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Down The Hume by Peter Polites 2017. A review by John Cook

This is a somewhat bleak but revealing read. That said, there are occasional flashes of humour and worthwhile insight into some aspects of gay life with which I have had almost no experience. Count the ways. I have had a little to do with Greek-Australian culture but not a lot. I smiled at the description of weekend ‘Greek school’ but, apart from Tsolkas and a few others, I didn’t have a lot of insight – especially into a  substantially dysfunctional family (father rejecting and vicious – mother loving, supportive but addicted and delusional) living in heavily ethnic urban areas. The world of drug use is not new to me and the author largely focuses on a painkiller with a name that echoes a range of commonly abused substances. I have had virtually no experience of ‘Muscle Mary’ culture but have been a long-time observer of the semiotics of gay dress and speech which feature heavily in this story (especially clothing).

The central character, Peter, has a number of names including nicknames that make things a little confusing as it is the same for his lover and the author’s Christian name as well. Peter works in an old persons’ nursing home that is largely drawn with frightening accuracy from the viewpoint of a lowly worker who actually interacts with the patients he services. This provides an ancillary story of partnered older gay men and their treatment by family and society. Peter’s story has very little in the way of silver lining. He is deeply attached to his mother yet they share a key addiction. The back story of his family provides some answers for his current position and condition and is believable if somewhat unyieldingly gloomy.

His love life with his lover, Nice Arms Pete, is a case of hope over certainty (unfaithfulness, chemical, physical and emotional abuse) and there is a painful process of disabusement (is that a real word?) that readers follow (use of some typical modern hand-held technology here) wondering where it will end for Peter. The conclusion is more in the same vein with lots of tortured thinking and responses to admittedly often unpromising urban environments. I found myself yearning for some more hopeful and positive responses to this world for someone.

The sense of disillusion is quite overpowering in this novel and is matched by the story’s progress through the streets, parks and suburbs of an inner-urban environment (part of the departure route from Sydney on the old Hume Highway). Central to Peter’s world and life is the issue of chemical use whether it is Nice Arm’s use of testosterone and other unguessed chemicals often abused in his circle or Peter’s desire to dull his and his mother’s emotional pain with inevitable consequences.

This is a kind of variant on the road trip novel that is a journey through shadows and darkness.


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The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee 2017. A review by John Cook

This is officially labelled Young Adult Historical fiction but I found it to be an eminently enjoyable adult read  with some required but not overdone sex. Once again, I have to say ‘If only when I was young – you lucky readers of today!’) Given the cover and a lifetime of reading novel and plays of eighteenth century high jinks Henry “Monty” Montague’s life and travels seemed to have lots of promise and the author delivers. Most know about the Grand Tour and the subtext of sexual adventurism goes without saying. Our Monty, however is a wild lad well before departing on tour with a taste for both male and female conquests (though very much in tune with his schoolboy’s crushes) and a taste for heavy partying in general. His father, however, is unimpressed and foolishly seems to think that a European tour accompanied by his No 1 unfulfilled crush Percy (a handsome part coloured youngman with a good education) and a barrel of threats will turn him into a junior version of himself – fat chance! Add to the mix his feisty self-educated sister, Felicity, who is destined for a nun dominated finishing school and you have a great young adult mix. Incidentally, Felicity emerges as a very strong reasonably sensible character and often a foil to Monty’s way fullness.  It is claimed there will be sequel built around her to be titled ‘A Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy’.

I expected a fairly mindless romp, yet we are given a winding tale that visits the French court, Barcelona, Venice and eventually Santorini always with the background story of a lost/stolen artefact that may have life saving/ changing properties. This against a background that mixed ancient alchemy and more modern science. There is adventure, chases on the road with highwaymen, carnival people and pirates on the sea. There is an acceptable mish mash of contemporary story and movie themes that culminates with a Raiders of the Lost Ark scene that takes place in a tunnel beneath a sinking island in the venetian lagoon! Monty, at the beginning of tour, voices his prospects for a good time …

‘As we sail across the Channel toward Calais, this is what I’m thinking of—Percy and me and England sinking into the sea behind us, and also French lads and their tight breeches and, zounds, I can’t wait to get to Paris. I am also maybe a tiny bit drunk. ‘

It is important to note that the series of incredible adventures are not that in isolation – there is growth, change and development within the characters which is gradual and often partial only – very realistic. I thought the reaffirming aspects on personal growth, race relations, sexuality and role of women to be very positive without being in any way didactic. After one of many learning experiences (from disaster) Monty says “Perspective is a goddamn son of a bitch.”

