‘One Hundred years of Dirt’ by Rick Morton, 2018. A review by John Cook.

I found this an oddly structured read. As the title indicates, we are to be treated to a one hundred year family saga coming from the harsh cattle country typical of Cameron’s corner. This is unforgiving territory yet my experience of most people who live in such places has been of grounded no-nonsense but kindly people. Morton’s previous two generations seem to have been almost psychopathically vicious or uncaring in their human and business relations with only their wives present to covertly leaven their behaviour – until abandoned in the case of Rick’s mother. There is also tragedy in the mix with the author’s involvement in the extreme accidental burning of his brother Tony while the two were playing in an oil-soaked garage pit.

Add to this Morton’s growing awareness of his difference in so many respects that led him away from what might have been expected of his tradition towards writing and quite a good career in journalism (he is still only in his early 30s) and the realisation that he was gay. That, for me, had the makings of a readable life trajectory but that  isn’t quite what I got.

Morton has written for a series of papers commencing with the then real estate adverts heavy ‘Gold Coast Bulletin’ from his Bond University journalism course onward to ‘The Australian’. That is where I felt this book partially derailed itself.

Morton is almost obsessed (perhaps understandably) with trying to bring order and reason to the series of events that led to his experiences and dives into a variety of social science research sources to portray a view that epigenetic influences especially with regard to the lack of nurturing (physical and mental) explain what he and others have experienced and felt. The problem, for me, is that he presents this material, as I might expect, in a magazine story format which, if anything, detracts from its weight.

He also seems to feel that these influences made it even more difficult for him than for others to come out and establish an enduring relationship and, perhaps, his impecuniousness. Frankly, I find this a rather long bow.

The writing is perfectly adequate but the material about his family’s establishment and early years is almost frighteningly absorbing. There is no doubt that the behaviour of his father and grandfather, as reported, was cruel, negligent and utterly self-absorbed. The effect on his mother and her attempts to structure a life for herself and her family were heart-warming and the impact of the downward-spiralling of his injured brother into extreme addiction utterly saddening as Morton explores the extreme reality of a family’s limited resources in dealing with that situation.

The author spends time on overarching considerations that might provide a framework for what he writes about. For me, I detect the odour of Bond University based attitudes and a hefty dose of Murdochian ‘Australian’ views. Money and resources are absolutely everything. These may be acceptable for some, but along with the rather poor structure, I felt it robbed an interesting story of interest and satisfaction.

(BCC library has 40 copies and an  audiobook)

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‘Take Nothing With You’ by Patrick Gale, 2018. A review by John Cook.

This book exemplifies why I am such a fan of Patrick Gale. There is always so much talent expressed in such subtle and gentle ways with flashes of sheer brilliance. Even the title is so clever leading the reader to think about issues of values in their life and mortality. In fact, it is a pointer to the key event that sparks this reminiscence of one gay man’s life.

Eustace, a quietly successful developer and ex-banker has had surgery for his thyroid cancer and now has to experience a form of therapy which involves ingesting a radioactive iodine isotope pill and then being sequestered in a lead lined room for 24 hours. As everything in that room becomes radioactive waste, he is told that he should take nothing with him that cannot be left behind. He does take an mp3 player stocked with cello music played by a close female friend and he can see the outside world through a window. The scene is set from his condition to look back on his life and the key to so much lies with that cello music – so Patrick Gale! My book cover fitted the tone of the tale beautifully with Eustace on his way exiting right in a rather bleak setting, cello case on his back – “It was quite heavy but the weightiness was part of the adult burden he was to take on.”

This raises a caveat in that some small awareness and enjoyment of classical stringed music is an advantage in understanding and identifying with this story. I will be interested to hear from someone who lacks this entirely. I suspect there is enough in what the growing Eustace tells us of his love of music and how it moulds his life to satisfy most. I found internet listings that can point any interested reader to recordings of the pieces mentioned. While there are the to-be-expected gentle colourings of life in the backwater Weston-super-Mare, there are also skilful portraits of his family and their travails and personal and sexual development, their rather odd home context, and his smallish circle of friends that gradually expands with his musical life into heroes such as Carla Gold his Cello guru and inspiration and the legendary Jean Curwen with her Scottish border cello school that operates a little like a musical boot camp. It is no secret that there is a deal of Gale’s own life in many details.

