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The Pacific Room By Michael Fitzgerald (2017) . A review by John Cook

The Pacific Room

As I write, I have a vague memory of seeing a photo of Robert Louis Stevenson in front of his home at Apia, Samoa in a school reader and this added to my memories of his adventure works which I read along with those of R.M Ballantyne’s ‘The Coral Island’ (so very homoerotic!), H Rider Haggard and the Baroness Orczy. His writing and retreat to Samoa with his American wife to gain respite from his tubercular condition always had a degree of exoticism and romanticism that attracted the young.

Michael Fitzgerald has spent a lot of time investigating aspects of Stevenson’s life on his island retreat and focuses on two aspects. One is the visit to Samoa by the relatively unknown painter Girolamo Nerli to paint the famous author (and the consequent contemporary investigative visit by Australian art historian Lewis Wakefield). The other is aspects of his life on the island with a focus on his acceptance by the Polynesian culture manifested in his support to local independence long with his interactions with local culture including his servant boy Sosimo and the local fa’afafine (best described in contemporary terms as transgender women). The fa’afafine phenomenon is not exclusive to Samoa or Polynesia and similar examples can be found in other cultures. It would seem, however, that the degree of their acceptance is relatively high in that case, though still sometimes fraught with difficulties as depicted.

I confess I took up this book with the above-mentioned memories very much in my mind but was also attracted by the theme of investigating sexual and gender variations. I cannot say I was totally disappointed, but the book was no detailed factual investigation. Rather it is an almost lyrical presentation with lots of evocative language swirling around Stevenson’s life and experiences, Nerli’s visit and Wakefield’s later experiences investigating this history and his own involvement with Teuila, a fa’afafine. If there was a major weakness for me, it lay in this language aspect as I often found this a little repetitive though interesting as the local environment is presented as having the power to suck these individuals into some kind of vortex of tropical exoticism.

Dubbed Tusitala (the teller of tales) by the locals Stevenson struggles with his disease but finds succour with the local people, Nerli passes through and is largely forgotten while Wakefield has psychological and medication problems that partly contribute to the shifting moods and portrayals. This work is very much a matter of taste and I am sure many will enjoy the mixture of facts, fiction and exotic location and language.

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The Next One Will Kill You by Neil S. Plakcy (2016). A review by John Cook

The Next One

I write this sadly as Florida and some of the scenes from this book are emerging from a savage hurricane battering. Sadly also because I took up this book as it is set in Miami and its cultural melting-pot environs and I am a fan of the ‘Dexter’ series set likewise. I also enjoy a detective story that is realistic without recourse to wildly unlikely technological interventions. I got what I wanted as well as an enjoyable gay strand. This is not a romantic novel nor is it heavily erotic (as some recently read are). It does have a gay central character (Angus) who is experiencing a career change from accounting to starting as an FBI agent. He lives in, and enjoys, the lively multiculturalism of Miami and it substantial gay bar and club life. He is not obsessed, however and most of the gay characters and not heavily typically predatory especially Tom, the understanding, seen-it-all older man.

Angus has a backstory with family and a younger straight brother he is helping on his career path. I found him an interesting and engaging character who could be further developed along with his co-workers, friends and squeeze, Lester. Certainly, the author, Neil S Plakcy, has a successful background writing murder mysteries set in Honolulu around the character Kimo Kanapa’aka while this novel commences a new series which I hope continues. He and his partner live in Hollywood, Florida with their dogs (hope they are all OK) and he has written about dogs also.

We hear a great deal about FBI procedures reflecting the preparatory work done by the author at an agency school set up for that purpose and we hear regularly about basic procedures that need to be followed (how to conceal your holster under various shirts) as well as investigative choices that need to be made en passant.

The story line is good without being great with some telegraphed hints and some interesting developments – a baaaad lesbian character. It is a mixture of murder, drugs, a potential major jewel heist and credit card fraud. I liked the over-all tone of the book which is neither urgent, over-excited nor over-sexed – just enough to keep interest piqued.

The wordy title refers to an on-ops conversation that sets the mood as well as prospects for futures stories.

Vito came up behind me and clapped me on the shoulder, startling me. “Your first big op?” he asked.

Yeah.”

You piss your pants yet?”

I scowled at him. “I’m okay.”

He laughed. “Don’t worry if you get nervous, rookie. Happens to all of us. You know what I do?”

I shook my head.

