Book reviews: Mercenaries, morons, music and murder

It’s been almost another month, so it must be time for a few book reviews. I’ve been getting a little more stuff read of late (there’s been more than this read, this is just where I’m up to) so things are truckin’ along pretty well on that front.

I am about as sociable as this bird, so IT ME I guess.

The weather is getting cooler out here, so it’s prime reading (and gaming) weather. I’m looking forward to it continuing to chill, so that I’m able to continue honing my most valuable skill: ignoring the rest of the world with the help of books.

Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill.
My rating: four stars

So we’re all on the same page regarding Blackwater, right? A pack of heavily armed, stupidly bankrolled deadshit contractors who have wormed their way into the US military establishment with the sole goal of supplanting the legitimate military with a bunch of for-profit mercenaries? Brainchild of odious bloke Erik Prince and a key aid in the increasing militarisation of the police (through their training) and an incredible drain on the public teat? Some of the people responsible for the heavy-handed yee ha approach to “peacekeeping” or the protection of US personnel during the Iraq war? The Nisour Square massacre? That Blackwater?

Yep, they’re cunts. Or were, at least: the company covered in Scahill’s book no longer exists. Well, I mean the same things are probably going on, only under different names. Sold to a bunch of investors, Blackwater has gone through some restructuring and renaming, paid fines for arming people they shouldn’t have armed, and won pardons from former gameshow-host Presidents for the small crime of shooting up civilians. Presumably, in the land of shonky deeds backed by muscle and an endless stream of funds, they’re still doing what they’ve always been doing, just out of view of the public.

Thankfully, though, if you want to wallow in the horror that is the expansion of the military-industrial complex from the late ’90s through the War on Terror, Scahill’s book exists and is full of enough detail to cause some pretty good full-body flinches. It’s the sort of text for which the term harrowing exists: there is nothing lighthearted in its pages. It’s a story of advantage taken during a time of instability, a time in which the US had to appear tough on terrorism. Unsurprisingly, it’s the story of a company whose hiring pool extended to the CIA and all manner of former operators either superannuated or given their marching orders for being too OTT for legitimate service.

The book is the story of a company that was the fever-dream of an ex-US Navy SEAL, a golem run on government funds, with no real remorse for losses of civilians or, come to that, its own people. Tales of lax procedures have cost lives on all sides, but the profit train for one of the biggest drains on the public purse gotta keep rollin’, yo. Blackwater’s own people are as dispensable as ammo casings: if you’ve not seen the video of the 2004 Fallujah ambush that cost four operators their lives (because BW skimped on both armoured cars and personnel) I can heartily recommend you don’t seek it out, because it’s the sort of thing that makes you wonder what the fuck is up with humans.

This tome isn’t fun, but it’s an important read. What it covers was the love-child of exceptionalism and capitalism, and it’s the sort of truths from which we cannot turn. After all, the public paid for most of it.

The Internet is a Playground: Irreverent Correspondences of an Evil Online Genius by David Thorne.
My rating: three stars

If you’re intent on reading this book and have spent a bit of time online – and I’d be hard pressed to imagine anyone who hasn’t in the past 20 years – then I must stress to you that you have most likely read a chunk of this book already.

Why? 27b/6 is why.

That site launched a million forwards. It’s home to the email exchange wherein a man tries to pay an overdue account with a drawing of a spider.

The author is a reminder of the older, dumber internet that Used To Exist before social media (other than AOL, which benefited from its role as an ISP as well as dire communications platform) steamrolled the whole thing into an easily-digestible, algorithmically-tuned feed. You know, the world of terrible niche blogs and web animations about badgers. He’s a troll, but not one who’ll SWAT you: he’s silly in a very adolescent (yet very funny) kind of way.

I inhaled this in an afternoon. It came from the local street library – well, library out-the-front-of-a-supermarket-so-not-really-outside – and was excellent value. Sure, you could read a lot of this on Thorne’s site. But that’d mean taking your phone on the can, and who wants to do that?

(Yes, I know the answer is everyone.)

But yes. Prime silliness, and curiously redolent of the smell of a more homely internet. Good work.

The talking heads are right: this tune fuckin’ rips.

Stranded: Australian Independent Music 1976–1992 by Clinton Walker.
My rating: five stars

Finally back in print (though without the Ron S. Peno crotch-shot that adorned the previous edition), Stranded is an iconic book. It’s one that people love or hate (generally linked to their opinion of the author, frankly) but in terms of musical history that wasn’t shown on Countdown, it absolutely cannot be beaten.

The book looks at music that ran counter to the boogie/blues/’70s rock/prog/pop stuff that ruled the airwaves. It takes the birth screams of punk – from Joh’s Queensland, as unlikely a place as you’ll find for transgression – and follows them as they worked into the minds of musicians across the land. It looks at the sort of stuff that was ignored by the mainsteam (mostly by dint of the stranglehold that major labels and bookers had on what people consumed) and follows it up until the rise of the ‘independent’ labels, bankrolled by the majors, in the grunge era. What it’s interested in is the stuff that’s released in smaller numbers, on smaller, often store-associated labels – at least until the likes of Mushroom decided they could get a slice of that pie.

Look, maybe drugs were involved.

