Archive for June, 2013

Disturbance – Jamie O’Neill – what our group thought

DistWe chose this book after having voted the author’s ‘At Swim Two Boys’ one of our favourites. Most of us, however, were disappointed with this book. The author writes well but the story was irritating and didn’t flow.

All the characters are Irish stereotypes and the story becomes ever more bizarre. Is the boy fourteen or sixteen? Did his mother die recently or during labour? Are the characters real or are they merely inside the by’s head as he descends into a mental breakdown?

 Nilus uses his bedroom as a refuge and behaves ion an OCD manner with his sheets, pyjamas and jigsaw, which has a piece missing on the day his mother died. The dresser in the kitchen is a shrine to his mother and the boy is very anxious then there is a cup with a chip at the front.

He is very detached from others: I didn’t like our street. Our street made me nervous. It sort of depressed me. I never spent a moment longer in it than was absolutely necessary. It was full of low cottages without gardens. The front doors led straight on to the street. Sometimes they left the doors open. And then you’d have to see wallpaper and things, smell other people’s cooking. I could do without snatches of these neighbours’ lives. They were the sort of places tradesmen-like people lived in

He worries: needless to say, I had difficulty sleeping that night. I kept worrying I might fall into a coma in the night and wake up buried deep in the dark and dread of my extremity. Then it got worse. I worried my mother hadn’t really died at all, but had fallen to a deep slumber. Even now, this night, more than a year after, she might be turning slightly in her sleep, moaning softly. She would wake up. She would wake up and her fingers would stretch out and they would touch against something unexpected, velvety, soft. It was too dark to see, she felt about blindly, touching at first, then crushing her fingers. But everywhere she touched there was only the soft, half-satin, half-velvet confinement. Or dirt. Dirt had got in. She hated dirt. It would drive her frantic, sensing the dirt around her, near her mouth, maybe, trickling up her nose. And she couldn’t move. And in her desperation, she turned her mouth to her arm, the beautiful soft skin of her arm, the milk skin she was so proud of, soft like a kitten’s fur, she called it. And she forced her mouth to open, with her pearly perfect teeth, but, before she would bite, she creaked her gaze towards me, all pain and reproach, but her eyes weren’t there, were eaten away, just sockets in her skull, and she said, ‘Why, Nilus? Why did you finish the jigsaw?

I rearranged the drawstring on my pyjama bottoms, found my dressing-gown and slippers. I turned on every light on the way down. It would’ve annoyed my mother — ‘the Christmas tree’, she used call the house. ‘Have we shares in the Electricity Board?’ — But I could do without the dark, tonight.

I put the kettle on. I sat down at the table, in front of the dresser. I didn’t want to look at it, but it fought for my attention. I’d left the dresser, when my mother finally died, exactly as she had left it. All chipped, cracked, rubbly. I’d known then that nothing could preserve my world from the chaos of her departure. Everything would end. The dresser was her shrine now, as in life it had been the altar to the orderliness of our home.

He dislikes disruption to his daily routine: I didn’t know what all the fuss was about. I was quite capable of looking after myself. I always cooked the meals at home. The one time, after my mother’s death, that my father tried his hand in the kitchen, I’d been served up something virescent.

I had a feeling that everything was out of control, or that I had no control over anything any more.

He likes the same menu every week.

He is obsessed with bringing some sort of order to his increasingly chaotic life: All those pieces crying out for arrangement, for order. To be something.

Does he have Asperger’s Syndrome? In a sex lesson he misunderstands ‘temple’ –is he taking it literally or has he simply not heard of the metaphor before?

What is it with the exhibitionism before Fr. Mucahy? This is where we started to wonder if the story was real. Especially when he says that he can’t see the ‘sperm’ on hand after masturbating

His use of triplications isn’t so unusual. Other intelligent teenagers do it, e.g. in the play Bar Mitzvah Boy.

His Father has a thing about nudity. He only baths once a week, though that was normal in Britain just before that time. The house is falling to bits he takes Nilus to daily mass, usually arriving late (or is this Nilus’s need for routine and perfectionism?).

Nilus doesn’t like him talking about anything sexual: `They’re the ones with the bosoms, for God’s sake.’

He was that capable of vulgarity.