There is so much to enjoy along the way in this tale but I particularly remember Chapter 6 for its gentle treatment of life for a young teen in a large house full of old folk (including his own family) run by his odd parents. Chapter 11 is a delightful insight into a young to-be-gay boy finding his way through the thicket of  ‘official’ sex education and his individual gropings(?). Wonderful stuff.

The central key to Eustace’s life is his discovery that he has musical and mathematical talents (a common combination) and he needs to explore just how much his musical skills can be developed and to what conclusion. We have a beautifully sketched series of events as his growing personality, sexuality and musical talent are intertwined with the intensity that teens experience.

It is obvious from what I have indicated above that Eustace doesn’t achieve all that he had hoped though he is clearly formed by his experiences along the way. The conversation he has with his father on which way his future might go after so much angst is very Gale in its sheer understatement.

‘Do you still want to go there full time instead of the sixth form?’

‘Do you know? I don’t think I do. Not any more.’

‘That’s a pity, isn’t it?’

‘It is. And it isn’t.’  (My italics)

(I have recently reviewed ‘Boy Erased’ and the movie version is currently playing. Gale is au courant with an episode of a religious fundamentalist kidnapping in order to ‘normalise’ Eustace’s sexuality.)

Highly recommended.

(BCC library has 15 copies)

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‘The Prince of Cocuyos’ by Richard Blanco, 2014-15. A review by John Cook.

 

When I first saw the cover of this book, I thought I was in for some more of Benjamin Alire Saenz whose work I have enjoyed. Instead this is a ’somewhat’ memoir by the child of early Cuban refugees who managed to be born in Spain en route to the US home away from home for those refugees in and around Miami, Florida. Having being raised and educated in that community (which many in later waves did not experience), Blanco advantaged himself by following his Maths and Science abilities into Civil Engineering then gradually realised that he wanted more creative expression in his life especially focusing on his own experiences and his search for cultural identity. He has written extensively and been awarded a wide range of prizes and awards and doctorates. In 2012 Pres Obama named him the fifth only Presidential Inaugural poet – and gay at that.

It is a little bit odd, but perhaps understandable, that this is not a straightforward memoir as Blanco admits that he has used poetic licence at times. There certainly is plenty of colour here especially when describing his earlier years. In fact, I felt that while the earlier segments were very engaging, well written and often downright charming with the appropriate mixture of sadness and growing wondering as to who (or what) he was, things began to fade and ended on a much more muted note. Family (very extended) and community is the continuous note colouring just about everything that happens with the author’s realisation of his sexual difference emerging. The book is not presented as a continuous lifetime thus far but as a series of episodes of varying length.

Two quibbles emerge. There is quite a lot of Cuban Spanish and mixed language that is used. I found myself able to guess quite a lot and had the resources on my iPad to check some that were harder to grasp (including some off-colour). Some may find this a chore and I tired of it in the later sections. Also, as one who has a lousy childhood memory, easily faulted, I have to assume that some of the earlier memories have been ‘coloured’ a little. Nevertheless the memories of childhood pets, family, backyard and neighbourhood life, shopping, imported gringo customs such as Thanksgiving, getting part time work, experiencing loss and the need to date girls were all very enjoyable along with the dose of Cuban American culture I acquired. There is a lot to laugh with here, sadness and understanding. The lust for air conditioning was very understandable.

