October reading

The uncommon appeal of clouds

By Alexander McCall Smith (2012)

This was my second attempt with Alexander McCall Smith and things were a little better this time, though I am no convert. If you enjoy a somewhat slight story line that develops slowly, if at all, accompanied by some tedious rather shallow philosophising, this is the book (and presumably the series) for you. If you have a thing for Poussin and enjoy food and wine and music, there might be enough to get by though rhapsodising over NZ sauvignon blanc doesn’t do it for me.

The key character, Isabel Dalhousie has a pretty good thing going in terms of her lifestyle and so can afford to engage in some vaguely Miss Marplish activities. In this case, a picture (the Poussin) goes missing and it is possible that its owner or either of his children could have been responsible. We are therefore treated to some pleasant and detailed descriptions of Edinburgh and Scots locations and lots of musings over possible motives and associated moral issues. Unfortunately, I like more action in this type of novel (Jack Dickson the gay ex-detective in Glasgow is more to my taste) and learned to brace for tedium when the philosophising flag went up.


By Christopher Hitchens (2012)

From June 8, 2010 until he died in Houston on December 15, 2011, Hitch (can I be familiar?) added a new string to his bow. He had been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer which progressed to being untreatable and while keeping up his barrage of writing and speaking engagements wrote about his experience, feelings and thoughts literally up until his sudden death.

This slim volume (104 pages) is pure Hitchens as he keeps up his targeting of what he sees as false while looking deeply into his experiences, his pain and the transformative effects of his illness on his daily life, his relationships and his view of the world. He looks analytically at how others view his condition and the changes this can bring out in his dealings with those around him. He is not always happy with what he experiences and keeps on hankering after change.

It is a wonderful memorial (in all its senses) that while Hitchens continues to deny religion and finds his comfort in confronting his situation openly and honestly, he never loses his sight of his sharing the human predicament. While the focus is on Hitch, this book is about all of us. The cover illustration is perfect.

ImageDavo’s little something

By Robert G Barrett (1992)

Robert G. Barrett died of prostate cancer September 20, 2012. He can lay claim to selling over 1,000,000 books (more than 20 titles) in Australia many of which popularised his knockabout Queensland character Les Norton, the nightclub bouncer. Who could resist such titles as ‘You Wouldn’t Be Dead for Quids’, ‘The Boys From Binjiwunyawunya’,  ‘ And De Fun Don’t Dun’,  ‘Mud Crab Boogie’ ‘Les Norton and the Case of the Talking Pie Crust’ and ‘High Noon in Nimbin’ – all of which combined clever story lines, wonderfully characters (if not always believable) set in believable locations and always a delight in poking fun at political correctness.

All this might imply that ‘poofs’ might get a hard time in these stories and there is occasional stereotypical language but usually from the less desirable characters. From this generalized viewpoint ‘Davo’s Little Something’ is something of an oddity in the Barrett canon.

Instead of Les Norton, the central character is Bob Davis, a rough diamond butcher working for a supermarket at Bondi Junction. It should be noted that Barrett is a Bondi boy (his mother a Bra girl) and that he worked as a butcher in Bondi. As well as the expected local characters, he must have met and known gay men in that context and had some understanding of their experiences and this shows.

For anyone who knew Sydney and its cultures and tribes in the 80’s this novel is totally evocative. Specifically, it is about the twin themes of revenge and extreme physical violence and begins with a fatal gay bashing. The writing may not be great but the settings are very accurate and Barrett works hard at exploring the mindset of the basher and the bashed. If for this reason only, this novel resonates strongly for any gay man who has been bashed.

Bob Davis (the butcher) is an easy-going character with a divorce under his belt and an eye out for a good time. He has his love interest eye on a young girl working in his local chemist shop when he accepts an invite to a Santana concert in the city (Byron Blues March 2013). The offer comes from his hairdresser (he has just blessed him with a rat’s tail much to the delight of his co-workers) whose live-in partner cannot make it.

Returning to their parked car after the concert, they are set upon by six skinheads, Davo is severely bashed and Wayne the hairdresser is gruesomely bashed to death. It should be noted that the descriptions of violence here and later in the novel are not for the squeamish.

Davo emerges from his coma a changed man. Anger, hatred and a thirst for revenge rapidly overcome his persona and set him on a pathway of gradual alienation from his past as he deviously and obsessively changes himself through inhuman exercise and planning into a killing machine and eventual mass murderer. The ‘little something’ is a device he creates to make his forays into murder more effective and efficient.

