ANRC 16: Guest blogger Lee on Marlon James’ A Brief History Of Seven Killings

June 6, 2016

When I was a kid, Jamaica was a place where they played cricket with a cavalier attitude.

A few years later and it was the source of “the reggae music”. Of course it was happening when I was a kid, but who could find it in Bendigo in the early ‘70s, or even on radio.

james-coverBob Marley and the Wailers were my introduction to reggae, later I would find there were many others, but Marley has been described as the first Third World superstar, and few would argue.

As a cadet journalist at the Bendigo Advertiser in 1976 I remember being aware of his being shot in December.

The shooting, its lead up and aftermath provide the starting point for Marlon James’s novel.

Fair warning, the only place Bob Marley is mentioned by name is on the back cover of my edition. For James’s novel he is the Singer.

This is a grim and gritty tale of a Third World country where power resides in the shadows and its protagonists are blunt instruments to achieve their ends.

The multi-strand narrative, its scope and voices put it in league with such novels as Don Delillo’s Underworld, American Tabloid, by James Ellroy, and Richard Price’s Clockers, but by the end the prevailing mood cleaves more tightly with Nelson Algren’s bleak Never Come Morning. For every Singer who climbs out of the ghetto, there are so many more who ensure that not only do they not escape, they provide the means of enslavement of others.

James uses many voices to reveal his story, each individual offering windows to actions and motives that might or might not be relevant to the central story.

A word here for the reader, his use of patois can at times be impenetrable, but stick with it. Word is Brief History of Seven Killings is being made into a TV series, so subtitles might help.

For the first four parts, the tale is told in turn by the protagonists. There is dialogue, but only told from the point of view of the narrator of the part.

And those narrators include gang bosses, underbosses, kids who do their bidding, a groupie, an American music journalist, CIA and ex-CIA operatives, a revolutionary, politicians – almost anyone, except the Singer, who is present as the shooting victim, to be observed and to observe justice being meted out later.

One of the towering achievements is to give each a distinctive voice, vocabulary and personality through their voices. James helpfully provides a list at the start that proves helpful in keeping track of the players.

The Jamaica depicted here is a short distance from cricket’s Sabina Park but a long way for those living in these ghettos, fictional suburbs about where Trench Town is situated.

The gang territories are marked out and woe betide the member who transgresses. Copenhagen City is the domain of Papa-Lo and his lieutenant Josey Wales, Shotta Sherrif rules the Eight Lanes and there are various sub-gangs in this corrugated iron landscape. Of course, it can be worse, that would be the Garbagelands.

Politics is central to the story and largely irrelevant to the foot soldiers. The gangs are allied with the JLP or PNP, but when gang members are sent out to do the bosses’ and their bosses’ bidding, it is for short-term reward, drugs usually, not ideology.

The CIA has raised its presence, fearful Jamaica will become another domino just over the horizon from the United States, while the revolutionary is happy to provide hardware to help the communist cause, or any cause that will pay his price.

It then later moves to the criminal enterprises of the Jamaicans in New York, ideology well and truly in the rear view mirror.

The narratives continue, though the contributors dwindle in number, mostly because they die, and never happily or of old age.

In the author’s note at the end there is a warning to his mother about a section, now whether it is because the violence steps up or the gay sex is moot. Both serve to advance the story and are in context, so hopefully Marlon’s mum understood.

If this all seems a little vague the main concern is that a wrong word here or there could so easily spoil what is a great read.


Welcome to ANRC 2016! Just sans Andy, and five months late …

May 10, 2016


And then there was one.

As those of you who regularly read our humble little literary blog know, Andy has bid us adieu for now. Hopefully it is not the last time we will see him around these parts, but he has taken (at least) this year off ANRC while he tackles the full reading list that comes with doing his PhD.

Meanwhile I have decided to continue with this blog, but was reluctant to tackle it on my own. I reckon its main strength has always lay with the “he said/she said” format we adopted from the get-go. So with that in mind, I am drafting in a succession of guest bloggers to join me on my journey through the great (and occasionally not-so-great) books of (mostly) modern times.

This is also my opportunity to get stuck into some of those books that Andy had long vetoed (Moby-Dick, here I come!), or that I was keen to do but couldn’t because Andy had already read them.

Usually, we provide the list of books we will be reading before we kick off each year (and yeah, I know it’s May, but you know – that’s life). I won’t be doing that this year, primarily because both the list of books – and the peeps who’ll be reading them with me – is still being finalised.

However, I can reveal that this month’s book will be last year’s Man Booker winner A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon Samuels. And I will be joined by my pal Lee in dissecting it. You can expect to read our thoughts very early next month.

On a personal note, this year marks a decade since Andy and I sat in a pub, got pissed, and dreamed up the idea for this blog. Since then we’ve read – and written about – more than 100 books. We’ve discovered writers who have become our favourite authors; we’ve marvelled at and moaned about various books; we’ve worked our way through some of the major novels, non-fiction, plays and poems of the 20th century (and a little before and a little afterwards. It’s been a helluva ride. And that ride ain’t over yet!

