Category Archives: Book Review

‘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

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‘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.

‘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.

‘How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read’ by Pierre Bayard

As with the game ‘Just Cause’, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read seems like a review columnist’s dream.  The joke is obvious; write a review that has nothing to do with the book itself, or at least a review that starts with that joke.  A pretty popular book when released, HtTABYHR discusses in short silly chapters the meta-entity of books.  Each chapter focuses on a book (except for the one that cites the execrable film Groundhog Day) and looks at an aspect of the ways socially we deal with books.

When you view a book as a social entity or currency, and consider the need to discuss books as separate from any need or desire to actually read books, a lot of academic and literary conversations make much more sense.  What are books, after all, but hyper-romanticised wood-pulp containers that transmit ideas; if the ideas are transmitted and understood, what need is there for actual reading?

Some reviewers like (Barbara Nackman) feel shock that people pretend to read books they haven’t (perhaps they’ve never sat in a café at a university and heard students and lecturers alike bluffing.)  Others like Maggie Reads joke a little, and have some fun discussing what constitutes ‘reading’ (skimming, half-reading, scanning, completing the reading after writing the review or article?)

As the title and early chapters suggest, reading a book renders one singularly incapable of understanding what that book is about, and in many ways prevents one from being able to say anything of any matter about it.  In this spirit I drafted my review before I had finished skimming the table of contents, and am finishing this review’s final draft ten pages before I actually do finish the book.  I may intend to read the whole thing, but I want to review this book in the spirit it was written.

‘The City of Dreaming Books’ by Walter Moers

Written by Optimus Yarnspinner in Zamonian, ‘translated’ to German and illustrated by Walter Moers, then translated into English by John Brownjohn.

Books, books, books, books.

This book was recommended to me by the lovely proprietors of Book Passion in Belconnen, and though I haven’t read it yet, I have been ogling it on my shelf and looking forward to getting stuck into it.  It is a bibliophile’s book.  It follows the story of Optimus Yarnspinner.  In a world where authorial godparents see to the literary education of children and there are species and cities renowned for producing great writers, Optimus’ godfather leaves him a manuscript without an author attribution.  Optimus heads to the City of Dreaming Books (antiquarian and collectible books who are neither alive nor dead in the eyes of booksellers and readers, simply resting) to seek out its author.

There’s a fun adventure story somewhere in there, but more importantly there’s books!  I loved the story but the books alone would have been enough to keep me entertained.  Though I did not recognise them all, every author in this fantasy world seems to be an anagram of all or part of a famous author’s name in reality; Doylan Cone for example.  I was quite distraught that the afternote by Moers implied that Yarnspinner had written far more about his own life and about some of the inhabitants of the City of Dreaming Books.  Even though it’s probably in keeping with the pretence of the sub-titling and the narrative persona, I can’t help but wish that I could take up the study of Zamonian and seek out for myself these further untranslated volumes.

I’m going to keep a keen eye out for Moers’ other work, and I imagine that sometime in the next few weeks I will be returning to re-read this.  You can’t borrow it, it’s mine.  Go buy your own.  If you love books half as much as I do, you’ll love reading this book.  If you love inked drawings, you may have to just browse through the pages for those alone.

There’s a great review at Adventures in Reading, another at The Book Pirate, and there’s a lot of love all around in general.  Who wouldn’t love a book about books?

‘Flashman and the Great Game’ by George MacDonald Fraser

What can I say, really, but that this if Flashman.  If you’ve read a Flashman novel before then you probably know the gist of the impression one gets from him.  If you haven’t, it’s rather hard to explain.  Flashy is himself as always; stubborn, racist, cowardly, libellous and lascivious.  If you’ve never encountered him before, he is based on the foil character and bully from Tom Brown’s School Days.  If you haven’t read Tom Brown, think along the lines of Draco Malfoy or a strange synthesis between Arnold Rimmer and Ace; promiscuous and a serial evader of duty and responsibility.  He learns language skills in the beds of the women he seduces while in military service, and survives to become a hero by consistently running away and trying to avoid exposure as a deserter or coward.

Flashman’s arrogance and ego once again land him in peril, this time getting caught up in the Indian Mutiny.  He sees a lot more horror firsthand, including the worst behaviour of both sides, and bounces around in calamitously poor luck so that we end up with perspectives on myriad events and circumstances.  The food and supplies for both sides, the political motivations, silliness and apathy… in short the human condition when you’ve got a country full of angry people who don’t feel safe in their beds.

What was most interesting was the insights into the sense of ethics and decency that Flashman develops.  It’s not what anyone of his time would call ethics, but he does show empathy for others, horror at the inhumanity of their treatment, and a naivety and obliviousness regarding beautiful women.  As the story is told from Flashman’s first-person perspective, I’d almost think him guilty of trying to show himself in a softer light.  Yet he has always been unashamedly himself, has always openly admitted to all his vices, which is half the appeal of the series.

Flashman in the Great Game is something I’m going to come back to.  I haven’t read much about this period in Indian history, and I want to get the facts so that I can enjoy the liberties taken with them better.  I loved Flashman as I always do, of course, and recommend this series to anyone and everyone (except for my mum)

Felice’s Log has a much better review than mine.  There’s a very positive review here at We Are Amused.  There was a pretty readable article at the Wall Street Journal after Fraser’s death.

‘Dancing on the Grave’ by Nigel Barley

This is probably a book that would shock my mother, but delight my great-aunt.  Dancing on the Grave is a collection of recollections of Nigel Barley (anthropologist) from his personal experiences and studies.  He wins bonus points for citing some of the books I used in my own thesis, and then loses some for doing that weird meandering thing with time and place that I have noted when reading Bill Bass’s memoirs and some other American anthropological non-fiction.  Maybe there’s a textbook or lecturer out there, training people in the Arch and Anth faculties to ignore linearity and explanation in favour of segueing between case studies? If so, they must have stopped by London and had a chat with Barley at some point.

Anyway, that meandering usually annoys me but in this collection of titbits and factoids about local differences in death culture rituals it worked quite well.  I happily grinned and laughed and nodded at the descriptions of funeral practices, and had a great time of it.  Then I read some of the jokes out aloud, and faced the horrified and disgusted faces of my family.  It appears that puns along the lines of

Putting the hearse before Descartes

aren’t as hilarious to people who don’t handle the dead for a living.  What I loved most were the solid bibliography, the presence of an index, and the way that Barley confesses to his perspective bias and emphasises it by mentioning several times the contrasts in attitudes between anthropologists from different cultural backgrounds and the strangeness of our own behaviour and rituals.  If you’re interested in seeing death as it is, with all the positives and negatives and social implications, (or if you have an interest in mortuary studies) you should read this book.  The squeamish may want to forgoe meals beforehand, though; there are bones and some mentions of cannibalism and gore.

Oh goodness me, in a review at metapsychology, it is mentioned that this book was renamed for American release.  I suppose that the title was too silly perhaps, or maybe just not solemn enough.  There aren’t any book blogger reviews from what I could find, though I’ll modify search terms and edit this post if I find any in the future.