accepted by many but points to her growing awareness of her differences and the responses of others around her – her father checks her out in Havelock Ellis but says nothing to her while alive – her mother (Anna) is somewhat distant but always plotting for a conventional marriage relationship until Stephen is discovered after which she is a pathetic rejecting neurasthenic wreck. Always defensive, Anna cannot accept deviations from what society demands …

But once again Anna began to protest. ‘What’s the good of it all for a girl?’ she argued. ‘Did you love me any less because I couldn’t do mathematics? Do you love me less now because I count on my fingers?’ He (her husband) kissed her. ‘That’s different, you’re you,’

Incidentally , the web tells me  that ‘Since 1880, a total of 848,623 boys have been given the name Stephen while there is no record of any girls being named Stephen’.

Stephen treads a path of gradual awakening of her nature with varying liaisons including one with a tree-hugging British Colombian gent which ends abruptly but returns later with consequences for the dramatic (overblown?) conclusion.  Probably the thing that I most enjoyed in this book was Stephen’s wrestling with society’s responses to her appearance, her sometimes apparent relations and her turmoil in dealing with the social, moral and religious strictures of which she is very sensitive. My generation inherited many of these but I think many were better equipped to confront and deal with these pressures (though clearly not all) and they are still present for many today on individual and social levels viz Tony Abbott on working with LGBTQI people …

“ I probably feel a bit threatened, as so many people do, It’s a fact of life.”

I did not enjoy her tendency to focus on a narrow range of characteristics of some gay men and linger on them however non-threatening to her they might be. She also writes a long passage on the denizens of a Parisian café who may well have drunk and drugged too much, however …

‘A youth  passed with a friend and the couple were blocked by the press of dancers in front of her table. He bent forward, this youth, until his face was almost on a level with Stephen’s–a grey, drug-marred face with a mouth that trembled incessantly. ‘Ma soeur,’ he whispered. For a moment she wanted to strike that face with her naked fist, to obliterate it. Then all of a sudden she perceived the eyes and the memory came of a hapless creature, distracted, bleeding from bursting lungs, hopelessly pursued, glancing this way, then that, as though looking for something, some refuge, some hope–and the thought: ‘It’s looking for God who made it.’

There is nothing much like porn here and even the two remarks that sparked the banning were quite anodyne so the objection was obviously more because of the nature of the relationships portrayed, the changing of partners and (perhaps) some purple prose.

On some reflection, I began to wonder if Mary Llewlllyn was the character closest to Radlyffe’s own experience – just a thought! This has a recommendation for its historical worth and continues to offer a warning against the destructive forces opposing liberation when they are turned inward with dire consequences.

(BCC library has 4 copies)

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‘In Cold Blood’ By Truman Capote, 1966.

A review by John Cook.

I believe I read this a very long time ago and have memories of shots from the movie, so I was happy to return to it for this month. Unfortunately, I found I could not get a library copy and so invested in a Penguin reprint at $12.30 which really tested my eyesight. I did, however, find it hard to put down. This is one of Capote’s masterworks as a nonfiction novel and he invested a great deal of time to gather a huge quantity of background information and interviews to prepare for this magnum opus. There are at least three issues here.

One is what I guess is the novelty of the form. There is a long long history of tales of murder up to Victorian penny dreadfuls and Sherlock Holmes. With the advent of radio and film, stories were increasingly focused and condensed by those formats. There is usually relatively little detailed investigation into the background details over time and Capote well and truly broke that mould. There is a mass of detail in ’Cold Blood’ about the precursors, the event, its investigation, trial and conclusion. I am sure there is simply too much for some readers but I am not one – I relished it all. Looking at contemporary film, TV (Coen Bros Fargo series) and internet blogs and podcasts (especially) it is easy to see how its effects have continued.

