peteg's blog

Johan Harstad: Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?

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Kindle. A pointer from Lisa Hill. Norwegian, in translation, set on the Faroe Islands. This is the story of a man being acted upon, of wanting to be number two, of hoping to go unnoticed and hence unscathed, of being a well-functioning cog amongst other well-functioning cogs, meaning and ambition be damned. There is something of The Remains of the Day here, and Trainspotting too (the death of baby Dawn, the "Now I know what you're thinking..." outro, and so forth). I'd heard about the Zen of Japanese gardening before, oh yes, from Nha Trang and Pensinger. What starts as a funny account of childhood and youth (dressing up as Buzz, getting the new girl, privately developing a singing superpower) becomes an account of mental disintegration after she leaves him; the humour shades into edgy melancholia, the writing more elliptic. Where he grows a beard, I grow my hair. Of course it evokes the classics of mental ill health: One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Quantity Theory of Insanity, though it is never sour. Long, but. I totally missed the Cardigans's career, and can hardly remember even Lovefool (eww, Svensk pop).

Money Monster

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On flight CX899, NYC to Hong Kong. I'd been meaning to see this for a while now. Jodie Foster directs, George Clooney channels Brad Pitt a bit too much. Julia Roberts is solid as his producer on FNN, clearly a Fox/CNN/CNBC interpolant. Not as good as I hoped, largely because it is overcooked and becomes nonsensical as things unwind.

A. O. Scott.

Francis Spufford: Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin.

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Kindle. This is Spufford trying to explain how the British Backroom Boffin evolved from inventive technical genius to (I think) financial engineer, helped along by Thatcherism in the 1980s. There are six chapters:

  1. Rocketry.
  2. The Concorde, which is essentially all about economics, Government-funded development and quixotic post-war European aspirationalism. France won bigger here with Aérospatiale and later Airbus.
  3. Elite, which drove Michael Clune crazy (on a C64).
  4. The development of various coverage mapping technologies by Vodafone.
  5. The human genome project, focusing on Craig Venter's bastardry (which is taken as a given). His very brief account of DNA is far superior to Cobb's book-length effort.
  6. The Beagle 2, which failed to respond after arriving on Mars, before the book was published.

None have entirely adequate treatments, mostly because each could use a full-length book all by themselves. Also his writing here does not reach his later highs. Reviews are legion.

Where's Poppa?

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$US14.00 Film Forum, NYC, 4pm. Part of a double feature with Harold and Maude that I bailed on. Yes, George Segal's mother (Ruth Gordon) is insane. I probably would have found it a lot less amusing if I hadn't seen it with a crowd.

Captain Fantastic

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Landmark Sunshine Cinema, NYC, 2:40pm session, $US14.50. What to do when in the City but escape with Viggo Mortensen and family to the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. There's something of Little Miss Sunshine here, and sundry other parenting movies, and the odd touch of Malick cinematography. Here Viggo is the ultra-rational, calm father who has completist, utopian aspirations for his kids' education. Frank Langella plays his iron-willed father-in-law who is uncompromisingly unhappy about what transpired for his daughter. Mental illness and the wellness of intentions are canvassed at length. The wave breaks. The cover of Sweet Child O' Mine was fun. I enjoyed it.

Manohla Dargis. Charles McGrath wrote a preview. One can ponder what the alt right according to Jason Wilson makes of Viggo's little fantasy.

Suicide Squad

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Regal Battery Park Stadium 11 in NYC, 4:10pm, $US19.60, tepid 3D. So-so, as I was warned. The plot is entirely cookie-cutter. I enjoyed Will Smith's performance, and Viola Davis's. I had hoped Margot Robbie would go full crazy or something; as it is, she's mostly exterior. These ensemble pieces are hard to get right.

A. O. Scott.

Michael Herr: Dispatches.

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Kindle. Read in intercontinental transit, Sydney to NYC. Michael Herr died recently, which prompted me to pick up this classic piece of Việt Nam war reportage. Perhaps I've read too many of these, am just too old, the generational wealth gap too large, as it moved me less than, for instance, John Balaban's far more reflective memoir. Herr makes much of his connection with fellow war junkies such as Tim Page, and the perhaps-still-MIA Sean Flynn. There's drugs, there's RnR, there's a totalled Hue, that's the scene. I learnt that he wrote and/or heavily influenced both Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, and some of that shows up here. I'm not sure I can indulge his hand wringing.

Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond.

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Kindle. On the strength of a Dwight Garner review in the New York Times. He's right in that there are some good bits, some cutting bits, but between those he cites are many words. My eyes glazed over far too often for me to really get into it, or even get much of an impression.

Siobhan Roberts: Genius at Play: The curious mind of John Horton Conway.

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Kindle. I think I found this via the long read (excerpt) at the Guardian. Well, the book is far longer than that, but not much more informative. The coverage of the mathematics is too weak to be worthwhile; for instance, I vaguely recall the axioms of a group, but still have no idea what group theory is or how they relate to geometry and symmetry. Oftentimes the rules of Conway's many and various games are poorly expressed. The man himself is pretty much what you'd expect: a bit above it all. It seems clear he's just getting away with what he can get away with.

Our Kind of Traitor

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At the Odeon 5 with Mum, 2pm session, $25.50 for the pair of us. We were the only two in a mid-sized theatre. It contains a fair bit of language and violence, which I doubt was in the source material (a book with the same name) by le Carré. Mum had read it. The cast is solid, and I somewhat guiltily enjoyed Stellan Skarsgård play a troubled foulmouthed Russian family mafioso; I had hoped he'd go bad at some point and make the movie as a whole come good, but it was not to be. Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris play an indulgent married couple who've lost their spark, somewhat reminding me of Babel in their cluelessness. The plot is tired and flimsy.

Afterwards we had a coffee at the nearby CoCos, on the corner of Byng and William.

Jarett Kobek: BTW and an excerpt of American Decadence (?).

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Again, no electronic edition, so USD$7.52 went to the Book Depository for some dead tree. A guiltier pleasure than the other works of his I've read. Well written, as always, and the characterization is first rate: his lothario father back in İzmir, Turkey after too many Boston winters, endlessly dispensing hard won cynicism, surnamed "Black Hell" after his own father; the Bangladeshi sisters running wild, damaged by too much religion, rootless in L.A.; his ex, boomeranged to Detroit, not quite soulmate; a couple of social-nexus lady-friends. The other men tend more toward caricature. NYC comes in for the has-been treatment, L.A. is an afterlife. It's a page turner. Again with the literary asides! And quite fun they are too. The short afterwork is a non sequitur.

Publisher's page. Trailer. I don't like the reviews that Google digs up.

David Ireland: The World Repair Video Game.

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$45 of dead tree from Island Mag for copy number 209 of 350. Geordie Williamson lays it all out in his afterword. I found it repetitive but not ritualistic; an optimistic start quickly shaded into onerous ploughing with much difficulty in focussing on the page. The philosophizing is not spectacularly insightful, the political commentary is social Darwinist essentialism, and whether Ireland is endorsing or critiquing any particular attitude is too ambiguous; his use of calculated serial murder is substantially less powerful than Nabokov's breaking of taboos in Lolita. This resulted in more irritation than shock or outrage in my case. Still, as expected the prose is crisp.

Malcolm Knox is wrong to think those killed here are characters in Ireland's earlier books: those guys always worked, and suffered for it in that human-dignity enhancing way that Ireland champions here. (I think Ireland is saying that it is the willingness to work, to try to do it right, to endure the meaningless, and not the content of the work itself that is moral. I don't really know as I don't buy it: most work is exploitation, as he acknowledges here, and I don't see the concomitant suffering as necessary or essentially worthwhile, or even character building as its boosters proclaim.) This leads me to think that whoever reads this will read whatever they want into it. Perhaps it is a satire.

Nicolas Rothwell spends more time putting the publication in context than talking about its contents. He is right that this is a rumination on the "self-created world [...] where love, kindness and a sense of shared experience wither."

I guess that's the last of Ireland's for me.

Star Trek Beyond

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At the Odeon 5 in Orange, 8:15pm 3D session, opening night, $20.50. Apparently I saw Iron Man 3 there a bit more than three years ago. Time flies.

