‘The Build Up’ by Phillip Gwynne

I The Build Up by Phillip Gwynneloved Deadly Unna  and Nukkin Ya, so when I came across a remaindered copy of The Build Up I was delighted. I was looking forward to some of the insight and feeling that I’d loved about Gwynne’s writing. But the more I read into The Build Up, the more annoyed and bored I felt.

The story focuses on, as the blurb has it, ‘a female cop in the very male world of the Northern Territory Police Force’, and a lot of the early parts of the book really feel like yet another male writer trying to guesstimate what being an edgy hard woman is like. We hear a lot about how much Dusty hates her period, hates so many stereotypical female things, and discover that pap smears are horrible icky uncomfortable things. Not unusual, but feeling perfectly comfortable during one is also quite usual; hating pap smears is a pretty common stereotype of women written by men in my experience.

Then we are treated to some odd female politics at work. There’s some very creepy misogyny that gets passed off as normalcy, and this is weird twice over, because the protagonist is a woman and the main villains of the book appear to be men who commit sex crimes. I really don’t understand why Gwynne felt the need to keep emphasising MALE and FEMALE, STRONG MASCULINE FEMALE and WEAK BITCHY FEMALE.

The book seemed to be using a mystery involving sex crimes in the setting of the NT just so it could spam us with gritty sexism, rape, racist slurs, and Gwynne’s attempts perhaps to understand what goes on in the heads of us womb-bearing folk.

When Dusty picks up a cute foreigner, their bird-watching playdate turns into a crime scene. When he turns out to be in her line of work, but leaving the country, and married to a woman who wants children, and the plot seems to be hinting he’s Dusty’s One Twoo Wove, I closed the book and counted to ten so that I could calm down. This book probably wasn’t written with me in mind as its audience. Maybe it’s more accessible to people who haven’t actually ever had pap-smears (even my friends who find them excruciatingly painful don’t talk about them with the fear that Dusty does). I was defeated by it; I could not keep reading, even though some of it had made me smile and care about the characters.

Reading The Build Up, with all its slutty bitchy gook[sic] sex crime victims, I began worrying that Deadly Unna  and Nukkin Ya are just as unreadable to the Indigenous communities they portray. I began hoping that my concepts of Indigenous Australians weren’t influenced by any bias or stereotyping from those books. It is a dilemma in our media, with a lot of Indigenous culture and stories still filtered through privileged white eyes and ears into the mainstream, that makes me want to pull my hair out some days.

Here’s some positive reviews of The Build Up to balance out my reactions:

Tracey at My Four Bucks liked the portrayal of Darwin and its weather

Maxine at Petrona enjoyed the “grown up” humour

Shellyrae at Book’d Out likes the brutality, vibrancy and isolation of the Top End

‘Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes’ by Melissa Katsoulis

This is a great book in many ways.  It’s easy to read in small chunks, its table of contents is useful and provides a good idea of what you will encounter in each chapter.  It addresses the reactions of diverse minority groups when their cultural identities were appropriated as part of hoaxes.  It has a great cover, though arguably a real hoax cover would not be so sloppy or honest about its derivative nature.  But!  I could not finish reading it, for reasons I will explain in a little bit.

Melissa Katsoulis is perhaps the opposite of me.  A legitimate literary journalist, an officially married person, someone who has a job and an income.  Perhaps that’s part of why I find it hard at times to resonate with this book.  I’m a reader and dabbler in fiction, and I’ve focused more on academic analysis of things in my education than in journalism.  She’s come into this book as a journalist and writer from a very different culture and perspective.  There was bound to be some dissonance between her words and the way my brain reads them.