At home, to cut down on the electric bill, we were not allowed to turn on the air-conditioning until after dinner, no matter how much we’d complain or beg. Some afternoons, after walking home from school drenched in sweat, I’d strip off my polyester uniform, bathe in rubbing alcohol, dust my body with talc, then lie on my bed like a floured drumstick under the ceiling fan to cool off. Regardless, not until around 8 or 9 P.M. would Mamá give us the okay, and Caco and I would storm through the house closing all the windows before turning on the AC to super-duper high and sitting shirtless in front of the vents, enraptured by the ice-cold air against our sweaty temples, hypnotized by the hum of the compressor fan, intoxicated by the clean scent of the filtered air.

There already is a large genre of immigrant tales available but the added piquancy of the Cuban experience in its different forms and the author’s sexual awakening makes this particularly attractive. One element I found interesting was the distinctions made between the different waves of immigrant refugees which is also sometimes evident in the Australian experience. The desire on the part of the young immigrant Richard to experience what he saw as being truly American is beautifully captured in the tortuous tale of visiting Disneyland only to discover that the central icon of the fairy castle was a glittering empty shell.

My frustration decayed into gloom when I asked a woman in a Disney World uniform how to get inside […]. “Oh, no, you can’t go up there; there’s nothing inside,” she said. What? Nothing inside? No! I was convinced she was either lying to me or was a new employee and didn’t know what she was talking about. Mamá was upset too … “What you mean, Miss? That cannot be,” she began, becoming belligerent with the woman. “We stay right here until we get inside.”

(BCC library has 3 copies)

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‘Damascus’ by Christos Tsiolkas, 2019. A review by John Cook.

My dear sainted Mother like most of her generation made sure that (Like Lady Bracknell) every luxury that money could buy, including christening was lavished upon me. Unfortunately my early teen years via Robert G Ingersoll rather destroyed her efforts though not the human and social concerns that came with it. Part of that  process involved the rejection of the late Victorian sickly sweet images that were part of the parcel and Tsiolkas has certainly injected a far more realistic (sometimes savagely so) set of images in this amazing book. As a student of Ancient History at Uni, I became much more aware of the brutal nature of life in the times described overpoweringly here as well as the complex nature of the formation of the primitive Christian church, its personnel, internal conflicts, processes and emerging writ (holy and otherwise). More than anyone I have encountered, Tsiolkas drags us back into those issues and those times.

He clearly has had similar experiences including a loving Greek Orthodox Mum, loss of faith and wresting  with his sexual nature and coming out in that  religious context to a 35 year relationship. He has chosen the illumination of Saul (St Paul) on the road to Damascus as a focal point around which he explores this time and place in a series of segments that are titled Saul I II III and IV, Timothy, Lydia and the fictional Vrasus, a Roman soldier who worships Sol Invictus. Thomas also offers interest across the canvas of these sections as a sometimes almost savage illuminator. Each can be seen as a drilling down into particular events, behaviours and meditations. They occur at appropriate locations mapped at the beginning of the book by Tsiolkas’ partner Wayne Wayne van der Stelt. It is no accident that any gay reader will immediately see a parallel between Saul’s experience and the standard coming out experience. There is, as well, the regularly quoted (Folau) and routinely mis-translated text we have all had to deal with.

“Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” 1 Corinthians 6:9-10

Let me quote from some recent Tsiolkias interviews to  get his own perspective on what he has tried to do.

“I understand shame,” he says. “I can’t pretend to have had the same experience as Saul, but I understand how core shame is.” There was the terrifying moment of disclosure to his parents. “I had to tell them: ‘I can’t be what you want me to be. I’ve discovered something else that’s so exhilarating and exciting and frightening. I will live my life as a gay man’. And these are people I love, my family. What will they think of me if I challenge them and their beliefs? 

“That notion of that radical change in your life – that Damascus moment – is one way of me entering and trying to make sense of Saul’s character. What was it that made this man prepared to forgo family, community, history? That solace in prayer – I think that is what he discovered.”