As A. O. Scott observes, this is more of the same, somewhat squashed into action blockbuster format, and that might be OK. The interior scenes are quite quite dark in 3D. The first part is quite slow, and thematically the whole thing is entirely contained in the canon of classic Trek: for instance, Idris Elba's character is essentially Benedict Cumberbatch's from the previous one, who was, of course, standing on the toes of Ricardo Montalbán. The MacGuffin is nowhere as interesting as the Genesis device. There are many simply ludicrous moments. I'll stop right there. I spent most of the movie trying to fit what I was seeing to its source material (Simon Pegg gets a writing credit), and came to realise that this was the Trek that the Wachowskis would have made.

Sam Machkovech.

John Steinbeck: Of Mice and Men.

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Kindle. Teddy Wayne has the protagonist of Kapitoil read Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath in his [finance] boss's living room, with the wife observing the distance between that and there. This book apparently "[makes] a similar economic argument and [has] equal emotional power in a more efficient length." I got into it because I wasn't yet ready to face David Ireland's latest.

Well, it seems we're all dogs in the end, though it might make a difference as to which part of the gun you're in contact with. Steinbeck has this tick of making his characters dumbly repeat phrases in conversation, when their wit deserts them; irritating but effective, I'd say. His style is mostly spare but a tad too tendentious to unequivocally endorse. The narrative goes as one might expect, but stops off in many disconcerting locations.

Francis Spufford: Golden Hill.

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Kindle. I was pleasantly surprised to find that he'd released a novel about a month ago, apparently his first. It's a period piece: the setting is pre-revolutionary New-York, and this being a modern book, it also has a trailer on YouTube, set in current-day New York, with no mention of the quietened 99%. Richard Smith, amiable leading man, tries to keep his nose clean while waiting for his £1000 to clear, but falls afoul of gossip and ignorance of pre-existing machinations. Spufford uses this trouble to steer him around the town and set pieces of the time in extensively-researched sparkling prose. The overarching mystery is hinted at frequently, but it wasn't the only thing that kept me hooked right up to the end. Tabitha is similarly an interesting creation, somewhat hysterical but far from helpless.

I'm not big on historical fiction, at least of this less-than-didactic kind (compare with Red Plenty), but Spufford knows throughout what we're here for, and he is a master of not over-stuffing the turkey.

Steven Poole (who charges Neal Stephenson with overstuffing his turkeys). An interview at the Guardian. Lucille Turner is right, his writing is genius! Sophie Elmhirst. The lack of reviews from across the Atlantic makes me think it has yet to make it's U.S. debut.

Hoping (nay, expecting!) to extend the run of good reads, upon finishing this I rushed off to buy his Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin from Amazon.

Jarett Kobek: ATTA and The Whitman of Tikrit.

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This book has no electronic edition! The horror. Some dead tree cost me $US12.78 from Book Depository, and I bought it on the strength of Kobek's recent spray against the internet's more social zones in combination with the bleak outlook of what was up next on the Kindle. It turned up in less than a week. I certainly cannot fault their efficiency.

This is billed as a fictional biography of Mohamed Atta, and runs on twin tracks straight for 9/11. Kobek's imagining of his internal life is similar to what David Malouf did for King Priam in Ransom (and other characters in other works). There is no shortage of raw material, I'm sure, and Kobek is sufficiently across his subject that his spare prose is never overstuffed with irrelevant detail; in other words, he avoids the inexcusable self-indulgence of old hands Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh. Atta's is something of an Odyssean journey, featuring dreamt Sirens and a bin Laden who is blind in the right eye. There is also a dash of Arabian every-readies Harun al-Rashid and Scheherazade, the latter in the form of Palestian temptation Amal, who tells him a story in classic cliff-hanger style. Is it through weakness or impregnable fortitude that Atta does not return to her family's house to find out what happens next?

Kobek focuses on Atta's education as an architect and mines his TUHH Masters thesis on the Citadel of Aleppo, painted as a natural Islamic urban environment inherently superior to the sterilities and missteps of the West. The Tarnak Farms present as a paradise where no man gets between Muslim and Allah (p126), and yet there is hierarchy; is this Atta's inability to see past his own nose? His initial skepticism of bin Laden yields to his visceral revulsion of Modern Brutalism (p131):

He speaks. The plot is outlandish. It involves a journey to America, into the toothy maw. He assures us it will work [...]