`Have you got your three Rs?’ he asked.

`My three Rs?’

`Reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.’

`Of course I have.’

`That’s all right then.’

`What’s all right?’

`So long as you have your Rs. In later life, you’ll find it’s always handy to have your arse to fall back on.’

I huffed. His joking and his drinking and his chewing garlic were bad enough, but now it appeared he was going to start using dirty language.

The Teacher isn’t very pastorally minded: You’re a loner – and he is grateful not to have any further conversation.

The Uncle claims to be a socialist: I’m all for looking after the workers. Of course I am. I’m a Labour man, myself. I’ll see them all right. Naturally I will. But not here. Not in these shambles. Sure, they’d have me up for rack-renting, housing a miserable mongrel in this old street. No matter what your father says.’
I’ve bailed him out enough times now. I’m not made of money. I’ve played banker to his follies long enough. The deeds are mine. Call it underhand he may, but that’s business. It’s a prime site this.’ He was climbing into his car.

God knows, we’re all entitled to a dream or two. I was quite a fighter in those days, you know. We were all going to change the world. And we believed it. Meetings, rallies, shouting down rivals at factory gates, slogans. The whole shooting gallery.’

It’s not easy when you have a wife and a baby daughter to support. You can’t eat pamphlets, as she used say.

Fr. Mulcahy is like the stereotypical alcoholic priest in Fr. Ted. He says he is in a hurry because it is the 20th Century.

`Open your legs,’ he said. ‘That’s better. Boys your age should be in short pants.’

He drew in silence for a while, then he said quite suddenly. ‘What d’you get up to in your bedroom? All alone in your bedroom?’

I considered telling him about my jigsaw puzzle, but I had a feeling that wasn’t what he was getting at.

He was pulling heavily on his Woodbine. With all the nicotine on his fingers, it looked like his smoking-hand wore a yellow glove.

‘That bloody Father lick-the-bishop’s-arse Mooney has been at me again,’ he muttered, almost to himself. He was off once more. ‘Wouldn’t you think a Christian soul’d leave a man in peace a few years? A decent retirement, I might have. But no. He wants me out. Any excuse. There’s moves afoot to cart me off to the Missions. Not me. I’ve no taste for piccaninnies.’

Is Ira, the cousin meant to be some sort of symbol for the IRA?

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The Night Watch – Sarah Walters

TNWWe like books that go backwards. It’s like getting to know people in relationships who, over time, gradually reveal more of their pasts.

These people turn out to have surprising connections with each other

Alec and Duncan think that their suicide pact would become a date taught in schools. Duncan’s idealism about working men not wanting war if they were given decent jobs and homes is dampened by Fraser who says that he should try running a factory full of them. When Fraser doesn’t turn up, Duncan makes excuses for him. They met in prison as conscientious objectors. The place had blocked sinks where pots were emptied near where they ate. ‘Prison turns us back into schoolboys’ –masturbation. They get used to prison smells – feet, breath. During precious visit, a prisoner is looking at the clock– wanting the time to go, being used to prison routine and not liking interruption.

There’s a description of gawky teenage boys with Duncan and Fraser watching them.

Vivian is depicted typing a diet/nutrition list before computers were invented – getting the columns straight because there were no photocopiers so people had to use carbon paper.

Kay initially thought Julia was bombed so their eventual reunion is joyful. I imagined, vividly, her rush across blitzed London to her house when she heard that it had been bombed. I felt her anguish as she feared what she might find. In her mid-thirties and wearing trousers she lives in a room with no books, clothes hanging on a wire, darned socks, a cold-water bathroom down the hall and a sour smelling bed. She watches her landlord’s patients arrive and leave at exactly the same hours every day and notices an elderly man and a young man aged about twenty five. When she tells her friend Micky “I’ve got lost in the rubble… couldn’t get over it” is she thinking of the break with her lover Helen? She comparesthe deep peace of the marital bed to “the hurly-burly of the sapphic chaise lounge” and she asks, “Why is it we can never love the people we ought to?”