I always say to myself, ‘It’s the next one that kills you,’ ” he said. “Not this op, but the next one. That’s how I make it through.”

I hadn’t been thinking about getting killed at all until then.

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Taming Toxic People By David Gillespie (2017). A review by John Cook

Taming Toxic People

I found myself enjoying this book more and more as I read on. David Gillespie is a Brisbane personality with a background that shouts high intelligence and independence, a shit-stirring polymath. I agree strongly with his thinking on schooling and support somewhat his views on sugar. When I read of this book I was concerned that he might muddy the waters on a topic (Psychopathy) that engenders disputation in the world of Psychology and might be a bit sensationalist.

Apart from his estimates of the frequency of presentation of the characteristics he describes (he does accent the fact that there are gradations), I found little enough to argue with and a lot to support and cheer on as he came to his final conclusions. As one who has observed the growth of Ayn Rand group think over many years and its poisonous effect on political, social and cultural life, Gillespie’s brief summation on the conflicting tendencies of individualism and collectivism was welcome reading.

His thesis is that extreme individualism provides the ideal circumstance for the promotion of psychopathic personalities of varying degrees with a prime example being the known behaviour of the present occupant of the White House. This doesn’t mean that this behaviour occurs only at such august levels. On the contrary, Gillespie points it out at work in the home (family and children), the workplace, relationships (of all kinds) and politics and criminality (!).

He is talking about extreme narcissism with individuals who display a grandiose sense of self-worth, lack of remorse or guilt, shallow emotional intelligence and little empathy. Such individuals can, and do, wreak havoc in the world around them while conniving at an image that is all fake and defensive (Jekyll and Hyde on steroids). He gives the key traits as :-

  • Charming

  • Self-obsessed

  • Fluent liar

  • Emotionally manipulative

  • Completely lacking in remorse or guilt

  • Emotional shallowness and callousness

  • No responsibility for their actions

  • Impulsive

  • Parasitic

  • Fearless

  • Highly controlling

  • Vindictive

  • Aggressive and intimidating

I must confess I have been aware of few such persons in my life space (though one only clearly springs to mind). I may have been lucky though I have spent a lot of my time in a working environment not known to be a happy hunting ground for this personality type (says Gillespie). I believe I detected one and my response was ratified by the guidelines Gillespie advocates.

Gillespie is a thorough researcher and provides a plethora of research and other findings to support his views though the average reader would not be much capable of challenging them. The book was structured simply and clearly to advance his argument and used clear language and examples to alert the reader to these behaviours and how to respond in the situations mentioned above. It is the kind of book that is full of ‘aha!’ moments as you recognise the behaviour types he is presenting and it all comes to life for you.

One example I savoured occurred when the author was setting out rules for dealing with a psychopath. Rule #6 Fact check everything they say included ‘Under no circumstances should you respond by divulging any information or by acting on the basis of the lie. When you are alone write down exactly what they said. It will come in handy’. This has been my golden rule in matters involving Human and Industrial Relations and it instantly reminded me of the behaviour of sacked FBI Director James Comey when granted a private (very) interview with President Trump.

When companies let psychopaths into the top job, they rarely recover. When countries let it happen, the consequences for all of us are even more dire.’

This is a book that might haunt you and I recommend it.

 

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Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol by Gyles Brandreth (2012). A review by John Cook

Reading Gaol

I had mixed feelings about this book. It is part of a series in which a contact between Oscar and Conan Doyle is conflated into a series of detective yarns reflecting that Oscar was the model for Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle that for Dr Watson. I find the whole idea not to my taste and utterly foreign to my reasonably extensive reading of the Wilde saga. That said, reviewers regard this as the best of the series as it devotes itself almost exclusively to Oscar’s time in gaol (principally Reading).

That made it for me as I have read of this aspect of Wilde’s life and have my own cheap knock-off copy the ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ with woodcut illustrations by Frans Masereel which I treasure. Wilde’s incarceration was fortuitous in the sad sense that he was able to give expression to so much of the inhuman physical and mental conditions experienced in new system jails that followed the American model and can be seen at our own Port Arthur penitentiary. Tourists are regularly horrified by the extreme isolation treatment practised there and its inevitable consequence in populating the adjacent asylum. There were concurrent others agitating for more human treatment but Wilde was able to express a heartfelt cri de coeur that few can disregard.