And then he names the target. And I am his. High rises of high rises, the mid century assault. Minoru Yamasaki's children, the twin abominations.

Somewhat ironically the backlash that Atta and co unleashed eventually led to the mauling of the old souk in Aleppo.

Atta has a persistent hum in his head, which sometimes becomes a voice that is not quite Allah's. (The reader may worry that this is Kobek's mechanism for taking Atta beyond human comprehension and moral culpability.) He feels nothing at the climax of his Hajj, on the Plain of Arafat amongst his Muslim brothers. He attempts to understand the West through its cultural output: Times Square, Disneyland, horror movies. (I think that once you've seen Army of Darkness you've seen them all.) This is Kobek's vantage point for criticism, and a good one it is. Still, why does Atta's disgust with the West shade into violence? He is radicalized at the mosque in Hamburg, but most who are do not go to the lengths that he did. To be horrified by the suffering in Palestine is not to think that further death and destruction will help in any way. (Was empathy an invention of the Englightenment that failed to influence scholars of Islam?) Kobek also does not discuss the status of democracy in Islamic thought, nor explore Atta's leadership role; he is mostly exasperated with the Saudi musclemen and his fellow conspirators, and suspicious of bin Laden's hubristic propaganda about a new Caliphate.

[p61, After analyzing Walt Disney's film of Kipling's The Jungle Book...]

A story repeats itself. A man, or his parents, or his parents' parents, come to America. Hard work, toil in obscurity amongst unknown wretches. Great open land. The one who works hardest reaps eventual reward, rises to prominence, achieves great things, makes himself a name.

This also is my story, thinks Atta. I am Sayyid Qutb! I too am an immigrant success.

The second, far shorter piece The Whitman of Tikrit imagines Saddam Hussein's final day before his capture by American troops. The conceit is that Rumsfeld slipped him a book of Whitman's poetry back in the 1980s. Hussein is far more fiery and scatalogical than Atta, further showcasing Kobek's technique and fine grasp of personality.

Unfortunately the other texts in the semiotext(e) series are very different to this one (mostly critical theory/Marxist tracts).

Kobek's is a rich source text, in addition to being a satisfying read all by itself. Richard Byrne observes his acute analysis of Americana. Jonathan Raban lays out further historical context at the New Yorker. John Cotter takes the time to diss Martin Amis's go at the same subject (The Last Days of Mohammad Atta) while praising this book.

I just ordered Kobek's BTW from 2013; again, it has no ebook edition.

David Ireland: The Unknown Industrial Prisoner.

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Kindle. It's the late 1960s, beautiful Kurnell, Botany Bay, the Puroil refinery, ugly up close. When they're not at the Home Beautiful, being schooled by the Great White Father in living for today and not tomorrow, the men are taking notes for the Great Australian Novel that each will write after their release from industrial prison. This is David Ireland's, and was the first of his to win the Miles Franklin in 1971. (text publishing has reissued his early works, but not his later ones.)

The style is similar to the subsequent The Glass Canoe and so forth: mostly disjointed vignettes that riff on why and how the working man is bound to, and chafes, his corporate master. I would say that little has changed, but the baubles on offer to the natives (here industrial prisoners, captive to a European transnational oil enterprise) are shinier than ever. This somewhat attempts to do what George Orwell did for the mid-century in 1984 for Australia at a time by which everyone knew the joke: they unquestionably love their company.

The characters come thick and fast, and it's hard to track them all with only their nicknames to hang onto, some having a touch of Australiana disposability. The slang tends to the obsolete, and while Two Pot Screamer might be an ocker original, some cursory Googling suggests Humdinger is pure Americana. Beyond the blue gate of Puroil, the Yank welders are held in awe as they work effectively and efficiently due to being paid by the job and not the hour. Ireland looks almost wistfully to the U.S.A. and wonders what could have been. The inefficiencies at the plants are immediately familiar to anyone with experience of modern corporate Australia, despite their probable lack of Ireland-esque industrial chops. The prisoners engage in small-minded vindictive retribution that is provoked by small-minded short-term cost-control by management, such as not paying sick leave until and unless the injured party fronts the right office worker (here "white shirt"). The machinations around company-funded pensions — that the rate is tied to salary at retirement, and the period of employment is calculated to the day — make me think that superannuation might be fairer despite it being wide open to the financial markets. The results, as you would certainly expect, are chaotically catastrophic.