All told, a tremendous romp of an adventure but with lessons that can be learned along the way. I would love to hear more adventures of this tearaway three.

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Populate and Perish by George Haddad 2016. A review by John Cook

A clever title that says something to my generation (Artie Calwell and ‘populate or perish) and pulls in a series of evocative scenes and moments ranging from inner and hip Melbourne to Lebanon (city and rural life). If anything, therein lies its weakest point for me. I had the feeling that these had been inspired, crafted and then loaded into a moderately spare tale which (it has to be as a novella). I still liked it very much and can see where the references to Christos Tsiolkas are relevant but less savage and eerie but still harsh. The real world of rural life now and in the past in the Mountains of Lebanon can be severe enough. I enjoyed my time in Lebanon which is a surprisingly beautiful and fruitful place just riven with old conflicts.

I found the writing very evocative – the Smith St sex clinic (I used to get my HIV tests done in Melbourne and Sydney in the Joh years) – and Lebanon which I have been privileged to visit. Many Australians lump all Lebanese under one banner (hoodlums and terrorists) and are largely unaware of the complexities of life in the home country and how they are often imported and may remain unresolved in Australia. This hardly new in a country that had imported Irish divisions, religious divisions (Catholics and Masons in my childhood), and assorted other Asian and European schisms especially from the former Yugoslavia.

The narrative is built around Lebanese immigrants Nassim – Nick and his sister Amira with needed outriders – their separated mother who bound the two together (they are not exactly migrant success stories) – some Aussie (Melbourne) relatives and family in Lebanon (linked by their mother’s sister) and the ‘kalb’ (the dog father who disappeared/ abandoned the family). His strand is  a constant throughout with varying degrees of presence. Given the somewhat feckless lives of Nick and his sister (well sketched out especially Nick’s dealings as a prostitute with his aging clientele), the sudden desire to trace the disappearing dog after their mother’s death becomes the main thrust of the narrative. This is where things get a bit like ‘Europe Dead’ but less weird.

There is a final twist to the tale that leaves Nick and his sister with more adjustments to make and the reader is left to hope that they might become more focused on more conventional aspirations and ‘grow up’ perhaps even back in Lebanon.

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Enigma Variations by Andre Aciman 2017. A review by John Cook

I feel I have been sentenced, cooped up on a cruise ship as I am with two Aciman texts to read while I have started the more recent first – probably the wrong order of attack.  Nevertheless, it seems appropriate as people watching, listening and speculating is a popular activity for me on board, glass in hand. Aciman has a complex background, lectures prestigiously in Literary Theory and is a Proust expert. This shows as he brings an exquisite eye to thoughtfully examining and evaluating a series of evolving scenarios combining exhaustive analysis of what his characters are thinking/ doing with a delightful eye for beautifully evoked contexts, especially Summer on the Italian Riviera (no place names supplied).

This novel, and I suspect his previous, is about people observation but very internally and at great breadth and depth. Therein lies its great appeal or otherwise. Some will enjoy the depth of self-analysis and speculation involved while others may find it extremely tedious and self-absorbed. It is about a young boy (12 – 13 years old), Paul, initially as a youth and later a mature man, who responds in minutiae to what is said to him, a look, a glance, certainly every e-mail (later) is checked and examined for its meaning and significance. The mature man opens the story returning to the scene of his growing sexual focus as a bearded older man who wants to get to the bottom of the disappearance of his youthful focus, Giovanni the furniture repairer. He had been so obsessed with this 20-something handsome individual, he even ‘apprenticed’ himself to him in order to be closer to his physicality.

The style is easy enough to read though shot through with many literary and place references (Italian Riviera, NY Manhattan and Oberlin College). There are plenty of allusions to classical literature while old movies and opera are also mined as points of interest – again a problem for some readers. I will repeat it has to be said that problems may arise for some readers with these detailed external references and the extended nature of the self-examination especially with a young person however privileged and remarkably self-aware.

The piece is essentially about the nature of relationships seen from a very personal viewpoint – how they are initiated, play out and/or are incorporated into different phases of a life. In this sense, I enjoyed this kind of play as I have often reasoned that a great strength of the gay life (when seized) is the possibility of structuring one’s relationships without heteronormative requirements and with a fluid sexuality – certainly that is so in this case.

Add in the fact that the Paul’s voice is strongly two dimensional. He is intensely physically aroused and in search of physical satisfaction primarily and initially yet he is simultaneously constantly questioning and analysing the nature of his relationships, their progress and possible outcomes. This means that there is a continuing interchange between his physical life and his musings upon it. The writing on his physical observations, needs and responses is arresting and often lyrical.

