peteg's blog

Pankaj Mishra: An End to Suffering: The Budda in the World.

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Kindle. I figured I should assign some attention over Christmas to Mishra's attempt to explain the Buddha to us Westerners. What I actually got was a bitzer: part memoir, part travelogue, much book-learnt philosophy, some religion, history. That it didn't know what it wanted to be meant that the best bits were mostly the ancillaries. It was written before, during, and after The Romantics, and so contains some of the raw material that went into that novel. The game is classical: to map the search for inner meaning onto a traversal of geography, in this case the lower reaches of the Himalayas, and later, London and the U.S.A. (Similar structures can be seen in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, On the Road, Kaag's American Philosophy and countless others.) Mishra is, of course, very forward about being Indian and skeptical of Western pretensions to having solved the condition of Man.

My major beefs are with Mishra's discussion of Western philosophy and his inadequate presentation of the Buddha's thinking, which is to say that it doesn't fulfill the promise of its title. For starters, his take on David Hume is misleading (60%):

Consciousness is a flow of tiny instants that have no separate existence or essence; they are constantly being triggered by each of the tiny changes in the world outside — the process creating the impression of what we call reality. When broken up into its aggregate parts, consciousness reveals itself as profoundly conditioned, ever changing and relative, and far from the substantial entity we believe the individual self to be.

David Hume among western philosophers had a view of the self closest to that of the Buddha:

When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.

Be that as it may (Hume was championing empirical materialism over Cartesian dualism), there is still the question of how the self perceives itself; at times there seems to be something reflective going on that does not necessarily involve the external world. Hume wasn't satisfied with his own story, and it took Kant significant transcendental complexity to take it further. It's difficult to link any of this to the Buddha's proposition that the self is an illusion, given the presupposition that there's something doing the perceiving.

Mishra says that the Buddha would have us be mindfully present in every situation, to be in the now. I found this hard to square with the idea of meditation, which if nothing else involves being mentally absent. This state is attractive to Westerners as the modern world is all about being elsewhere, and meditation comes at all price points. The assertion he attributes to Einstein, that science and Buddhism are compatible, is apparently apocryphal. Science offers the most reliable way out of the "jungle of opinions" just now, if not when the Buddha was philosophizing.

My central problem with Buddhism is its obscurantism, that its practictioners present it as a body of arcane knowledge that resists modernization. (The Mind Illuminated, for instance, is long on promise but expends much effort early on in constructing a lexicon rather than basic practices, and therefore lost me.) Around the 59% mark Mishra struggles with the idea that this knowledge is somehow beyond language:

I was full of wonder at the immensity and complexity of Buddhist literature, the work of thinkers and scholars now almost lost to memory. But I couldn't understand much of what these philosophers had written. The most fascinating among them was Nagarjuna, who had challenged even the Buddha by asserting that there could be no such thing as a Right View since all intellectual constructs had no essence. But how did one understand the concept of Emptiness, not to mention the assertion that Emptiness itself was empty?

I guess Wittgenstein would (impolitely) ask them all to be quiet. This move strikes me as deeply problematic: while the meditative states may be transcendent (non-empirical) there are still linguistic means of describing how to get there and roughly what it's like. I mean, they do that anyway, and even to assert the emptiness of language requires language. This is all a bit hard to square with the existence of ancient Sanskrit linguistics which surely must have exposed some of these issues around the time of the Buddha.

Mishra contends that Buddhism has no political prescriptions, and says that the Buddha himself suggested that small groups of people make decisions by consensus, and those who can't abide with those go off and form their own groups; "if you don't like it then leave" is a common refrain these days, and clearly it doesn't scale. At 65% we're told that the Buddha didn't expect his guidelines to last too long, perhaps 500 or 1000 years, which to me suggests he expected them to be improved, possibly by a successor. By 71% we're told that Buddhism can be sometimes violent but there have been no wars between Buddhist groupings; Westerns are said to hold the same true of liberal democracies, which until recently was thought to scale.

Like Kaag feels in his American Philosophy, apparently "there [is] no private salvation waiting for [us]," where salvation/liberation is from karmic reincarnation (67%). We're supposed to "[feel] the conditional and interdependent nature of all beings," which makes it sound like enlightenment leads to feeling all suffering everywhere; hardly a desirable state in itself, and Mishra observes (93%) that vanquishing desire is prima facie more scary than liberating. It does square nicely with conservative dogma however, redemption being individually achieved and not collectively organised.

Despite targetting a Western audience, Mishra does not really help flush Christian priors; for instance, karma is harsh and there's no forgiveness. The proposed alleviation of suffering sounds more like "suck it up" than a mechanism for real change, which we might idly call progress. I never understood why a Buddhist ever had to act; in contrast the Ten Commandments do not allow one to be entirely passive. Will Self could probably have developed a quantity theory of suffering and tried to square the idea of reincarnation with a growing population, and how much we should discount the suffering of future generations. I wonder how Buddhists think about climate change.

The book was widely reviewed at its time, mostly by people who nodded along and accepted Mishra's erudition at face value. I mean, they're all busy people, right? — and just for them, Mishra slipped in a chapter on how dubious a reconciliation between U.S. values and Buddhism conceptually is, all the time stroking his beard in erudite skepticism. I'll leave those to Google.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Met up with Ben near Museum Station and got the L94 down to Little Bay. We snorkelled from the southern beach along the rocks and back around via the northern beach. Quite a few people, and a bit cold in some patches. Nothing but the usual fish species to be seen. We had some lunch up at the cafe on Anzac Parade.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Met up with Walter at Coogee for some brunch and a long chat. Read some more of my book on the headland north of the beach, and had a mid-afternoon paddle at Gordons Bay. There were so many people that I got in off the beach, which is slightly tricky due to the rocks underneath some murky water. Quite pleasant and clean once I got far enough out.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Bussed it over to Coogee in the mid-afternoon, read my book on the northern headland, and had a paddle at Gordons Bay. There are lots of people collecting shellfish (abalone?) from near where I get in on the south side. Still a little cold in despite reports of it being 21C. Not too many people around. Dinner at Yen's afterwards and a pleasant walk from there back to Glebe.

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words

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This one is for the fans. As a very part-time fan I struggled to get into much of it; I think of Zappa as funk/jazz with a side of weird, and that doesn't really get a go until past the halfway mark. (There's no Muffin Man, for instance, or Valley Girl either.) Zappa's philosophy strikes me as coherent, or at least consistent: he's partial to the notion of ownership, which is mildly incompatible with spreading one's creations as far as possible. There was plenty of opportunity for things to get interesting, if only someone took him seriously. The whole thing might have benefited from alternative viewpoints, though I am thankful it steered me towards his 1986 Jazz in Hell album: it's a tad too frenetic take on Vangelis-style synth-pop.

Neil Genzlinger.

Eastern Promises

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On Dave's recommendation, for Viggo Mortensen, who is indeed quite solid playing a Russian gangster in London. Cronenberg loves his graphic violence, and by clearly intending to turn stomachs and not titillate I guess he escapes accusations of promoting such. The settings and some of the plot echo The Godfather and other Cronenbergs. Naomi Watts is all wide-eyed righteousness on a Ural boxer motorcycle. (A cursory bit of googling suggests that these typically have sidecars, which hers does not, and are clones of early BMW designs.) Armin Mueller-Stahl nails the cool-eyed urban mobster.

A. O. Scott makes it sound like more of a chore than it is. Dana Stevens.

Super 8

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On Dave's recommendation. A J. J. Abrams effort from 2011. I remember reading Dana Stevens's review at the time and deciding to give it a miss; she sharply concludes with:

As a director, Abrams has at least one lesson to learn from the film crew of middle-schoolers which he created: Keep it simple. The Case, their no-budget zombie flick that plays out in its entirety over the closing credits, is so funny and sharply observed, it makes the multi-million-dollar spectacle that came before look like amateur hour.

The story arc focussing on the kids is fun, the adult stuff less so as it amounts to little more than generic menance.

A. O. Scott.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Another interminable late-afternoon ride on the 370 to Coogee, from which I hoofed it to Gordons Bay. Not too many people about, and I don't know why as it was quite pleasant in, and not too filthy.

Arrival

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The idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia. They want to go back as far as they can - even if it's only as far as last week. Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards. And yesterday was the day of our cinema heroes riding to the rescue at the last possible moment. The day of the man in the white hat or the man on the white horse - or the man who always came to save America at the last moment - someone always came to save America at the last moment - especially in "B" movies. And when America found itself having a hard time facing the future, they looked for people like John Wayne. But since John Wayne was no longer available, they settled for Ronald Reagan and it has placed us in a situation that we can only look at - like a "B" movie.
Gil Scott-Heron, B-Movie, about better days than these.

The Ritz, $10 cheap Tuesday, 2.40pm session, theatre 6 was chockers: a row of giggling, chatting young ladies showed up late and sat in front of me, and this movie wasn't good enough to shut them up.

I'd seen the short enough times to expect a nice sci-fi premise and some exploration of what it means to be a single white female linguist romancing aliens in the twenty-first century. I was hoping they'd avoid lurv as powerful as that in Interstellar, and tiresome deus ex solutions to humanity's problems. Unfortunately we get a completely implausible plot, and active misdirection of the Sixth Sense kind. The science is of the Portal genre, but here there's no Cave Johnson (J. K. Simmons) to remind us why we're doing it. China is now the militaristic inscrutable whipping/bad boy of geopolitics. That's a bit tiresome, as is the panicky greater American public's demand for violence against the mostly-passive aliens. Forest Whitaker is OK, Amy Adams is OK, Jeremy Renner is OK but he doesn't get to do any science; she's a bit of a hog that way. The earnest sincerity is unflagging.

The central plot hole is bleedingly obvious: the aliens have all this awesome technology, and their purpose is to share their mad language skillz with people, but they do not come prepared to explain themselves: it's entirely up to the humans to figure it all out! Remind me to try that in my next job interview. And why don't the humans datamine the hell out of those sounds and circles? Come on guys, it's the twenty-first century: stick it on Kaggle already! And while I'm sure the type theorists are soaked to think that language is the key to time travel, the benefit of this device accrues purely to the scriptwriters, who use it to lazily resolve all plot points except how we're supposed to aid the aliens in 3000 years. If I was an alien who had just seen this movie, I'd be looking for sapient helpers somewhere else quick smart.

Manohla Dargis indulged this tosh. She points to Ted Chiang's original material, which I guess I won't be in a hurry to read now.

Paul Murray: The Mark and the Void.

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Kindle. Antoine Wilson's negative review in the New York Times did not attract me initially, perhaps because he got it totally right, but its recent release as a paperback caught my attention. The first third is very funny and not so totally incoherent that it mostly sort-of works. The rest is dreck. Pretty much every scene with Paul in it is quite bad, and unfortunately that's most of them. The analyst/waitress romance is icky and Murray somehow felt it wise to share a lot of misogyny that he'd clearly been saving up over the years; none of it freshens the finance/trader stereotypes. His understanding of the space is mostly sound but he hurries to both pile up and evade far too many implausibilities.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Morning paddle with Ben at Gordons Bay. (The bracket that holds my snorkel upright broke, otherwise we would probably have been looking at the fish.) A beautiful sunny day after several murky ones. Quite crowded on the rocks, quite pleasant in.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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With Dave, 3:30pm session at Hoyts Broadway, $25 each for the "extreme screen" as the cheaper one for the same time had already sold out. I was there mainly for Riz Ahmed, and Forest Whitaker, both of whom were solid but didn't have much time to do anything particularly awesome. The story makes little sense. Felicity Jones is aggressively resolute in the lead. Alan Tudyk voicing droid K-2SO has the best lines, and this was perhaps the first genuinely amusing Star Wars movie. Mads Mikkelsen is always the bad guy in Casino Royal, and I'm always waiting for him to cry blood again. The CGI revivals are horrible, though I'm sure they'll be improved as this gets endlessly re-released.

Richard Brody is scathing, A. O. Scott likewise.