The Home Beautiful is the countervailing life force, tawdry, once powerful, now debilitated by easy access to credit; in other words, a bordello set amongst the mangroves, segregated by the Eel River from Puroil. Ireland uses it to explore prostitution (of the self-knowing but not golden-hearted kind), homosexuality, alcoholism, mental health, and to observe close-up that the prisoners would not know what to do with freedom if they had it. He charts the distintegration of the Unions (fully realised under Hawke et al in the 1980s) and shows that organized labour was never going to be a match for financial innovation, or men with military training ("they had no tradition of operators never doing tradesmen's work, they were used to working with tools and used to obeying orders without thought or question."). Religion is no help either, even if it causes some of the the men some pause, from time to time. Thievery is rampant.

The text is highly referential. There is much to enjoy, though I'm sure many would find it bleak; the dedication of a new plant to "The Unknown Industrial Prisoner" is completely apt. It tipped the balance towards his latest novel, which I ordered from Island Mag (out of Tasmania of all places) for the ridiculous price of $45.

Lisa Hill enjoyed it less than I did. She claims that times have changed, but goes on to observe the same deterioration in industrial relations as Ireland, and the fact that Australians (really, everyone) prefer to buy cheaper stuff and not bother too much with the politics. I think Ireland was right to think that the undereducated / less intelligent were headed for the industrial scrapheap; the new knowledge work employs fewer people to do more stuff and make more profit than ever before, as the lawyers will be learning in the next decade or so. (These issues were ambient; see, for instance, Barry Jones's classic cure for insomnia, Sleepers Wake! from the early 1980s.) What she calls cynicism I took to be Ireland's empathy for his fellow prisoner, expressed in the great Australian (OK, British) tradition of "characters" adopted by, for example, Henry Lawson. She's right that there is a lot of humour here. I would say that it has similar aims to Herbert's Capricornia, and if I ever get to it, Poor Fellow My Country.

Peter Pierce in his introduction pulls out the right quote: "the Sumpsucker knew that though they were tall, bronzed, rugged Australian individualists, more or less, they would end up doing exactly as they were told." — and oh yes, the hereditary scar on the ankle, itching madly.

Teddy Wayne: Kapitoil.

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Kindle. Computer geek from Qatar goes to New York City just before Y2K and makes his struggling finance company a lot of money by algorithmically analyzing the news, before pulling out because he wants to apply the same technology to epidemiology while the big boss just wants more money. Of course he gets entangled with the only other semi-fleshed-out character, co-worker Rebecca, but goes home at the end. The secondary characters are richly sketched but in outline only. This is apparently a satire, but Mr Wayne is clearly standing on the outside of geekdom looking in. The prose is masterfully executed but there wasn't a lot there for me.

David Ireland: A Woman of the Future.

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Kindle. Ireland got a third, and final, Miles Franklin for what now seems a complete misfire, and I am about as lost for words as Kate Jennings was in her introduction to the Text Classics edition. I spent the first half getting misanthropic Never Let Me Go vibes and the last half wondering if Ireland wasn't trying a bit too hard to marry Nabokov's tropes with Burroughs's. The odd minor observation about the great continent of Australia, typically stashed away in some mediocre poetry or overly adolescent letter, cannot redeem what is mostly just eye-glazingly repetitious trash.

Bill Holloway put more effort in than I'm prepared to.

David Ireland: The Glass Canoe.

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Kindle. Apparently David Ireland was deemed a success by the Australian literati in the 1970s but soon fell out of favour; his recent revival points to the poverty of the current scene. He writes well, here recording the carryings-on of the regulars of the Southern Cross pub in Northmead. In some ways this is a Western Suburbs Trainspotting, and shares a bed with Wake in Fright. Ireland leavens the sex and violence with some pop philosophizing and a deep appreciation for the role of mystery and wonder in life. This culture is probably almost defunct with the lockout laws and so forth, and unlikely to be mourned by many. I wonder what else he has to say.