The atmosphere of wartime Britain is well described, with its Brylcreem and Pears soap, outside lavatories, the rumour that guns in France that can reach England but the Government is trying to hush it up, the British passion for uniforms to be worn by every person doing the most menial of jobs for the war effort, despite their fighting the Germans who were obsessed with uniforms, the fatalist resignation that says that if a bomb with your name on it then there is nothing you can do children sleeping under kitchen table and thinking it normal. A man from Evening Standard predicts colder winters (almost like our global warming) because bombs have knocked earth off balance. Lesbians don’t inherit their partner’s pension, a phone operator listens in to people’s conversations and there is a vivid description of a pigeon with its wings on fire. People thought it to be burning paper at first.

Homosexuals have a hatred of effeminate men – they don’t want to go to bed with girls yet they act like them.

Sexual knowledge is poor – someone thinks that wiping a hand full of semen on the grass will fertilise knicklerless girl who sits on it.  There is an amateur abortion done by a knitting needle by a back street dentist who will only do it if the mother wears a wedding ring.

We are more aware of this these days but self-harm makes one of the women feel more alive.

Christian Science was more popular back then – God is perfect so he made a perfect world so illness doesn’t exist so must be an illusion.

Good quotations:

“She supposed that houses, after all – like the lives that were lived in them – were mostly made of space. It was the spaces, in fact, which counted, rather than the bricks.”

“life is crap but, every day is an experience”

“Helen opened her eyes and gazed into the luminous blue of the sky. Was it crazy, she wondered, to be as grateful as she felt now, for moments like this, in a world that had atomic bombs in it—and concentration camps, and gas chambers? People were still tearing each other into pieces. There was still murder, starvation, unrest, in Poland, Palestine, India—God knew where else. Britain itself was sliding into bankruptcy and decay. Was it a kind of idiocy or selfishness, to want to be able to give yourself over to the trifles: to the parp of the Regent’s Park Band; to the sun on your face, the prickle of grass beneath your heels, the movement of cloudy beer in your veins, the secret closeness of your lover? Or were those trifles all you had? Oughtn’t you, precisely, to preserve them? To make little crystal drops of them, that you could keep, like charms on a bracelet, to tell against danger when next it came?”

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Dorian – Will Self

DIn the summer of 1981, aristocratic, drug-addicted Henry Wooten and Warhol-acolyte Baz Hallward meet Dorian Gray. Dorian is a golden adonis – perfect, pure and (so far) deliciously uncorrupted. The subject of Baz’s video installation, Cathode Narcissus, and the object of Henry’s attentions, Dorian is launched on a hedonistic binge that spans the ’80s and ’90s.

This is a clever retelling and updating into a world of drugs and AIDS, of Wilde’s story.

The 1980s gay scene is captured well, with its pre-AIDS sense of liberation – orgies, ‘damp bath houses and fetid gyms, the bloody meat racks and the shitty cottages…Dorian penetrated the sphincter of darkness…pissed on a naked performer in a bathtub..odour of faeces and semen and poppers…thwack off flesh on flesh…’

Then comes this new disease thought to be caused by using poppers. Later comes the Labour landslide and Diana.

Diana and Dorian became the celeb. icons of their day.

Many of us know decadent queens like Wooten, who mentors Grey, remembers being buggered by father and how he felt remote from it, as if watching from the ceiling. He’d rather his servants stole from him than pay them. He doesn’t always wear an AIDS lapel as it doesn’t always go with what he is wearing. He is a snob who asks: ‘Minneapolis?  Do they have art there?’ He quips: ‘Monogamy is to love as ideology is to thought; both are failures in imagination.’ He ends up bribing the medical staff to bring him drugs when he is in hospital with AIDS

Henry Wotton’s neighbour, the “jiggling man” metes out the seconds of physical time for Wotton’s existence.

