‘The Clothesline Swing’ by Ahmad Danny Ramadan, 2017. A review by John Cook.

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I was immediately attracted to this book as the author, Ahmad Danny Ramadan is a Syrian refugee living and working as a journalist and author in Vancouver. He publishes in both Arabic and English. Like the novel ‘Hide’ this book is a report and reflection on the life of two men whose love commences in war-torn Syria and is now concluding in Canada as Hakawati (the story teller in Lebanese) tells stories of the past and present as a series of bargains with his partner and the ever-hovering Death waiting  to claim his lover.

It was my pleasure to visit Syria extensively before the most recent implosion of war in all its destruction. I hoped that I would hear of many of the places I visited and respected and enjoyed as I did so many of its people. I knew about the destruction of much of old Damascus and other locations and thus found it doubly moving to hear of lives (gay and straight) being lived in this true holocaust.

Ramadan stays true to his Arabic metier with his story-telling style. Arabic is a poetic language and prone to colourful descriptions, sometime lyrical, sometimes elegiac, and these are found in plenty here and that might be a problem for readers looking for a straight narrative. I had the pleasure of visiting traditional coffee shops and hearing (with not much understanding) a traditional story-teller at work. Anyone who has read either the Arabian Nights or the story of Scheherazade would have some idea of this genre and appreciate the way past and present are interwoven, also the presence of spiritual and ghostly presences.

Essentially this is a tale of the quest for love and happiness (gay or straight) and how it is experienced in war-torn Syria, escaping through Lebanon and Cairo and concluding in the safety of Canada though with the constant yearning for a lost way of life and those who peopled it. The title ‘The Clothesline Swing’ is a reference to past times, loves and simple pleasures.

Ramadan does not stint in his descriptions of familial, social and cultural problems and disasters and how a gay existence continues under the most repressive conditions. There is sadness here that ennobles suffering and offers readers an insight into other culture.

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‘The Sparsholt Affair’ by Alan Hollinghurst, 2017. A review by John Cook.

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He’s back again with another novel after the usual lengthy gestation (6 years). It is also, as usual, beautifully written. The man is a prose master and passages regularly bring the reader to a halt in order to appreciate what has just been taken in. I would include the Cornwall section, the return home for the funeral and the description of modern clubbing life in this category.

I detected echoes of his past works recurring in this one while the key may be in the title, ‘The Sparsholt Affair’. Given the recency of SSM in the UK, all the G and L relationships in this story can only be described by the straight world as self-constituted affairs. The word ’affair’ has connotations of some degree of inappropriateness or behaviour outside the norm which sometimes achieves the notoriety of scandal and there have been plenty of these in UK history both before and after the legalisation of homosexuality. Hollinghurst is fond of an epic canvas as probably best done in ‘The Stranger’s Child’ (my favourite). Such stories, especially when segmented in time and with overlapping differing voices (as happens here) need a unifying thread. Hollinghurst obliges with an affair/scandal which is hinted at regularly though but never completely revealed.

The theme starts with the stolen view one evening of a considerable male beauty going about his exercise routine before his window in an Oxford college at the commencement of WWII. This is David Sparsholt (almost certainly at least bisexual) and what events follow provide the over-arching theme that is eventually pursued through his son Johnny (an out gay artist) into very contemporary times.

Think of ‘The Swimming Pool Library’ as a starting point, throw in some elements of ‘The Line of Beauty’ and the structure of ‘The Stranger’s Child’ and you get close to what is offered here. Hollinghurst also revisits the drug themes of ‘The Spell’ in a more modern chemsex culture and adds in what must his own growing awareness of his age and mortality along with the more recent acceptance of homosexuality.

It is quite a canvas and cannot be uniformly even. Despite his care and attention, not all passages work as well and I found the introductory Oxford context harder to engage. What always redeems Hollinghurst for me is the fine detail of his prose and nuanced understanding of human interactions and how to convey them subtly in the context of their time and place – a true master. There are occasional disputed issues of expressed taste in music and art but I find them largely unimportant though illustrative of characters, contexts and, perhaps, Hollinghurst himself.

There is a wide canvas of characters that circulate, grow and develop around the Sparsholts and Daxes (ouch!) and sometimes it requires an effort to remember who did what when but there are some instances  that are wonderfully clear and memorable – for me the holiday interactions between young Johnny Sparsholt and Bastien in Cornwall constitute a novella within a novel.