There are three main phases in the novel which occasionally link and reference with answers to questions previously formulated. The first is his early adolescence (15-16 years old) enjoying his annual family summering on the Italian Riviera – is it an island? I am not sure. Certainly, the evocation of space, time and his budding sexuality is excellent, there is a mid section in NY focussing on a battered tennis centre in Central Park where he encounters someone who could become his rock bottom (and very understanding) partner. This is not to say that a publishing career and wife are not simultaneously possible – they are. There is a semi-final relationship which involves looking into his mid-years past and I found this extremely unlikeable – couldn’t bear the woman. And finally there is a coda ‘almost’ relationship that brings into focus those that are more enduring, even if surprisingly so. I now go to read ‘Call Me By Your Name’ which Google informs me has recently received been filmed with rave reviews. I look forward to it.

Clever, very clever, too clever perhaps, I think, for some readers. I enjoyed its detail and scope but failed to make the journey completely.

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Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman 2007. A review by John Cook

As I have noted elsewhere, this title has been filmed (including the peach scene) and I look forward to it very much. The filming of that scene is symptomatic of much of what the book is all about.  The scene could be taken as a piece of tasteless (sorry) piece of cheap porn, yet in the book it s a remarkable moment of intense sensuality linked to a metaphoric view of the nature of life and the world. Oddly it is too easy to make too much or too little of the scene on its own. Each reader must respond for themselves.

This relates to another key element in this book which is repeated in his more recent ‘Enigma Variations’ – the role of antiquity, philosophy and music. The handsome young (twentyish) American professor, Oliver, arrives as a working guest at the generational Italian Riviera seaside home of the incredibly precocious 17 year old Elio. Oliver is revising his manuscript on Heraclitus whose philosophy illuminates much of the views and behaviour of the key novel characters who are often intensely sensually located in their place and moment yet equally and intensely aware of the transient nature of experience and changeability.

I found this a very satisfying work at a number of levels. The locations and primary and secondary characters are a delight to experience and evoke brilliantly any reader’s favourite Summer holiday experiences (Caloundra and Straddie for me). Any experience of the Ligurian coast can only intensify this pleasure and satisfaction.

Young Elio is in some respects a typical adolescent, moody, more than a little self-centred yet precociously talented, skilled and knowledgeable (a professor’s son) who is hyper sensitive to his constantly challenging and developing self-awareness. He is ripe physically and ready for change.

Change is supplied by his fellow (quiet) Jew Oliver who erupts relatively briefly into his Summer holiday world and rapidly presents challenges to Elio’s previously presumed heterosexuality. Oliver does not seem to doing this deliberately but there is a clear growing physical intensity between the two as they dance around the central issue of their mutual attraction. Elio’s fascination for Oliver’s bathers and underclothes and their fetishization rings alarmingly true. Again, I look forward to how the film will handle this.

Eventually there is a resolution that sees each concede ground and achieve a brief period of intense sexual pleasure. Typically, however, even as this is occurring, there is meditation on its transience. At the very least, Oliver has to return to the US and Elio is still experiencing heterosexual urges with Marzia which he consummates. There is a brief stay away from the seaside at a Roman book promotion. This was an experience both ecstatic and rather earthy which again allows Aciman to contrast the experience, its memory and the context with a series of brilliantly executed word pictures – delightful!

There has to be a resolution and this is supplied initially by a ‘father’s chat’ of great compassion and wisdom and the passage of time which both protagonists experience as Oliver announces his marriage plans and their eventual outcome. This phase continues later in the US when the two meet and its seems there is still an interest that goes beyond academia but no more. This process intensifies when Oliver pays a return to the Italian house where Elio now lives with his mother only. They bond over the death of Elio’s father and the reader is left with Elio musing over the reality and nature of their relationship concluding that if there remained more, Oliver should “look me in the face, hold my gaze, and call me by your name.”

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The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay & Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein 2017. A review by John Cook

This is an extraordinary and interesting book that I especially savoured as I have a long term interest in issues of personal power development and how ruptures in its development can lead to a remarkably wide variety of often bizarre behaviours. Author Sarah Krasnostein (American lawyer and recent wife of Charlie Pickering, if you care) has seized on the remarkable (that word again) life of Sandra Pankhurst, who is a case study in her own right but who moves through a working environment heavily populated with individuals suffering with similar problems. Sandra (Peter originally) is the successful boss of a trauma cleaning firm (with a very wide range of jobs, however) and so the author presents episodes from Sandra’s life alternating with vignettes of the lives of her deceased or psychologically disturbed clean-up clients. This is a genuinely fascinating read that is engaging, frightening and stimulating to varying degrees and I highly recommend it as evidently does the BCC library.