Dorian is described as ‘completely vapid as well as murderous. A ludicrous, narcissistic pretty boy, with nothing on his mind but sex and sadism […], selfish and egotistical” About the disconnect between sex and relationships he says: ‘Helen I masturbate but it doesn’t mean I’m in love with my hand.’ There’s a nasty description of Dorian’s penis as ‘curved, red and gnarled with veins like the dagger of an alien warlord’

What is real? Is there a conspiracy feeding us with images of that which is really unreal?: his theory on the Gulf War to Hester Wharton, another of the guests at the Wottons’: “Of course”, he drawled,” the Gulf war never really happened…” “What the hell d’you mean? ”[…]“I mean that the Gulf War didn’t happen”. Dorian held up his hand s and began telling off the fictions on his manicured fingers. “There was no invasion of Kuwait, No tense standoff,  no coalition– building, no Scuds falling on Tel Aviv, no bombs smartly singling out Ba’athist apparatchiks in Baghdad, no refugees on the Jordanian border, no Republican guards buried on the Basra road, no Schwarzkopf, no dummkops, no tortured RAF pilots, no victory, none of it. No Gulf War. Can I make myself clearer?”  He goes on to ask if anyone knows someone who’s actually been killed or lost a lived one.

Amusing phrases include: More gays in audience than on stage at opera. Philanthropy as an ‘act’ is a cynical view. Smart enough to read theology yet perceptive enough to read tea leaves. Modern furniture looked as comfortable as a colonoscopy. Fixing coke – all human striving is here – measured out in millilitres. ‘You’re all delicate flowers, aren’t you, boys. The whole death thing shakes you up so, and that nasty moral majority saying it was all your own minority fault.  That it was all that rimming and writhing and buggering you did, which upset sweet Jesus and his sour daddy.  Now he’s not going to let you sit on his right hand so he can slip a finger in.’  ‘You homosexuals are only the vanguard of a mutton army dressed as lambs.’ Taking off condom and pouring it in. ‘as if Cologne Cathedral was being shoved up my fundament’ (Jung in reverse) ‘Conceptual art has degenerated to the level of crude autobiography, a global-village sale of shoddy, personal memorabilia for which video installations are the TV. ‘why am I always up at the dawn of crack?’ I wonder if the Royal Academy gift shop is doing special offers on bottled piss, canned shit and vacuum-packed blood.’

The inclusion of Jeremy magazine is a blast from the past.

There’s a surprising ending

That there is a naked man on the cover meant that one of our members felt unable to read it on the bus.

Quotations:

“An English gentleman never shines his shoes, but then nor does a lazy bastard.”

“The only circumstances in which I would write a roman a clef would be if I’d lost my fucking car keys.”

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Written on the Body – Jeanette Winterson

WOTBLouise leaves her husband but when she finds she has cancer, she leaves her new lover too. Written on the Body is a journey of self-discovery made through the metaphors of desire and disease.

 “Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights: the accumulations of a lifetime gather there. In places the palimpsest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like Braille. I like to keep my body rolled up away from prying eyes, never unfold too much, or tell the whole story. I didn’t know that Louise would have reading hands. She has translated me into her own book.”

 The author writes: All of my books are about boundaries and desire – the boundaries we should try to cross, like fear and class and skin-colour and expectation, and the boundaries that seem to define us, such as our sense of self, our gender. Disease, especially a disease like cancer or aids, breaks down the boundaries of the immune system and forces a new self on us that we often don’t recognise. Our territory is eaten away. We are parcelled out into healthy areas and metastasised areas. Parts of us are still whole, too much has been invaded.

Against this, I wanted to look again…….at love’s ability to shatter and heal simultaneously. Loving someone else destroys our ideas of who we are and what we want. Priorities change, friends change, houses change, we change. Part of the strangeness of being human is our need of boundaries, parameters, definitions, explanations, and our need for them to be overturned. For most people, only the positives of love and faith (and a child is both), or the negatives of disaster and disease, achieve this. Death comes too late. The final shattering affects others, but not ourselves.

A period of celibacy: It hasn’t rained for three months. The trees are prospecting underground, sending reserves of roots into the dry ground, roots like razors to open any artery water-fat;  Despair as clock approaches bedtime

A visit to the STI clinic: like ante-chamber of Judgement Day – out of way of deserving patients

An avoidance of romance: escape coca and hot water bottles

Satiated: Cheeks like gerbils because mouth was full of Louise; Wet with sex and sweat’ Smells of my lover’s body still strong in my nostrils which reminds me of the Song of Songs; Three days without washing and she is well-hung and high; the pads of your fingers have become printing blocks, you tap a message on to my skin

Men having affairs are easy to spot – new underwear, cologne

I wonder how promiscuous one-night-stands affects the body – the only other time we give our bodies into the hands of strangers is when we die and go to the undertakers

For many of us, love is something inside our heads and/or hearts. The quotations below muse upon the sheer physicality of life:

“You’ll get over it…” It’s the clichés that cause the trouble. To lose someone you love is to alter your life for ever. You don’t get over it because ‘it” is the person you loved. The pain stops, there are new people, but the gap never loses. How could it? The particularness of someone who mattered enough to grieve over is not made anodyne by death. This hole in my heart is in no-one else can fit it. Why would I want them to?”

