Monday 4 March 2024

The In-Between - Christos Tsiolkas (2023)


Rating: Excellent

The In-Between, the first book club book after a long break of five months, is the latest novel by Christos Tsiolkas, infamous author of such around the water cooler conversation starters as The Slap (2008) and Damascus (2019), (actually, not a around the water cooler for this one, more like around the pulpit). The In-Between follows too middle-age gay men, Ivan and Perry, as they first date and then embark on a relationship that causes both to have to come to terms with prior significant romantic disappointments. As usual for Tsiolkas the sex scenes are explicit and detailed, especially the initial one between the two main protagonists; Tsiolkas does not hold back, and this may be too much for some readers. There are several such sex scenes throughout the novel, and, after a while, they do come across as a tad performative and become slightly tedious. Far more interesting, however, is the psychological intensity of both men’s attempts to come to terms with their past and to move on into the kind of functional relationship they both really want. In the end it is insightful and tender writing, coming across as very believable and relatable to anyone who’s ever loved and lost and loved again, regardless of sexual orientation. Despite the eye-opening sex scenes and the focus on relationships, the main thematic thrust of The In-Between is really class, as explored in the extended dinner party scene (see below) and also in the stark cultural and societal difference between Perry and Ivan’s worlds. The other major theme is generational change, as explored in depictions of how older gay men had to live, in comparison to contemporary Australia, in which marriage between gay couples is legal and there exists an increased level of acceptance within the community. 

Around the middle of The In-Between Tsiolkas produces the best dinner-party scene I have ever read. Perry is university educated, has travelled widely, and works as a translator, whilst Ivan is a landscape gardener and has barely travelled. At the dinner party, with some of Perry’s old university friends, Ivan is subjected to a thinly veiled, class conscious, ‘friendly’ grilling about his background and worldview. It’s cringeworthy stuff, with the portrayal of Perry’s friends, who on the surface project left-wing acceptance, as judgemental and reactionary. Another interesting aspect to the novel is the device of using minor characters, often ones with no significant presence in the narrative, as a means to observe and comment on the main protagonists. It’s a clever way of thinking about the characters from a perspective outside that of the reader’s, and Tsiolkas uses it to great effect several times. After the brilliant dinner party scene the novel loses some of its focus and tension, in particular when the setting moves to Greece and focusses on another gay couple, however this is a minor quibble, as ultimately The In-Between ends poignantly and effectively with a scene that would touch even the most cynical among readers.

Sunday 25 February 2024

Sound Man - Glyn Johns (2014)


Rating: Excellent

When Peter Jackson’s long-awaited re-fashioning of The Beatles Let It Be footage emerged in 2021, retitled Get Back, it was a revelation. The three-part documentary totally recontextualized the original film, featuring hours of unseen footage. Glyn Johns had worked on the sound recording part of the project and he remarks in Sound Man that when Allen Klein become The Beatles manager, he wanted only The Beatles to feature in the film, which Johns reflects was a pity, as it meant that he wouldn't feature. One of the highlights of Let It Be was seeing Johns working with the Beatles and parading around in sartorial splendour, out doing even The Beatles themselves for elegant cool. Sound Man details working with The Beatles during this era, and it is fascinating stuff, but it was only a small part of Johns career, which saw him working with some of the most significant artists of the 60s and 70s, such as The Rolling Stones, The Small Faces, The Faces, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles and The Who. Sound Man is both Johns story, beginning from his early years and how he managed to get into the cloistered world of English sound production in the early 60s, and a cultural history of one of the most amazing periods in musical history. It's worth reading for this fact alone. 