Brandreth, who is a remarkably prolific writer and producer (it is rumoured that Stephen Fry as optioned these stories for dramatization) blends detailed descriptions of places and real events with lashings of the epigrammatic Wilde and an unfolding detective yarn (poison – very Agatha Christie) which stretches from known events in the gaol to Wilde’s meeting with an entirely fictional Dr Quilp in exiled France. I found the mixture at time interesting, intriguing, even witty. However, I found it hard to allow it all to combine and could mostly only see the parts separately.

I still don’t think I want to read the other novels in the series but feel that the detective artifice is almost worth in this case as another opportunity to expose the inhumanity into which our species can so easily fall and the agonies of those who fell fowl of anti-homosexual proscription in the past. How many men, over the years have fallen into the same bind in which Oscar found himself yet escaped notice? He clearly loved his wife and children but found himself at war with his own nature – homosexual, bisexual, fluid, it really doesn’t matter. But here in this castled keep of cruelty its consequences are measured alongside the genuinely evil, mad, misfortunate and malformed.

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Beijing Comrades by Bei Tong Translated by Scott E. Myers Afterword by Petrus Liu (2016) . A review by John Cook

Beijing Comrades

I made my first visit of several to China in 1981 with the country emerging, battered, from the Cultural Revolution and the madness that followed. I was very interested in the sleeping giant that I perceived it to be with occasional glimpses of a reviving capitalist culture at all levels from the street vendor upwards while the dead hand of the Party remained in place. My travelling companion and I were both gay. I, being perennially cautious and fearful attempted no sexual activity while in the country (lots of spying, observation and note-taking) but my companion, always more adventurous, did so. I was amazed at what presented as being available, mostly very covert but sometimes more brazen, and so was eager to read this offering.

It appears to be rather like that group-created musical piece, the Yellow River Concerto, to have passed through a few hands and revisions from 1998 onward. The ‘cut sleeve’ and ‘divided peach’ passion have clearly been practised in China from time immemorial with all sorts of consequent attitudes and responses though some modern revisionist would like to think it is a Western perversion (seem to have heard that in lots of other places). My experiences indicated that it was certainly present and I was (and am) curious as to its historically more recent practice. I must thank Benjamin Law for his gentle and thoughtful exposition on more contemporary problems and struggles.

I found the story initially a little difficult with which to engage. The two worlds of the upwardly mobile entrepreneur (predatory?) Chen Handong with his cadre connections and the charming yet characterful rural Lan Yu are concisely described with occasional excursions into the physical world and climate that determine a lot of Chinese ritualised social behaviour. It does take time, however, to have more feeling for Handong as he finds himself in the classic situation of so many older gay men – having his cake and wanting to eat it. A lot of his initial responses seem self-centred in their defensiveness while Lan Yu is no conventional gold digger.

What saved the day for me were the detailed, almost feverish, representation of their sex as it matures (there is quite a lot of it) which presents as a secret shared experience that bonds the two while making them lovers in a dangerous shared conspiracy. It is this sense of separateness and the self-exploration it generates that leads both characters to gradually explore the nature of what they are sharing and what its future might be.

There is quite a lot of detail about daily lives in home, office and school which may surprise some readers with a one dimensional view of Chinese society at that time. The conventional struggle to satisfy family requirements and expectations and a social face are well represented as is Handong’s doomed marriage and its outcome. His family dynamic is particularly well spelled out. To give veracity there is even a passing recognition and involvement in the Tian an Men massacre.

The book is apparently now quite famous in Chinese gay culture and has had a film adaptation in 2001. The volume concludes with a basically somewhat interesting but rather tiresomely academic analysis by one Petrus Liu, an associate literature professor at Yale-NUS College in Singapore . It really isn’t exactly necessary for the experience.

In the light of the current atmosphere of debate over the survey concerning the acceptability of same sex marriage in Australia, I am reminded of what I have always considered to be one of great strengths of a gay life experience. Some may want marriage either as a mark of social acceptability or needed recognition of equality and I have no argument with either. On the other hand, the sexual outlaws of the past have always had to forge something for themselves in their relationships, sometimes something similar to the social norm, sometimes otherwise. However, it has had to be forged in the heat of shared individual experience and was stronger for it. The same can be said for the trajectory of these ‘Beijing comrades’.