See you in June, fellow literature lovers!


… In which Andy takes one last look back.

March 8, 2016

Given this is potentially the last time I blog on Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge I thought I’d try to get it out of the way before the beginning of autumn. You could say “oops”, or you could say “today was 39 fucking degrees”. I’ll leave it up to you.

the endThere was only one out and out failure this year: Michel Holeybottom’s Atomised was as fatuous, overblown a piece of pseudoexistential postmodernist desperately-wanting-to-be-clever-clever-clever-but-actually-completely-skullcrunchingly-stupid fuckwittery as I have ever had the misfortune to read. Truly, inutterably awful. And so I’ll utter no more.

Babel-17 was an odd, slightly disappointing read for me. I love my sci-fi, and I’d been led to believe Samuel Delaney was a fabulous, genre-defying queer writer who was well worth seeking out. The novel’s not a failure, but it wasn’t the exciting find I’d hoped I’d ferreted out.

Wonderfully written but really quite gross was Lolita; Nabokov is a novelist I’d like to look into more deeply, but nothing changes the fact that the narrator of this novel is a pedophile. We know it, Nabokov knows it, Humbert Humbert even knows it, in his rare glimpses of self-knowledge. Still. It’s a novel about a middle-aged man shagging a twelve-year-old. Ick.

The other seven books Netty and I read (I did actually read King of the Badgers, and it’s bizarrely awesome, but since Netty’s copy has only just hit Australia’s shores I’ll restrict my comments to that: bizarrely awesome) were all, if not faultless, then very, very good. Perhaps Knausgaard’s slightly rambling first volume of autobiography, A Death in the Family, could’ve been more tightly edited, and perhaps better translated; but it’s still an impressive achievement. And it’s disappointing to find that Randy Shilts took some liberties in recreating certain real-life events in his riveting, traumatising depiction of the first years of the AIDS holocaust. But And the Band Played On is riveting, and it is traumatising, and for me as a gay man who grew up in the midst of that holocaust it perhaps had more resonance than it has for others.

I’ll go with Netty’s judgment and put Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun top of my list. Another riveting, traumatising depiction of real events – in this case the Nigerian civil war of the late’60s – but Adichie is a novelist, not a reporter like Shilts, and her fiction introduced me to a slice of history I’d previously been unaware of (although I vaguely remember “jokes” about Biafrans when I was a kid in the ‘70s). That aside, she is a terrific writer – I’ve also read a collection of her short stories, and have no doubt I’ll get to her other novels in the near future.

Beyond that, though – beyond the also-rans and the best of the best – I struggle to distinguish. Of a Boy – riveting and traumatising once again, and also queasily creepy, but also a wonderful evocation of the streets of ‘70s suburban Melbourne I walked, schoolbag in hand, myself. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie another fascinating snapshot of school-aged childhood, though this time ‘30s Edinburgh, and a meditation on the different manifestations of fascism. And Ann Beattie’s New Yorker Stories – Just. Fucking. Glorious. For the most part anyway. In fact that’s maybe what got Adichie across the line: I have no recollection of her putting a foot wrong, while one or two of Beattie’s stories didn’t quite gel. Or that’s what I remember, anyway.

So there you go: 2015’s reading, done and dusted. As I said, this will probably be my last regular (although we have seriously “challenged” the meaning of the word “regular” in this challenge) post at ANRC. I’ve begun doctoral studies in creative writing at one of Australia’s fine institutions of tertiary education, and that means the next three years will see my reading (and writing) quite focused; too focused, I think to allow me to continue contributing regularly here.

Very few people read the blog, and very few people are going to read this post, but I have to say the challenge has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done over the past decade. Since 2008 Netty and I have read some absolutely magnificent books, and had fun reviling some absolute rubbish. But it’s the good stuff that makes it all worthwhile.

It’s been fun.


In which Netty runs the rule over 2015’s reading …

February 29, 2016

As usual, here we are, wrapping up another big year of ANRC books, from 2015 – in March 2016. You’d never guess that Andy and me have spent most of our professional lives working to strict deadlines, would you?


All jokes aside, we kind of got derailed a bit in the last couple of months thanks to unforeseeable Big. Life. Shit. But, as Grace Slick once said, it’s a new dawn. So without any further ado, here’s my annual top 10* best-of list for last year.

(You might be wondering about the presence of that asterisk. For the past couple of years, Andy and I have taken off the first two months of the year, reducing our annual read from 12 books to 10. Late last year, in a comedy of errors, I was left high and dry with a back order of one of the year’s books – King of The Badgers by Phillip Hensher – that never arrived. Seriously. I’ve had this book on order since last October. Andy, meanwhile, had it done and dusted literally months ago. So hence we never got around to blogging on it. Andy might have something more to say about this when he does his summing up.)