Another has got to be the  quality of the prose which I found very finely tuned. Capote was never a writer with a strong academic literary background (as was his arch enemy Gore Vidal who uttered the immortal line on Capote’s death – ‘a good career move’). He wrote a lot of short stories and articles so was careful to tune his Southern toned writing to make it relatively easy on the ear and this was important in a piece as long as this. Descriptions are careful without being rhapsodic and all sorts of details are skilfully employed as in the case of the two old tom cats wandering down the main street of Holcomb looking for easy pickings. There is a certain amount of arch (sometimes catty) commentary on people, their appearance and clothing. This is not a story of grand people and places, not even of a special mass murder (plenty of those). It is the skill of Capote to draw the reader into so many lives and leave us to speculate (with some more informed medical and psychological opinions) about the origins and progress of this event. While the term ‘in cold blood’ persists in contemporary language, it is to be hoped that some of the social issues of that time (1959) have been ameliorated.

Last, there is the issue of homosexuality. Capote was an out celebrity with his famous effeminacy and squeaky voice yet there is little overt mention of homosexuality in the book and it is the condemnatory views of Joe public. However, this is largely the story of two very different men who bind themselves together on the basis of their bleak pasts and hopes for that ‘one job’ that will set them up in their dream lives (Mexico or South). They travel together, eat and sleep together and commit petty crimes together up to the mass murder which has basically the same motivation though Dick’s urge to rape competes. They refer to one another as ‘hon’ or ‘honey’ and share the usual background experiences in military service and all male institutions but there is nothing overt that is reported throughout. Certainly Perry might be seen as having a love/hate relationship with Dick as being many of things he misses in himself and also a fond admiration for Willie-Jay, the Chaplain’s clerk in prison. In interview, Dick’s mother refers to Perry’s ‘perfume and oily hair’ as a cause for concern. As there was no evidence, it was probably wise of Capote to steer clear but it must had readers then and now wondering. I don’t want to spend much on details of the plot because it is really quite simple. Capote heard of the mass murder of the Clutter family on their Kansas property which stood out for their very respectable ordinariness. It was a crime that shocked a small community because it was so apparently inexplicable. Capote set out to present in fine detail the story of murderers, the murdered and those who strove to solve the crime. Whether he managed to make it explicable or understandable while entertaining with his inimitable voice is up to each reader to decide for themselves.

(BCC library has 4 copies 1 ebook, 1 audiobook)

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – Notes by Errol Bray.

I read the book years ago and of course it’s great, brilliant, etc. I just want to mention the two movies that came out about Capote at the same time. The one called “Capote” won Philip Seymour Hoffman a best actor Oscar but the other one, “Infamous”, was said (by me & others “superior in every way … a powerful, witty and exquisite film”) to be the better movie. It starred Tony Jones who is of similar stature to and looks like Capote and is a wonderful actor. It also has a mind-bending performance by Daniel Craig as one of the murderers who becomes close to Capote. Even Sandra Bullock as Capote’s friend Harper Lee is excellent. Highly recommended.

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‘One of Them’ By Michael Cashman, 2020

A review by John Cook.

The author is now 70 and can  lay claim to a truly remarkable life. I was only aware of him over the years as the actor handing out the first gay kiss on UK TV in the well-known Brit soap opera ‘EastEnders’ which was entirely appropriate as he was a born EastEnder and a paid up gay man. At 70, he has a CBE for his work for Gay Lib and Stonewall (about which I was aware) and is now Baron Cashman of Limehouse for similar work with the European Parliament before Brexit! That is quite a journey which is reflected in this memoir.

The book actually starts with reminiscing his marriage (civil partnership) to his long term lover Paul with guests that ranged from cabinet ministers to Paul O’Grady of ‘dogs’ and his drag persona Lily Savage. There are three distinct portions to the book varying somewhat in their interest though well-written throughout as befits a published and performed playwright.