‘… it does suggest that the Antipodean creative scene allows things to happen that other countries might not.  One important reason is that racism and far-right politics is less taboo there than it is in other parts of the English-speaking world…’ (p.11)

While I’d be the first to bemoan some of the xenophobic attitudes some Australians hold, I can’t help but feel that this section in the introduction is odd.  Why single out Australia, when there have been throughout history equally xenophobic and racist views in both the United Kingdom and the United States of America (and literary hoaxes with racist and political motives are cited from these places within Telling Tales)?  Racism and race tensions are just as bad in London and Los Angeles as they are in Sydney!  She comments one hundred pages later that all the Australian hoaxes she mentions involve race somehow, though by ‘race’ she means ‘non-white’, and in at least one of the instances mentioned involve a Jordanian-born woman writing a hoax involving Jordanian women’s stories.  Katsoulis can’t have missed the logical gap between ‘all Australian hoaxes in my book involve non-whites’ and ‘most racist hoaxes are Australian’, yet she makes precisely that statement several times.  Maybe this is my academic background speaking, but I would have issues using deliberately misleading language like that.  The statements themselves come across as racist without context at times, and I can imagine a lot of readers being put off before they get to the relevant sections.

Perhaps this is simply my personal experiences here, but in the last couple of years I’ve heard from a few friends undertaking postgraduate studies in the US and UK who’ve encountered (especially in England) people that see Australia as some sort of cultural backwater full of cockneys, rednecks and the cast of Neighbours.  There’s more strange and old-school Colonialist perspectives still around out there than I had believed possible.  I can’t help but feel that Katsoulis wrote those words not from any actual investigation into Australian attitudes towards racism, but from preconceptions she’s inherited from her own culture and media soundbytes.  I hate to tell you, Melissa, but Australian racism is an imported chain franchise; we’ve got all kinds of racial tensions and racist attitudes, but the majority of our cultural heritage comes from good old Mother England.

Though I really enjoyed reading about the hoaxes, a lot of them were not new to me, and I felt often the style of writing was very journalistic; more about the scandal and punchlines and spin than the facts of interest. Perhaps I’m still sore that Australia seems singled out as racist amongst all the other global racist, sexist and bigoted examples in the book.   Still, it’s certainly worth reading, and is a good quick background in historical literary incidences of cultural appropriation.  I would recommend, if you want to write on the topic of any of these hoaxes, that you conduct your own research rather than relying on this alone.

In the end, I had no luck searching for other blogger reviews.  I shall try again later, because I want to know how other readers received it.  For the moment, there is a convenient collection of newspaper reviews on Katsoulis’ website for the curious.

Woman hoarding stolen goods, including books

The Chifley Library at the Australian National...
Chifley Library, ANU by Nick-D via Wikipedia

At ABC news. A woman in my city was deemed unfit to plea because of her mental and emotional state. She had been hoarding stolen goods from shops, including books, which isn’t unheard of. But! She was also hoarding stolen books from Chifley Library, one of the main libraries I relied on as an undergraduate student.
Chifley library is the humanities library and contains a lot of the fun books on history, literature, film studies, philosophy, and of course classics and archaeology (Bianth in Hancock, other archaeology books in Menzies and the external repository). I don’t have any ill will towards this woman, but my heart broke at the thought of all those books. All those students, frustrated in their research. All those librarians, trying to be good but wondering if students had again nicked books to try and sell for cash. I hope they all get processed and home on their shelves safely.

ALA’s Banned Books List

This has probably already done the rounds, but the American Library Association has released a series of lists of top ten banned books. You can view them by year, by author and year, etc in the sidebar on the left of this page.


Though I’ve been a very indolent blogger this year, I’ve caught up with comments moderation and will start posting some more reviews and short articles soon. Remind me, next time I consider returning to study, just how much of my brain gets caught up in studying.

‘The Return of the Dapper Men’ by Jim McCann, art by Janet Lee

Return of The Dapper Men

I loved this comic from the second page, where the art style, colours, language and atmosphere had me falling utterly in love. I liked the whimsy and the sense of motion and posture in the characters as they moved in the world. Sometimes the language seemed a bit inaccessible and awkwardly phrased, but the words were beautiful and fit the art and the emotion of the moment, so it hardly seemed to matter. It carried a feeling of nostalgia and childhood curiosity about it that delighted me, and I do have a deep-seated love for beautiful and unusual vocabulary. At the back of the edition I previewed at Netgalley, there was an extra treat with the description of artistic process, which gave me an added appreciation for the gorgeous art on my second read through.

