John’s personal readings for October

GlasmanThe Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew by Eli Glasman. 2014

 This is a coming out story. It is set in Melbourne. It does a reasonable job of covering the usual soul-searching, angst and social, sexual and emotional tensions. So, what is remarkable or interesting about it? The answer lies in its setting. The hero, 17 yr old Yossi, lives within a ghetto within a ghetto. He is a Jew living in the heart of Melbourne jewry as a member of the ultra-orthodox messianic Chabad-Lubavitch Yeshivah and community.

Given the recent history of the manner in which this community has dealt with sexual abuse matters within its own school system which led to Melbourne victim Manny Waks suing Rabbi Mani Friedman who famously compared child sex abuse to diarrhoea – “It’s embarrassing but nobody’s business” and the departure of Manny’s parents to live in Israel after being sent to Coventry by the Melbourne Lubavitch community for raising the matter, this is a brave piece of ‘in your face’ writing.

The story is frankly average interesting, with reader interest arising not so much from Yossi’s personal struggles (self-denial to eventual self evaluation). At heart he has to worry about what kind of a Jew his feelings (and actions) make of him and his gradual interest and acceptance of the glamorously rebellious and interesting ‘outsider’ jewish friend Josh. For many readers there will be sheer curiosity into the details of a way of life that is foreign, if not downright odd, to most readers. Even the notion of the men’s ritual bath is well utilised as a symbol of the centrality of purity in fundamentalism as well as a focal point for Yossi’s need for self-evaluation without a total departure from his background culture and beliefs. As such, Yossi’s tale serves as a clarion call for the need for genuine self-evaluation and change so often lacking in fundamentalists of all religious varieties. It is thus a remarkably balanced offering from someone so young and still close to burning issues.

While Yossi’s coming out to his sister and father and their initial reactions are well conceived and expressed, the same cannot be said for the book’s conclusion which is a somewhat light and rushed though Glasman does not sucker for a fairy-tale romantic end.

(Bio note… Yossi is seventeen, the same age at which author Glasman developed Crohn’s disease and decided that ‘that orthodox life wasn’t for him. He went to study creative writing at the University of Melbourne, where he completed his Honours degree’. He is now 27 and lives in Brunswick)

BartlettThe Disappearance Boy by Neil Bartlett. 2014

I really took to this book which doesn’t come as a surprise as I have read most of Neil Bartlett’s work with the exception of the rather weird but reputedly insightful ‘Skin Lane’. It should be of interest especially to anyone interested in theatre tradition including vaudeville and especially stage ‘magic’ acts. The hero, Reggie Rainbow, is a ‘disappearance boy’ who works with a stage magician to engineer the conventional on-stage disappearance of a lovely lady. It is just possible that some might find the amount of detail devoted to explaining how ‘disappearing’ tricks are done rather burdensome. Personally, I found it interesting and it can be seen as analogous to much of the story construct and the nature of illusion.

The focus is on Reggie Rainbow who is orphaned as a child polio victim and placed in a seaside home where, without being brutalised, he is toughened into a loner young man who happens to have the appropriate physical characteristics for the job of a ‘disappearance boy’. The other theme arising from his childhood is his sorely missed Mother which leads to his tombstone conversations in isolated graveyards. This sounds quite bizarre yet produces moments of spiritual insight for the hero and is quite well handled – so much so that I found it tolerable and even poetic at times.

Reggie at 23 is also gay with a growing need for something more than the random momentary experiences of sexual gratification he has experienced to date.

The setting leads up to the eve of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in June 1953. The location is a seedy vaudeville theatre in Brighton. There is an irony overlaying this novel in that it presents the dramatic public interest in the televising of the crowning ceremony as a pointer toward what is going to be the downfall for at least the context in which disappearance acts are to be performed in future – stage vaudeville. There are changes under way and one can only wonder what the future will hold for Reggie.

Bartlett presents a beautifully sketched story line concerning the cad-like stage magician Teddy Brookes Esq who is a shameless manipulator and user of those around him as he struggles with his own personal and professional insecurities. A new lady assistant, Pamela Rose, joins the act and seems destined to be more grist to his professional and sexual ‘mill’ (couldn’t think of a better analogy). However, a bond has formed between Reggie and Pamela as the story accelerates into a surprising denouement that highlights the notion of illusion and self-delusion.

There is much to enjoy in the writing ranging from Reggie’s growing sense of finding himself and warmth in human relationships through to descriptive writing of the Brighton settings that is quite Dickensian. Bartlett uses the device of the personalised aside to draw the reader into identification with scenes and situations – “as you will remember”, “as I said”, “if you know what I mean”, “I’m sure you know the kind of thing.”

I found this a satisfying work in all senses, atmospherically engrossing and with little cause for complaint.

RohanTo Name Those Lost by Rohan Wilson. 2014

Rohan Wilson returns with not a sequel but a new story with a linkage to ‘The Roving Party’. The linkage is in the form of Thomas Toosey who was apprenticed to John Batman in the original blood-tinged dark story of the Tasmanian Aboriginals wars. Wilson has been linked with the work of Cormac McCarthy in confronting the darker personal sides of early histories in disputed landscapes and he seems still to be working through that relationship. This is a story set later in 1874 woven around real Australian real history – a typical boom and bust depression and the Launceston tax riots – told through the prism of two wounded men of similar background who yet become deadly (I mean deadly) enemies as a consequence of love of their families (however twisted and belated).

This one of those stories like a classic western where the focus eventually becomes that of who will be the last person standing – and that certain is the surprising case here. I believe that Wilson has an interest in screen writing and this is certainly the case with this tale. Much of the accurate place description (I have been to many of the locations he uses) is startlingly accurate and well expressed as in his previous novel, most often including an often appropriate sense of forboding. The action centred around a stolen £200 in banknotes, includes some predictably gory scenes and is ideal for the screen while the lightly sketched subsidiary characters such as the local Constables and the chinese proprietor of the ‘Star of the North Hotel’ are vivid enough for them to be easily realized.

The characterisation is interesting in that the reader encounters some pretty dark, desperate, and at, times viciously dangerous individuals. Yet their motivations and interests are made understandable and even sympathetic at times, leaving the reader with some work to do in unpacking the moral implications of the action. While it mostly works, I found some problems with the dialogue which, in a few cases, was extended to the point of my losing track and some interest. Perhaps it could be snappier in places.

I confess, as before, to a weakness arising from my family tree investigations for anything written about the early days of Tasmania and especially the North with its troubled history and Wilson has done a great service in breaking out of the tourist industry inspired strait jacket that covers most people’s interest in these early days.

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