He details his childhood in a London East End still battered by wartime damage and social and economic change. This was an environment that could easily entrap young men and women into lives of substantial disadvantage but was still a lively and engaging community. Young Michael, however, was always clearly a glass half full person who accepted what he had and worked hard at developing the skills he had to his advantage while never decrying his birth. Two stories stick in mind. He would  stand on a chair in the pub and sing for grog money for his grandfather. He also mentions an early sex experience when he went  with an older youth ‘for a shilling’ (he never got it). The experience was bad though he doesn’t seem to see it as a lifetime burden. However, he mentions when looking for a deserted location for that tryst that he thought he was wanted to climb through a fan light to gain entry – something he had done previously for his drunken father. He worked when possible at the local corner store( one thing I share with him). All told, it is a wonderful  window into that time and place always with plenty of humour ..

“Now I was at the bigger side of the school I wasn’t really happy there either. It seemed I could never do the right thing. Not even when I went through the ‘Holy Joe’ phase and became an altar boy. During Bible class the young priest, tired of my persistent questions, bounced the Good Book off my head and told me to ‘get the fuck out’.”

His way out comes with his talent for singing and an invitation to be part of the ‘Oliver’ cast on stage at the New Theatre St Martin’s Lane at age 12 where he learns the ropes of stage performance and the very real world at its edge ..

“When the shows finished there were fewer old men in raincoats waiting about because you had to be collected by a parent; it was before the show that they would try to strike up a conversation with you. Even though it was exciting to get the attention and be chased I soon finessed the art of telling them to ‘fuck off’. They didn’t give up that easily, their retort would be ‘there’s money in it for you’ to which some of the older boys would respond ‘suck my cock’. The men never argued with that. Some were even known to faint.”

A mixture of some performance training creates a segue into the second portion of the book as he begins working further afield and away  from home and  comes under the influence of Dave Woods (Woodie) who provides opportunities but at the expense of his sexual importuning. Michael goes along with this with mixed feelings (he was still an early teenager) and sees Woodie repeating this pattern with other boys and young men – still no strong regrets. He learns and moves on in his career which covers a mixture of London and provincial work, eventually writing plays performed under the direction of Alan Ayckbourne. This section of the story is studded with lots of famous plays, performers and an ever widening circle of friends that extend into Gay Lib and political contact in the Labour party. Some may find this a little over-extended if unfamiliar territory as with other theatrical memoirs. He also gives some interesting insights into the then gay scene including his use of the steam baths. I found it quite interesting as it is intertwined with his sex life and meeting up with Paul Cottingham who was also in the world of theatre.

The third portion has Cashman still very successful and always growing in his craft and working for AIDS relief, Gay Lib in general and increasingly with Labour and some Tory supporters. Probably the best material in this portion relates to Michael and Paul working out what ‘love’ meant for each and the kind of relationship they wanted to create that endured for thirty years. This continues and firms up to Paul’s death from the very rare angiosarcoma. In this latter part of the book, the author gains his CBE and through working on LGBTQIA issues at the European Parliament gains his life-time peerage resigning from the Labour Party over Brexit.

I found this to be well-written with different paces for different aspects including some quite well described sex. It is never dour or mournful but always seeing the other half of the glass passing on so much information of a wonderful life well lived. A strong recommendation.

(BCC library has 0 copies) shame!

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‘Broken Jade : A Novel’ By Paul Chan, 2020.

A review by John Cook.

This story is an easy read and well written. It could be, however, a little deceptive. Some readers may skim through the relatively brief 232 pages as a simple coming out story with an Asian twist. I think many other readers, will see a lot more detail and craft in this tale – even the title is well selected and employed at the beginning and at the end without sentimentality but plenty of meaning. The general tone of the  lives lived here  is somewhat well cashed with considerable emphasis on food, clothing and lifestyle. In fact, my only concern over the book was that the people carrying out the work that supports the substantial lifestyles on display are only occasionally acknowledged and in only a few cases appreciated – this applies to both Malaysia and Sydney.