The end is inevitable and almost unimportant. The real value for me in this book was (and still is) the rare insight it offers into the nexus between the basher and the bashed. It may not offer healing but it does give some insight.

ImageWonder bread and ecstasy

By Charles Isherwood (1996)

I apologize to anyone who has never viewed any video porn and/or those who disapprove of it strongly on moral grounds. Like many gay men, however, I have looked at (used?) porn throughout my adult life and have acquired an interest or preference for some performers (actors? models?) – one of whom was Joey Stefano (1964 – 1994), born as Nicholas Anthony Iacona jnr (Greek Pennsylvania), died of an accidental overdose at 26.

I can say that I have probably only read a few other (auto) biographies of porn ‘stars’ including James Melson, John Preston, Casey Donovan, Scott O’Hara and Aiden Shaw though this does seem to be a recent growing market.

There has to be some value in looking into the lives of the people who perform in this entertainment field and this is a reasonable example. If there were two dangers in this writing niche they would have to be glamourizing what is not glamorous or being overly censorious. This offering is a quite hard-hitting exposé of the industry and those who work in it while offering a clear and unsentimental but understanding picture of Stefano. The title refers to the staples of Joey’s adult diet.

Lawrence Mass once opined ‘Many homosexuals are obligatory narcissists’ which was probably part of his original psychiatric background. The ‘many’ lets some of us out but is probably true of many porn performers and Joey was no exception to the point of self-destruction. In fact, it would seem that Stefano increasingly could only find a sense of himself with a simpatico partner in front of the cameras. His personal love life was disastrous and his relations which others in a notoriously treacherous and demanding industry were similarly marked by some acceptance, his willing overuse (he needed the money) and eventual betrayal. His frequent excursions into strip dancing and prostitution can be seen in the same light.

Stefano was unusual as a ‘bottom’ when he won Best Actor at the 1991 AVN awards but his star waned fast as his demons continued their work along with HIV, which he ‘medicated’ with Special K and ecstasy.

This is not an aspect of life that some people want to know about, much less read. However, I think we owe it to people like Stefano-Iacono to try to learn and understand more about the people who are part of an industry that is always capable of consuming them in turn.

ImageIn The Shadow Of The Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World

by Tom Holland (2012)

Tom Holland is a talented writer of fiction and non-fiction also with credits as a writer and presenter for TV. He is a classicist with adaptations and translations of Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides and Virgil to his name. In 2007 he was awarded the Classical Association prize as ‘the individual who has done most to promote the study of the language, literature and civilisation of Ancient Greece and Rome’. The Plantagenet’s are next.

He is the author of ‘Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic’,  ‘Persian Fire’ which focussed on the Graeco-Roman wars and ‘Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom’. He is thus extremely well-equipped to look into the impact of the earlier influences of the Greek, Roman Jewish and Persian worlds on the creation of Islam and especially the formation of the Qur’an and its surrounding hadiths – never a popular subject with Muslim fundamentalists.

Given its contemporary context, this is a potentially valuable book as it contextualises the emergence of Islam, the Qur’an as an inviolate text and the supporting nest of hadiths that evolved around it. I have never encountered such an accessible work on this topic before and can recommend it whether the reader has some background experience and/or knowledge or not. However, it is not always easy going and requires focus particularly on the early caliphates.

One of Holland’s strengths can sometimes be a drawback. He has skill as an occasional novelist and regularly brings this bear to enliven otherwise clear and detailed exposition. Some may find this effective, others may find it distracting.

Describing Manichaeanism from the viewpoint of its opponents

‘Even more loathsome, in their opinion, was the manner in which he had served as bawd to any number of rival faiths, forever mating and cross-breeding them, until, brought to life out of  all the endless miscegenation, there had emerged the deformed hybrid that was his own sinister compound of teaching.’ P 322

While I would not judge the book as offensive to Muslim sensitivities as the same approach is applied to Christianity (in assorted forms), Jewry, Zoroastrianism, his demythologising the creation of the Qur’an and the location and role of Mecca could raise some hackles. There are no guarantees in an endeavour such as this and one hopes that Holland’s insurance is in good shape.

Holland draws in the influences of Persia, Arabia, Judaism, Rome (old and new) Christianity and pestilence to examine the slow motion collapse of the past order and the incorporation of that past into emerging opportunities. He makes a strong case that the emergence of Islam was a slow process and despite Islamic claims of ‘revelatory exceptionalism’, it took time and opportunism for Islam as it is known historically to incorporate elements of the past and the emerging network of hadiths to create a basis for a new and enduring super power.

~ John. C


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