Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx (1997). A review by John Cook

Thanks again for the opportunity to go back and look at a book I read a long time ago and which has been somewhat eclipsed in memory by the movie. I must say I was a little shocked at the difference. The short story is very brief indeed yet carries its message of the reality of intolerance with a harsh intensity that the movie’s less heavy touch (perhaps the wonderful scenery and soundtrack, while both are beautiful, may lessen the effect somewhat).

I take my cue from the name “Brokeback Mountain” which refers to an old horse, well-used, with a sway back. Proulx is deeply aware of the environment and culture of Wyoming with its strong element of a hard scrabble work ethic especially with the ownership of property and working it. This shows in the things like the physical descriptions of the characters initially and as they age (Heath Ledger is happily at a terrible disadvantage in this respect) and even the almost crue descriptions of sexual activity (between the men initially and between Ennis and Alma). Like a cold dark cloud, the reality of their lived lives intrudes per Joe Aguirre’s curiosity (expectation?) and the men are left with a series of heart-rending choices and compromises. Always in the background remains the threat of a violent response to what love they find and Proulx neatly combined these at the conclusion with the images of the tyre iron and twinned shirts – simple but magical.

Her detail is wondrously pointed whether it be an ashtray in Joe Aguirre’s office, that can of beans with the spoon handle, tales told or the glorious environment. It is worth noting that Proulx says one of her starting points was watching an older man in a Wyoming bar. Rather than looking at the available women, he watched younger men playing pool and that put a question mark in her mind about the life of a gay man in that role and place. It is also worthy of note that one year after the original publication in ’The New Yorker’ magazine that Matthew Shepard died on a fence post outside Laramie though the motivations for that event may have proved to be more complex and at least partly related to a more urban and university drug culture.

I was intrigued that the social order is the reverse of Australia with sheepherding taking second place to cattle grazing and property ownership These two young men are at the bottom of the pecking order along with immigrant Basque workers. Anyone who has encountered that traditional divide here would be aware of the issue (I once lived on the dividing line). Proulx gives enough background for both men to indicate that they have come from backgrounds of some difficulty (economic and personal) and are thrust almost as a last resort into their shepherding job. Of the two, Jack seems more likely to see the job in a positive light while Ennis (a true Stoic) accepts it as a step toward the very conventional dreams he holds. The difference in characters evolves, both with their dreams and compromises coming to a stuttering halt and an enshrined love. It is so hard to separate the final sentence of the story and the last moments of the movie …

‘There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it.’

Image result for brokeback mountain

‘Jack, I swear’.

I found ‘Brokeback Mountain: Story to Screenplay’ by Annie Proulx  Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana worthy of a read to learn more (BCC Lib  1 copy).


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Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (1985). A review by John Cook

Image result for oranges are not the only fruit

I read ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’ in 2012 and wrote a note on it for the group. That was not long after its publication and after a well publicized visit to Australia by the author. Much of what I said then remains true of this earlier book though with a softer edge, I thought.

The peculiarities of her writing voice can be traced back to her mother’s speech (including public voice) mixed with her grim yet homely Mancusian environment. There is a plainness of voice in this work that mirrors effectively a younger person’s view of their world. There has also to be a strong echo of the biblical material with which she was raised and that means reading and preaching the bible and signing hymns and songs. I found the references to ‘orange’ and pebbles at times irritatingly intrusive and possibly my only complaint against the writing. Winterson turns her biblical inheritance on its head by dividing her text into sections with the names of biblical books – all a bit sly and witty considering her content.

I am a little familiar with the world in which she was raised and can remember beach crusaders and camps seeking to fill in beach time for families on holidays. I am sure most parents thought that joining in the activities, song singing etc was harmless enough and I certainly thought so. Opposite my childhood home a local group built a Gospel Hall whose adherents were pretty fundamental in their dress, religious services and general behaviour. I often wondered what it would be like to be living inside such a group.

Winterson provides the answer with some extras. It is clear that many of the people living in the group were reasonably happy and well-adjusted mixed with the usual fundamentalist fear of the unknown and outside challenges. How they respond to these varies from those who supported Jeanette even to the point of their own imminent death and the utterly blinkered behaviour of her mother who seems to be only to happy for anything that creates redemption for herself and any others she meets. Yet she also displays either total disinterest or responses to what she sees as threatening her understanding rather than the well being of the other party – self obsessed.

On the whole, the Mother is presented as a dominating self-focused individual who is capable of all kinds of cruelty without seeming to be aware of the effect of her behaviour. Jeanette persists in the terms of the life with which she has been raised but the inevitable challenge of her growing intellect and awareness of her sexuality means that something is going to give. It is almost eerie to sense her growing struggle to develop and channel her self-awareness with so little external recognition – even her father is almost totally emotionally absent – perhaps his own way of dealing with his wife.