Well, there’s usually one stinker in each year’s batch, and for mine the 2015 award goes to Nabokov’s Lolita. All the top-notch writing and clever plot twists in the world can’t make up for the novel’s basic premise: a manipulative late thirtysomething bloke having a sexual relationship with his young teenage step-daughter. No thanks.


Ever wondered what the future holds? In the view of Frenchman Houellebecq, not much at all. Or, in the Australian vernacular, we’ll all be rooned. A dark, bleak, unremitting read on life with an equally pessimistic take on the future. One for the masochists, or maybe the sadists. If you insist on reading it, make sure you do so with a stiff chaser of anti-depressants at the ready.

7. Babel-17 – SAMUEL R. DELANEY

A modern sci-fi classic in which drop-dead gorgeous, 20-something Rydra Wong, a multi-linguist poet and space captain, unravels the coded mystery of Babel-17, brings an end to a decades-long intergalactic war, and finds true love out there in space to boot. Trust me, there’s a lot of fun to be had here if you’re willing to suspend all earthly beliefs and go with the galactic flow.

6. The New Yorker Stories – ANN BEATTIE

Forty-eight of the best from American short-story maestro Beattie, all originally published in the venerable New Yorker magazine and stretching across three decades. With superbly drawn characters and a razor-sharp eye for minutiae, Beattie is up there with the greats. Including – yes – the greatest of them all, Raymond Carver. This is a must-read for all fans of short-form fiction.

5. Death In The Family – KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD

Far less addictive than crack – no matter what Zadie Smith says. But the first installment of Knausgaard’s six-volume memoir My Struggle is a mostly fascinating account of a Norwegian boy growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s, in the shadow of an uneasy relationship with his father. The aftermath of the death of the Knausgaard patriarch is some of the most compelling and affecting prose you will ever read.

4. The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie – MURIEL SPARKS

Set in a Scottish all-girls’ secondary school in the 1930s, Sparks’ novella tells the riveting tale of a highly influential teacher who, ironically, is eventually brought undone by the very group of girls (“the Brodie set”) into whose lives she ingratiates herself. Is she a monster or merely misunderstood? Probably a bit of both, actually.


The disturbing tale of a late 1970s childhood tragedy set in the Australian suburbs, Hartnett’s award-winning Of A Boy is a magnificent book – sublimely structured, beautifully written – that, once read, will never be forgotten.

2. And The Band Played On – RANDY SHILTS

My post on this weighty, exhaustive account of the advent and timeline of AIDS in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s opened with the line: “This is the most important book you will never read”. Stories from those who were on the frontline of the most significant disease of the latter half of the 20th century – the patients, the medical practitioners caring for them, the scientists racing to solve the puzzle of this retrovirus, and the many levels of bureaucracy standing in the way of all of them. Essential reading.


In my original post, I noted that Half Of A Yellow Sun might just end up being the best book I would read all year. How prescient of me! Adichie’s sprawling, harrowing account of one family’s life before, during and after the Nigerian civil war of the 1960s is truly, absolutely great fiction. If you only read one book from this list, make it this one*. (*But if you could do me a teeny tiny favour, please also read And The Played On. I can barely split them, but it’s Yellow Sun by a nose at the final post).


In which Netty enters Knausgaard’s struggle on dual levels …

February 24, 2016

Definition of irony: reading and blogging about a book called A Death In The Family being delayed by, well, a death in the family.

knaus-coverTrue story, folks. You should have been reading this post in November 2015 rather than February 2016, but sometimes that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

I’d been wanting to read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle books for a while now. A literary sensation in his native Norway – and not always for straight-forward reasons – translation has slowed down the six-volume series’ migration to an English-speaking (nay, reading) audience. Hence, book five is due to be released early this year – despite Knausgaard’s final instalment in the series having been completed and released years ago at home in Scandinavia.

In Norway, this autobiographical series is known as Min Kamp (even the title, with its similarities to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, caused problems with potential German publishers early on). A published author with a novel under his belt, Knausgaard, then 40, originally started writing his memoirs in the late noughties in an attempt to shake off a case of writer’s block and was not intending to publish them. He showed the finished product to family members, some of whom took umbrage with the contents and portrayal of the clan, forcing some revisions before the eventual final publication.

This is understandable as A Death In The Family is a deeply personal, no-holds-barred memoir. But as unflinchingly hard as Knausgaard is on his family, he reserves his harshest criticism for himself. Still, in a small-ish country of less than five million – and with the author’s family the only Knausgaards who reside there – there was plenty of fuel for the ensuing media fire. Indeed, the inner back sleeve of my 2014 Vintage edition features a quote from the author: “It never occurred to me that it might cause problems – I was just telling the truth, wasn’t I? But I was also being very naïve. I sent a copy to everyone involved before the first volume was published, and then I discovered how difficult this was going to be. It was like hell.”