Expat Justin Wong is bright and has succeeded in law at UNSW (?) and related business in Australia (Sydney). He is gay and has acquired a handsome Kiwi partner whom he is marrying at the beginning of the book. His problem is that he has never come out to his parents back in Tenangan in Malaysia and he is typically disturbed over his need to be out but has great concerns about the response in his home town particularly from his mother. This is where the book is somewhat different to the usual. Chan has seen fit to spend a lot of time experiencing the events and feelings from Mum Madeline’s point of view and the journey is an interesting one.

Madeline has come up the hard way from poverty to being a financial and social success through supporting her lawyer husband’s progress in smaller town Malaysia. Readers need to be aware of the mix of different ethnic backgrounds in Malaysia – Dominant Malays, Chinese and Indians. There have been historic and bloody clashes between these groups in 1964 and 1969 which are still remembered and Chinese and Indians in Malay also are well aware of their position as continuing targets for racial and economic criticism. So, despite the wealth of some (not all) there is a desire to avoid such criticism especially via good citizenship and espousing conservative values. Wong’s family are also Christian which links them back to the social place of the original colonial English. This is reinforced by being members of clubs and social activities that date back to that time and which espouse those values. The book says that Madeline visits her religious adviser at the Manse so it looks like she belongs to a Presbyterian grouping. (Australia has had Chinese Presbyterianism) which once again is one of her primary moral social concerns.

Much of Madeline’s life and practices centre around a group of three which is at least somewhat multi-racial including those who have acquired Malaysian honorifics (Dato and Datuk). She is highly protective of her acquired status in the home, clubs, even yoga classes and the cars she uses (her husband’s Mercedes Benz (with driver Jacob) and her personal Jaguar. It is at this level that I find her somewhat guilty of English style noblesse oblige – or am I being oversensitive? The author lets us in on the inner workings of Madeline’s life and even draws a parallel between the workings of Madeline’s marriage and the concerns of Justin and Robbie likewise determining what their relationship is to be.

There is a great deal of worrying over what coming out means for Justin and Madeline which distorts their thinking and consequent actions – even the young men, while out and about, are careful to monitor their affectionate behaviours lest they be detected by Madeline’s agents.

The action gets under way with Justin’s coming out to Madeline, her disastrous journey to Sydney to save him and the mutual unhappiness it generates. Like any good general, Madeline retreats to her home ground where she believes she has the defences to pretend (lie) that things are different and she can continue her attack. Inevitably, things unravel and there is a slow process of revelations that force her to re-evaluate her position with support coming from some unlikely quarters (some of it is understandably grudging). Things do accelerate somewhat at this point and readers might see this as either a bit too easy or simply a case of Madeline gradually emerging from the fog of her own self-concerns and acknowledging what it true , however flawed.

I would rate this as a good read (if only for the food) and its humorous acknowledgment of the two sides of the ditch.

(BCC library has 0 copies) shame!

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‘Danger Music’ by Eddie Ayres, 2017.

A review by John Cook.

Like many thousands of Australian classical music listeners  I know the voice of Emma/Eddie Ayres both as a presenter and occasionally in more extended spoken pieces. I have always enjoyed that softly toned English voice with just a hint of accent. I was aware (vaguely) of the huge change in his life in more recent times and was glad when this book was listed. It is frequently described by some as a memoir. If it is, it is incomplete. The cover says ‘How teaching the cello children in Afghanistan led to a self-discovery almost too hard to bear’ and that is largely correct. We are given some brief insights into life before and after while somewhat typically, we don’t find out that her beloved sister is lesbian till quite late in the book.

What we are given is deeply enriching and informative in a truly human way. Like most, I have seen lots of TV and documentary coverage as well as historical material about that benighted country. Eddie Ayres has written an almost verbal ‘documentary’ with sequences that open up the full range of human experience and emotion concerning these people (old and young) wracked by murderous traditional differences in tribal and religious groups that have been magnified by fundamentalist religious power grabs intensified by the influence of world stage interests – ‘The Great Game’ continues.