Peter Ho Davies: Equal Love.

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More Davies completism: his second collection of shorts, once again on paper. None really pressed my buttons; some sharp observations made me laugh, but mostly out of recognition and not novelty. The Next Life read like an ethnography of Chinese funeral customs, but doesn't get past what everyone (now) knows. How to be an Expatriate parks itself uncomfortably just shy of satire: compare it with Trainspotting's classic opening screed, for instance. The rest are ruminations on the faultlines in family lives, and somewhat tiring therefore.

Jacqueline Carey reviewed it thoughtfully for the New York Times back in 2000.

Peter Ho Davies: The Ugliest House in the World.

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Davies's first collection of shorts, from 1998, and therefore only available on paper. All his later concerns are on show here: slate mining, farming and provincialism in Wales (The Ugliest House in the World, A Union), war (Relief, A Union), Chinese clannishness, kookiness and pragmatism (Buoyancy, The Silver Screen), and perhaps most interesting to me, social justice (Coventry, I don't know, what do you think?). The last is a first-person account of manning the phones for Lifeline. (Lifeline seems to be an Australian innovation that went global.) The writing is as solid as ever, and my only beef is that the stories are planned a little too tightly; too many Chekhovian guns, so to speak.

The Brand New Testament

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Stephen Holden at the New York Times sold me on this notionally zany take on God and his family. It's nowhere as imaginative as he says, and owes more to Jean-Pierre Jeunet than it could ever repay. (This crew is Belgian, the cast speak French.) Pili Groyne is trying to be the next Chloë Grace Moretz. One could try to read all sorts of things into this vacuous mess, but at its core it's just telling you to stay on the couch and wait for a saviour.

Jarett Kobek: If You Won't Read, Then Why Should I Write?.

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In dead-tree format as Jarett Kobek does not seem to like ebooks very much. This one is slight: a survey of B-list celebrities who've gotten very light penalties for serious antisocial behaviour. It is of its time (2012) and hasn't aged well, at least if you weren't paying attention then. It's more an art project than something to actually read, but some seem to find a close parsing worthwhile.

John Kaag: American Philosophy: A Love Story.

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Kindle. The promising premise of this book is an examination of the roots of American pragmatic philosophy, which attempted to grapple directly with the classic problem of how we should live and what it means to be free. Kaag leads me to believe it's a bit dead now, killed by too much analysis, though it may just be resting.

Yes, this is a love story. I expected twists and turns, some mystery, but it seems that Kaag perfected his romantic skills on the second time around. The first parts canvas failure (perhaps underserved in American letters) and expresses his general dissatisfaction in spite of his success. Within the quotidian frame of putting William Ernest Hocking's library in order, Kaag smuggles capsule accounts of classical philosophies, which to my mind is the major weakness: these accounts, stripped of their argumentation and historical context, read as strong, unsupportable and occasionally ridiculous assertions. This evokes the current political climate, where my truth is at least as good as yours, and demonstrates what analytic philosophy had the knives out for.

Kaag is keen on joint works, on connections between people, on lauding women who were suppressed in their time and in history. He concludes that salvation (from what I don't know) is a social process, impossible to achieve alone, but doesn't pause to reflect on the selection bias that quietens those who might argue otherwise. I wasn't at all familiar with any of the American philosophers he mentioned; C. S. Peirce was previously just one of many names attached to the prehistory of modal logic to me, and Thoreau is pure epigram. There's some fun had with the idea of necessity, especially amongst the unattractive.

So, what is this? Confessions ala Henry Fool? A book length rumination on Bird on a Wire? At times it veered into Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance territory, especially as Thoreau et al's old-timey self-reliance is ploddingly recast into modern-day self-improvement. Annoyingly it seems likely that the original sources, for instance on Absurdism, succeed more thoroughly as both literature and philosophy than this text.

Mark Greif of n+1 fame reviewed it for the New York Times. He is right at home with too much affirmatory jargon.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Late afternoon paddle at Gordons Bay after lunch at the ATP. The heat predictions flooded the place with people, many standing/sitting/drinking on the rocks in places that block the foot traffic. The tide was on the way out. Pleasant in. Getting the bus back is becoming a nuisance.

The Handmaiden

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Another visual feast by Park Chan-wook. In the mood for ... Gone Girl? Apparently the BBC has filmed the same story.

Manohla Dargis.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Late afternoon paddle at Gordons Bay. Caught the 374 from Eddy Avenue. Read more of my book on the headlands above the old gym. Loads of people at Gordons, but hardly anyone in the water, and almost no one on the shadowy south side. Pleasant in. Some seaweed and foam. Afterwards I hoofed it up to Taste of Thai in Randwick for a laksa. The 372 back was full of drunk and sunburnt Irish.

2001

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Tim Winton prompted me to revisit this classic. I found the pacing really weird this time around. It didn't inspire me to think about the big questions either; HAL's misbehavior seems undercooked. There's more fun to be had in thinking about how they made it.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Once again set off for Gordons Bay from Glebe, early afternoon. I got a so-so ba mee lunch at the Thai place that used to be a theatre, next to the old Brendan Behan, and a so-so coffee at a Campos place on Baptist St opposite the mall. Just like old times. After burning perhaps a bit too much time on Tim Winton's latest in Centennial Park, I caught the bus from Darley Rd. Things were a bit too rough for comfort at the scuba ramp; getting in would have been OK but getting out is another thing, without a mask or fins. Clovelly wasn't much calmer but it was OK at the beach end. I didn't swim far. Beautiful day for it anyway.

Tim Winton: The Boy Behind the Curtain.

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Kindle. Another autobiographical work, and one that I felt I had already read a solid chunk of — perhaps in his previous personal outings Island Home or Land's Edge. Now that I am home, and the Australian Federal Government is at historically extreme levels of uselessness, I can see how he's changed with the times, lost his reclusiveness, become corporate, learnt to leverage his image, which is not to say he's sold out, despite Beatty's erudite advice, which I hope he is aware of. Sydney still has some of that littoral feel, being on the margins of the sea and the edge of Asia, and now with the experiment in extreme density, at the limits of livability. It's strange walking through the old inner-city working class suburbs and seeing the pubs so empty during the day, the few people on the street typically young ladies out buying coffee for their offices, the dwindling freaks quarantined to a few benches on Oxford St and the parks. I'm sure there's life in Marrickville and further out, but surely car dependence robs it of something essential. (The Bower is one such locus.)

This is essentially a collection of previously published work, and we occasionally get the same event described in different ways at different times in Winton's life. I wish they'd had dates stuck on them so we could more easily track the evolution of his thought. The most successful bang on about his connection with nature, when his effortless unabashed sincerity brings the moment, the transcendence, to us. It's magic. The less successful include his time in Ireland, where the writing is as listless as the weather. I enjoyed parts of his account of growing up in an evangelical Christian community but the main article needed a good edit; at times it was the most tedious of the Sundays of memory. His other accounts of family life are far stronger. He prompted me to go watch 2001 again. His conception of class left me cold; when I hear "cashed up bogan" I think of the vacuous culture he railed against in Eyrie. I remain fascinated by his ability to balance his need for solitude with his commitment to family and sociability; the account of running for the border after completing a novel gave some insight into how he copes. He doesn't seem to seek out company however.

I wonder at his championing of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, which is trying to use the very same private-interests mechanisms that have trashed the place to save it. Cute, sure, maybe even ironic, but it signals a disengagement from politics that may eventually prove lethal. Winton knows this from the stalled Commonwealth marine reserves processes, perhaps soon to be wound back, and expresses no constructive political sentiments. I wonder if private reserves are good neighbours, and how they will be managed long-term.

So not his finest outing, and more of a suggestion to go (re-)read the best of his novels.

Greg Egan: The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred.

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Kindle. Being done with Tim Winton for now, I chowed on this novella by another of Western Australia's men of letters, from about a year ago. A cursory skim of N. K. Meisin's review at the New York Times led me to believe it'd be ... awesome? ... but I now see she was skeptical and pointed out many of its flaws. I guess this is the problem with not reading reviews before the book: I stopped with hers at the mention of awards as I figured Egan has a safe pair of hands, and didn't want to spoil my dinner.

The premise is cute, the politics banal, the dialogue flat (yes, everyone has the same voice), and I don't see that it adds up to much. Perhaps he set the libertarian / utilitarian set aflutter by mildly dressing-up their moral calculus. This may have worked for Spock in the 1960s for many reasons (he's not totally human, for staters, and had two strong characters to clash with), but not here. I did like where he was going with the mechanics of exchanging rock and ice, and had some vague expectation of a trade war or a foreshadowing of a Trump-like demagogue who wasn't going to exchange his precious bodily fluids for anything, costs be damned. Egan had enough words to do something.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Walked over to Gordons Bay from Glebe in the early afternoon, stopping off for some lunch, a coffee, and to read my book in Centennial Park. Oxford St appears to have revived, with loads of boutiques. The Max Brenner's there has died though. I got in from the rocks on the south side around 5:30pm with plenty of sun left. The water is still a bit cool, but plenty clean. Quite a few people about, not so many in. A couple brought their dogs for a paddle. I see they've stuck some concrete supports in to hold up the sandstone. Afterwards I walked back to Coogee for a vats-out-the-front Indian and caught the 372 back to Central in a pleasant haze.

The Founder

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Hoyts Broadway, 4pm session, tight Tuesday $13. I got suckered by the poster featuring Michael Keaton, who was having a bit of a renaissance with Birdman. Here, the short is pretty much the movie, and it doesn't add anything to Ray Kroc's story that isn't on his Wikipedia page. I guess I was expecting Kroc to be somehow flamboyant, for the propaganda to be more offensive or more subtle, for some skewering of the McBeast. This isn't Supersize Me but more nostalgia for a simpler world, where simple explanations cut through, where progress was more obvious. Kroc is rapacious in business, as one would expect, and his wife's philanthropy is held up in tepid defence. The McDonalds brothers are solid, tending to stodgy.

Francine Prose: Mister Monkey.

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Kindle. Its presence in the New York Times list of 100 notable books for the year prompted me to give it a go; Cathleen Schine's earlier review did not, even though she got it mostly right. The book is structured around various participants in a fiasco of a production of the fictional children's musical Mister Monkey, spiralling outward to embrace current-day New York City. I am not convinced that the Monkey God/Hanuman would deign to be reincarnated as a bratty twelve-year-old boy living in Battery Park, but leaving that aside, Prose does a fantastic job with the structure and tales of unquiet desperation. I enjoyed the theatrical setting.

Aravind Adiga: Between the Assassinations.

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Kindle. I guess I had some vague hope that this second book by Adiga would be some chop. It isn't. I wouldn't have bothered if I'd known beforehand that he wrote these shorts about the imaginary south-west Indian coastal town of Kittur before the celebrated The White Tiger, and presumably got it published afterwards as a cash-in. Again things tend to be brutal and the imagination is weak; it seems beyond Adiga to put a twist into tales of poverty and exploitation, of anyone getting anything over anyone they shouldn't. The assassinations (and not assignations! — which would have made for a better book) were, of course, Indira Gandhi's in 1984 and her son Rajiv's in 1991.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Met up with Ben at 10am-ish at Coogee, and wandered up to Gordons Bay. It was a perfect day for a snorkel with good visibility. The water was slightly cold but OK once in. This was my first snorkel in about three years; the last beach I'd been to was Mũi Né for last Christmas. No squid. A (new?) big blue groper was hanging around just near the scuba ramp. (The old one had a hook or something hanging out of him and looked a bit ragged.) There weren't too many people but the crowds are definitely in the post.

Jade Chang: The Wangs vs. the World.