Maybe that’s the best way to encapsulate what this book is about, and why it had to be written: because these were always great songs, yet they were spurned at the time—and with such extreme prejudice that if they weren’t simply crushed, their creators were at least forced into exile.

Broadly speaking, Stranded is a history and a biography: while it discusses music, it also is the story of its scribe. We follow Walker through various cities and addictions, and the bands best covered (the Saints and Ed Kuepper-related ensembles, for example) have connections with the author. The insidious role of smack in the destruction of bands (and lives) is a vein running through both the music scene and Walker’s own life. He is inserted in the story, but not in a sort of grandstanding “I was there!” way, though he was there and, for the most part, he was the only one taking notes.

Detroit + Questionable imagery = Birdman.

(I’d forgotten how big a problem smack was at the time. I guess whoever writes the version of this book that covers the recent past will awaken new generations to the pull of ice, instead.)

What Stranded does really well is to delineate the differences between cities. We have Brisbane, home of the Saints and the Go-Betweens; Sydney’s Detroit-aligned Birdman and knockoffs; Melbourne’s Birthday Party/arty cadre; and Perth’s widescreen Triffids (and swampy Kim Salmon). Most of these bands are now broadly thought of as Australian in general, but the book is very good at conveying a sense of place, from which the bands only could have sprung. The venues, the melting pots that were record stores (and their in-house labels) – all these contribute to pretty fulsome picture.

Curled lip, reverbed vocals and Mark Arm-worshipped music within.

The story continues up to the time when I started paying attention to local music beyond the mainstream, when Dave Graney became ascendant, and bands like You Am I and The Cruel Sea went from dozens of punters to thousands. I was too young to know most of the music covered in the book’s earlier chapters – though I made up for that in my university years – so it’s great to have the ins and outs of band and label developments laid out so plainly. There’s a lot more detail about some than others – you’ll probably learn more about Tex Perkins’ career than you thought you needed to know – but none of it is gratuitous, even if you’re not a fan of the band at hand.

Tex’s finest hour, after that ‘overflowin’ ash tray… ye-ah!’ line in “Better Get A Lawyer”.

While I was reading the book, two titans of the scene (and key figures in the text) – promoter Ken West and the Saints’ Chris Bailey – died. It felt apposite to be reading about their achievements as youths; a reminder that things don’t stretch on forever. Indeed, they were the latest of a long list of departures: while many of the book’s protagonists persevere (including the apparently guided-by-angels Nick Cave), a load more aren’t here to tell their tales.

It’s not just your favorites that are missing, plenty of mine are too! So you were a fan of, what? The Stems? The Moffs? The Wreckery? The Lime Spiders? The Passengers? Painters & Dockers? I Spit On Your Gravy? The Psychotic Turnbuckles? The Vaginabillies? Soggy Porridge? Well, I was a fan of Tactics, the Wet Taxis, Equal Local, the Primitive Calculators, the Sunday Painters, Essendon Airport, the Feral Dinosaurs, the Lucky Dinosaurs, the Craven Fops, Crown of Thorns, Asteroid B-612, Love Me—most of them are hardly covered here either.

Look, I’m a bit of a music nerd, so I was probably predestined to like this. But it’s more than just records and gigs: a little slice of Australia is preserved here in this record of misfits kicking against the pricks. It’s not complete, but it’s bloody good.

This video has an odour.

Suspicion by Friedrich Dürrenmatt.
My rating: four stars

Another entry in the Pushkin Vertigo line of short, sharp shocks, this brief tome by noted Swiss leftie, playright and author of so-called “philosophical crime novels”, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, makes for an uncomfortable afternoon’s reading.

The novel is a sequel to the earlier The Judge and His Hangman, which I haven’t read, though this is not an impediment to understanding the story. It opens with its main character, a near-retirement inspector named Bärlach, suffering cancer and recovering from an operation. It’s not important how or why he got there, but it’s quickly explained by a work colleague that the ill detective will be superannuated: he’s already been replaced on the rounds.

World War II is still fresh in the minds of the novel’s characters. When his physician thinks he knows the true identity of a Nazi war criminal shown on a picture in Bärlach’s newspaper, the inspector decides to investigate in a strictly unofficial capacity. Could a surgeon, supposedly ensconced in Chile during the war, really have experimented on people without anaesthesia during the war?

What follows is not just a typical cat-and-mouse tale. Dürrenmatt weaves in the figure of Ahasuerus, the horrors of concentration camp experimentation, survivor’s guilt and the desperation with which humans cling to life. Rather than being a whodunnit, the novel is more of a whydunnit, which is more interesting than the mechanics of the deaths laid at the surgeon’s feet.

There’s a lot of weirdly discordant notes in the text. These moments of oddity aren’t unplanned, however: they give the reader moments to pause and consider what exactly the fuck is going on. And while it’s perhaps not as satisfying as an Agatha Christie gotcha story, but Suspicion lasts longer in the mind, a kernel of sand around which odd thoughts can grow. I’m still thinking about it, even now.

I’m not really using Goodreads any more, because I’d rather not get involved in its toxic, Bezos-enriching stew. If you’re after some good bookish times, please check out my profile on TheStoryGraph. If you’d like to buy me some books to review, there’s a wishlist over here.


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