We are granted some insights into some individual’s thinking and moral values – some strong and caring others absent under external pressures and harsh individual choices. We are taken into the daily lives of expatriates teaching with their varying motives, their living arrangements, very real fears of sudden death or kidnapping and their pleasures ranging from a simple meal, occasional knees-ups in the protected green zone and all-too-rare excursions into the countryside. They are all so very human while participating in a extended FIFO existence. Their presence there is often fleeting as were many of the lives of their pupils from Grade 4 to 14 and life in general in the population.

It was truly painful to read of the hopes (some strong and others less so) demonstrated by these young people with their singular love of music and the rare opportunity to develop their talents. Like so many countries experiencing similar problems, they feel a strong need to escape if only to prove themselves and find further development while very few seem to return. Those who persist under the clouds of despair are truly heroic.

Ayres doesn’t hold back in his descriptions of savagery, carnage and destruction yet also finds opportunities to convey tenderness, attachment and love – yet it is all tempered by reality both human and animal (I also once had painful contact with an adolescent goat misnamed ‘baby goat’).

‘Having  continued my healthy habit of having a coffee and a fag in the garden before yoga in the morning, I was now joined by Nacho. Every morning he came and butted me gently on the back and nibbled my ear. I picked bits of poo out of his coat and we really became good friends, until I realised just how flexible a goat can be. One morning Nacho seemed to taking a long time coming to have a tickle with me. I looked over to him and saw only a headless body,  with a severe twist on his spine. Thinking he had a tick or something. I went to him just as he was finishing up. Nacho (and surely this is he envy of males everywhere) was blowing himself off. Not only that, he swallowed, bleated and pooed on my foot. An Afghan proverb: if you don’t have any problems, get a goat.’

Reality for Nacho arrived one Eid festival to come . For me, this extract epitomises some of the tone of Emma/Eddie’s writing.

We are made aware of the tenuous times for the then Emma’s mental state as she becomes increasingly aware of her inner unhappiness which falls into a sizable depressive episode and peaks during the Afghanistan period while watching ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ at age 49. The decision is made before the final departure from Kabul and even announced there to some only. The book somewhat briefly touches on the progress of the transformation and finishes with the process continuing and a happy new relationship with his midwife nurse friend who had supported the process , living in Brisvegas!

Some reviewers have been unhappy at the relative incomplete nature of the book and want a complete narrative arch, which I accept is not there. However, what is present even in its somewhat choppy episodic form is very satisfying and frequently moving – a sampler for so many countries suffering similar disorder which fulfils its subtitle amply – I can hear so much of the music being learned and played.

(BCC library 29 copies, 2 ebooks)

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‘Jonny Appleseed’ by Joshua Whitehead, 2018.

A review by John Cook.

I wish to rate this book very highly despite it being sometimes tough, raw, gritty and (perhaps in some readers’ views) uneven, which sadly might prevent them from persisting with this remarkable work. It was a moving experience to read it from a number of different viewpoints.

First the author:

Joshua Whitehead is a Canadian First Nations, two spirit poet and novelist. An Oji-Cree member of the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, he began publishing poetry while pursuing undergraduate studies at the University of Winnipeg.

After he started graduate studies in indigenous literature at the University of Calgary, Talonbooks published his debut poetry collection Full-Metal Indigiqueer in 2017. The book initially received a Lambda Literary Award nomination for Transgender Poetry at the 30th Lambda Literary Awards in, although Whitehead withdrew the book from consideration as the category was a misrepresentation of his identity as a two-spirit, not transgender, person.

His debut novel, Jonny Appleseed, was published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2018. In the same year, he was named a finalist for the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for Canadian LGBTQ writers, and the book was named as a longlisted nominee for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize and a shortlisted finalist for the Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction at the 2018 Governor General’s Awards and the 2019 Amazon.ca First Novel Award. The book won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction at the 31st Lambda Literary Awards.