Nevertheless the series has attracted wide acclaim, with Knausgaard having been dubbed “the Norwegian Proust” (note: never having read Proust, I cannot comment further). English author Zadie Smith – not a writer whose work I enjoy – is one of a slew of Knausgaard’s literary contemporaries who have fallen over themselves to praise his work, famously comparing the My Struggle books to being as addictive as crack. The man himself says they are a record of the “banalities and humilations” of his life.

Andy notes a few issues with the translation in his blog – something we touch on pretty much every time we review a translated work. But overall I reckon the tone – in all its unevenness and the jumping back and forth on the narrative timeline – can’t be too dissimilar to the original. I found the lack of chronology a little annoying – and that’s not something that usually bothers me. The abrupt shifts in the timeline – especially in the first part – particularly bugged me, and I found the long ruminations on the writing process (which admittedly are probably integral to the concept of the series as a whole) at times yawn-inducing. I wanted story and flow. I had to wait till the second part to get it.

Andy also notes a familiarity with the childhood and adolescent experiences of Knausgaard, who is not much older than both Andy and myself. It’s a growing-up-in-the-seventies-and-eighties thing that will particularly resonate with Gen X readers, regardless of their place of origin.

My partner-in-crime did a very good job of summing up the plot line in his post, so I shall be pointing you in that direction rather rehashing it here. I encourage you to read it. In short, the younger boy of two grows up in Norway, goes to school, goes through his oft-estranged parents’ break-up, falls in and out of adolescent-esque love, joins bands, starts writing, publishes a novel and tries to write another one, gets married once, then twice, has a few kids (OK, three), moves to Sweden.

And, of course, he experiences the death of his father with whom he has always had a difficult relationship, for reasons that are not always clear. But certainly the manner in which the death itself reveals a hornet’s nest of familial issues could not help but colour a memoir looking back on the author’s early life. Particularly by the book’s end I was wondering if the rancor and bitterness of Knausgaard’s feelings towards his father that were bubbling under the surface in part one were the result of what transpires in part two, rather than something that had always been present. It’s hard to tell – and whether that be the fault of an inexperienced writer or a clumsy translation, I could but guess. The reader will ultimately be the judge of that.

In summation, I was expecting to really, really love this book. Instead I merely liked it a lot. I will definitely be seeking out book two (A Man In Love) and will take it from there (I’m left wondering what fresh meat Knausgaard can bring to the table in book three – Boyhood Island – that he hasn’t already plundered in book one).

And who knows? One day I might even get around to reading Proust. I said, might …

PS: Stay tuned, faithful blog readers (all two of you) as Andy and I belatedly sum up our unexpectedly truncated reading year of 2015 and unveil what is to come this year. A couple of months late, admittedly, but yeah, bite me (oooh look! Two bites!) (Insert winking emoticon here.)


A Death in the Family – Andy doesn’t even like vodka

February 9, 2016

Yes. Late again. Bite me, dear readers. (Oooh look! Two bites!)

I read the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ongoing biography, My Struggle, months ago. So I’m afraid A Death in the Family is not fresh in my mind, but I’ll do my best.

a-death-in-the-familyReading part one I assumed this would be what I would write about most. Knausgaard is less than two months older than me, and his snippets of childhood lived in Scandinavia in the mid- to late-70s – as I was living snippets of childhood in Northern Ireland – certainly resonated. Does he mention Eurovision? I think he maybe does. Maybe we both watched Brotherhood of Man win for Kisses For Me! Couldn’t have done that in Australia, not in the ‘70s. Later in part one Knausgaard talks about early to mid adolescence, and his early tussles with girls, and sex, and alcohol. This is interesting enough, and, like most of the book (his translator does let him down a few times too many) well written, but, thanks to my sexuality and my particular upbringing, not something I could relate to terribly closely. Still – interesting enough. The depiction of his parents is also interesting, and the dissolution of their marriage, and his father’s relationship with another woman, and his father’s incipient alcoholism, and Karl Ove’s own burgeoning love of booze, rounds out part one very nicely. This is really good, I thought.

I was surprised to find that, perversely, part two was better.

Part one begins with Knausgaard married to his second wife for a few years, and then flashbacks to his childhood and adolescence. Part two begins with Knausgaard married to his first wife, and trying to write his second novel. And then his dad dies.

This is the bit that makes part two perversely better.

Knausgaard’s approach to his dad’s death is no-holds-barred. His description of what happened apparently caused ruptures within his family, though Netty’s more familiar with that than I am.

Briefly: Dad does indeed, in his second marriage, turn alcoholic. Fathers another child but then his second wife kicks him out and he ends up living with his mother – Karl Ove’s grandma. Dismisses the in-home assistance other family members have arranged for the old lady with assurances that he’ll look after her, closes the door. And a few years later, he’s dead.

Karl Ove and his older brother go to the house, and what they find is horrific. Empty bottles of vodka everywhere – literally everywhere. All over the floor downstairs, upstairs, on the stairs themselves. The stink of piss and shit everywhere. Piles of piss- and shit-soaked clothes left where they fell to rot. Grandma, turned alcoholic herself by her obese, booze-bloated son, blithely pissing herself as she sits in her kitchen chair, smoking her cigarette, drinking her tea.