This is work of considerable riches and interest and I must say I would like to meet and chat with Johnny Sparsholt  as an older man like Hollinghurst (65?) and myself.

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‘The Lucky Galah’ by Tracy Sorensen. A review by John Cook.

How could I resist a book that features a galah as a narrator? – no, a real avian galah. Like many of my generation, I was raised with a family pet (Joe – little imagination with pet names in those days) which was imprinted on my father and bit just about everyone else. Still, after some life in the bush and always enjoying galah comic antics, I went for this story.

Tracy Sorensen was born in Brisbane and lived in Carnarvon in WA. This is her first novel and is well worth reading. It is set largely in the late 60’s to 70’s with some peeks into later times and the focus is the construction of a communications disk for NASA in an otherwise unremarkable small town on Shark’s Bay. The details are consequently a mixture of Sorensen’s Carnarvon life and dollops of imagination. There is a lot of delightful description of the local environment – sea and land – which I found particularly enjoyable as it was presented in terms of change in a relatively small community. There is a lot (not too much) of description of family and town life from a female viewpoint and some feminist nods in the direction of how changes in the future might empower more women in the future

The focal point centres around the families who ‘own’ the galah (‘Lucky’) over time (these birds can live up to 80 years). Consequently the galah sees and hears a lot and this is supplemented (quite weirdly) by the bird being able to ‘tune-in’ to the NASA dish and listen-in on the local’s conversations as well as NASA business. If that weirds you out, I am sorry. I found it largely enjoyable especially when supplemented by the bird’s musings on its restricted life and its fellows living their free existence as I have a dislike of caging birds. It is, however, at times uneven complicating the different viewpoints and narratives from the main directions utilised. Some readers might not like this. Sorensen is enamoured of Horne’s ‘The Lucky Country’ which is now aging however, there are enough pointers in the text for those unfamiliar to detect its ironic commentating echoes.

Apart from the Johnsons and Kelleys who are the two main families of interest, I particularly enjoyed Lizzie who gets around town with Lucky on her shoulder and the Dogger (I knew one in Kynuna). There is a small strand of homosexual activity which is as it would have been at the time – see if you can pick up on the vibes in advance.

This is an ingenious first work for a real talent which will improve with editing. For anyone who lived through the period portrayed and lived in a smallish community, there is much to remember and enjoy. For those younger, it offers real insights into that time. In any case, the themes and workings are universal as these families plan, stumble and reach out to their futures – all under the eye of that bird.

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‘The Easy Way Out’ By Steven Amsterdam, 2016. A review by John Cook.

Great title. Is there ever an easy way out – and when there seems to be the case, who really pays for it? This is a book by a gay man (US born) resident in Australia who is a part-time palliative care nurse. No surprise, then, that the book focuses on the twin issues of dementia and assisted dying – hot button issues for most ages but certainly for my age group of 75.  It doesn’t sound too promising as entertainment but there are lots of sly wry comments and insights about these issues when seen from those most intimately involved – even flashes of humour. I genuinely found this a ’hard to put down’ read though a little slow to develop initially. It really is very thought provoking from the view point of those directly involved in care and decision making as well as those who are more peripheral.

Amsterdam has two other works to his credit which display an interest in ‘what if?’ themes. In this instance he imagines a situation where assisted death has been recently approved and initial attempts are being organised to regularise a systematic, safe and supportive process in a care context. There is a parallel shadowy organisation (Jaspers) doing the same thing in other external contexts not for a fee but for a voluntary (?) consideration. Both use similar processes (an anti-emetic followed by Nembutal (pentobarbital)) to achieve a hopefully calm ending to life.

The problems of each are examined in the context of the story line in which Evan, a youngish nurse who seems generally competent, thoughtful and helpful is being trained as an assistant who ensures that the final stage is carried out in accordance with law and determined procedures. He is also dealing with a mother who is sliding into some form of Parkinson’s and/or dementia and is at the slippery stage of determining whether nursing home care in all its forms is appropriate (the charming and ever-efficient Willow Wood in this instance). This is something that many of us have had to experience or are going to have to, at some stage of our lives. Liv, the mother, is very well drawn indeed with all the variability, difficulties and moments of insight that one has to expect in this situation (she can support her herself with a mean hand at poker). Amsterdam once again plays the ‘what if’ by introducing an experimental medical intervention  which might (and does) at least temporarily spectacularly reverse her symptomology.