Finally, I found myself ruminating over the mother’s past lost love as a flash point for what she has turned to as a source of certainly and well-being. Sad

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100 Nasty Women of History by Hannah Jewell (2017). A review by John Cook

100 Nasty Women

I certainly got more than I anticipated with this work. I should have paid more attention to the cover featuring a sculptured female head adorned with cool sunnies. A book that consisted of a listing of the stories of 104 women of various degrees of fame, however well written, might run the risk of being a bit boring. However, the sunnies and the Trumpian reference to ‘nasty’ are key to how the presentation has been enlivened. The author has UK and American roots and street cred for her satirical writing on feminism and gender in print and on the net. Her attitude is disruptive, somewhat in your face and unapologetically pop.

The women presented cover all aspects of life with the emphasis (as promised) on the historical up to early modern times and are grouped roughly by time and behaviours.  I recognised quite a few of the entries which are necessarily brief and will send the reader off to Wiki-land or somewhere they can follow up on the introductions provided. I was particularly happy to see included one of my recently discovered heroes Jind Kaur, mother of the last Maharajah of the Sikh Empire, Duleep Singh. He was taken over by the villainous Brits (lots of that in Jewell’s book) and was absorbed and emasculated at Queen Victoria’s court. A recent movie has been made about his life but it has had lousy reviews. His mother, however, was very much a different kettle of fish and was an A grade thorn in the side of the Imperialist Brits. I really enjoyed William Dalrymple’s coverage of her life in ‘Koh-I-Noor’. It is clear that many of the very unknown examples in this book would welcome similar exploration. The British referred to this disruptive woman as the ‘Messalina of the Punjab’ which highlights their deep-rooted male fear of potentially disruptive feisty women (pace Queen Victoria) and the book repeats this theme in every possible situation. This is definitely NOT dead white man history which makes it a pity that not enough present day half dead white men either would not take the book up or would last more than 50 pages.

Part of the presentation is some ‘edgy’ language which can be interesting, alerting or simple fun depending on the context and I was untroubled by its nature though occasionally found it a bit repetitive. There is a minor use of acronyms and internet usages which were thoughtfully referenced at the conclusion. I admit to checking on a couple that I couldn’t guess. One very interesting suject was Hedy Lamarr which aroused ancient echoes in my memory banks and proved to be a fascinating example whose life and work still has an effect on us all to this day in a field still dominated by men – electronics.

All told it was an informative and fun read with insights into the lives of some genuinely scary and a lot of courageous and sometimes tragic women who have left their often un-sung, unhonoured mark on our lives (even men!).

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Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal by Benjamin Law (Quarterly Essay Issue 67- 2017). A review by John Cook

Moral Panic

Thanks again to Benjamin Law. I never tire of reading what he writes from his family joys and travails to very thoughtful pieces as a magazine contributor.  I am looking forward, as I write, to seeing him tonight on the panel of the last ABC Book Club forever – so sad.  He spoke to a QRG meeting about his published books to date a little while back and impressed with his pleasant lively personality combined with wit and understanding. It gives one hope that persons of his calibre continue to be leading lights in the LGBTI community.

You would have to have been hiding under the proverbial rock not to have heard something about ‘Safe Schools’ over the past couple of years. It is usually linked to the SSM debate and political correctness abuse (Rowan Dean – groan!) and a variety of accusations and fears that its implementation will lead directly to boys being commanded to dress as girls and a variety of exotic sex practices being taught to innocent children. At base, it is claimed to be yet another piece of Marxist social engineering.

Law has done a great service with this concise overview of the development of the approach, persons involved, number of schools (and Principals and P&Cs) who see it as a worthwhile endeavour and some of the key persons in its promotion. As the name implies, it is simply an attempt to encourage schools to put in place policies and practices of relationships that accept diversity and encourage thoughtful discussion and acceptance.

There has been a response from the usual right wing and fundamentalist sources that peaks in pure hysteria as represented in some opinion pieces and the usual suspect letters to the Editor. I have regularly heard people mouthing this rubbish in TV grabs. I also read a very few honest clarifications in some parts of the press but almost never on TV. In investigating the background and sources of the programme, Law puts his finger on bases for some of the hysteria especially the oft-repeated ‘Marxist’ claim.

It is clear to anyone keeping an eye of printed and TV opinion pieces that there are a number of regular offender voices that parrot this opposition and bile and it is equally clear that many of these are part of the Murdoch stable and associates. The way that this material is generated and propagated reminds the reader of how certain positions on key issues (global warming, tax etc) are generated within the Murdoch stable of interests. There needs to be no evidence of editorial direction when uncle Rupert has made his position clear especially at his annual gathering of minions who do the employing.