Johns at work, circa late 60s
Johns writing style is economical and to the point, but with a light touch that is highly readable. He is also honest about the lows of his career and certainly does not come across as an egotist. The book is chronological, yet also moves back and forth in time when needed, as Johns worked with many of the artists over a span of decades. There’s plenty of great stories among the making of many significant albums. One that comes to mind was when Johns suggests to Keith Moon that he gives up drinking so he can manage demanding drum parts and he fires back to Johns that he was just as bad, smoking cigarettes constantly. So Johns suggest that they both give up their vices, which Johns duly did, but, of course Moon did not and went on the cause more chaos with his drink fuelled capers, many of which Johns details in Sound Man. Engineers and producers like Johns don’t really exist in today’s world of digital and fragmented recording techniques. Johns recorded many of the bands playing together in a room, with overdubs later to correct or flesh out the songs. Johns does lament the passing of his type of recording and producing (as does the likes of Tony Visconti, who when asked what modern producers he admired a few years ago replied, “None”), however he does still work occasionally and as evidenced by this book, he will be remembered as part of musical history due to the sheer number of amazing albums he worked on. I recommend Sound Man to any reader interested in the great music of the 60s and 70s and musical history in general. Sound Man is a classy book, well written and is absolutely fascinating. Makes for good holiday reading, or for when you are recovering from Covid, as I was when I read the bulk of it. The book also made me want to listen to the albums in question again, many of which have been done to death, which can only be a good thing, as I really think that the 1970s was the greatest decade in modern musical history.

Sunday 4 February 2024

Bee Gees: Children of the World - Bob Stanley (2023)


Rating: Excellent

Many years ago I became a casual fan of the Bee Gees, specifically their 1969 album Odessa, a double album that is eccentric, over the top, fascinating and, as I concluded after a while, pure genius. Over the years I've bought quite a number of their albums second hand and have become a big appreciator of the Bee Gees unique musical world. Their albums are still cheap to buy, despite second-hand vinyl prices rising in general due to the demand generated by a new generation of collectors and vinyl lovers, because, well, the Bee Gees are still pretty uncool. They may be uncool, but the reality is that they were song-writing geniuses. Children of the World delves deeply into both the Bee Gees personal lives and their music, with the emphasis on their music. Somehow Bob Stanley has managed to give the reader a well rounded sense of the Bee Gees as people, whilst mostly being concerned about their music. Stanley notes that the three Gibb brothers, Maurice, Robin and Barry, were basically outsiders, despite their stellar commercial successes. They lived in their own hermetically sealed world, for example, he points out, that even their version of disco was very different to that of other acts disco; in one of Stanley's many great lines, he compares Bee Gees disco to a wafting summer night's breeze, as opposed other acts disco, which he describes as like stepping into the oversaturated perfume section of a department store. In telling the Bee Gees musical story, from the Isle of Mann, through to their decades of both slumps and global dominance, Stanley writes supremely well about music. To convey both the technical aspects of music and its intangible magic, is a very difficult thing to do without resorting to cliches, but Stanley manages it. Essentially Children of the World is perhaps the best music book I've ever had the pleasure of reading.

Odessa - eccentric brilliance

One of the things that Stanley does best is make you want to hear the music he's talking about, so be prepared to be listening to the Bee Gees a great deal whilst reading. It is double the pleasure basically. Stanley also begins each chapter with a rundown of either the US top ten chart, or the UK top ten chart, which gives the reader great context regarding the musical world the Bee Gee's were existing within. The thing that Stanley convey's really well is just how unique the Bee Gee's were, there is nothing else like them in the history of popular music really. It is best to read this book, as it is difficult to explain this adequately within a few words, however, to give it a go, the Bee Gees were kind of kooky, eccentric and unhindered by the kind of restraint that rendered many other commercial acts of their era banal. Actually to understand the Bee Gees unique appeal it is best to start listening to them properly, not just their many hits; albums like Idea(1968), Odessa (1969), Cucumber Castle (1970), To Whom it May Concern (1972), Trafalgar (1971) and Main Course (1975) would be good starts. The story of the Bee Gees is one of true graft, they worked really hard, sheer musical talent and also personal and family troubles and tragedies (no pun intended). Andy Gibb's story is also included, which is both inspiring and very sad. Like Brain Wilson, Barry Gibb has ended up being the last brother left in the family, with the premature deaths of Maurice and Robin. Stanley has been criticised for paying scant attention to their deaths in the book, but he deals with their deaths with taste, and besides, it's mostly all about their lives and their music. Another criticism is that there are no photos included, however this is barely noticed, as Stanley's writing is so good images are rendered unnecessary, besides, that's what the internet is for. Essentially Children of the World is a must for Bee Gees fans, and if you are a casual admirer of their music, reading the book will turn you into a big fan, which is one of the best things that could happen to you frankly, just make sure you don't care about being cool.