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Kindle. Once again I feel suckered by publicists doing too good a job of pushing Ms Chang's first book. The first two-thirds are decent, sometimes great, but needed a substantial and brutal edit; the stand-up comedy parts are valueless, for instance, and I'm not at all sympathetic to any of the characters as they almost instantaneously transition from riches to rags. We're deep into brand-names-as-meaning here, which I find synonymous with vacuity. By the car crash the novel has degenerated to a travelogue with a side of food porn, and Ms Chang's sporadically bitey social commentary has transmuted into saccharine romantic cliches. It's clear she'd run out of ideas well before she got to the end of the journey, and it's a shame someone didn't tell her.

Kevin Nguyen at the New York Times identifies many weaknesses but somehow found more in it than there is.

James Lasdun: The Fall Guy.

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Kindle. Charles Finch at the New York Times called this "exceptionally entertaining". It wasn't. The plot was pedestrian and railroaded toward an entirely predicted (not just predictable!) outcome. The characters were lifted from Bonfire of the Vanities and thereabouts. Lots of food porn, many nods to events like Occupy, and initially so episodically tedious that when things do get moving you wonder why he wasted so much of your time.

Marcy Dermansky: Bad Marie.

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Kindle. More chick lit, I guess, this time focussing on a girl with poor impulse control, an eye firmly on the moment, somewhat intent on outrunning the past while nurturing nascent maternal instincts in many beautifully captured scenes. France comes in for a solid pasting, accused of superficiality and even worse at controlling impulses than Marie while being so much less honest about it. Mexico is a place that once enveloped and rehabilitated Americans, who have now exported enough of the benefits of development that the natives are resentful. Paradise lost, you know. The one significant male character is a slave to his biology and past. I liked it but it has the tinge of a guilty pleasure.

Peter Ho Davies: The Welsh Girl.

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Kindle. Strip mining Davies's output, going back from his recent set of shorts The Fortunes to this, his first novel. Clearly proud of his Welsh heritage, Davies unpacks aspects of the World War II experience from various perspectives, mostly set in a small quarrying and farming village. Again the writing is fine and it all comes down to whether the stories speak; the extensive research is mostly lightly worn, and sometimes wrought into imagery I found painfully visceral (Chapter 22, a doctor responding to an implicit request for an abortion):

"You're thinking you can blackmail me, perhaps, but in the first place I don't care, and in the second place no one else will either. You know what I have in there? A ward of blokes just brought in on a hospital ship. Pulled out of the North Atlantic. Torpedoed. Know how cold those waters are? Man's lucky to live ten minutes. Know what kept them alive? All the oil burning on the surface. I've fellows in there with the hair scalded off their heads, and frostbitten toes. You think they give a toss what I’ve done in the past?"

The girl herself is mostly acted upon, as are, I guess, all the characters. Rudolph Hess plays a framing role. There's a lot going on here, perhaps too much.

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Vale, Leonard Cohen.

Fargo

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One more thing to add to the long list of things out of Minnesota. I first saw this a long time ago.

The Accountant

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Odeon 5, 3:15pm session, $11.00. I saw the short a while back and thought I'd give Affleck another chance in an acting role. Well... he did OK in his Vietnamese chilli sauce t-shirt, popping Zolofts and bad men, but was severely let down by the script. I got thinking quite often that Adam Sandler may perhaps have done it better, or that Affleck could be the Arnie of the twenty-first century if only he got on top of the one-liners. JK Simmons pulls his usual schtick. This is the first time I've seen Anna Kendrick on film, and I can't see the appeal. John Lithgow is OK but embodies nothing. The entire thing is a mashup of what's come before: some American Sniper gun action (and also some Arnie-level carnage), Batman-style dual identities, autism cliches (see Rain Man and Cube and ....), the occasional outsized consumerist Scarface edifice, run-(Raymond)-run! from Fight Club, Our Kind of Traitor-style accountant-to-the-mob, etc. In brief, it's entirely derivative, but you can see what they were trying to do, just outside the frame. Enjoy.

Stephen Holden.

Marcy Dermansky: The Red Car.

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Kindle. If this is chick lit, perhaps I should read more of it. Dermansky breathlessly concatenates a series of events that levers a self-doubting writer our of her early 30s awfulness in Queens, where she got hitched to Austrian fellow-writer Hans for visa reasons, and back to her Californian mid 20s. The cast from about that time reassembles and there is sometimes the opportunity for a doing-over. The car of the title is somewhat lethal, and its ultimate fate involving a Japanese beauty flicked the switch a little too neatly to Murakami for my tastes. Dermansky does a good job with the characters, though most of the male ones feel predatory, a tad vacuous, a bit under drawn, as is perhaps her intention given that her femmes are hypersensitive to their attention. Are the narrator's contradictory thoughts a matter of tense, or of not making the right or sufficiently fine distinctions? Somehow it's not irritating when Dermansky does it.

Daniel Handler at the New York Times.

Ge Fei: The Invisibility Cloak.

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Kindle. Carmela Ciuraru at the New York Times sold it to me in her brief review. Canaan Morse's translation is a little uneven, charmingly so, almost as if he intermittently chooses to forget how Chinese maps to English. Some images and idioms that are presumably amusing and possibly enlightening, maybe even transgressive in the original, and I guess a footnote or two may have helped for us culturally impoverished types. I enjoyed it as a wander through present-day Beijing with an amiable narrator living a straitened existence as a craftsman of high-end audio equipment; such audiophilia is something I can't endorse or condemn. The fluid segues come to an overtly abrupt conclusion in the last chapter or two as things move a little too quickly for satisfaction.

Just to nitpick a bit: Ciuraru's review is wrong about Cui living with his sister and her husband; he lives in her apartment while she resides in their dear departed mother's.

Apparently this is the first novel by Ge Fei to be translated into English, but now Penguin Australia also has his Flock of Brown Birds available. I'll try to get to it soon.

Interview with the Vampire

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I saw this back in 2009. Since then I learnt (from my roomie in Chicago) that Anne Rice is the patron saint of American vampire pulp. I don't remember it being this banal; Brad Pitt is at his blandest, and Tom Cruise hams it up. Antonio Banderas, I don't know. The plot is holey, and I don't really get why Christian Slater wants to be or is chosen. Kirsten Dunst is so young.

Fatima Bhutto: The Shadow of the Crescent Moon.

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Kindle. More fiction from Pakistan: generational separatism in Mir Ali, near the frontier with Afghanistan. Towards the end I realised this humourless text had more in common with Mahajan's The Association of Small Bombs than with her countryman Mohammed Hanif's brave and funny A Case of Exploding Mangoes. In the small things would have been improved with a solid edit. The ending is far too abrupt: whatever happened to the baby? Why did Hayat and Aman Erum collaborate to sell out Samarra? Or were they intending to blow up the Colonel? I wasn't invested enough in this book to think too hard or be bothered by any inaccuracies. I don't think there's anything spectacularly imaginative here.

Fundamentally I guess I want a book that doesn't capriciously hide things from me. I don't mind a flashback structure that unfolds details, but I have little patience for omissions that are supposed to generate tension. Perhaps that's why I don't find crime fiction very satisfying.

Lorraine Adams spills a lot of words on it for the New York Times. As she observes, it helps if your grandfather is Benazir Bhutto's dad, even if he was hanged by Zia back in 1979.

Triple 9

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A Casey Affleck segue from Gone Baby Gone, and Chiwetel Ejiofor from Doctor Strange. Anthony Mackie is stuck somewhat uncomfortably between the Will Smith and the Denzel Washington ways of doing things; I wish he'd have a crack at his own schtick. Woody Harrelson is mostly in exploit mode. Kate Winslet's Russian accent wanders quite often. Gal Gadot doesn't do much. It is tiresomely predictable. I'm waiting for John Hillcoat to realise that the old ultraviolence isn't enough.

Manohla Dargis pretty much nails it.

Gone Baby Gone

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Second time around.

Denis Johnson: Jesus' Son.

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Kindle. A mercifully short collection of mashed up fragmentary shorts. Nothing much here for me beyond the odd funny line. Apparently there's a movie. Between this and some snark about it in the Atlantic, I may not bother with Tree of Smoke now.

Heat

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Parked at #121 in the IMDB top-250. I enjoyed it but at almost three hours it doesn't quite pay for its sprawl. Pacino takes things over the edge a bit too much. De Niro is mostly solid but not really taxed by his character; at least he calms Pacino down some of the time. The soundtrack is awesome.

Doctor Strange

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At the Odeon 5, 6pm 3D session (the only one for the day), $20.50, about ten people. This is a visual overload, an entirely predigested mashup of stuff that is hardly worth enumerating. Story-wise we get yet another genesis arc with some bogus time metaphysics, a bullshit mythos, and "death makes life meaningful" screeds that are beneath contempt. When will the guys running Marvel realise that once you are this powerful there is no need for physical violence? I guess they are appealing to a geek consciousness that still pines for physical actualization. Shrug.

Breathlessly: Australia is amusingly not covered by the shield. The abundant forced humour got few laughs from the sparse audience I was with. The cloak is a nod to demented cat videos. Benedict Cumberbatch is solid. Tilda Swinton lives off that dark energy, but not as well as she did in Detroit. She would make a good Tripitaka in a Monkey Magic reboot (and surely it's time). Her fights reminded me of Yoda's inadvisable scenes in the Star Wars pre-boots. Chiwetel Ejiofor mostly remembers what movie he's in but sometimes can't help over-emoting. Strange is presented with a false dichotomy of being either a narcissistic neurosurgeon or a badass superhero; why couldn't he be both? It felt like a real missed opportunity to explore his transition from man to superman; Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen is the superior character. Otherwise we could just, you know, skip the genesis part. Kathmandu looks like somewhere to be.

In summary: we've seen it all before. I don't know why Marvel doesn't hire a Korean director, which reminds me that Park Chan-wook has a new one out (The Handmaiden.) Given the geographical split, they could've had a nice mashup: Wong Kar-Wai in Hong Kong, Hal Hartley for NYC, Mike Leigh in London, Tim Burton everywhere else. That's a movie I'd pay to see.

Jake Wilson observes director Scott Derrickson's lifting from Harry Potter, and Inception. The rest of my usual movie review sources are yet to drag their bones to the cineplex.

... and that about wraps it up for The Sequence.

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I've been playing The Sequence on and off since I read the touch arcade review about a year ago. It's mostly fun but some puzzles are a bit too arcane. A huge break from it made it finally possible to nail the last two puzzles in the "core sequence." Those in the sandbox are a bit easier, and finding unimaginative solutions only took a couple of days of sporadic play.

The Town

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Second time around, and still enjoyable. The IMDB forums suggest it is a pale imitation of Heat, which I do not remember.

Amie Barrodale: You Are Having a Good Time.

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Kindle. A Japanese-inflected, zany-like-Tina Fey, Carver-influenced bunch of not-too-uncomfortable shorts. Barrodale, like Scranton, cites the Hagakure:

I told him that my family has been metropolitan for many centuries.

"Come from samurai."

"Samurai," he said, "so then, like me, you are already dead."

I guess that's the trope of the times. She plays some modern-ish games, like hiding the gender of a character to the end of a section, that put me in mind of Patrick White; I'm not sure the effort expected of the reader is respected though.

Nicholas Mancusi at the New York Times.

Mojave

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A recent Oscar Isaac, who is unfathomably awful. William Monahan has form as a scriptwriter (The Departed amongst others) but has somehow composed a complete fiasco here. Mark Wahlberg is in full-on Mark Wahlberg mode. Garrett Hedlund has apparently been decent elsewhere. There's more fun to be had in the slagging it cops on the IMDB forums than the movie itself, which is not to say it's so bad it's good.

Raymond Carver: Short Cuts.

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Kindle. Like everyone else, I enjoy Raymond Carver shorts. My main problem now is that he is too anthologised, and so I end up mostly re-reading things. This particular thing is a compilation of some from the two I've read before and Where I'm calling from and A New Path to the Waterfall, and is apparently a cash-in companion to Altman's movie of the same name.

Roy Scranton: War Porn.

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Kindle. A while back John Quiggin pointed at an article by Scranton in the New York Times, calling it "[an] excellent piece on the redemptive power of war (a huge factor in the enthusiasm with which so many entered the Great War)." Its opening is pure Khe Sanh, and this book expands those first three paragraphs into something of a fragmentary memoir. Strangely, refreshingly, this is not a movie script.