If that wasn’t enough, Evan is a gay man who has played the game but has now found himself falling into a ‘throuple’ with very definite benefits. Amsterdam handles the sex scenes quite capably without, I would think, turning straight readers off – they might even be interested and intrigued! The reader senses his growing emotional attachment to Lon and Simon and theirs to him. This is another layer of his existence with which he needs to come to some kind of terms. His homosexuality in no way dominates the story line but remains an essential part of his thinking and developmental process.

Needless to say, there are problems that arise and take the storyline in unexpected directions leading to a part resolution for Evan (you make up your own mind). I must say I appreciated the ‘scenery’ along the way. We are exposed to several deaths and the persons involved are well sketched so that we understand well their motivations, even when they are covert, and how they experience their final moments. In a world of hospitalisation it has become increasingly less likely that individuals experience death close-up and has probably contributed to a kind of dissociation in many of our minds. This book does an excellent service of intriguing and entertaining the reader while bringing them into contact with many of the issues about which it is useful to acquaint ourselves before decision time arrives for us.

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‘A Higher Loyalty’ by James Comey, 2018. A review by John Cook.

This was a highly anticipated book that would background and then detail the clash between President Trump and the Director of the FBI, James Comey. It delivers on those counts though the personal background could have been a little more brief.

Comey has to defend himself from his abrupt firing and presidential accusations of lying and incompetence – largely by spelling out his history as an effective deputy and full District Attorney. He also fills in his early life and background experiences as a strong fair minded individual with a desire to see justice implemented. While the writing is competent enough, my concern arose from the tone. Comey is undoubtedly a skilled and practiced lawyer. Unfortunately I feel that heavily colours his presentation. The reader feels that they are being exposed to a series of tales each designed to bolster and strengthen a case that is going to be used to contrast with the opposition’s guilt and lack of the positive characteristics previously spelled out for the ‘defence’. This obviously needs to be done in some form or other, but I had the distinct feeling that it was all being done in a courtroom manner and could almost hear the references to ‘milud’ as each point was made whether it referred to his personal life or his activities in attacking ‘the mob’ and other malfeasance.

Comey is an impressively tall and apparently fit individual who carried the importance of the impartiality of his role with care and deliberation despite occasional embarrassments (I had a similar very tall friend and am sympathetic to these).  Trump is portrayed as an individual who either is unaware (or does not care about) the kinds of conventions that have been born out of a system that requires checks and balances for democracy to flourish (one is reminded of local events surrounding ‘the Westminster separation of powers’ and ‘please explain’) and that a clash was inevitable.

The last third of the book discloses, from Comey’s point of view, the inevitable trainwreck as the two encounter one another and through a series of physical interactions (the Trump handgrip) and private conversations the trend develops an inevitability that concludes with a Trumpian shock firing.

Most readers will be familiar with the Russia interference material and the possible involvement of the Trump camp, the Russia ‘hooker’ allegations and the Clinton email accusations and investigations and these are spelled out. What interests most readers more is the thinking behind the investigations and decisions made to undertake these investigations and their public announcements. These are explored from Comey’s point of view and probably peak with the decision to reopen the Clinton email investigation just before the Presidential vote.

At all times Comey presents himself as a high minded thinker whose thesis on Reinhold Niebuhr colours his decision making. This appears largely true of his work though there has been criticism specifically about the second Clinton investigation decision.

‘.. his attempt to justify his last-minute announcement about material discovered on Anthony Weiner’s computer, an announcement which may well have derailed Hillary Clinton’s chances of getting elected in 2016. However, despite arguing that it was all for the sake of the integrity of the FBI, he then goes on to mention that, had Loretta Lynch and/or Sally Yates ordered him not to reveal that damaging information, that would have been, “an order I would have followed.” (Page 197) So much for “leadership” and “integrity.” With that sentence, in my opinion, he threw away his entire argument.

I cannot say I was disappointed by the book despite the sensation of being led by a skilled lawyer through the first two thirds. The last third does illuminate in ways of which I am appreciative and I enjoyed the way the quality and importance of individual decision-making has been highlighted in the events we have all witnessed and leaves the reader a little better able to make a judgement as indicated in the extract above.

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‘Ironbark’ by Jay Carmichael, 2018. A review by John Cook.