If you want to hear more directly from Tsiolkas there is a podcast on RN at https://radio.abc.net.au/programitem/peyQxXn1WQ (Friday, October 25)

I believe that Tsiolkas’ hard  work has produced a truly remarkable and complex book which has a great deal of lengthily researched detail and some very confronting tales and imagery. I can see that some will attack it on the grounds of finely detailed professional research and his use of fiction while others may find the violence unacceptable. I cannot agree in either case. This is not a history but it certainly evokes time, place, belief, behaviour and sentiment in a way that readers need to understand. The violence, I feel, is a necessary counterweight to what is conventionally presented and necessary to bring the reader closer to important realities – certainly not as gratuitous as ‘The Passion of the Christ’.

There is no gay sex mentioned apart from what occurs in the background in a slave based brutal society where there was little differentiation in the sex of the individual used and probably only in the position. There is an undercurrent of homo-eroticism in Brotherhood that is undeniable but this is hardly news to anyone down the centuries to the masculine Christianity of Arnold that certainly backgrounded my early days.

There are so many insightful key passages and moments that reward understanding with regard to this very early ‘church’ that was feeling its way forward while dealing with the internal personal, doctrinal and organisational difficulties that were emerging in collections of sayings and gospels – not all of which would be recognised by its morphing into an image of the Roman state and those who have repeatedly schismed over the centuries.

As a single example I offer the moment when Able declares to a meeting in Ephesus (87 A.D.) the standard Christian message about turning the other cheek continuing ..

“… Those who do so are beloved of our Father, the Lord of us all”

Sincerely I follow, ‘Truly, it was spoken.’

But the divisions of our fellowship can be seen in the response to my brother’s words. The literate and the citizen, those born Greek, those born in Ephesus, they assent with a nod of their bowed heads. This is the wisdom and profound compassion that has brought them to the Lord. But the refugees, those fleeing from death and war, they abhor these words … As a violent shudder of the earth can carve a perpetual gorge between neighbours, so does Brother Able’s question tear apart our congregation. The success of our grand initiative is marked by how our brother’s demand fortifies one, frightens the other, and is of no consequence to many more.”

I sincerely recommend this book as well worth the time and occasional difficulty in its reading. It is the best thing Tsiolkas has yet produced and I would love to see it on a screen though I would be terrified by its bowdlerisation. I apologise for a longer that usual report. I felt is was merited.

A lot of people will recognise the cover art as ‘The Conversion on the Way to Damascus’ by Caravaggio, another neat reference to his presumed homosexuality.

(BCC library has 20 copies)

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‘Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read’ By North Morgan, 2016. A review by John Cook.

I obtained my copy of this book only because there was no Kindle version available of the author’s latest book ‘Into?’ which I wanted to read as it purported to expose the life of highly active scene visual young gay men today – their sex, social and chemical lives. Fortunately (?) reviewers tell me that there is a lot of the former book in the new so I shall content myself, for now, with the bird in hand though the later publication may well contain elements of a more extended existence. It turned out that ‘Into?’ is simply a reprint for another market though that does say something for its interest.

Morgan’s narrator is one Konrad Platt who is the product of mixed nationalities with a German education and who has a comfortable existence in London but wants (lusts? needs?) to immerse himself in the fleshpots of gay America but with somewhat elastic restrictions on how he will live his life and especially which type of men with whom will have some kind of contact. In the background of this story there is a constant repetition of what alcohol and drugs were taken for general mood states, clubbing and sexing, socialising, eating, and especially the role of a mixture of friendship associations and internet apps. Social media is used a means of publicising a desired image of self, for obtaining satisfaction in that image, to potentially stalk others and set up sex meets (some of which actually occur).

It is easy to understand that someone my age can be curious about this lifestyle of twenty and thirty somethings at an individual level and need to be schooled in its operation and it is clear that it can be highly absorbing (even addictive) for those who are lucky (?) enough to pursue it. I can see elements in its moderate practice that would be very attractive and interesting yet its endless, almost mindless engagement along with its attendant dangers eventually seems counterproductive and simply wasteful.