Clearly this is a remarkable person coming from an often very poorly understood background for anyone ‘straight’ or otherwise. Whitehead is certainly none of that and he has poured so much of himself, his cultural, social and personal background into this fascinating piece. Most aware individuals have heard of the Canadian remote North First Nation’s experience and know that it is a classic example of systematic exploitation and ignorance leading to wide scale social disorganisation and outright collapse. Whitehead speaks from that background in ways that are utterly human in his anguish, fond memories, anger and happiness all mixed into his consciousness. I have to say I have rarely read something so totally personally felt in all the aspects of the human condition. A key figure in the fictional (?) Jonny’s life is his kokum (grandmother) and the writing of her death I found profoundly moving. (apologies for the length of the quote)

‘I never cried when my kokum died—I reserved my energy for telling stories and making everybody around me laugh. My voice, my body, my life—every piece of me is a bundle of medicine that gives and burns and smudges. When she died, she was wearing a blue and white hospital gown with pale blue diamonds patterned on it. I had watched those diamonds rise and fall with every one of her breaths for twelve hours straight as she lay unconscious in a hospital bed, until they finally stopped. I was alone with her when she died; only her and me at three in the morning. When her bloated belly stopped filling with breath, I rubbed it and felt it gurgle. My kokum taught me long ago when my aunty died, that we need to rub the breath out of the belly of the dead. “It’s to help them on their way,” she said.

“That’s what us women do—we help them on their way back home.” So I rubbed my grandma’s belly and put my ear to her mouth. Then I crawled onto the bed beside her and laid my head on her breast. I maneuvered one of her arms around me and the other hand atop my head. My favourite feeling in the world was when she clawed my hair with her fingers to put me to sleep. Her hand fit perfectly on my head like a bird sitting atop a ledge. We lay like this for a bit—I didn’t tell the nurse she had stopped breathing and because we had unhooked her from the machines, they didn’t know she had died. I slipped her monitor off her finger and pressed it onto mine. I wanted a few minutes like this, just us. The nurses were busybodies, I could hear them scurrying about in rooms adjacent to ours. They were telling jokes and laughing. Their happiness pissed me off. Stop fucking laughing, I thought, my kokum’s lying here dead. I drowned them out with a prayer.

I told Manito I love him still. I told the ghosts that permeated our room that maybe I’m ready too, you know? Maybe I’m ready to go; its okay its okay its okay. I laid there not moving, trying desperately to sleep, trying my hardest to will myself into death. I closed my eyes and said here it comes, it’s coming, it’s here. And when I could open them again, I wondered what was wrong with me; why not now? Wasn’t the lifeline in my palm broken too? When a nurse eventually came into the room and discovered that my kokum had passed, she asked me if I was okay. By then the tears had already crusted in the corner of my eyes. “Of course,” I replied. I didn’t tell her that I thought something inside me was dead too; didn’t tell her that something inside me had been broken for years, if not centuries. She wrote up a report and closed my kokum’s eyes, then walked out of the room and summoned a doctor. In the room beside us, another nurse was still laughing. Sometimes I don’t like how life goes on. And sometimes I don’t think it should.’

Jonny is a product of the treaty reservation system where his abandoned mother acquired a tough-loving step father which led to Jonny’s close attachment to his mother and grandmother. As a two spirit individual Jonny’s early life has plenty of difficulties but also deeply fond memories embedded in his daily existence within his home(s), culture and physical environment.

Like many, he escapes to the big city (Winnipeg) where he ekes out an existence doing private internet sex shows for carefully negotiated cash while looking for love. He continues a disadvantaged life while seeking out advantages and experiences where possible. He has a close circle of friends from the ‘res’ including Tias (lover?) and his feisty girlfriend Jordan and much of the book consists of reflections on his current way of life and that back on the reservation.

The conclusion is driven by the death of his stepfather and his need to organise the cash to negotiate a ride back home as he evaluates his life in Winnipeg, his changing  relationship with Tias and his longings for his home, mother and the now dead Kokum.