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The Swimming Pool Library By Alan Hollinghurst (1988) A Home at the End of the World By Michael Cunningham (1990). A review by John Cook

A Home at the End of the World

 

The Swimming Pool Library

These books are suggested for reading this month by the group but I lacked the time to tackled them afresh. Accordingly, I offer my notes given to the group in 2014 when I last read Hollinghurst.

As part of my QRG duties, I re-read Hollinghurst, Alan. The Spell. Random House, London. 1998 and The Swimming Pool Library. Penguin, London. 1988.

It was an interesting experience to look back on these just as I had done so for Maupin. I didn’t find it as rewarding an experience.

I very much admire Hollinghurst’s capacity to use language – often it has great depth and is capable of stopping the reader in his/her tracks and gasping at the clarity and insight of what he has presented – an example would be his description very early in the book of William entering a public toilet as a row of melancholy hopefuls turn as one to inspect him – nice writing!. The unsparing truth of those lines is memorable.

Unfortunately, he also seemed capable of trying much too hard at times to display his skill and erudition (oddly enough, like some of his less likable characters). The book is set at a time (1982-3) before the plague descended and is there is much free and easy sex – both in the past and present. Unfortunately, most of the characters are not someone I would like to know (some might make an acquaintance). This is partly because they mostly seem largely stuck in a post-Nicholson era under attack from a hostile Tory government. If William seemed to learn anything as an outcome, there might be some kind of redemption. Otherwise it is cold, empty and unfulfilling.

It is marvellous what ten years difference can make. The Spell achieves a lot more than The Swimming Pool Library. The fine use of language is still there as well as the skilful description. However, neither is as forced or intrusive as in the former. Quite a few of the characters are still unattractive as human beings (more than necessary?) though there is a demonstrated capacity for growth, learning and change in some. The mooning over drug use is simply tedious and the focus on inter-generational relationships almost works. There is a matching exploration of trust and betrayal but this also falters. Apart from poor old James, there is no one else in the book I would care to know.

A more mature read with enough to interest, just not very memorable.’

While I still have my original copy of the Cunningham work, I have not re-read it in many years. What I do remember is somewhat limited relationship story – Cunningham has always been very good at chipping away at the detail of relationships especially as they change and morph. The locales were not very varied and action, apart from the relationships, was limited. This is not to deny Cunningham’s careful use of language. It was very much of its times with and AIDS concern. I remember the Karposi’s Sarcoma reference as it was very much of the time. In a strange way, not unlike the Hollinghurst book, it had a somewhat bleak atmosphere. Perhaps it was just a reflection of the times.

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Magpie Murders By Anthony Horowitz (2016). A review by John Cook

Magpie Murders

As the number of copies in the BCC library indicates, this is a very popular read and for good reasons. The street cred of Horowitz is as sizable as he is prolific. He is a dedicated Agatha Christie devotee, has written screenplays for the much admired Poirot series and Foyle’s war, was involved deeply in the ‘Midsomer Murders’ series, has written two new Sherlock Holmes mysteries and was even commissioned by the Ian Fleming estate to write a James Bond title and other reams of young adult titles.

Magpie Murders’ is a kind of focus or distillation of much of his product. There are so many echoes particularly of Christie and Midsomer Murders, the reader keeps on enjoying them as they are encountered in the locale, the characters and their motivations. I don’t think any reader could resist the constant temptation to read carefully looking for clues that might indicate how the twin plots might progress. I say twin plots because there is a set of ‘conventional’ but highly enjoyable village murders (wouldn’t be Midsomer without a plurality) and another mystery wrapped around the narrator publisher.

Horowitz even goes to the trouble of inventing a fictional author (German Atticus Pünd in place of Belgian Hercule Poirot) who is called to scenic Saxby-on-Avon with the secret of his impending demise. Will he solve the mystery before dying? Did the author finish the tale? If he did, where has the missing ending got to and why?

The book uses typography to present us with the manuscript of an incomplete murder mystery set in the usual village location with all the usual personnel and locations while we also (typographically) shift to a crime that occurs in the life of the fictional author’s fictional publisher, Susan. There are lots of references, clear and opaque, to Christie and Horowitz’s oeuvre but, I am sure, anyone innocent of those sources can still enjoy the book for a clever, rattling good tale. There are even anagram references if you care to try to anticipate them – no more hints.

Yes, there is a gay strand to the story which I will not canvass here, suffice it to say that while things may look at times as though stereotypes may prevail, you might be in for a surprise.

This is an excellent page-turner which was truly hard to put down.

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