Knausgaard is unflinching in his depiction of these horrors. He’s also quite unflinching in his depiction of himself confronting this situation, bawling his eyes out on a fairly regular basis while his older brother remains at least a little more stoic.

In hindsight the book is rather more cleverly constructed than you might initially imagine. It opens with a profound, rather intimidating philosophical rumination on the nature of death – god, is it all going to be like this? I remember thinking. No, it’s not, but that profound, rather intimidating philosophical rumination on the nature of death is followed by Karl Ove’s memories of his dad at home in the mid-70s, smoking, stern in the absence of their mother who’s at work, telling them to keep the kitchen window shut … Not bloated, not obese, not alcoholic. Yet. I read the book quite quickly, and quite a few weeks ago, and I suspect it would richly reward re-reading – although I’m more likely to read the other volumes of Knausgaard’s autobiography first. But A Death in the Family was an unexpectedly rewarding choice – of Netty’s – for last year’s reading challenge.


In which Netty reads And The Band Played On … and The Chimp And The River

December 30, 2015

This is the most important book that you will never read.

shilts-coverBack in 1981, a young, openly gay journalist named Randy Shilts got a position at the San Francisco Chronicle. His round was “gay issues”, in a city that was more heavily involved in gay liberation and its civil rights than any other in the United States. A city in which two in five adult males were openly gay, and to which about 5000 gay men were relocating every year. Not to mention gay tourism, which attracted thousands of men from all over the world to its precincts, including its infamous bath houses.

The other thing that was happening in San Francisco in 1981 – and, on the other side of the country, in New York City – was that gay men were presenting at their GPs and at hospitals with enlarged lymph nodes, serious pneumonia-like symptoms and ugly skin rashes. And then they started dying.

In the prologue to his book And The Band Played On, first published in 1987, Shilts writes: “AIDS did not just happen to America – it was allowed to happen by an array of institutions, all of which failed to perform their appropriate tasks to safeguard the public health.” And later on: “The story of politics, people, and the AIDS epidemic is, ultimately, a tale of courage as well as cowardice, compassion as well as bigotry, inspiration as well as venality, and redemption as well as despair.”

And over six years, and 600 pages, Shilts documents the AIDS crisis from every imaginable angle – political, personal, scientific, bureaucratic. I seriously doubt there could be a better, more thorough book written on this subject. Its breadth, scope and the meticulous attention to detail is breathtaking. Shilts had access to every major player in the scientific and political communities and no stone is left unturned in the recounting of this devastating period of western medical history.

Shilts opens his book in Zaire in 1976, where Danish doctor Grethe Rask – a specialist in tropical diseases who had worked in Africa for the past decade – is sick and getting sicker. By the following year, aged 47, she would be dead, officially of a rare pneumonia. Nine years later, tests on her blood would reveal she had contracted HIV.

From there, Shilts sets the scene in San Francisco and NYC in the late 1970s, giddy on its giant strides in the hard-fought battle for gay rights and liberation. Presciently, a few members of the community – such as New York playwright Larry Kramer – were sounding early alarm bells and despairing that the battle had degenerated into “fighting for the prerogative of gays to bump like bunnies”.

In both cities, doctors were alarmed at the raft of health issues developing amongst the male gay community; in the early 1980s the medical community referred to AIDS as “gay pneumonia” or “gay cancer”. Add to that in the US, the Republicans, led by new president Ronald Reagan, had just come to power; Reagan had foreshadowed – and then set about implementing – serious budgetary cuts that affected medicine and science and their various bodies.

A perfect storm was brewing.

By 1981 the so-called “gay pneumonia” was turning up in intravenous drug users in New York City. By 1982 it was first detected in hemophiliacs. But it was still causing the most havoc in the male gay community, where everybody knew somebody who was getting sick and inevitably dying – yet few were changing their behaviours, even as their doctors were warning that this disease was being spread through unprotected sex. Those same doctors were also initially castigated for suggesting it also looked like it was a blood-borne disease. They also quickly realised this was a disease with a lengthy incubation period; that it could lay dormant in a person for years, rather than the months originally thought.

Meanwhile the medical and scientific bodies were fighting for funding and resources, and fighting against each other in the race to be the first to claim credit for isolating and naming this new epidemic. The media was largely ignoring what was fast becoming the biggest health crisis of the 20th century. And everybody was caught up in the prevailing political correctness – “don’t offend the gays and don’t inflame the homophobes”.

Collectively, this stunning display of stonewalling, denial and sheer ineptitude – which lasted for more than half a decade and criss-crossed all public and political spheres – would cost hundreds, then thousands, then millions of people their lives.

A San Francisco man who addressed a series of government hearings in 1983 summed it up thus: “There is no reason this disease cannot be conquered … this is not a political issue. This is a health issue. This is not a gay issue. This is a human issue … I came here today in the hope that my epitaph would not read that I died of red tape.”