Scranton has several angles on the war in Iraq, and struggles with those beyond his direct and constructed poet-warrior experience. The scene where a dog bites an Iraqi maths PhD student is closer to Wolf than reality, if only because everyone knows you don't go near blood-crazed animals. War has often been characterized as mostly tedious boredom punctuated by bursts of existential panic, and getting lost while driving around to ultimately no end made me think that Scranton was a bit late, or not invited, to the Generation Kill party. The ending takes things to the peace-time limit, perhaps intending to demonstrate how unenlightening encounters with violence are, or that some develop a taste for the extreme, or women sometimes get more than they ask for, or whatever; by then we're too deep into exploitation territory to have much confidence about his intent. Much of the writing is incoherent: at one point a heaving bosom yields a slow breath, and the interstitial text is often unreadable. No one cares about the Dow Jones. No one.

The central problem with this book is that it focusses far too closely on violence. Yes, the violence is ugly, it doesn't redeem, it cannot enlighten, and saying this forcefully is valuable. However most people don't need to actually go to war to understand that. What he omits, and is perhaps difficult to see from the rank of private in the U.S. Army, is all the other stuff that's going on. The above-mentioned article contends that the "chief virtues" of "[the US Army] troops ... are obedience and aggressiveness." That is probably the case, and yet many have learnt deep lessons in the midst of war. Here's a brief list:

One could go on. I liked the title of his Learning to die in the Anthropocene, and am very sympathetic to that view, but having read this and the introduction of that I think I'll give it a miss.

Joshua Buhs spills more words on this than I could be bothered too. Michiko Kakutani equivocates and gestures at Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke as some kind of benchmark.

Spartacus

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Over three sittings. I generally like the old epics, and am not short on patience right now, but this is quite bad. Did Kirk Douglas do anything decent? (OK, Paths of Glory.) Something of a Laurence Olivier segue from Bunny Lake is Missing by way of Douglas's ego. I enjoyed Charles Laughton's performance the most; Peter Ustinov's smarm comes just a little too easily. (Wow, he got an Oscar for that?) I'd say this was a formative lesson to Kubrick as he tightened things up from here on out.

Aimee Phan: We Should Never Meet.

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Kindle. I've had Aimee Phan's name on my to-read list for so long that I can't remember why. This is a fictionalization of various aspects of Operation Babylift from 2004, pre-dating Dana Sach's effort by about seven years. I had similar doubts about this as I did that, and really only ploughed through it because it's short, and there's always the hope that the next loosely-connected short-story will hit paydirt. However the angles seem recycled from earlier works, and even from one story to the next; for instance, a young girl from the Delta abandons a feted marriage to become a nun in an orphanage in wartime, and a pediatrician leaves husband, child and career to tend to abandoned mixed-blood babies in Sài Gòn from 1972 to 1975, vastly stretching the two months she promised her erstwhile family. OK, so orphans wreak havoc on women's relationships, and abandonment is a layered beast.

The scenes from the OC are perhaps closer to Phan's direct experience, viz the predation of the young Vietnamese migrants on the older, keeping it within the community for mostly obvious reasons. Some conservatism is rendered, but none of the drug trafficking (etc) of the Australian equivalent (Cabramatta) that tangles up the men in other cultures. I always put the violence down to excess time in refugee camps and knowing nothing but war for those formative years, but that doesn't work for these orphans. Phan seems to retreat to generic themes of loveless childhoods, an explanation just as applicable to those who stay home.

The Wolverine

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Three years later and indeed they have not fulfilled the promise of that mid-credits scene.

Graham Greene: Doctor Fischer of Geneva.

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Kindle. A very pedestrian short from Greene, circa 1980: the first-person narrator marries a very rich man's daughter, and the rich man has a sadistic streak. The narrator is English and doesn't ski, but his wife does. That's about it.

Wolf

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A stinker from 1994. Great cast, solid production, many failings, starting with the sheer pointlessness of it all. Jack Nicholson, again directed by Mike Nichols, sometimes looks like Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, and what a shock: he drives a Volvo 240 with a roof rack (!), more recklessly than I ever did. Pfeiffer is solid, though not too much is asked of her. Plummer has fun as an arch evil robber-baron. Spader rounds out the main characters with some vintage creepiness. Even Morricone's score doesn't cover itself in glory.

Ann Patchett: Commonwealth.

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Kindle. An account of blended, broken families stretching fifty years. Patchett writes well and the thing is ably, intricately constructed, but she has too many characters on the table to satisfyingly draw them all. Piling on the events is a poor substitute, as she more-or-less admits by observing that beautiful mother Beverly has no personality of her own. The chapters come in Pulp Fiction order, and the palliative scenes are less imaginative than those of Magnolia.

Carmel Bird is right that the gun does not go off. Curtis Sittenfeld at the New York Times.

Death in Brunswick

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A Daniel Pollock segue from Romper Stomper. His role is very small here, and this is a long way from decent. Zöe Carides was so young and winsome in her faltering attempts to bootstrap an acting career. Sam Neill looked a lot like Hugo Weaving, and didn't quite fit as the leading man. John Clarke had hair and dug graves for a living. His locution remains immortal. It's not very funny or anything in particular: Melbourne circa 1990, lots of fibro housing, gorgeous Greek girls a novelty, ethnic gangs a problem, violence a bit unpredictable, mothers smothering sons. I dunno, maybe nothing has changed, certainly little has been learnt.

Steven Sherrill: The Minotaur takes his own sweet time.

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Kindle. I remember enjoying Sherrill's The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break while migrating to Sweden in September 2003. Well, here we are thirteen years later, somewhat wised up, and if there was magic in that conceit then, it is exhausted now. Sherrill mostly passes up the possibilities of a quiet meditation on the modern age, perhaps because he focuses so closely on a Pennsylvania I had no priors about. The events are sparse and mostly generic.

Allan Gurganus got into it for the New York Times.

The Night Of

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For Riz Ahmed, and John Turturro, and I guess Bill Camp too. A long well-produced but underwritten HBO miniseries mining a familiar vein: did he or didn't he violently murder a girl he just met? The scriptwriters try to reduce that to who-cares, and what they serve up instead is perhaps an advertisement for a second go around if it weren't for the sheer exhaustion of Turturro's bottom-feeding lawyer and corporate newbie Amara Karan. (I was a little surprised that her Hindi went over so well with a Pakistani family, but what do I know.) Glenne Headly is solid as the soulless crusader lawyer. I didn't really get into any of the jailbirds or the cops, apart from Camp's ruminative retiring detective. The characters kept me going but the early hope for the plot evaporated as diverse themes kept being pushed to the fore. I see James Gandolfini was involved in the production just before his passing; had he lived this may have been something even more open-ended and diffuse, like The Sopranos, rather than a mess that is implausibly semi-resolved.

What I really want is for Ahmed to do something that doesn't start with him being victimized. Ultimately it just fades away.

Carl Hiaasen: Razor Girl.

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Kindle. This is a bit of a crime caper which spins out of control while the author amuses himself with capsule biographies, reality TV and general craziness in southern Florida. I found myself laughing at it (mostly wondering how he expected to get away with the repetitive corniness, the formulaic humour) and with it in equal measure. Nothing really sticks though: the characters tend to stereotypes and coincident is manufactured as needed.

Janet Maslin. I'm a little surprised that she didn't react to the objectification of Merry, and to a less extent, Deb. Terrence Rafferty. Both are fans of his earlier work, and led me to believe this would be more fun than it was.

Charles Yu: Fable at the New Yorker.

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A short I missed from earlier in the year. Maybe I should resubscribe to their RSS feeds.

Magnificent 7

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Odeon 5, 3:30pm session, $11.00. I guess I was hoping for a superhuman effort from Denzel, and he somewhat delivered (when he could) with some mildly amusing dialogue. Chris Pratt perhaps exemplified the generic soullessness of this movie with his absurd posturing (was he trying to be cool?). Going by the short they put on before, he seems to have eclipsed Bradley Cooper in whatever demographic they target. The town is indeed destroyed in order for it to be saved, even though it starts seriously diminished from the previous rapes and pillages. The whole project is archaic, and mutilating the theme music I remember from my childhood doesn't make the slightest difference.

Manohla Dargis damned it faintly.

Peter Corris: The Dying Trade.

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Kindle. Peter Corris blogs as the godfather at The Newtown Review of Books, and tends to bang on about a Sydney that is dead to all bar those with sweet timing and/or an inheritance. His prose is workmanlike (taking a cue from academic writing; I think it may be genre) and he goes to the limit with similes. I don't know if the plot really held together, and the deductive logic seemed driven more by the need of geographic variation than soundness. There are tons of cliches and the odd greasy touch up that feels forced and obligatory. He gestures at the airport novels of the day (Forsyth) but passes up the opportunity for criticism. I guess if you were bored with the academy in the mid-70s after a PhD in history at the ANU, bending big-city crime writing to the Australia of the day was a pretty good way to go.

Peter Ho Davies: The Fortunes.

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Emily Eakin at the New York Times sold it to me, and now I'll have to read his earlier The Welsh Girl too. She's right that the first of the four stories about the Chinese experience of America is the strongest, perhaps because Davies invests so much in his invented central character whose privileged position allows a wide exploration of the Chinese diaspora and sundry railwaymen of late nineteenth century California. The others are more fictionalized history, of Anna May Wong, film star; Vincent Chin, murderee, written in hand wringing Remains of the Day style; and of adopting babies in present-day China. The prose is solid but doesn't achieve the crystalline precision of Atticus Lish, which makes things seem less necessary.

Romper Stomper

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A middling entry from the golden years of Australian movies that I remember from my youth, which in retrospect was more about tax breaks than halcyon artistic days. I was prompted to dig it up due to the (ex-Footscray, now Western?) Bulldogs winning the flag for the first time in more than fifty years, and have always held this one up as Russell Crowe's best performance, in that he seemed as natural here as Nicole Kidman was in To Die For. Well, perhaps not. Geoffrey Wright leans heavily on A Clockwork Orange and the Hong Kong kung fu fantasies of victimhood of the local Vietnamese community. I just noticed that one of the girls (one of those given very stilted dialogue) took her fashion cues from Harley Quinn. There was a lot of pain here for Daniel Pollock as Davey. Dan Wyllie looks young and clueless. I've always had a soft spot for Jacqueline McKenzie, hamming it up here a touch as a spoilt epileptic schoolgirl.

Everyone is so young! ... but it doesn't add up to a lot. The small amount of dodgy skinhead philosophizing seems redundant, as most are clearly in it for the lifestyle. The material is stretched too thin, and none of the characters are particularly sympathetic. Some elements got reused in This is England, such as the underage skinhead getting his end in, which makes this seem less a record of a particularly unpleasant Melbournian subculture than a generic exploitation flick.

Bunny Lake is Missing

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A Laurence Olivier segue from The Boys from Brazil. Preminger, too, in Hitchcock mode, but not very satisfyingly. The cinematography is great, and Olivier anchors the piece ably, but things fall apart when the plot starts grasping for a resolution. Keir Dullea is somewhat pro-forma, which is perhaps why he got the Dave Bowman gig in 2001.

Paul Mitchell: We. Are. Family.

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Kindle. I've been sort-of waiting for Mitchell to follow up his collection of short stories for years now. Once again, his technique is masterful, but this time around he is a lot less transgressive and nowhere as clever; the substance of his stories tends toward a normative account of generations of domestic and other violence, some mental illness, failed marriages, a lack of takeoff, but no substantive criminality. It echoed several things I've read recently: the boys' night out at a pub in Westmore (South Australia) came a decade or two after Ireland's time at Northmead recounted in his The Glass Canoe. As always, the blokes often cannot communicate at all, and can almost never say what they mean. Here the alcohol just looses fists and loosens teeth. Was it always thus, did World War II change things or does memory reach only that far back now? Yeah, Erskineville Kings put brother v brother on the screen a long time ago, and the father too. The gestures at Gippsland reminded me that I need to finish Don Watson's The Bush. There is a lot of AFL, but not in the corporate David Williamson The Club style. The structure is something like Tim Winton's The Turning: a collection of not quite cohesive shorts, a vague sense of it not quite adding up to a novel. The capricious violence and general blokeyness evoked Trainspotting (as always) despite the lack of vernacular.