The world in which Konrad is moving is vastly removed from my youth and my early adult years and comes with privileges and access of which I could not have dreamed. I am acquainted with some of it through the magnification (distortion?) of pornography but am probably not surprised at how some men handle their new freedoms.

The text is a series of short chapters as Konrad wanders around the US sometimes housing himself, sometimes couch surfing with friends and family (somewhat luxuriously) occasionally completing some vague employment and without too much care as to how he finances himself. I found myself immersed in his behaviours and thinking without identifying in any way except that I feared for his eventual outcome and wanted him to manage to loosen the grip on his repetitive behaviours.

The book is not simply a long orgy sequence (Konrad has a variety of very restrictive sexual and social dysfunctions) there is his growing awareness of this self-restrictive social milieu and the existential pointlessness of so much of his behaviour.

It is not a book for everyone but I found some reward in it and learned about a world almost totally foreign to me.

Konrad reflective on his image …

“And then, with all that, I thought, well, what the hell am I doing as a grown up, out gay man spending all my time pretending to be straight with all my baseball caps and basketball shorts, especially now that I’m living in America. How am I helping anyone to feel comfortable with themselves, if they’re insecure, if they’re not out, and what is the message that I’m giving out. Are they only going to be accepted, is their only hope to stay alive, first literally and then metaphorically, in a grown up society if they’re acting more straight than the straight dudes?”

Konrad reflective on his world …

“Like every day in a different place, sometimes in Berlin, sometimes in London, Los Angeles, and now in Miami, I am alone, and the thoughts that form inside my head take over my surroundings. Because everything means too much, and despite the passing of time, nothing ever goes away. And if I were to reflect, try to come up with any sort of life assessment and see what it is that I contributed to the world, the answer would be this: stories about how desirable I tried to be, how beautiful everyone around me was; and how damaged I had become, handing the world back pieces of my broken self.”

A number of reviewers comment on the number of typos which I cannot imagine being other than poor workmanship.

(0 copies in the BCC Library)

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‘Johnny Would You Love Me If My Dick Were Bigger’ by Brontez Purnell 2015, republished 2017. A review by John Cook.

Apparently this book was something of a cult classic when published in 2015 and has now been re-published for a wider audience. Once again, I took this from an online listing and I haven’t seen it locally. It is probably mainly available off the Net as an e-book. The title alone was an attention grabber. The author is black as is his lead character and the whole thing smacks somewhat of autobiography from a man with a phenomenal memory of his sexual history and his musings.

This is a hard-edged book and make no mistake about it. It can flip from the thoughtful and philosophic to in-your-face gay sex in a sentence. Purnell covers a period that encompasses AIDS years up to and including the bareback controversy. The central character does all sorts of jobs but writing, dance and punk music are front and central in some other locations but mostly Bay Area San Francisco. His life covers just about every avenue and locale for gay sex known yet it is not grubby for its own sake nor as cool as Rechy. This is like riding on the shoulder this man, observing what he does yet also privy to his innermost thoughts and motivations.

I was particularly taken by the treatment of the desire for bareback sex and consequent risks of HIV infection. I have listened to the same thoughts and arguments around me constantly and believe this is probably the best no bullshit treatment of the topic I have read. There is a lot here to not agree with nor even sympathise for some. For me, I have rarely laughed, emphasised and been amazed by someone while often violently disagreeing. This is not my life but someone who lives as totally as possible with joyfully and fully expressed sexuality. Despite fiercely determined to pursue what he wants and needs to express, there is always a sensitivity that is charming and thought provoking as he shares.

 “… if there really is a Hell all us gay boys are going for how carelessly we treat each other.”

 “I wanted to be vulnerable enough to get HIV.”

“Johnny  would you love me more if my dick were bigger?”

 “But the ultimate question is, who’s more wrong?”

I got a lot more from this book than I bargained for and I am grateful.

(BCC library has 0 copies)

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‘A River with a City Problem: A History of Brisbane Floods’ By Margaret Cook, 2019. A review by John Cook.