It’s enough to make you want to bang your head against a brick wall and weep.

By 1984 the retrovirus that causes AIDS had been isolated. Later that year it was concluded that the virus had originated from equatorial Africa, lying dormant in primates until it was transferred to humans. “As efficient a virus as I’ve ever seen,” noted Dr Robert Gallo, the American biomedical researcher who was eventually credited as the “co-discoverer” of HIV.

And by the time it was announced that American movie star Rock Hudson was dying from AIDS-related complications in July 1985 – which is considered a turning point for the US at large to finally sit up and take notice – more than 4300 of more than 9000 people with the virus had died in that country alone.

How relevant is it to today? Well, they say that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. And that, for me, is the intrinsic lesson of And The Band Played On.

Also, vale to its author. Shilts died in 1994, aged 42, of complications from the HIV virus, which he didn’t ­­learn he’d contracted until after he’d finished writing his book. Yet another casualty that might not have happened and that certainly didn’t need to happen.

chimp-coverPostscript: We also read American science writer David Quammen’s The Chimp And The River, which came out earlier this year. This small book confirms the speculation from two decades ago – that AIDS was transferred from chimpanzees to humans in Africa at the beginning of the previous century in a “spillover”. Similarly it’s an essential read on this devastating pandemic, which, while no longer an automatic death sentence (not in the wealthy west, at any rate) still kills more than a million people every year and infects many more.

This fight is far from over.


And the Band Played On – Andy has no puns

December 29, 2015

Apologies to the one or two people who still bother reading this blog regularly – for a variety of reasons posting has been problematic for the past couple of months. Although given who those one or two readers are, they probably know why it’s been problematic, so there’s no need to be cryptic. Nevermind.

Given my age and the times in which I grew up, I probably came out a bit late – early- to mid-20s. Early ‘90s, anyway. At that stage, HIV meant AIDS, and AIDS meant death. I was living in London at the time, and I remember one night drunkenly telling a friend that I had absolutely no doubt I would end up positive at some point, and the day I got the diagnosis I would go out and get spectacularly shitfaced and the following day I would go vegetarian. To her credit she did not look at me with the complete and utter contempt I deserved; instead she said something along the lines of “Andy. what the fuck are you talking about?”

As it turns out, more than 20 years down the track, I am not a vegetarian, and I am negative – in a time when a positive diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. And that little anecdote is of no relevance whatsoever, really.


AIDSAnd The Band Played On (a reference to the musicians playing on the deck of the Titanic as the ship sank – in that story a symbol of humanity, here something far more sinister) takes us back almost 20 years before I came out, to Kinshasa, capital of what was then Zaire. Via Scandinavia, Paris, but mostly the United States, San Fran journo Randy Shiltz unravels the medical, political and cultural nightmare that unfurled over the ‘80s and was ultimately to claim his own life a few years after he finished this book.

It’s a few weeks since I finished it and so I’ll limit myself to a few vague observations. First off, and sorry if I sound flippant – but fuck this is a good read, especially early on. Early on it feels a bit like you’re reading a detective story – Shiltz’s construction borders on faultless. His research is meticulous (although apparently he took some “artistic licence” in reconstructing certain episodes – I don’t know which these are). As the story he has to tell unfolds, and the horror of what is occurring becomes more apparent – I thought I knew a bit about what happened in the ‘80s, but turns out I didn’t really know shit – the compulsive readability of the book sobers up somewhat; towards the end I found I had to read smaller and yet smaller chunks, so disturbing and upsetting does it all become.

This is mostly because so many fucking people are dying (mostly, in the US and the rest of the West, gay men, but by no means only gay men – one of the things Shiltz makes screamingly, infuriatingly clear was that this “gay disease”, from the outset, affected a far wider population). But it’s also because of the response of many in the gay community. So soon after gay lib people are being told, Actually, maybe you need to slow down, and people, understandably, initially, say Fuck off. But the fact that the owners of the “bathhouses” (better known in Australia these days as saunas) put their profits above the lives of their patrons is appalling; that attitude is also found in the operators of the US’s private blood banks.

And the bullshit that happened at a bureaucratic and political level is monstrous. Prioritising the “gay cancer” under a profoundly reactionary Republican administration? Good luck with that. Scientists write to each other lamenting the criminal lack of funding and then front Congressional committees and, to avoid pissing off their bosses, tell the Congressmen No, no, funding is absolutely adequate. We’re fine.

Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. So many people died because of this bullshit – and in the ‘80s, in the States, and in Australia, and in most of the West, most of those people were young gay men.

As I’ve mentioned, there’s the suggestion that Shiltz allowed his imagination a bit too much free rein in his depiction of some episodes. The only other criticism I would add is that the very last chapter, detailing the death of one of the people who played a vital role in much of what Shiltz has recorded, lacks any sense of dignity. Perhaps this is intentional. The vast majority of these guys died without a shred of dignity, one of AIDS’ most horrible attributes. Still, that last chapter jarred.