A bridge chapter in the middle (13. Joe, Penny, Molly and Lee Stevenson) put me in mind of Captain Fantastic, but substitutes a deeply-held belief in personal liberation with almost caricatured religion. Somewhat annoyingly some of the branches of the family aren't fleshed out; Stan, for instance, is pivotal but only in that one scene. Is there remorse, a family? Apparently not, going by the tree at the start. Disability gets a clear-eyed treatment, and that is perhaps Mitchell's real strength. There is no politics.

Cameron Woodhead at the Smage.

Kristin Dombek: The Selfishness of Others: An essay on the fear of narcissism.

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Kindle. I was almost persuaded not to bother with this by Jennifer Schuessler's review in the New York Times, but I have a soft spot for Dombek based on an essay of hers in n+1, being similarly "born in the uncanny valley between the millennial generation and Generation X". Come to think of it, that essay (How to Quit) and this are pretty much about the same thing: deciding when to quit, how fast to run, and how to justify it afterwards. Presumably she keeps the happier bits, the bits she sticks with, to herself.

I found it very difficult to figure out what she was trying to do here. It traverses some of the same space as i hate the internet but leaves out the politics of technology, and suffers from too much parsing of received cultural wisdom. This is not an empirical work, and nor is it much of a polemic. She asks the concept of narcissism to bear more than it can. From my spot on the couch, looking for answers in the DSM is already a sign of mental unwellness.

So, cutting to the chase, are Generation Y the most narcissistic generation ever? I have no horse in that race, but would simply observe that they are the first generation with access to widely democratized broadcast technology. I seem to recall that the baby boomers previously held that self-regarding crown, and Generation Y has little hope of bending society to their whims anywhere near as much. Anyway, how narcissistic can you be while living with your parents into your 30s?

Dombek is not a STEM type, and lacks the systems-thinking of, for instance, Cathy O'Neill. In her chapter The Millennial, we essentially get the McNamara fallacy operating in the confirmation mode. It may have helped to separate out narcissism from other personality characteristics such as introversion, and examine the increasing culture of self-reinforcement that comes from, for instance, having algorithms only feed you news that does not ruffle your politics. You know, the general feeling of being in an echo chamber these days. Her chapter on Freud is mildly entertaining but somewhat hopelessly unscientific. Whatever his diagnosis, I don't consider Breivik narcissistic so much as psychopathic. Unempathetic.

More broadly, Dombek tries to engage with the long running project of materialism, of reducing minds to brains. Within her frame, the central problem here is whether to excuse mental pathology by blaming neural dysfunction, and she doesn't really grasp that nettle. Is narcissism the inevitable byproduct of the mass individualism birthed by the Enlightenment? Does it blow with the prevailing economic winds? Does anyone navigate the modern world without it? What is its relation to suicide?

Gemma Sief spills more words.

The Boys from Brazil

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Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier in the lead, James Mason supporting and Bruno Ganz in a lab coat. Something of an alt-history: Josef Mengele (Peck) reincarnates Hitler as a blue-eyed black-haired boy while Ezra Lieberman (Olivier, masterful) does the Nazi Hunter thing. Their meeting at the end tends to a farcical fight scene and ruins what is otherwise a promising premise. Strangely Mengele was still alive when this got released in 1978.

Prompted by a review of Affinity Konar's Mischling.

Henry Handel Richardson: The Getting of Wisdom.

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Kindle. I guess I didn't really know what I was in for with this one. Richardson is, of course, Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson and is clearly writing about what she knows: doing horrid time at a Melbourne private school for young ladies. Not quite everything goes as one would predict, but enough does, and enough is taken for granted about the prevailing society of Melbourne that this is not as illuminating as it could have been. The writing gets playful at times, and it seems very strange to imagine livestock being anywhere near Collins Street. I liked the title and perhaps it has brought solace over the years to some who don't fit.

Maskin, Sen, Arrow: The Arrow Impossibility Theorem (Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series).

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Kindle. I discovered this and the lecture series via a review by Athan (see also Dick Burkhart's). It is OK. Amartya Sen's proof is quite slick, and while I didn't think about it too deeply, it seemed quite close to the proof I mechanized from his 1970 classic Collective Choice and Social Welfare. More modern proofs try to juice the theorem for other insights; Saari gives a geometric analysis, for instance, that I never get around to comprehending.

The book consists of two lectures by Amartya Sen and Eric Maskin, a response by Kenneth Arrow, three papers about related issues and an introduction. As usual Sen is mostly concerned about social welfare implications, and gets a bit obscure. In many ways he is doing philosophy here, and as a result where he ends up is not very satisfying. Maskin focuses on implications for voting, and with Dasgupta claims to show that the majority rule is the most robust one on offer, in a precise sense, in a sort-of generalization of May's Theorem. Unfortunately they require a continuum of voters, which seems nuts; unbounded, possibly countably infinite, well, maybe, but a continuum? (They claim things work just as well with a large but finite number (p108), and I would have kept reading if their main development had in fact used that. Also see the coment at the bottom of Athan's review about measurability.) Arrow is politely skeptical in his commentary:

I do not yet quite understand how Eric's results can help us in the case where his conditions fail. [...] When you are dealing with infinite dimensional elements, can you really compute the results? Some things are simply quite extremely difficult to compute. They’re not constructible in the sense that there is no finite process that will enable an individual to carry out the calculation. This applies to a lot of problems, not just those that are social in nature, such as climate change, but also to individual as well as social choice problems. To put it more simply, you could say, "You choose the best of that heap." But then how one exactly does that can be quite complicated if not impossible in a finite length of time.

Arrow also endorses the comparison of personal utilities ala the behavioural economists, if only because people find these questions meaningful (and despite "hard boiled" economists having difficulty in modelling them). He provides some cutesy anecdotes about this work of his, of more than sixty years ago.

Matt Ruff: The Mirage.

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Kindle. A recommendation from David S. The premise is quite promising: what if there was United Arab States (UAS), a superpower, while North America was composed of the underdeveloped Christian States of America (in the east), with Texas being a republic with close (OPEC) ties to the UAS. Let's quietly forget about Asia, Africa, Australia and South America for today. Ruff also places Israel in central Europe, and aligns the Jews with the Muslims. (I wonder how possible that ever could have been.) The key event that gets things moving is that September 11 in this world happens on November 9, and involves twin towers in Baghdad.

OK, he's not going for plausibility with any of that, and this is not always a profitable vantage point for humour, pathos, provocation or insight, but when it does click he has a very slick device on his hands. (I'd say he is mostly respectful of what he needs to be.) Perhaps it would have been more successfully deployed as a TV mini-series however; the many descriptions of violence are often wallowed in, and while he pushes modern Muslim lady Amal to the front with her American-style violent-woman abilities (martial arts and guns) she's never more than a cartoon. One of the weakest points is Ruff's remaking of some of America's evilest dudes (Koresh, McVeigh, ... but not Manson) into heroes in his alt universe. Or perhaps I got confused. Of course bin Laden is evil in all universes, just as Saddam and sons are sybaritic.

Shrug. It was sort-of fun. There is an obvious debt to Dick's The Man in the High Castle that I read last year and completely forgot about.

Joshua Hammer reviewed it for the New York Times.

The Departed

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With Tigôn on a rainy Sunday afternoon/evening in Hồ Chí Minh City. I think I liked it even more than the previous two times around, and T got into at least some of the suspense. Amazingly it is now #43 in the IMDB top-250.

Pete's Dragon

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At the CGV CT Plaza near the airport, 2:30pm session, with Tigôn. Disney, a kids' fantasy, so-so, pushing the sacredness of the forest but for what seem like dubious reasons. I would have been more persuaded if Karl Urban happened upon Sleeping Beauty or somesuch. It invites comparison with the very recent The Jungle Book.

Glenn Kenny: "This sentimental, nearly genteel movie demonstrates there’s a world of difference between invoking magic and conjuring it."

Cathy O'Neil: Weapons of Math Destruction.

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Kindle. The premise of this book is that mathematical models not only can be, but are, very damaging to society. O'Neill aims for a Al Roth-style enumeration of their key flaws, which I think are:

  • people being unaware of the model or the uses to which their data are put;
  • feedback, in the sense that the model may reinforce its own assumptions; and
  • scaling out, the capacity to grow exponentially.

Unfortunately there is no mathematics in the main section of this book, and moreover most of O'Neill's complaints hold even of non-mathematical models; such models only intrinsically make things more efficient, not better or worse. Given that flaws in general systems have been canvassed at length already (see, for instance, the venerable comp.risks), her only scope for novelty is to hammer the vacuum of values in current-day U.S.A. But perhaps, as usual, I am not her target audience, or the "mathematics is morally neutral" meme has taken on Nuremberg overtones, or even more likely, I'm an outlier.

I'd go further and claim that one is better off contemplating the pathologies of general systems, however realised: simply marry John Gall's Systemantics with the McNamara fallacy and you have a whimsical but soundly provocative and fecund account. (See Matt Levine for one such synthesis.) For the more technical, perhaps Mirowski's Machine Dreams and thereabouts is more persuasive. For Generation Y, try Kobek: is there any reason to think that libertarian geeks would aim for anything other than what we now have?

O'Neill is not careful to separate out the data modelling from the control aspects, nor the various kinds of feedback in systems. On the former, consider a lone researcher cooking up the perfect machine learning system. In many ways this is innocuous as they have no power to influence the world; it is almost a purely descriptive activity (up to the researcher's own biases, of course; as with all science, there is always the question of what to observe, and more generally, choice of ontology, logic, etc.). Conversely, consider exactly the same hooked up to the systems of government, or Facebook: it may now do immense damage, or perhaps even something worthwhile. The difference is in how much and what kind of control is exerted, not (just) the model built. This is a gap many data scientists can fit their morals into.

As for feedback, she finds it offensive that some systems sometimes become self-justifying in pernicious ways, as they can exert pressure on their inputs to optimize their outputs with respect to the control criterion (see, for example, the just-mentioned post by Matt Levine on the recent Wells Fargo fiasco). For instance: poor people tend to have poor credit scores, which makes it harder for them to finance things that might them get out of poverty, thereby reinforcing their poor credit rating. That the finance outfit therefore potentially misprices risk is beyond the scope of the model. Conversely feedback is used to train the models in the first place, which we might call "evidence based policy" in another setting. This leads to a point she doesn't quite make: modelling is an essentially reactionary activity, an attempt to make the future conform to the past (for otherwise the model is in error, or the control too weak, which leads to another round of optimization; witness Matt Levine on index funds).

So, is there anything more to this book? Well, maybe. She was apparently horrified that outfits like DE Shaw gouge their profits out of "dumb money" pension funds and so forth. I'm more sanguine about that: market access is cheaper than ever for institutional investors (according to institutional investors), and really, this is simply the markets teaching dumb money the expensive lesson of needing to be either less dumb or not there. I have more sympathy for the argument that (small groups of) individuals cannot manage risk adequately over the long term (say lifetimes) and that the government should take an active role there, as it has in generations past. O'Neill (Chapter 10) observes that by showing different ads to different constituencies, common knowledge about political candidates decreases, which splinters democracy. I agree with her, but really, this happens with or without mathematical models simply because of people's priors (selective hearing). Sure, exacerbation, I get it.