As Law points out …

“To read every article the Australian has published on Safe Schools is to induce nausea. This isn’t even a comment on the content, just the sheer volume … And yet, across this entire period, the Australian – self-appointed guardian of the safety of children – spoke to not a single school-aged LGBTIQ youth. Not even one. Later, queer teenagers who followed the Safe Schools saga told me the dynamic felt familiar. At school, it’s known as bullying. In journalism, it’s called a beatup.”

This is not a lengthy piece – an extended essay. It does, however, reward a careful reading in order to get a more measured view on what ‘Safe schools’ might look like.

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A Sinner in Mecca by Parvez Sharma (2017). A review by John Cook

A Sinner in Mecca

“Muhammad Saad al-Beshi raised his slender sword. Four feet of steel, gently curved at the end, gleaming in the merciless sun. Muhammad squinted at the sky, as if seeking approval from the Almighty. He then looked down at the figure, shrouded in white, kneeling beneath him. Muhammad commanded him to recite Islam’s testament of faith, the Shahadah: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.” The scene unfolded outside Medina’s Mandarin supermarket in a dusty plain roughly the size of a football field. A hundred yards away, a hushed crowd of about fifty men watched. A white-robed figure with a red-checked head cloth read out a long sharia sentence, including “engaging in the extreme obscenity and ugly acts of sodomy.” Six long-bearded men recited Quranic verses. One of them nodded at Muhammad, who stepped back and took his position to the left of the condemned, stretched his right leg forward, his left leg back and raised both arms in an elegant, almost yoga-like posture. And then, a clear, efficient blow, cleaving the neck swiftly. His head fell with a hollow thud that ricocheted across the entire field. Done with the macabre deed, Muhammad shouted, “Allahu Akbar!” (“ God is great”) and wiped his blade on a white cloth, which he tossed away. Some of the assembled witnesses murmured, “Allahu Akbar,” in response. The headless body swayed forward before momentarily snapping up, as if to attention, and then slumped finally to the right. My hand trembled. I dropped my iPhone onto the sand. I stifled a scream. A mutawa turned and headed toward me. “Let’s run and get lunch,” said my companion, picking up my phone. “There’s an Al-Baik nearby.”

This image reported in Sharma’s book is the pervasive image so many of us have of life under fundamental Sharia whether it be in Saudi Arabia (in this case), with Daesh (ISIS) and any of its growing franchises or parts of neighbouring Indonesia.  It is possible to see this in an historical context with other world religions but not to understand or excuse it in contemporary terms. Ass Sharma himself says ..

‘Not enough imams in Islam’s many worlds were delegitimizing the organization using Quranic principles during Friday sermons, when they do have the bully pulpit. And that is exactly what was, and still is, needed.

Easily said but what do we know and understand of the religious/political/ economic/social circumstances that lie behind this brutal phenomenon that absorbs so much public discussion, fear and angst? I suspect relatively little and many thoughtful people need to spend more time on its investigation. The book (with its many flaws) is a good starting point. The author is a Muslim Indian (a giant Muslim population group) who happens to be gay, is married, lives in the US and is an indie film maker. One was ‘A Jihad for Love’ which investigated the gay Muslim life and a second ‘A Sinner in Mecca’ on which this book is based. Sharma loves his religion and believes it is capable of achieving acceptance of homosexuality as has been the case with some Christian and Jewish elements. The prime immediate barrier lies with fundamentalism within the two major warring sects of his faith as well as their continuing hatreds and empire building. He sees the rise and changing face of Wahhabism enriched by its association with the ruling powers of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as the principal foundational layer that has spread world wide feeding on social and economic disorder wherever its occurs. It is highly ironic that the Western world’s insatiable greed for oil has helped create both the instability and fund the continuing troubles. There is no easy solution.

I became aware of the link between the adherents of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab when I read ‘The House of Saud’ many years ago (1981) and I have since visited many Middle Eastern and Asian predominantly Muslim countries. I read the Quran before visiting and have had some careful, modulated discussions and listened carefully. It is clear that key problems lie in the relationship between extreme religionist and power plays and there is nothing new in that – I write as fundamental conservative influences are preparing to seek modifications in the SSM bill when Parliament meets tomorrow.

In the interests of some brevity, I can only recommend this book for a look inside the mind of man wrestling with the same problems that good-hearted Christians and Jews (All people of that book and Abraham) as he undertakes in very modern (sometimes shocking) terms what the Hajj is about and its impact on those who undertake it (Camino anyone?).

The writing is at times scrappily annoying and hapahazard but I again suggest you persist to pick up on what this man has to say about his very beloved religion and how it affects him – and you. He is very human and his tale of his temptation mid-Hajj is revealing if disappointing for some.