The Chimp and the River, by US science writer David Quammen, is an expanded extract on his much bigger book Spillover, about diseases that cross from animals to humans. The science that is available to us now, compared to what Shiltz had access to, is astounding. Kinshasa was not where AIDS began, but you could call it Ground Zero, to some extent – that city is where the virus was allowed to launch itself upon the world. That researchers can now pretty much pinpoint the crossover of HIV from chimp to human to a corner of the jungle on a tributary of a tributary of the Congo in about 1908 is just astounding. Chimp meat was (and possibly still is) a bit of a delicacy in the Congolese jungle; a hunter cuts himself as he’s butchering the carcass of a chimp infected with the simian version of HIV; and the world turns.

What’s infuriating is that had HIV/AIDS been confronted rationally in the ‘80s we’d probably have a vaccine by now (a vaccine, not a “cure”; to my knowledge there is no such thing as a “cure” to a virus, you vaccinate against viruses; but for Big Pharma, “cures” are more lucrative, and so … You know where I’m going here). We don’t have a vaccine. HIV may not be killing nearly as many people in the West as it was even 10 years ago, but in the majority world…?

Fascinating and enthralling, sure. But in the age of PrEP and PEP and [+u] (positive but undetectable), to look back on those first years of the holocaust is to be made sick with rage and grief.


In which Netty goes back to school and meets Miss Jean Brodie, but learns a different lesson …

November 10, 2015

Sometimes I don’t know as much as I think I know.

For example, when Andy suggested at the beginning of the year that we include Scottish writer Muriel Spark in this year’s ANRC, I could only stare blankly across the table.

“Who?” I asked, somewhat dumbly.

This is the cover of the first edition, which is a bit more inspiring than the orange and white of my Penguin copy ...

This is the cover of the first edition, which is a bit more inspiring than the orange and white of my Penguin copy …

Who indeedy. Well, as it turns out, Spark – make that Dame Spark – was the highly decorated author of some 20-odd novels and more than that again of other works, including biographies, short stories and poetry anthologies, written over a near 50-year career. Additionally, she is considered one of the greatest mid-to-late 20th century British writers.

Yeah, maybe I need to get out more often or sumthink like that …

So obviously it was Andy who suggested we read The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, one of Spark’s best-known novels and her sixth, published in 1961. It has been widely adapted for both stage and screen (most famously as a 1969 film for which Maggie Smith, in the title role, won the Best Actress Oscar). And no, I didn’t know that, either. Until now, obves.

I suppose I should be pleased I’m still learning new shit at this age. I guess.

I did enjoy Brodie – indeed, muchly so – although that is not necessarily going to translate into me racing down to my local bookstore and boning up on the rest of Dame Spark’s oeuvre any time soon. No reason, really, other than my bedside book pile is already ceiling high at any given time, and it never really goes down, as the pile seems to absorb two or three for every one that is removed.

As Andy notes, the novel – more like a novella, really, at a mere 128 pages long – is unconventionally structured, with its plot spoilers and skipping back and forth throughout its timeline. This does not detract from the novel(la) one iota, merely giving it something of a modern veneer.

Andy compares it to Dead Poet’s Society (you can read more about what he has to say about it right here), which never would have occurred to me, but which made perfect sense when he first advanced his theories. Certainly it’s the story of a highly influential teacher and his/her effect on his/her pupils. But whilst Dead Poets is all chest-beating, teeth-gnashing honour betrayed (admittedly it has been quite some time, maybe 30 years, since I last saw it), Brodie is a slightly different beast. A slyly, decidedly devious and manipulative beast.

Miss Jean Brodie might well be in her prime, but she might not necessarily be in her right mind. I oscillated between thinking she knew exactly what she was doing – a puppeteer expertly pulling her wide-eyed, slavishly devoted pupils’ strings – to wondering if maybe she wasn’t, to use that wonderful Australian vernacular, two sangers short of a barbie. I think delusional was the word I used during a conversation with Andy. Which would certainly marry into Brodie’s forays into, and approval of, European fascism (albeit an early 1930s version, before the shit really hit the fan).

Back to the book, then. Miss Jean Brodie, an unmarried thirtysomething teacher at an Edinburgh girls’ school, selects a group of six primary school-aged girls – who become known as the Brodie Set – and goes about “educating” them in what she considers the classical sense, ie, not at all. Brodie stages outdoor classes (away from the prying eyes of the headmistress Miss Mackay, who knows something’s up but can’t quite pin down her suspicions to anything concrete enough that would warrant a dismissal) where she bangs on about love, life, travel, anything that takes her fancy, really – the polar opposite to equipping her students with anything remotely resembling the sort of schooling they will need to do unnecessary things such as pass exams, etc. And clearly overstepping teacher-student boundaries by regularly hosting the girls at her home outside school hours.