In Chapter 5, O'Neill takes the "broken windows" fallacy to task, just as the Freakonomics boys did a decade ago. I got a little excited to see her propose a platinum-rule style of policing: roughly, "treat others as they wish to be treated", and specifically have the police maintain the standards of each community, not getting too far ahead or behind those. (Sounds like ... England! If you're sufficiently English.) The multifacted identity she pushes in the conclusion is old hat to, for instance, greybearded econo-moralists like Amartya Sen, who would probably have been accused by the O'Neill of 1975 of cybernizing society, what with all his mathematics and all.

Ultimately I didn't learn much here. I already thought that modelling merely promotes the normative, and is extremely illiberal therefore. She doesn't take models to task for being opaque and lacking explanatory (and not just predictive) force. There are far richer accounts of the history of operations research out there. She mostly argues from authority. Perhaps there's more meat in the endnotes. I would have been less disappointed if I'd read more of her blog; for instance this post makes it seem she has a narrow experience of the world. David Runciman writes at length on why this might be, despite O'Neil's extensive education.

Sue Halpern.

Sully

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Galaxy Cinema, Nguyễn Du, 4:15pm, 85kVND. An amiable 90-odd minutes with Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart reliving the "miracle on the Hudson" of 2009. (I don't remember it.) Clint Eastwood's direction is as flawless as it has ever been. The courtroom-ish investigation structure struck me as unnecessary, but I don't know what could have replaced it; the stakes for Sully were high, but for us it could only show the asinine side of American bureaucracy. Fortunately Eastwood dialed that back a fair way, and somehow venerates awesome technical mastery without sliding into hagiography or pushing any particular political line; it's a movie of the old school.

Michael Wilson interviews Eastwood for the New York Times. Manohla Dargis.

The Congress

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A recommendation from Roman W. He liked it because it was based on the book by Stanislaw Lem. This is mostly a lot of impressionistic animation that evokes earlier attempts at similar things. Robin Wright cops it in the neck, both personally and within the movie, but unfortunately doesn't seem up to carrying things. Why doesn't Harvey Keitel make it to the dreamworld? I have no idea what the point of it all was. There's one scene that apes the famous Slim Pickens moment in Dr Strangelove, and another the Balthazar Getty / Patricia Arquette Song to the Siren scene in David Lynch's Lost Highway. If you're bored you can try to trainspot the crowds.

Antonio García Martínez: Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley.

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Kindle. This is a pair of stories about Silicon Valley, 2008 to 2012 or so. The first is about bootstrapping a startup, and is quite amusing. The second is about doing time at Facebook, the wrong way, and is more tedious.

The author has a lot of form for trolling the Silicon Valley true believers, or perhaps wannabes, but is very careful not to shit in the Y-Combinator/Paul Graham bed that enables the events he recounts here. He is widely read but considers himself uncultured. The Biblical epigraphs are wearing. The fog of war encloses everything. Developing successful projects sounds just like academic research.

At the centre of the author's concerns (but do remember he's a troll) is the question of values. He tries to present himself as greedy, but somewhat fails at it; when it comes to it he's selfishly hedonistic and the cash only motivates him so far. Is greed enough to contemplate, then endure, the activities required to save the huge sums that give your children access to the upper classes of the U.S.? (Perhaps I am being naive in believing that this is where his cash is headed; at least he realises he'd make a poor father.) He's right to be scornful of the people who aren't chasing real wealth but merely the reflected glory of working at Facebook (etc) and basking in the exclusiveness. But we're all young once. I also don't doubt that those further up the pole do truly know the score about the present-day extreme inequality, whatever the manners around it; though perhaps they're more content to leave the messy bits to an ineffectual and underfunded government than those further down the food chain are.

I didn't learn as much about the internet ad market as I feel I should have. He does a good job of explaining the difference between Google and Facebook on that front: Google knows you want to buy stuff, so its ads are more like shopfront bling, whereas Facebook is guessing, and is therefore more like a billboard. Amazon never seems to do a good job at proposing stuff I really want to buy, and I don't know why. Beyond that, I have no clear idea what information Facebook and their partners might mutually leak on an ad exchange, and how valuable it might be. Al Roth he is not.

There are some cutting observations here, but nothing spectacularly original. Capitalism desacralises everything; well, not really, it venerates mammon and power, which he applies to a defence of Zuck's genius. Annoyingly he takes it for granted that Facebook is somehow necessary, that it provides some essential value, which I think stands in need of argument. Overall the analysis is far blunter than Kobek's. He claims that the best deals are those that leave both parties feeling slightly screwed, which is at direct odds with that Right Coast bit of technology, the adjusted winner procedure. Overall his commentary sounds good but is really inessential, which is roughly the pond he's been swimming in all these years.

Athan's review at Amazon sold it to me. I think I originally passed on it after the Hacker News coverage of the New York Times review by Jonathon A. Knee. David Streitfeld, also at the New York Times. Martínez on Facebook shutting down his baby. Jacob Weisberg.

Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan: The Inner Lives of Markets: How People Shape Them — And They Shape Us.

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Kindle. A pointer from Noah Smith at Bloomberg. Contrary to his brief opinion, this book is quite thin and Roth said most of it (and more) better, earlier, etc.. Fisman and Sullivan throw around many words and concepts without properly defining them (even informally) and engage in a bit too much deification for comfort. (Look, I'm as much of a fan of Kenneth Arrow as anyone, but John Quiggin, for instance, has banged on long enough about the limits of the standard equilibrium models that I found the discussion in this book to be almost misleading. I would dearly like to read a pop-sci account of those things and what has happened since 1954.)

Most annoying is the flabby prose, which is sometimes so repeatedly repetitious that it feels like the authors hope to persuade the reader through percussive (concussive) repetitions and not argumentation. (Yes, these guys were aiming at Freakonomics... and missed.) I started with some hope that they would unpack the feedback effects between markets and society (coarsely put, people become more calculating and often cynical) but that final chapter is one of the weakest in the book.

They did dig up some good pointers into the auction theory literature though:

  • Lawrence M. Ausubel and Paul Milgrom: The Lovely but Lonely Vickrey Auction, in Combinatorial Auctions, eds. P. Cranton, Y. Shoham, and R. Steinberg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006).
  • Michael H. Rothkopf, Thirteen Reasons Why the Vickrey-Clarke-Groves Process Is Not Practical, Operations Research 55, no. 2 (2007).

Athan at Amazon. Jill at goodreads.

One Eyed Jacks

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Marlon Brando directs and leads, 1961. Apparently he took this over from Kubrick, and was sufficiently scarred by it that he didn't direct anything else. It's a classic Western tale of revenge, laced with romance, straightforward. Slim Pickens is solid as the creepy deputy, and Karl Malden does a great job as the jilting partner and later sheriff. The cinematography around Monterey Peninsula is great.

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 are 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.

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.

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.

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.

2017-06-28: Dwight Garner.

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.

Matthew Cobb: Life's Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code.

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Kindle. On the strength of H. Allen Orr's review at the New York Review of Books. I had hoped to learn more about genetics than is on offer here, and the import of various things like Watson and Crick's discovery of the (geometrical) structure of DNA; suffice it to say that even once that is somewhat settled, it sounds like it's not much help in figuring out the genetic code itself. I didn't find any of the experiments particularly beautiful (far too much manual labour, radioactivity and inconclusivity), and the text gets quite repetitious in its put downs of cybernetics and information theory. Cobb is too narrow about the latter; the field includes things like error-correcting codes, which DNA presumably addresses somehow. Shannon's model is but a starting point.

Brief Encounter

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An early and short David Lean, written by Noël Coward. The story of two people married to other people falling in love is somewhat tired, but as usual Lean's direction makes up for all deficits. There's a stuffiness and humourlessness to the whole thing that would have had Oscar Wilde reaching for his satirical pen.

Graham Greene: The Tenth Man.

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Kindle. A quite pedestrian outing, almost entirely predictable from the initial uninspired conceit. Probably the worst thing I've read from him yet, and at least he is honest enough to admit that he lifted some of it lock-stock from Shakespeare.

Paul Beatty: Slumberland.

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Kindle. This was the last of Beatty's novels for me to read. Here he is, writing about music and being black in transitional 1980s Berlin, at the Slumberland bar. I read it in so many small chunks that it didn't form a coherent whole in my mind. As always he is supremely funny in the small.

Judgement at Nuremberg

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More IMDB top-250 completism. This one is #150 and involves so much talking it might work better as a radio play. The Americans run military tribunals of the German judiciary circa 1948. There is a lot of hand wringing and political considerations with the concurrent occupation of Czechoslovakia and Berlin Airlift. I don't think the legal stuff really holds together well, being a bit too absolutist, but it is somewhat saved by some very passionate and ruminative performances. William Shatner puts in a servicable showing as a womanizing US Army Captain (heh).

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

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On the QANTAS inflight iPad(-mini?), Singapore to Sydney. I had hoped to sleep but they didn't turn the lights down until three hours into the flight. I wasn't the only one who got a squawk out of the thing; they should silence the internal speaker, and make it clear that the headphones go into the device and not the armrest. Who said these things were intuitive?

Anyway, this movie was about as bad as the reviews said when it got released. Henry Cavill is far better as Superman, though I don't think anyone else could have done suave smug any better. Similarly Armie Hammer nailed it as the Winklevii in The Social Network and had no room here. The central problem is that Guy Richie tries to objectify Alicia Vikander, giving her the role of a scrumpet when she has excelled when challenged (and not just ogled). The film makes it clear just how long it's been since he's done anything watchable. Strip mining boomer TV has surely run its course... until the next Star Trek at least.

Whiplash

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... and yet more IMDB top-250 completism. This is (a not credible) #45. Dave gestured at this a while back. I think we've seen it all before and better in Full Metal Jacket (etc). We are supposed to take on faith that Fletcher (JK Simmons, Oscar winner for it) is great or capable of identifying greatness and his is the best method for developing it. The lead character Andrew (Milles Teller) is a moppet, purportedly of the black swan variety. Somehow the frission of their interactions or the jazz or the tuff luv or whatever is supposed to add up to something. Go tell Einstein that awesome requires an abusive pressure cooker and all is technique.

Dana Stevens. How quickly the homophobic slurs have dated this movie. She is happy to indulge Fletcher in ways I could not. A. O. Scott thinks there is some comprehension of greatness here. Anthony Lane, being English, is more flippant. Richard Brody offers some cold water.

Zootopia

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Tigôn talked this one up, and she's right: I wish I had seen this in the cinema. Also more IMDB top-250 completism: this is #148. Lasseter has succeeded in Pixar-ing Disney. Just about every sequence has something going for it. It's fun, don't think too hard.

Anthony Lane. Neil Genzlinger.

Twelve Monkeys

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More IMDB top-250 completism. I remain surprised by how many star Bruce Willis. This is #217, third time around for me, and was totally OK for burning time on a Saturday afternoon. Brad Pitt does a surprising amount of his Fight Club schtick here. I find it pretty coherent but not very thought provoking; well, I think it is causally well-founded...

X-Men: Apocalypse

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At Galaxy Cinema Nguyễn Du with Tigôn, 2D, 7:10pm, 85kVND each, bought the day before in the hope of getting not totally terrible seats. It is about as bad as the early reviews suggested, but I had hoped for a little more originality from the plot. (I tend to think it's a reheat of X3, which director Bryan Singer has reputedly derided, and yes, this is again substantially about convincing Magneto to ease up.) Oscar Isaac does an awesome job (without a cat!) when he gets the chance (which is not often), and Fassbender is clearly wishing this was a sequel to Macbeth and not the third in an endless comic book franchise. Jennifer Lawrence is substantially matter-of-fact about it all, workmanlike, paying the bills, which comes a bit unstuck in the final scenes where she has to serve up some terribly cliched motivational pap. Rose Byrne does wide-eyed clueless a little too convincingly. Evan Peters as Quicksilver again has the best scenes and lines. They blanked "Vietnam" when mentioning the war early on. The tedious, bloodless destruction of cities continues apace.