I found Whitehouse’s expression of this young man’s life and consciousness quite overwhelming at times. I have rarely come upon so much (not all) good writing that plumbs such depths of feelings and needs in a kaleidoscope of sensations – rather like the bead work that adorns its cover. Highly recommended.

(BCC library has 5 copies, 1 ebook)

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‘Stone Sky Gold Mountain’ by Mirandi Riwoe, 2020.

A review by John Cook.

Once again, this novel looked like a prospective winner for me. I have a Chinese great grandfather who arrived in Australia in about 1851 as an indentured worker (shepherd?) who flourished in Inverell (NSW), acquired British citizenship, a European wife, property, mined tin successfully at Tingha and died at Wilsons Downfall with a sizable cattle property. I have long looked about for book that would fictionalise the lives of so many who came like him in search of the Mountain of Gold and here it is. If you can enlarge them to view, there are pictures above showing ‘decent’ white settlers being overwhelmed by the Chinese Plague represented as locusts, white women enslaved by the lascivious Chinese and miners and others on the trail to the Palmer River rush as occurs in this book.

I am generally happy with the book, but it had some weaknesses for me. The initial stages were a little rocky as I found it difficult to focus on characters, background and place. The author is inclined to some lyricism which does not always work for me and I was happier when main characters and their direction were established. Once I knew we were on the Palmer and at Maytown (not much remains today), I found it easier to visualise.

Essentially, there are three principal characters set in 1877 N Queensland. Ying and Lai Yue (brother and sister) arrive in Australia from Southern China hoping to strike it rich in order to pay their family out of debts incurred within the family. Readers will need to be aware of the Tong system which ties groups together (often around an ancestral hall) for reasons of mutual support which sometimes distorts into extreme usury, standover tactics and brutality. These organisations can, however, have a positive side similar to British organisations such as the Oddfellows. It is clear from the start that Ying is under extreme stress experiencing voices, including his betrothed Shan, pressuring him,. The voices become more frequent, shrill and demanding as he comes under increasing pressure. The two siblings part at Maytown as Ying accepts an offer to be a cook and carrier for a party heading (I assume) down to sheep country toward Hughenden. In order to protect her virtue, Lai Yue is dressed as a youth and obtains work in Jimmy’s store in Maytown which has a sizable Chinese community (maybe more than 18,00 on the Palmer by 1877, certainly more than whites).

The third character is Meriem Hartley who has left behind her grazier family in Queanbeyan after a disastrous unmarried pregnancy. She is doing penance from her strict family and has wound up in this frontier town as housekeeper for a solo prostitute Sophie, who shamefully accepts Chinese clients. She is lost and wants to return to her home.

The author, who has some Asian background herself (Indonesian) is well-published and a Stella Prize winner, has done her research thoroughly and the book is full of details that bring the people, daily life, cultures and prejudices of Maytown to life. There is a lot to learn here.

Ying’s narrative is a blend of  harsh outback trekking and animal life always with his constant internal dialogue. This is linked with the mixed but mostly harsh  behaviour of his fellow white expeditioners moving to a tragic conclusion that was unfortunately quite common for both whites and Asians in his situation. The author uses quite a lot of almost mystical animal and bird symbolism at this point combined with the voices that nag him and fuel his fevered state of mind.

Lai Yue (as a young man) falls into an odd but loving relationship (of sorts) with Meriem, very much a case of two needy individuals finding comfort with one another. This comes to a literally bruising conclusion for prostitute Sophie and a crisis for Lai Yue. This is resolved within the local Chinese community and leads to a conclusion that seemed to be rather rapid and not entirely satisfying.

Riwoe has also peppered the story with the mostly tragic interactions between the gold seekers and the local aboriginal people – some of it quite graphic but definitely in accord with the fierce resistance known to have occurred.

I think that Riwoe largely fulfilled her potential. While there are times when more compassionate behaviour is included from both whites and Chinese, some readers might be a bit overwhelmed by the unthinking prejudice and violence so frequently portrayed – but that was the time and place!