The Bee Gees in action, circa the late 1960's

Tuesday 23 January 2024

David Bowie: Rock 'N' Roll With Me - A Memoir - Geoff McCormack (2023)


Rating: Excellent

Imagine growing up as a close friend of a man who would become the most influential rock star ever, well Geoff McCormack was lucky enough to be a close friend to David Bowie for most of his life. Luckier still McCormack had some talent as a singer and percussionist, which gave Bowie the opportunity to invite him along on tours as both a buddy and a band member. For this reason core Bowie fans have long known about McCormack and this makes the book a welcome edition to the huge amount of Bowie books out there, rather than just yet another product of the Bowie economy. Originally published quite a number of years ago in a deluxe, autographed edition, this is one for the masses. Essentially McCormack's memoir, from childhood to now, Rock 'N' Roll With Me comes across with lots of charm, but not as much detail as one would think, at least in terms of the professional workings of Bowie and his music. The book reads more like a travelogue, more impressionistic than detailed oriented. However the content is still fascinating and unique, with plenty of great stories about travelling with Bowie, being a touring musician and having lots of fun along side the great man. Although McCormack was, as mentioned, lucky enough to both work with Bowie and be his close friend, you come away with the impression that Bowie was actually the lucky one, with McCormack being a very good friend indeed.

Bowie and McCormack in Russia

Perhaps the main draw of Rock 'N' Roll With Me is the amazing array of photos taken by McCormack himself, having taken up photography in parallel with traveling with Bowie. There's many not seen before, taken while traveling through the former Soviet Union via the Trans-Siberian Express, on several American tours, the making of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1975) and the Station to Station (1976) album. McCormack is a natural when it comes to photography, the photos are not merely snapshots, but are professionally executed. Bowie and McCormack remained friends until Bowie's untimely death in 2016, so there's chapters about Bowie and Iman's wedding, Bowie's fiftieth birthday gig at Madison Square Garden in 1997, hanging out at Bowie's apartment in New York with he likes of Lou Reed; and finally, an account of their last communications, which is both touching and sad. The book ends with an afterward written by Bowie in 2007, during a period when he had mostly retired from public view, in which he asks "Will you actually be able to get this stuff published do you think?". For Bowie fans Rock 'N' Roll With Me is an essential book and it is presented beautifully in a hard-back format with quality photographic reproductions. 

From the Station to Station sessions

Saturday 30 December 2023

Best and worst of the Year - 2023


This will be quick, due to laziness and the fact that I've already posted five times in December, probably a record for this blog.

Best book of 2023: The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt (2013)

Genius level modern realism.

Worst book of 2023: The Siren's Sing - Kristel Thornell (2022)

Narrative structure did not work, but had some redeeming features.

The year of non-fiction: a good year! Six read overall, the best being Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli (2020)

The year was notable due to the fact that the overall quality of books was high - there were no mediocre ratings given. Also the library based book clubs I facilitate went on hiatus in September due to me going on long service leave and the external renovation of the library, which will not be complete till perhaps April 2024. It's freed up more time to read my own books, but I do miss the book club members and reading for a specific purpose.

All that's left to say is: Happy New Year!

Friday 29 December 2023

Falling Man - Don DeLillo (2017)


Rating: Admirable

The attack by terrorists on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001 was a momentous event in the history of the clash between civilisations. Like most people I was shaken to the core by the scenes of the attacks. I was called by a friend and was told to turn on the TV, just in time to witness the plane hit the second tower and then both towers eventually collapsing. It was incredible, disturbing and historically momentous. Then later I remember reading about the photo of the falling man, an image initially used in the media, but then suppressed due to various moral concerns. Seeing the image is certainly powerful and it makes sense that America's pre-eminent novelist would both write about 9/11 and use that image as an inspiration for its title (although apparently he refutes that notion). Being DeLillo nothing is that simple, of course, with the image being used as a metaphor for the life trajectory of Keith Neudecker, both before and after the event. Another very typical DeLillo trope is the performance artist who falls from buildings dressed in a suit, with just a simple harness for support. This falling man appears at various times during the novel, including a scene in which Keith's wife, Lianne, observes him setting up and waiting to 'perform' for an oncoming train of passengers, a scene imbued with gnostic symbolism open to interpretation. Falling Man is mostly set in the aftermath of 9/11, and the performing falling man acts as a ghostly reverberation of that day, a day that completely changed everything for New Yorkers. Keith goes back to his estranged wife, having survived the attack in the south tower, their son spends the days with other children looking for more planes with binoculars, talking in hushed tones about Bill Lawton, the misheard name they give Bin Laden. Typically for DeLillo this comes across as both a dark, ironic joke, but also imbued with nebulous meaning.