Brodie is the object of the attentions and affections of two male teachers at the school – Gordon Lowther, the short-statured singing master, and Teddy Lloyd, the roguish, one-armed arts master. In love with Mr Lloyd, but unable to pursue a married father-of-six, Brodie instead takes up with Mr Lowther. But she also involves the Brodie Set in her imbroglio, revealing through her machinations the extent of her furtive chicanery – something that will ultimately lead to her downfall.

Moving through the grades and separating the students fails to break down the Brodie set, something that is only ultimately accomplished by the girls themselves as they move through their teenage years and start the inevitable questioning of authority, even under the tightly held control Brodie has exerted on them from a young age. Ultimately there is a betrayal (this is not really a spoiler, thanks to the book’s structure – the reader knows from the get-go that the Brodie empire is destined to eventually fall) that is both inevitable and fitting. You know all along that Brodie is going to get her comeuppance – that is just part and parcel of the plot.

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (the novel gets its title from Brodie’s oft-repeated assertion that she is in her prime, although that statement becomes increasingly desperate throughout the duration) is a clever and compelling read, with a cast of memorable, if not particularly likeable characters (I warmed to none of them, something which often impedes my enjoyment of a book, but not in this particular case). And I would certainly be intrigued to see the film treatment.

But that’s about the size of that. As I’ve said before, and I’ll undoubtedly say again, so many books, so little time. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with saying so long, it’s been short but sweet. And tomorrow is another day, and another author. So it goes …


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Andy’s impressed by Muriel’s spark of genius

October 21, 2015

Yeah yeah. Dreadful pun. You expect better?

Back in the late ‘80s I remember being quite offended by a review of what at that stage was probably my favourite movie ever, Dead Poets Society. The review suggested John Keating (Robin Williams) was basically just a charismatic fascist. A young Hitler might’ve appreciated some pointers from the teacher, I seem to remember another critic suggesting. Rubbish, I thought. Keating is a liberating character, surely, and fascism/Nazism is all about slavish devotion to an authoritarian state.

Dead Poets Society is still a favourite film, although I hope I watch it with a more nuanced eye today than my 20-year-old self back in the ‘80s. And those fascist accusations take on an interesting facet after reading Muriel Spark’s novella, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

And yes, before you tell me. I’ve trawled the internet, and I’m aware parallels have been drawn between the two works for years – were probably being drawn within weeks of DPS hitting cinema screens.

Not the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Or Maggie Smith, for that matter

Not the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Or Maggie Smith, for that matter

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was published in 1961 – two years after DPS is set. Brodie was later played on the silver screen (stupendously) by Maggie Smith, and she won an Oscar for her efforts. While her performance lingers in my mind it’s years since I’ve seen the movie, so I can’t remember exactly how closely it follows the book – it’s broadly accurate, but the book features flash-forwards that signal the story’s denouement, and I don’t remember the movie featuring those (though it might have). As it happens, Spark would have been pretty much exactly the same age in Depression-era Edinburgh as the young female students who fall under Miss Brodie’s spell.

For its length, Brodie manages to touch on a wide number of subjects. While most of the main characters seem to be from relatively well-off backgrounds, mostly untouched by the Depression, there are fleeting glimpses of Edinburgh’s poor. Scottish pride gets a (rather satirical) nod. More substantially it deals with human sexuality, both its burgeoning presence in the bodies and minds of the young ‘uns and in the dalliances of those swiftly declining into middle age – the “prime” of the novella’s title.

Most importantly, though, it’s about education, and its value or lack thereof. Spark seems to value education, and while she has the sort of affection for Miss Brodie that Middle Age locals reserved for the village idiot she skewers the approach to education that Brodie venerates. Late in the novel the girl who ultimately betrays Brodie (not a spoiler, or not much of one, anyway – I did mention flash-forwards, remember?) refers to her old teacher as stupid. And yet in the novel’s closing line, that same girl – now a vastly transformed woman – refers to Brodie as an important influence in her younger years.

Brodie’s link to DPS’s Keating is mostly about their “irregular” teaching methods. It’s interesting, though, that Keating is regarded by some critics as a sort of benign dictator, given Brodie’s adulation for Mussolini and Hitler, and that adulation’s central role in her downfall (oops – spoiler). And of course they are both betrayed, although in DPS Keating is presented as a Christ-like victim of reluctant, blackmailed traitors while Brodie’s downfall is, though effectively the central element of the story, presented as worthy of wry amusement.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is clever, witty, dry, sarcastic and satirical. As a work of art it is superior to, and in its presentation of the relations between students and their charismatic elders far more complex than, Dead Poets Society, although DPS holds a place in my heart (Ethan Hawke? Robert Sean Leonar? Swoon!) that Brodie can never hope to attain.

Netty, incidentally, thinks Miss Brodie is delusional. This didn’t occur to me as I read the book – I just thought she was a bit daft – although in hindsight “delusional” does make some sense. I’ll let Netty explore that.