Stalker

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IMDB top-250 completism: this one is #201. Halflife had to lift their post-apocalyptic aesthetic from somewhere, and nothing does post-apocalyptic like Soviet Russia mid-apocalypse. Andrei Tarkovsky is more famous for the lesser-rated Solaris, which seems to canvas a similar concept: what happens when we get close to something that can satisfy our deepest wishes? I found the dialogue in this movie to be excessive and pretentious; it is easy to ask the deep questions and make something of the "essentially" human, but it is much harder to show it in combination with a story that makes something of what cinema is good for. The cinematography is not very inspired and overly heavy on motif.

There are some surprisingly good discussions about this movie on the IMDB discussion boards. I just wish it had made me care.

Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi

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IMDB top-250, #72. Mark Hamill doesn't really do it for me as a dramatic lead, and it's clear that Harrison Ford worked every facial muscle he has at every opportunity. The whole thing is a bit ludicrous, and long on the hokum. I realize now that I never got much into the Star Wars aesthetic, which is the most inventive thing on offer here.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

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IMDB top-250, #12. I feel like I've seen the same thirty minutes or so of Star Wars a million times as a kid. Maybe it was always Return of the Jedi; I know I saw Star Wars for the first time when it was re-released in the cinemas of Sydney in 1997. I didn't recognise anything beyond the iconic images of this one, but it still felt overly familiar.

The Wages of Fear

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First half with Tigôn, who fell asleep. Last seen about six years ago. Still #179 in the IMDB top-250.

The American Side

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On the strength of Ben Kenigsberg's review at the New York Times. I guess he's their go-to for B movies. I like a good noir but this one needed a better script. As a myth, Tesla is right up there with Ben Franklin.

Far from Men

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Erina mentioned this one. Viggo Mortensen is a reclusive but not lonely French-ish non-colonial in revolutionary Algeria. The cinematography is worthy of a spaghetti Western. Apparently based on something Camus wrote. I quite enjoyed it at times.

20,000 Days on Earth

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Nick Cave's job is to make this into something more than an ego project, and unfortunately he fails. Oftentimes he sounds like he wished he was Don Walker (one lyric goes "Flame trees line the streets") but he never smoked enough. That he is stuck on the surface is clear from the voiced ontro, where he talks about the truth as something that emerges, pushing through his veneer rather than revealed by it. (I always thought his schtick was more for effect than truth.) His motifs remain the childhood Goth classics, the God versus the Devil kind of thing that has recently yielded up Batman v Superman and not Tom Waits. I'm sure they're brewing up the next Nick Cave in rural Victoria even as I type this.

... and yes, I know he did write at least one timeless track.

The film is beautifully shot but stuffed with fakery (see the IMDB comments for examples). I came away wondering what he was trying to get at, and why he didn't say it with a tune.

Stephen Holden.

Karan Mahajan: Family Planning.

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Kindle. This is his first novel and I prefer its manic comedy to the studied quasi-objective fatalism of his recent The Association of Small Bombs. There is a sequence in the style of i hate the internet and some forward pointers that the author was happy to let dangle. Why does he have it in for Bryan Adams? (Doesn't he know that Rick Astley is the person to mock?) He is at his funniest when toying with the politician's large family: the eldest is nicknamed "Torn Condom", the "father of the nation" is charged with creating a constituency. The family's power dynamics are lovingly detailed, like Mahajan was almost there. The ending just strangely falls away.

Here he is in the wilds of the internet with Practice.

Sudden Fear

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Over several nights. Another highly-rated Jack Palance. This noir flags badly somewhere around the middle after a first half of innocuous generic romance. Things pick up in the last twenty minutes. Joan Crawford anchors the thing.

Pankaj Mishra: The Romantics

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Kindle. I've been meaning to read this one for ages, just to see if Mishra makes more sense in transparently fictional form. This one is overstuffed with too many underdrawn characters, and amounts to little more than East meets West in the East, which thereby opens up the East to the East. Set in Benares, sacred city of the Hindus, and fascinated by the Himalayas, the chief worry is that Mishra is really just engaging in autobiography and fantasy. The idea that we live between illusion and the void may have been news to Rushdie. There are also far too many references to Continental literature for the whole enterprise to grab me.

Akash Kapur tries to talk it up.

Graham Greene: The Confidential Agent

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Kindle. Following a pointer from Rushdie's memoir. All you need to know is at Wikipedia. I would say this is not his finest outing, though it has its moments.

Captain America: Civil War

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3:40pm session, Galaxy Cinema Nguyễn Trãi, 60kVND. Fairly packed with young Vietnamese, some of whom talked throughout the movie, but not too much. It's so damn loud anyway, and it's not like the nuances of the dialogue are so very important. I guess this is another of those fantasy matchups, but to this foreigner it smelt mostly of thin-skinned American exceptionalism. Gwyneth Paltrow took a break from this one, as did Hemsworth and Ruffalo. I wish Elizabeth Olsen was in more serious stuff. I could similarly listen to Paul Bettany all day, but his character is curiously useless given how powerful he's supposed to be. (The opposite applies to Scarlett Johansson, who is mostly ornamentation in these movies.) Daniel Brühl looked familiar but from what I do not know (perhaps A Most Wanted Man). It's OK, though some of the camerawork was way too shaky for me.

A. O. Scott.

The Professionals

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A non-spaghetti Western. Notionally for Jack Palance. Somewhat farcical.

Salman Rushdie: Joseph Anton

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Kindle. I got a bit sick of trying to find something new to read, and if there's one thing about Rushdie, it's that he's easy to plough through. Unfortunately I did more ploughing than enjoying in this overlong, overly repetitious and ultimately tedious memoir. Most of it is an account of the fatwa years, but Rushdie does not bother to provide much context for it; you are not going to learn anything about the larger issues of the day here. Indeed much of this I read recently, in Step Across This Line — that material has been lightly edited and emended for this vehicle.

Rushdie is a fine writer (becoming less so with time; call this a portrait of an artist in decline) but his claims to intellectualism are thin. His is often empty rhetoric; this is his argument that even if God did exist he'd be cool with it all:

However, even if You are Ghazali's God, reading the newspapers, watching TV, and taking sides in political and even literary disputes, I don't believe you could have a problem with The Satanic Verses or any other book, no matter how wretched.

... and of course his infatuation with Hitchens shows he's more in love with words than ideas. What did Clune say about Super Mario World? Rushdie is a long way from engaging with multifaceted identities ala Amartya Sen (et al), and his responses to Le Carré ("My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity") are almost entirely ad hominem. Often he sounds like his own worst enemy: as absolutist and unreasoned as an Ayatollah.

There are too many loose threads and incoherencies here. Are there safe houses or are there not? (Of course there are.) Did he incur large expenses for the public or did he not? (Of course he did.) Why did he convert to Islam after the fatwa? (How was that ever going to help anything?) His arguments for freedom of expression are typically vapid extremism and often sound equally like arguments against copyright; there is nothing as nuanced as Tim Parks on Charlie Hebdo here. I guess the final nail in the coffin is his surprise at how shallow and self-absorbed Padma Lakshmi is. It doesn't make a lot of sense to call her (or their relationship) "The Illusion" while maintaining that they were, in fact, madly in love at various times; if they felt it, it was real. There is no other objectivity on offer.

Pankaj Mishra at the Guardian. One of the more annoying things about this book is that Rushdie does not distinguish Sunni from Shia, which would have helped show how isolated Iran really is (as we all now know). Where were the Saudis in this fiasco? Zoë Heller argues that Rushdie has grown smaller with time.

Thieves Like Us

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Altman. Keith Carradine, roughly the same time as he did The Duellists. Also a very young-looking Shelley Duvall drinks a lot of Coke and smokes but doesn't inhale. A character study of three bank robbers, two of whom get what they want and then what New Deal America decides they deserve. Not really my thing.

Anomalisa

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A stop-motion from Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson. Michael Wood's review at the LRB sold it to me, alongside David Thewlis's voice work, but unfortunately the artefact as a whole does not measure up to the former's musings and the latter's ability. The picture of GWB in the manager's office is slightly hysterical. Mostly, however, banality rules the day, and I fear that that was intended. The animation is top-notch. I think the cardinal rule for puppet sex is that it has to be ridiculously funny, like in Team America.

Une vie de chat (A Cat in Paris)

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Second time around. Tigôn didn't get into it so much, I think because she's a dog person... but she did find the dog scenes amusing at least.

Paul Beatty: Tuff

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Kindle. Somehow this put me in mind of Murray Bail's Holden’s Performance, which I haven't read for an age. I didn't enjoy it anywhere near as much as the other two by Beatty that I've read (The Sellout, The White Boy Shuffle), probably because I am less interested in and sympathetic to the rhythms of NYC street life, hard, harsh and unforgiving as it is. There are moments of Tarantino here; a black rabbi, why not... and the lead is really a ghetto thug whose thuggishness is quietened but not occluded by the extensive accounts of domesticity and mateship. The sumo wrestling is cool, but as for Tarantino, cool violence is nothing like insight. Wearing.

The Jungle Book

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At CGV Liberty Central (corner of Pasteur and Lê Lợi, Hồ Chí Minh City) with Tigôn at 19:40, 120kVND each plus a large Coke and popcorn. Dinky little theatre, with subtitles; somewhat unusual as most sessions are dubbed, which makes sense for a kids' movie. (The very young children in the crowd had no hope without parental assistance.) We went as there are simply not many films showing right now.

The short story is that there are some good bits, and the CGI oftentimes convincing. The child actor is the weakest link, though the excellent voice work regularly masks this. I was disappointed when Walken, hitherto so successfully channeling Brando in Apocalypse Now, became a song-and-dance ape in a temple that looked like it had been in some other movie.

Manohla Dargis talks more about Disney's 1967 outing than the current one, as does Sam Machkovech, who also looks forward to the Andy Serkis-directed version from Warner Bros. Anthony Lane also noted the hat-tip to Apocalypse Now. Also Christopher Benfey.

Sam Quinones: Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic.

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Kindle. The New York Times reported that it won an award, alongside Beatty for The Sellout. This is a fine piece of investigative journalism that needed a sterner editor. Quinone tells the story of how "heartland" America got addicted to heroin, via the gateway painkiller OxyContin (I now understand the drug spam) and cognates, and the Mexican suppliers from Xalisco, Nayarit. The latter was my main reason for picking this up: a vertically-integrated transnational operation with a built-in conflict resolution mechanism is a little bit fascinating. (Everyone knows everyone back home, so cheating and violence can lead to severe repercussions for loved ones.) It is amazing that they can engage in non-lethal competition in a traditionally ultraviolent enterprise; for instance, the various cells apparently lend drugs to each other when supplies are low, and just-in-time deliveries (etc) keep their activities below the excitement threshold of the DEA and friends. So this is somehow a free market of drugs (decreasing prices, consistent and high purity, convenient service, robust) that has avoided capitalism's antinomies thus far. But of course profits are huge and the markets are still expanding.

I now also understand what a pill mill is, and why Paul Le Roux got into it. I just wish the text had been half as long.

Susan Barker: The Incarnations

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Kindle. So-so; some good bits, many bad bits, much that is hackneyed, and too much sex that distracts from her larger story. There are elements of Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans. Some observations are shallower than Kim Huynh's. There is a larger China out there, outside the bedroom, and I wish Barker had spent more time in it.

Simon Winchester at the New York Times.

Hail, Caesar!

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The latest from the Coen brothers, a return to screwy Hollywood comedy, a step away from character studies, despite Josh Brolin anchoring the thing and appearing in all the best scenes. Some fall completely flat; I'd say it comes out fifty-fifty. I'm less convinced by Scarlett Johansson than ever. Clooney struggles a bit here. Alden Ehrenreich is a find, playing a reassured, unabashed Southern hick. Tilda Swinton's character is lifted directly from The Big Knife, and overall there's less on offer here than in Maps to the Stars. ... and was that really Christopher Lambert?

Manohla Dargis. Francine Prose.

Jarett Kobek: i hate the internet.