This is fine piece of Australian writing on a most worthwhile subject – a young man in late adolescence living in a country town who feels same-sex attraction but lives in an environment that heavily suppresses its expression. That might sound like a cliché but this book is far from that. While almost totally internally expressed, it presents a surprisingly objective representation of nearly all the characters, their feelings and behaviours. What gives the book colour is how young Markus operates in this environment and especially his yearnings for the lost Grayson. For me, an equal standout was the author’s description and use of the environment. The community described seems trapped in its physical depression and inability to escape and this is mirrored in the battle in Markus’ mind and his occasional self-harm.

The coach gives a pre-game speech: grit, determination, teamwork. An’ piss orf if yer not up fer it! The team, two by two, leave the shed and heads out onto the foggy field. The silence has a sound: hushed static, as if tuning in for signs of life. The fog means most can’t see the scratches running tracks up Markus’s arms or the callouses from the sewing needle criss-crossing his thighs. No doubt, someone caught sight of them back in the change room. None said a word.’

Rather than try to sketch out a particular place, Carmichael presents it initially in a kind of generic environment that could be any country town experiencing contemporary struggles and problems. He then adds patches of detail and colour about Narioka that are moving and, at times, intense. This awareness of environment, animals, birds, even vegetation is highlighted by their often careful description with latin genus terminology. I did not find this a problem but some might if they cannot find a justification for it.

A lot centres, as it would for such a young man, on home and its strengths and problems, likewise school and employment prospects, life with friends and especially the local AFL club and frequent return to the local pool (full and empty). I felt the author showed real skill in presenting the shifting focus and motivations of a young man living in this context. The tale works largely backwards and around the death of Grayson and we are only gradually made aware of its occurrence and centrality to Markus’ thinking and behaviour.

There is no doubt that some people may not like the prose style of the novel which violates some conventions around quotations etc but I did not find this a deal breaker. After some initial hesitation, I tuned into its mood and gradual development and found that it had me in thrall by the last third.

I have to recommend it as a sincere, thoughtful modern interior representation of the mind of a contemporary young man living the life of Markus.

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‘The Quarters’ by Errol Bray, 2017. A Review by John Cook.

The cover of this book led me a little astray. I rather expected a tale in inner city urban gang fighting with plenty of blood and guts and perhaps some human interest to add to the mix. It turned out to be that in part but much, much, more. The author set himself a sizable task with a lot happening, explanations needed and a extensive cast. Initially, things move along a little slowly as there is a lot to put in place and relationships to establish while things do become surprisingly edgier. The author uses a method of mixed length observational passages and added dialogue that, at times, read like lines from a play with directions. There are also chapter headings in the manner of a Victorian novel.

The structure is interesting with nods in the direction of some classical literary features (Homer?) while based upon the concept of an ‘apart’ community which has been forced in upon itself by always threatening external circumstances. It has to evolve within its own resources means of socialization and governance that cover the full range of human needs and survival. The method of delivery is rather like that of a chronicle, the age old concept of an observer who records largely dispassionately, though in this case, with more compassion, wit and humour, relaying the flow of events in this living social organism. There is a series of colliding events which spark changes, growth and sometimes loss. There is birth, life and death, at all levels, and plenty of it. There is hope, despair and resolution.

The author is closely associated with the world of drama and he mines this with a central role being given to a ‘street’ production of Hamlet and its sequelae providing a link with the ‘outside’ world along with other small commercial activities. A charming note is the use of a naïf ‘street’ Homer who provides a commentating voice from within on notes ranging from humour to deep tragedy.

With our larger world confronting another industrial revolution with the customary winners and losers and the seeds of so much dissatisfaction, loss and anger, a book like this is a timely reminder of how finely balanced our ‘civilization’ can be and the potential forms of chaos that are always waiting at the door, and sometimes within our very selves.

Right from the beginning, there is a clear and developing interest in relationships and sex. This seems to intensify and deepen toward the conclusion, perhaps as a response to the evolving environment. These relationships cover the full range of human pairings in ways that are exploratory and largely satisfying.

Given the populations involved, the author has kept the dialogue largely free from rough language and any over-use of profanity which is often pointless and solely used for repetitive emphasis. The result is simple, clear expression quite capable of conveying the range of emotional contexts encountered.

This is a surprising not-so fantasy tale which is at once a possible harbinger and an entertaining tale.

 

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