My oldest ancestor arrived in Brisbane on 2 July 1861, three years before the 1864 year that included a sizable Brisbane flood and other disasters (though it is possible one other ancestor may have arrived earlier for the fabled 1841 event). Little wonder that the received wisdom in my family is ‘Keep your nose to the North-East, your back to the West and your feet dry’. I was raised on the edge of the Breakfast Creek flood plain and played in the floods that reached the front gate of my parent’s sloping property and was treated to photos of the 1931 flood while experiencing those in the 1951 and 1974 while being safely in hospital for the 2011 event. Little wonder that I have lived the last 40 odd years 35 meters above sea level in a unit that has lots of exposure to the North and East and no windows to the West! Some of  us learn from history.

(See http://www.bom.gov.au/qld/flood/fld_history/brisbane_history.shtml for a comprehensive listing of floods).

This book by Margaret Cook (no relation) has been thoroughly researched by a well prepared and skilful historian who puts into place the long history of awareness of the causes and dangers of floods alongside an examination of why Brisbane has gone so profoundly wrong, so repeatedly, in dealing with the obvious threat that has come with living in such a delightful location. It is an ancient saw that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it and this sorry litany of failures bears that clear witness.

The briefest of geographic examinations makes clear the extended basin within which the catchments of the Brisbane River lie – both riverine and large creeks. Again, examination of early records make clear that similar Queensland coastal rivers have wrought havoc back into ancient times whether recorded by first nation stories or physical evidence alike.

The Brisbane river basin floods – regularly and catastrophically – that has to be clear to most but not always to those who sing to another tune. This book is an unhappy record of those who  forget and those who chose either to forget in order to profit and those who have a touching belief in the ability of human science to always contain nature.

There have always been three competing elements at work in this context – water supply to the population – flood mitigation – and water usage for agriculture and horticulture. Water supply continues, with a fast growing population, to be an issue as it is at present (on the verge of new restrictions). The Millennium drought saw government invest heavily in a pipeline network, desalination and recycled water potential. It is symptomatic of this book that these works generated endless complaints about their costs and utility even while desalination is on standby at present and only stupid media-fuelled fears prevent the general use of recycled water. Agriculture supply remains an enduring problem but the focus today is more on inland supply (Bradfield scheme redux) and the Burdekin/Fitzroy basin.

The other major remaining concern is flood mitigation where Margaret Cook makes it clear the historical preference has been for engineering solutions such as dredging, river bank training and dam construction. It has been demonstrated that the former yields minor mitigation effects while the latter has been repeatedly tried but regularly fails in the face of the multifactorial causation of flood peaks which could only be combatted by an uneconomical battery of dams. You can’t dam everything and you certainly cannot prevent storm surges. It has also to be true that development pressures to utilise and profit from known flood plains have also been a constant historical feature. Once such developments are permitted to occur, the pressures of legal compensation have all levels of government retreating from the possibility of compensation pressures. It is no accident that often (but not always) flood plains have been historically occupied by the poorer classes who are least likely to be able to bring pressure to bear though some with money also want their riverside views at literally any price. The same pressures can be seen at work in the wildly inflated prices in many city real estate markets to this day with the same culpabilities.

Home owners can raise their houses so that the main part of their dwelling will escape the worst of floods (50 years, 100 years, 200 years, 1000 years) while others will simply prefer to renovate and continue to gamble. Meanwhile the cost of resumptions such as Northey St remain prohibitive along with the question of what could be done with land reclaimed. So, with attempts made at the kinds of interventions listed above, tackling the problem of dealing with flood prone properties continues to evoke some chin-wagging but not much else.

This is an interesting, informative and well argued book. Cook argues carefully from the usual reports from State and civic governments supplemented by letters and public statements – and there are  lot of them. She also has collected interviews and public statements especially from those directly affected. It is sad that its carefully considered message will not be proclaimed and understood as widely as it deserves to be.

(BCC library has 34 copies)

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