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The Inexplicable Logic of my Life by Benjamin Alire Saenz (2017). A review by John Cook


You may remember my high praise for Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante and I had high hopes of this book with its similar cover artwork. I am a little more muted this time. It is still a beautifully written work though without the intensity of the earlier. It is also long and I wonder whether teen readers would persist, hopefully so.

It has to at all times be remembered that this is YA fiction with that audience’s demands. I think it is more successful, in some respects, in that niche, than the former. They key lies in the language and relationships. Saenz is a beautiful writer and, for my money, captures the teen voice very well though it may seem a little flat and clipped – that is the nature of the teen beast! There is beauty here though and I was intrigued at the use of texting (even in the same room or house) a personal horror of mine. It just makes sense here and is appropriate for this connected (when they want to be) generation. The book lacks the rapturous use of the desert environment though the echoes are still there (mainly in the weather) and well used – that key mulberry tree planted by Popo that haunts emotionally. 

This book is more about a broad range of relationships – between teens and their dealings with the adult world into which they are growing. Aristotle and Dante focussed on a developing youthful gay relationship largely within two families. This story centres on a straight boy who was adopted by his gay father who had married his mother on her deathbed to ensure the adoption’s legitimacy. The gay father has a strong Mexican-American background (El Paso again) and is an academic/artist (shades of Saenz?) while Salvador (Sally) is a white boy living in a TexMex environment. He acquires two friends, both troubled, a very straight girl and gay boy, both with sorely troubled family circumstances.

There is clearly plenty of opportunity for teen angst and growth with the background of the father’s rekindling of his own gay relationship to contend with. There is no strong plot just people wrestling with their worlds, needs and feelings (Sally has strong aggressive responses to deal with). All three teens are in their senior year at High School and plans and planning mingle with their other concerns especially the letter Sal needs to write for his University selection panel which provides him with an opportunity to summate his existence thus far.

There is a lot of emphasis on how friends and family can grown and develop strengths even out of all kinds of changes and dysfunctions (education gets a big tick). There is no shortage of deaths (grandmother Mima dominates) in this book and how individuals respond. As I write this just an hour or so after the GG gave assent to SSM, I have to point to the analysis of GLBTI relationships which is praiseworthy, the treatment of death both sudden and gradual, and the use of language, communication and words to ease the pathways of lives.

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The Pleasures of Leisure by Robert Dessaix (2017). A review by John Cook

The Pleasures of Leisure

The number of copies of this book (30) in the BCC collection has to be an indication of the popularity and appreciation of this author by the reading public. Certainly I have enjoyed much of what he writes. There is a balance, however, in dealing with Dessaix. He is a beautiful writer with clarity and elegance. He has a very interesting background and range of interests which he is not shy to incorporate into his work. He is now getting older and very much aware of his mortality (recent dramatic illness) which combines with the former to mean that his material is unabashedly deeply personal and what could be more personal than what each of us seeks in whatever leisure time we have. As a consequence, some readers may find some of the references rather obscure (Grand Hotel Budapest and his spiritual adventures in India) and off-putting while those with shared familiarity will find must to enjoy.

The book is part sociology, part philosophy and part personal musings. Dessaix sees leisure as having three main components – loafing, nesting and play. Each has its pleasure and its traps which he explores sometimes (mostly) with relevance to his own life and sometimes others. He can be pretty sniffy and dismissive toward most things that have to do with sport (“Professional sport is never just play. It’s crowd control combined with big business.”) and one can only agree with most mass commercialised forms though there has to be  legitimacy for the smaller scale and more personal. One criticism levelled at this book has been that its coverage is overwhelmingly male. That is true and it does belie the general nature of the title. However, there is little indication that Dessaix would be all that familiar with a feminine perspective on the topic – a pity as some mention was surely warranted.

As always, I enjoyed his expeditions into places, people and forms of entertainment with which I share a strong interest and I share his concern for the manipulated nature of much social life today and a yearning for somewhat simpler pleasures (for me, reasonable white wine, fresh prawns and a quiet read somewhere like Amity Point on Stradbroke Island suffices well). Like the mania for the rich to look thinner (elegantly starved) and the poor to end up more obese, there is a lot of the pointless treadmill in modern life that seems so lacking in inward fulfilment and self-acceptance. In one telling instance, he speculates on the avid unconsidered pleasure of a dog playing a pointless game with his/her owner home from work seeking some pleasure in that (perhaps) brief period of leisure. I know a lot of pet owners for whom that is a truth.

I certainly agree with his conclusion (totally understandable) that reading is probably one of the greatest pleasures that leisure can deliver. It is certainly true in my case as my groaning bookshelves and this series of book notes attest.

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