It was only halfway through the comic that I sat back and frowned to myself. There was a boy and a girl, friends, the main characters. But the boy was active, verbal; when he talked people listened. The girl was a mute robot who was beautiful and most of what we hear of her is from the boy, who interprets her intentions to the world and speaks for her. It sounds a lot worse on paper than it was in the comic itself, which was focused far more on the give and take of dialogues of all kinds, but it felt odd to me. Then the characters the book is named for arrived, and – oh dear a minor spoiler my friends – the only other female characters that are really noticeable to a first-time reader are a mother-figure, a large statue of a woman who is inert, and a young petty girl who is told off by a Dapper Man for being stupid. It really does sound worse written out and all at once there, and is far less obvious in the comic, but it made me feel uncomfortable. A little heartbroken. I had fallen in pure, devoted love with this comic and so the minor let-downs at intervals along the way ate into my joy.
It was beautiful. I want to read it again. Then again. I will stare at the pages and let my eyes drink in the colours and the expressions and art of it. For the moment, I will sigh, and remind myself that it’s not this story that I have problems with, but that some of the parts of it remind me strongly of the broader stereotyped treatment of female characters in comics as a whole genre. I would recommend this to anyone, really, and I’d love to hear any comments from anyone else on the parts I found problematic.

Books and Broadcasting

It’s been so long since my last post, I feel quite guilty for not updating.  With my ebook reading device, I’ve been indulging in fanfiction far more often than novels, and I’ve had a few things in life that have reduced my contact time with wonderful hardcopies.  As it is, one of my friends linked me today to a short light report on libraries and booksellers in Canberra.

It was hardly surprising to me.  I’ve read that right now, out of all the full-time permanent positions in our small town, about half are with the public service.  We are a land of university students and graduated administrators, and we’ve always had high rates of literacy and reading compared to national averages.  What I found interesting was that the ABC played up, a little, the imaginary fantasy of competition between libraries and booksellers, before getting to the point that more exposure to books increases both library loans and book sales.  In some radio programs in the past, they have overplayed old questions over the conflict between hardcopy novels and ebooks while missing the real technological differences between the two mediums and DRM issues.

We have hardly any issues as a city because we read books, but what issues we do have aren’t related to the ratio between booksales and bookloans.  We have a lot of sprawl for a small city, with bad public transport and ridiculously high property values.  This means that smaller independent booksellers and secondhand sellers have been shifting towards larger retail hubs and chains are bigger than individual stores.  It means that youth and those without cars have trouble finding, reaching, and accessing both bookstores and libraries with ease.

I suppose it is just the 7.30 report, but damn it all I’d like to see a local news story about book industry or literary fiction that dealt with things properly.  In the defense of journalists, I imagine that it would be harder to cover a story on bibliophiles in Canberra, because when we’re all reading at home it would be very hard to find and interview us.

Bookmark, Beautiful and Impractical!

I rarely use bookmarks, partly because I keep them in special places that are hard to reach from bus stops and friends’ houses, and partly because I’m getting a small collection of handmade and beautiful but impractical bookmarks from friends and family.  They’re beautiful, but embroidered and beady bookmarks (or anything thicker than thin card) might damage pages or fall out, since I cannot wedge them in tight against the jostling of public transport.

This is my newest, brought back by my father from Pretoria.  It’s got all the feminist bibliophile ticks of approval; pretty, packaged with statement of provenance, made by women, bookmark.  I’m delighted to have it, and while I’d probably break the beads if I carried it around, I’m sure one day I’ll have a use for it.  When I opened the packet, I gave a good sniff.  Things from Japan always somehow smell a little damp and dark, like the cigarette stub-ridden soil of flower beds outside a Tokyo train station.  This thing from South Africa smelt smoky like burning wood and dry and sour sharp.  I think I’m most delighted with how this bookmark has a distinct look, feel, and scent.


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