The infamous falling man photo

Falling Man has been criticised for not being as monumental as the 9/11 event itself, however DeLillo had already produced 'monumental' work about America and its citizens, such as Mao II (1991), Underworld (1997) and White Noise (1985), which reads like a guide to postmodernism filtered though the American sensibility. Falling Man's focus is more about the human psychological response to the terrorist attacks, both overt and subtle, in particular during the aftermath. Like the slowly fading circular waves in water after a stone is dropped, DeLillo shows how the characters go on living after the shocking event, eventually being reabsorbed into themselves and their quite ordinary and unimportant lives that were revealed, for a while, in stark relief. There are also sections focussing on one of the terrorists, his drift towards jihad; and then at the very end, a depiction of the attack itself, which is as visceral as the novel gets. As usual DeLillo's prose is minimal and exacting, with dialogue that makes the characters seem like they are revealing insights into the very nature of humanity, our very essence; or, conversely, about nothing at all, merely the minutia of human obsessions in the twenty-first century. Although, as DeLillo novels go, Falling Man is fairly satisfying, there's some extra level of DeLillo frisson that is absent. It's certainly not up there with his best novels, but it is, after all, a DeLillo novel, and therefore worth reading for that reason alone.

Sunday 17 December 2023

Perihelion Summer - Greg Egan (2019)


Rating: Admirable

Greg Egan is Australia's preeminent science-fiction writer and is a mysterious character, never having attended science-fiction conventions, nor ever having a picture of him on the internet or anywhere else. Perihelion Summer is not listed with his novels on his own website, or on Wikipedia, instead it's listed under 'other short fiction', which makes it a novella. Perihelion Summer certainly reads like a novella, with  minimal, yet just enough character development to keep the reader engaged and a plot and exposition that is straight to the point. Set in Western Australia (Egan actually lives in Perth) in what appearers to be the present or near future, humanity is preparing for the arrival in the solar-system of a micro black hole called Taraxippus, that may cause calamitous floods as it passes through. Matt and some friends have created a floating habitat that creates its own power and food, including a large metal net with thousands of fish. They intend to wait out the effects of Taraxippus (a Greek word pertaining to mythology around dangerous presences) out to sea and try to convince their various loved ones to go with them, or to at least head inland, well away from any potential tsunamis. Of course, most choose to stay where they are, in Perth, which is right on the coast, thinking that living some kilometres away from the sea will keep them safe, mimicking the kind of wishful or naive thinking that most have regarding climate change (which is what this book is really about), that it will not really effect them personally.

Perihelion Summer is quite different to other works I've read by Egan, it is not mind-bendingly weird and contains a minor amount of speculative science, although it is quite well written. Essentially the novella is a very clever approach to exploring climate change without actually addressing human caused climate change, instead Taraxippus actually doesn't behave as predicted and causes irreversible climate extremes. Egan uses this parallel to examine human responses and behaviour toward climate change, both positive and negative. Matt and his friends aboard their ship, the Mandjet, respond as best they can, helping as many people as they can, despite the odds against them. It made for very fascinating, compelling and sober reading, in particular because the novella is set partly in my home city of Perth. Reading about familiar landmarks and environs depicted as being freezing, with ice and snow in winter (it never snows in Perth) and then during summer as being so hot that it is basically uninhabitable was alarming. Perihelion Summer has been criticised online for being underdeveloped and anticlimactic, but what critics have missed are the insightful ways in which Egan reveals the generational divide and woolly thinking around climate change. The pivotal scene in this sense is when Matt's sister informs him that their mother blames him for the calamity Taraxippus brings, because he would never "shut up about it." Climate change deniers just keep shooting the messengers, wishing they'd just go away and take any evidence of human induced climate change with them, but it is increasingly possible Earth will be something like it is depicted in Perihelion Summer and no doubt any deniers still around will be laying the blame elsewhere, just like they always have done.