“Time that withers you will wither me. We will fall like ripe fruit and roll down the grass together. Dear friend, let me lie beside you watching the clouds until the earth covers us and we are gone.”

“Who taught you to write in blood on my back? Who taught you to use your hands as branding irons? You have scored your name into my shoulders, referenced me with your mark. The pads of your fingers have become printing blocks, you tap a message on to my skin, tap meaning into my body. Your morse code interferes with my heart beat. I had a steady heart before I met you, I relied upon it, it had seen active service and grown strong. Now you alter its pace with your own rhythm, you play upon me, drumming me taut.”

“You never give away your heart; you lend it from time to time. If it were not so how could we take it back without asking?”

“Explore me’ you said and I collected my ropes, flasks and maps, expecting to be back home soon. I dropped into the mass of you and I cannot find the way out. Sometimes I think I’m free, coughed up like Jonah from the whale, but then I turn a corner and recognise myself again. Myself in your skin, myself lodged in your bones, myself floating in the cavities that decorate every surgeon’s wall. That is how I know you. You are what I know.”

“Odd to think that the piece of you I know best is already dead. The cells on the surface of your skin are thin and flat without the blood vessels or nerve endings. Dead cells, thickest on the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet.”

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Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin

GRThe world is full of rooms big rooms, little rooms, round rooms, square ones, rooms high up, rooms low down, – all kinds of rooms

 This book is a gay classic from a time of oppression. Oppression by straight society and the self-oppression of those who don’t fit in. It was published during 1950’s McCarthyism

 Forget ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ – one reviewer suggested that: the colours in which the story is written. It is painted in many and various and deep shades of grey — like a great charcoal “painting,” or a black & white photograph of a rainy day. In terms of great novels, ‘Giovanni’s Room’ for me is actually one that uses some of the darkest greys.

David is an American due to marry his fiancé upon her return from travelling in Spain, but meets the Italian barman Giovanni. He enjoys horsing around in showers. His father comes home drunk and never really talks to him. Maybe this is what makes him remote: Giovanni says he never reached him. Hella says the same later on. Giovanni says he is afraid of the ‘stink of love’

He is conflicted about his sexuality – ‘Pulled me down on bed – everything in me screaming no but the sum of me sighed.’ When leaving Giovanni’s room: war in my body dragging me down.

He remembers a boyish fumble during a sleepover.

The entire story is narrated by David during “the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life,” when Giovanni will be executed. He worries about Giovanni while under bridge and sees his face in newspaper as if looking directly at him asking for help

He sees Hella again after a long absence but takes her back to her hotel so as to join Jacques and Giovanni. He tells her ‘He was so beautiful.’ And when he sees Hella naked he wishes she were firmer

‘Faint heart never won fair athlete.’

‘I’m sure he sleeps with girls.’

‘You look like a five year-old kid who has woken up on Christmas morning.’

Woman he picks up giving herself not to me but to the lover who will never come

David’s old friend Jacques never really trusted anyone and never wish to love anyone with more than a body. David asks him if he can only kneel before an army of boys for five minutes in the dark and pretend that nothing is happening

‘You think my life is shameful because my encounters are.’

‘If you think they’re dirty, then they will be dirty…despising your flesh…can make your time together anything but dirty

The Seedy gay bar where Giovanni works has all the usual despairing eyes, the patrons called each other ‘she’. They: feel their poverty again, through the narcotics of chatter, dreams of conquest and mutual contempt.

Guillaume, who is murdered, is from an ancient family and is regarded as a ‘disgusting old fairy’

When there is a Police investigation, the clients of rent boys fear exposure. Giovanni is pout in the frame.

It’s vividly told – I can imagine the room in my head and it is the same room that I see when reading ‘Just Above My Head.’