I gained a lot from this novel and I hope that other readers might also have a new or more refined appreciation of the experiences presented and how they continued to colour our nation’s thinking and behaviour through to such legislation as the NSW 1881 ‘Influx of Chinese Restriction Act’, and the brand new Commonwealth of Australia 1901 ‘Immigrations Act’ and beyond.

(BCC library has 2 copies, 8 on order)

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‘An Honest Man’ by Ben Fergusson, 2019.

Sunday Times Best Book of 2019. A review by John Cook.

What  a solid well-crafted read. I thoroughly enjoyed it. If you check Ben Fergusson’s bio, you will find he was very well placed to understand the venue and time from his own personal experiences which tailor nicely with the conclusion (no more spoilers here). It is the story of the last school year of Ralf Dorsam who lives in the same old apartment building in West Berlin used as a setting for Fergusson’s two prior novels. The author acknowledges a wide range of sources he consulted to supplement his own experiences to summon a vision on Berlin as the infamous wall moves to its breach in late 1989 (the author was nine at the time). I have some second hand knowledge of life in West Berlin and the social and political environment, physical representations, colour, feeling and smells were all spot on.

Ralf’s story is relatively unexceptional for a bright scientifically oriented 18 year old who has a good family (consulting British born psychologist Mom and German Pharmaceutical chemist Dad), a good education and good prospects (Durham U acceptance). He is having bisexual yearnings but has had most experience with his friend Maike Eillert who is part of a group of teenagers with whom he socialises. This is sketched out with typical behaviours and interests especially those shared around their enjoyment of what life outdoors is available (biology, bird and animal life, geology) as they cycle freely around Berlin. They are a fairly typical mix of young adults though most are fairly lightly sketched. However, Ralf is open to experiment and has his man desires which he keeps hidden even when spying on his future Turkish boyfriend at a swimming pool, though it is later revealed that his world is not entirely unsympathetic to this part of his being.

Ralf is intensely curious about his apartment building environment and becomes focussed on an inhabitant about whom he has doubts which seem to be realised even closer to home than he had suspected. This is the additional dimension of this story that raises it well from the ordinary. The atmosphere in Berlin during the years of its isolation was marked by a curious blend of an almost suffocatingly supportive environment (from the West German government and the Allies) and lingering real awareness of the Stasi activities of East Germany and West German and allied responses. It is little wonder that this young man sees potential dangers close up (Tobias). At the same time, he becomes aware of a green Mercedes Benz (see the cover) that is regularly acting suspiciously in his neighbourhood.

He decides to investigate and becomes involved in a dizzying series of events and turn-arounds that involve an intense relationship with the driver of the mystery car, one Osman Ozemir (Oz) and a confusing search for truth – both in himself and his relationships with those around him. It is this extra layer of confusion and volatile search for the truth that gives this novel its special and highly readable edge and satisfying conclusion. As Ralf muses to himself on one occasion (Diogenes like)…

‘This is how I felt about Tobias and Oz. I believed in them both. But, as with death and birth, belief always fall foul of the truth in the end.’

Ralf’s emerging love affair is a relatively sudden but very passionate one that is quite well described so that the reader might identify with his feelings, needs and new experiences though it all initially occurs within a fairly short time frame and an awareness of possible cracks is subtly indicated. It is obvious that Osmin is a bit older and more experienced than Ralf so it is at least understandable that he becomes incredibly self-focussed and often not that good to be near but that is often the nature of first loves.

The book concludes as the Berlin wall falls and, as with so much of the background in this novel, it is conveyed partly by the well-known images but also a clear sense the moment. I enjoyed this description nearing the critical moment as local prostitutes see their usual clientele swept away in the moment.

‘We followed a drift of Berliners up Potsdammer Strasse to the Kulturforum, passed dazed-looking prostitutes in high heels and leather jackets watching the exodus with folded arms. The night was cold and the road damp and our breath condensed into clouds as we talked.’

(BCC library has 4 copies, 1 mp3)

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