Peter to Sandra is a tale in its own right commencing with the appalling abuse of an adopted child who found himself on the outer with his abusive adoptive Catholic father especially after other birth children arrived in the family. We have all read of similar alcoholic abusive parents but this is one is at least offered with some degree of explanation (possible PTSD). This sense of difference in a child who showed capability and lovingness was further complicated by an emerging awareness of homosexuality masked within the need to display competing conventional heterosexual behaviours. This led to marriage and children with the usual hidden homosexual life. What followed involved being a husband and father of two sons, drag queen, sex reassignment patient, sex worker, rape victim and madam, taxi-scheduler, businesswoman as funeral director and hardware shop proprietor, and trophy wife and eventually the remarkably the caring boss of her own trauma cleaning firm. The book has plenty of illustrations and it is fascinating to see the tall blonde good-looking figure of Peter/Sandra move through their various iterations to the final subject of the book.

What Sarah has cleverly done is to alternate episodes of this life with tales of jobs to which Sandra is called with her team (also interesting – who finds themselves in this kind of work?). These range from late-discovered deaths and suicides through obsessive-compulsive hoarders to meth labs. Each of these vignettes alone is capable of stretching and developing reader interest as the author weaves through them the expressed interest and reaction of Sandra as she undertakes this work in its broadest sense – she often does a lot more than the simple cleaning tasks. Krasnostein works hard at trying to develop an overarching view that encompasses Sandra’s life and her current work and this for me is the principal weakness in the text. She is inclined to spend a little too much energy on that process and her language while often helpfully descriptive is, at times, inclined to be over ‘flowery’ which needed some editing.

None of this detracts for me. This is a remarkable piece of writing, the more so as a first published offering and I recommend it without hesitation. You will find yourself in for a roller-coaster ride that will interest, intrigue, appal and uplift by turn.


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Death In Venice by Thomas Mann (1912…2004). A review by John Cook

I have made an effort (probably failed) with the two books suggested for this meeting that I have read before and also viewed a film version to try to see this and ‘Brokeback Mountain’ as a first reader. It is probably impossible because there are so many visual scenes and verbal exchanges as well as memorable music that stick in one’s mind that link the two.

It had been a long time since reading ‘Death in Venice’ and I was surprised at how off-putting for many new readers it might be. I say that on two grounds. First are the lengthy, almost tiresomely long references to classical philosophy and literature that underpin the newly ‘Von’ Aschenback’s mindset and behaviours. These are understandable as the underpinning for Gustave’s gradually sundered psyche as his prim obsessive stoicist past and its rewards are gradually opposed by the awakening of his suppressed interests and desires when he contemplates what beauty personified might mean to him. There isn’t the slightest doubt that much of the writing is highly insightful of a mind at the time of writing with the classics drenched education that was the norm. Given my own education, I can accept a lot of what is said and understand the conventional Dionysian/Apollonian division and recognise it in so many instances such as the visiting entertainers at the hotel, their behaviours (revelries) and even the repeated red colour. For many contemporary readers, I suspect grasping this would involve some more careful Googling and skimming chunks of the text.

Second, we live in an age of high alertness for anything that hints of paedophilia and despite Gustave’s fawning deferential approach to the object of his desire, a 14 year old youth, and the fact that he perishes before he can do much else, many modern readers would respond with extreme distaste to the gathering obsession and feel it is appropriate to the hot house atmosphere of Venice and the threatening pestilence that Gustave dies like an over-cultivated botanical specimen. I acknowledge the very recent ‘Call me by Your Name’ and similar work but the fact that the original Tadzio may have been 10 years old is in another very different dimension.

All the above said, I still think this novella is, for me, a remarkable piece of writing particularly for its time, with clear insights into the then contemporary society (two years before the Great War), how a powerful mind and intellect at any time can fall into a similar dichotomy and some wonderfully evocative and descriptive prose.

Of course, it is hard to shake-off the Bogarde/Visconti experience though that should be seen as complementary only while this is a read that has so many potential levels to excavate once you have allowed yourself into its world and if you can put aside the unacceptable nature of where Aschenback’s obsession may be leading.

There a lot of fascination surrounding the origins of this story and the most recent I can recommend is ‘The Real Tadzio of Thomas Mann’ by Gilbert Adair in ‘The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide’ of November 14, 2017. There is an extract at Adair has written of most relevance ‘Love and Death on Long Island’ (1990) which has been seen as a movie and a stage musical featuring an older and younger man thereby continuing this theme in a somewhat more acceptable circumstance.

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