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Shiva and Arun – P. Parivaraj

SAAIt is often thought that Hinduism is more tolerant of homosexuality that Christianity and Islam. One even hears of gay weddings conducted in mandirs. However, the law in India dates back to the British Raj and wasn’t repealed until July 2009.

There is a surplus of graduates in India but not enough well-paid work for them so there is little independence. Because most young men live with their extended families, there is little privacy, ‘nowhere to go’ so there is a lot of cruising in parks and only fleeting encounters are possible for most men. Public discussion of homosexuality in India is inhibited because sexuality in any form is rarely discussed openly. In recent years, however, attitudes towards homosexuality have shifted slightly. In particular, there have been more depictions and discussions of homosexuality in the Indian news media and by Hollywood.

It is extremely rare to find a book about this subject from anywhere outside Europe and the States so it’s a bit of a first.

I found it a beautiful book to read, though most of our group disliked it and our convenor of the time threw it down after a few pages and refused to finish it. Our group is very white and Anglo-centric, which is to our loss.

There is a strong sense of smell – jasmine, Ganges flotsam, tannery, ‘morning toilet offerings’

Also plenty of fantasy, for example soaking a tradesman in the shower and being soaped in return.

The sex is very graphic – ‘Abdullah’s throbbing cock’, ‘pulsating ejaculation’, the adolescent curiosity – ‘classic’ pubic hair line, cum not like snot or spit, he knew he was gay from his very first wank.

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Gents – Warwick Collins

Gs  originalThis book divided us among age-lines. Older members may or may not have admitted to familiarity with cottaging but the majority, in the mid to late twenties, viewed it as disgusting.

This novel is very funny and is, whether it intended to be or not, a paean of praise to Capitalism – privatise nationalised industries.

Cleaners and those who work on the entrance kiosk in a public lavatory are faced with redundancy because it is used for immoral purposes. Police have been hiding in the roof and spying through holes which they have drilled.  The workers decide to buy the place and make money out of those who use it.

The black workers muse about those who cottage, whom they call ‘reptiles’: They got a compulsion, some stay in a lock-up for lunch, eating sandwiches and drinking tea, it’s better for them in here than out on the street, whitey too cold, imagine kneeling in front of whitey, to disguise the fact that there are two men in one cubicle, one puts his shoes in a shopping bags.

One of them is in bed with his wife Martha. Both are devout Adventists. Ez has just told her about the activities in some of the cubicles. He continues…

“Mr Reynolds and Jason, they have a war. Keepin’ back the tide of perversion. Always looking to throw someone out.”
“You help them?”
“Sometime.”
Martha was silent for a several seconds. She said softly, “You not liking your work?”
“Strange thing is, after a while you don’t notice it. Just one of the facts.”
Martha turned towards him. He felt the equable shake of the bed and the movement of her large hips. He moved towards her, into her warmth.
Her perplexed face studied him for a few seconds. She relaxed. “Everyone different,” Martha said. “Some people different shakes. Some people gay.”

There are some acute observations, similar to those of a sociology PhD thesis called  Tearoom Trade, by an Episcopalian priest, Laud Humphreys study called into question some of the stereotypes associated with the anonymous male-male sexual encounters in public places, demonstrating that many of the participants lived otherwise conventional lives as family men and respected members of their communities, and that their activities posed no danger of harassment to straight males

The workers realise that they, as black men, have much in common with their clients: both suffer discrimination, both have a hidden language – Patois and Polari. The author claims his book was stimulated in part by his memories of apartheid when he lived as a child in South Africa.

In the end, they conclude that reptile not dangerous. Danger come from man who hate reptile. Reptile welcome at de reptile farm.

The author died in 2013 at the age of 64. He’d published a tenth anniversary Gsedition of Gents. The Times reviewed it and called it ‘a classic moral fable about understanding and respect.’

He’d also written BLAIR — The Accidental Fascist, about Tony Blair’s seeming love of Western military intervention. He was so sure of his own talent that he refused to be edited.

Only 172 pages, you can almost hear the constant running water and, perhaps, smell odours you’d rather not. Perhaps our young members should try reading it again. Also, it’s a pity we didn’t have any black people in our group. They might have had a different slant on the book.

There is another review of this book here. 

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