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Kindle. On the strength of Dwight Garner's review in the New York Times. Kobek is scathing about the "social media" internet in a tendentious, categorical style that reflects what he loathes. I wonder if he is aware of The Sellout; there he would find a deeper engagement with race in California. Almost all the tropes of geekdom are slaughtered here (Heinlein, Doctor Who, ... — collectively branded juvenalia) and blamed for the infantilisation of emotion and conflict that one finds on the anonymized internet. (Indeed this is something of a book-length expansion of the greater internet fuckwad theory.) Hardy's Jude the Obscure and A Clockwork Orange get some grudging respect. Google's executives are likened to the Greek (or Roman?) pantheon. The closing riff on Galt's overlong speech in Atlas Shrugged is quite funny; I can hardly wait for the women-only internet called for there.

I wish he had spent a bit of time thinking about the rest of the net, where plenty of communities get along just fine. The key, of course, is to come together around non-trivial mutual interest and to tolerate other people's quirks. I guess that involves some loss of anonymity.

Unfortunately Kobek's earlier Atta does not appear to be available as an ebook.

Wings of Desire

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I have been meaning to see this since forever, and I guess re-reading Salman Rushdie's spray against co-writer Peter Handke was enough to tip me over the edge. This is Wim Wenders defining art house cinema circa 1987, doing Nick Cave's career a favour or too along the way. The black-and-white/colour mashup was a bit heavy handed, as was just about everything else. To enjoy this you have to indulge Peter Falk and the aforementioned auteurs beyond the demands of most artworks (and reason). I found the ending unsatisfying, the philosophizing empty-headed, the understanding of what peace takes to be absent. Just how plausible is it to meet the woman you've been creepily (ectoplasmically) stalking for days at a Nick Cave concert that you both walk out of? ... and for her not to be creeped out? Humans über alles, oh my, think of the people please.

Karan Mahajan: The Association of Small Bombs.

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Kindle. On the strength of Fiona Maazel's glowing and indulgent review in the New York Times. This covers similar territory to Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown (which I read but did not write up?!?) and Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Mahajan aims to show how various people get entangled in and affected by small-scale terrorist activities; specifically bombs in marketplaces in Delhi that kill fewer than a hundred people, and happen often enough that they are quickly forgotten by the city and country at large. Stripped of its local colour, things go as you might expect. The ending is somewhat limp. Modi features here in his earlier guise as governor of Gujarat.

I don't think any of these books are very insightful about the origins of terrorism.

Hari Kunzru.

Salman Rushdie: Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.

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Kindle. Continuing my recent digging through Rushdie's oeuvre, I thought I'd try his latest novel. Unfortunately this one is even worse than his immediately previous effort, which at least had the benefit of some kind of historicity. This outing is something of a retread of his biggest success, Midnight's Children, but ruined with a comic book (or comic-book movie) structure: too many characters too shallowly drawn, so many useless; a trivialization of the universe of morality; thinly-masked lifting of current-day events and culture; ultimately too repetitious and just not funny. He paints New York City in grand Tom Wolfe style. Again he fails to rise to his own standards by not increasing the scope of the imagined world.

Some minor observations: Zabardast, while being an "awesome" sorcerer, is not Slartibartfast: even the iPhone knows the latter. Dunia sometimes appears as Christ in her indiscriminate affection for (some) humans. It is unclear why she is deemed "good" (apart from fighting for humans) or that she is a reliable vehicle for the side of "reason" as Rushdie presents it. No-one, apart from the gardener Geronimo, creates much of anything. Sex strikes are certainly in fashion.

Marcel Theroux.

Knight of Cups

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A new Malick, and so I had see it. This dreams pretty much the same impressions as To The Wonder while being even more internalized. The occasional bouts of cinematographic beauty are due to Lubezki. Christian Bale is going through some existential crisis which involves many, many women and much idle debauchery/consumption, none of which really engages him. Perhaps Bale was as bemused as the audience. Imogen Poots channels PJ Harvey in The Book of Life, and Portman McAdams from To The Wonder. More twirling, but in Los Angeles this time, and not the fields of gold of American myth. The message of the movie as I understand it is: have a baby, get over yourself.

A. O. Scott. Anthony Lane.

Batman v Superman

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With Tigôn at a small theatre at CGV near the airport, 2pm. 105kVND each. The sound was poor so I missed almost all of the expository dialogue; the locals, of course, could read the subs. Approximately as bad as the reviews suggested, and I doubt anyone could follow this without knowing pretty much how it had to go. The vibe was entirely deus ex: give up, puny human, unless you too can avail yourself of inherited wealth or alien technology, preferably both. People are only good at base conniving.

A. O. Scott. Sam Machkovech.

Inside Out

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Yeah, a Pixar animation from last year. Notionally the young girl Riley (looking a lot like Marissa Mayer) is driven by a coterie of five emotion-personalities. I don't think that (all of) those emotions are canonical, or even interesting. (Where is fascination ala David Bowie?) These inhabit headquarters, which struck me as being the I/O tower in Tron. I didn't recognise Kyle MacLachlan as Dad. The credits were the best: the bus driver is all Anger (which is easily the best of Riley's emotion-personalities too), and nothing is driving the cat.

Dana Stevens got right into it. Is she really saying that this reductionist trivialization of emotion is somehow the height of insight?

Sonia Shah: The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years.

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Kindle. I found this via a don't-read-it review of Shah's new Pandemic. (Reviewer Laurie Garret is a fellow science/health journalist and has similarly done the TED circuit.) Abigail Zuger's review tells you all you need to know; in summary it's good, and from here down I'm just picking nits.

Malaria apparently has a complex yet robust lifecycle that has resisted all sorts of efforts at eradication. This suggests it is worth looking at from a systems point-of-view. Shah canvasses only some of this in a single chapter, and even graphic-phobic me would have benefited from a diagram. I would also have liked to hear more about how the disease plays out in humans, for my main fear of it is the possibility of permanent brain damage.

Much of the latter parts of the book are straightforward rants against celebrity helicoptering (e.g. Bono doing a George W. Bush-style victory declaration) and cyclical funding for science (go tell the Australians). Her reasoning becomes unhinged at times; take this, for instance from the final chapter:

The entire economy, it is said, would have to break down in order for malaria to resettle in developed nations such as the United States. And yet mosquito-borne West Nile virus and Japanese encephalitis have spread unchecked. In 2002, California had a single case of West Nile virus; in 2003, there were three, according to the Centers for Disease Control. By 2004, there were 779 cases nationwide; in 2005, 873. In 2008, there were more than 1,300. The economy survives, despite it.

Malaria is probably not sexy right now.

This book somewhat reminded me of Pisani's, but does not exhibit the latter's hands-on insider knowledge. Shah notes the potential synergies between HIV and malaria.

/travels/2015-11-Vietnam | Link

The plan was to sleep on the train from Nha Trang back to Hồ Chí Minh City, but some people broke the Ghenh Bridge at Đồng Nai. Coverage:

Salman Rushdie: Step Across This Line, Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002.

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Kindle. I bought a hardcover of this when it came out back in 2002 or so. Since then I've really gone off Rushdie; the two novels he subsequently published were quite drecky. I have yet to read his memoir Joseph Anton or the recent Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.

Here Rushdie is the king of the false dichotomy, and engages in so much, too much, tedious self-aggrandizing. He is, as always, at his best weaving in the classics, but also often terribly blinkered and uninsightful. His absolutism and inability to engage with Amartya Sen-style multi-faceted identity is particularly on display when he talks about Peter Handke (essay from May 1999), who is surely capable of capturing beauty whatever his political leanings. Similarly for religion.

To re-read this now is to be reminded of the halcyon days of the late 1990s, when the (Western) world seemed to be heading in a more peaceful direction, fueled by post-Cold War optimism. Tony Blair was still somewhat decent, and the aspirations for peace in Palestine not completely stymied. Musharraf stank, yet to become indispensable.

The best parts of this book are some of his essays for the New York Times. On Faiz Ahmed Faiz:

He loved his country, too, but one of his best poems about it took, with lyrical disenchantment, the point of view of the alienated exile. This poem, translated by Agha Shahid Ali, was put up on posters in the New York subway a couple of years ago, to the delight of all those who love Urdu poetry:

You ask me about that country whose details now escape me,
I don't remember its geography, nothing of its history.
And should I visit it in memory,
It would be as I would a past lover,
After years, for a night, no longer restless with passion,
With no fear of regret.
I have reached that age when one visits the heart merely as a courtesy.

Amelie

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With Tigôn. I last remember seeing this in Melbourne with Hui Nie, and perhaps I saw it at the cinema back in 2001. Still rated #75 in the IMDB top-250.

Chicken Run

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With Tigôn, over several nights. It's a lot more straightforward than I remember, but just as funny.

Chiraq

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Spike Lee goes to Chicago and tells the locals how he wants it to be. Yes, it's a reworking of Lysistrata by Aristophanes, and somewhat muddled therefore. Cheerfully, brashly crass and sometimes fun.

Manohla Dargis. Salamishah Tillet.

The Revenant

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With Tigôn, who wanted to see it on the strength of Leonardo's Oscar. #152 in the IMDB top-250, but not destined to stay long, I'd say. It seemed to me that Tom Hardy eclipsed Leonardo just about always. Domhnall Gleeson was far less irritating than usual, and actually came across as a substantial character. The cinematography is the best part of it; Lubezki once again, in the mode of his The Tree of Life. As far as raw material goes, Iñárritu had it better with last year's Birdman. I note James Packer executive-produced this; whoever selects films for him to sponsor is doing a stirling job.

Bear Story

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With Tigôn. A beautifully rendered tear-jerker that won the Oscar for best short animated film.

Reservoir Dogs

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I saw this a long time ago. It never really appealed to me, perhaps because it is so clear that Tarantino's budget didn't stretch to any interesting settings. Tim Roth's sequence in the middle rescues things somewhat.

Deadpool

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16.05 session at Galaxy Cinema on Nguyễn Du, HappyDay Tuesday, 55,000 VND. Some fun bits, though many of the references in Ryan Reynolds's relentless patter passed me by. The action was annoyingly vacuous; the central one-on-many battle merely riffed on the far earlier ones in Terminator 2 and The Matrix. The origins story here makes a mess of Wolverine's, oops. #63 in the IMDB top-250, but surely not for long.

Manohla Dargis. Richard Brody.

Following

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Nolan's first feature, a decent black-and-white suspense in the flashback/forward style he perfected in Memento.

Slow West

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An attempt to get a Fassbender fix. He produced this and I didn't figure out why. Some classic Spaghetti Western cinematography and direct lifts from better buddy movies like Dead Man can't save this from amiable vacuity.

Stephen Holden.

Macbeth

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A Fassbender fix. Watched over a couple of days. Apparently I saw a production of Shakespeare's play, from which this is derived, quite a while back in Sydney. Lush, and would have been improved by a steadier camera more often. I always thought this had more to say about Lady Macbeth (here Marion Cotillard). Good to see David Thewlis, but as with all the Shakespearean kings I can remember, his character is a bit of a tool. Sean Harris can't quite steal a scene from Fassbender but does from everyone else.

Manohla Dargis.

Labor Day

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Some vague attempt at a Josh Brolin fix, and Winslet is usually solid. This is quite feeble however: Brolin is a cardboard-cutout perfect American dad, and Winslet a hollowed-out single mum. I don't know how it could be better given the escapee/romance premises. The director, Jason Reitman, did Thank You for Smoking.

Stephen Holden. Dana Stevens.

In the Mood for Love

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Wong Kar-wai's masterpiece. It's been a while.

Kevin Barry: Beatlebone.

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Kindle. Charles Finch's review in the New York Times sold it to me. The style is poetic, the tone knowing, the persistent just-run-with-it cajolery sometimes annoying. The premise is that John Lennon gets a hankering to spend some time on his island in western Ireland in 1978, and I have to wonder how essential that is to anything as I missed any point the author was trying to illuminate. Would this story work with an everyman? (Probably not.) John has privileged access to the history of the land thereabouts, rife with ghosts and lost souls. The ranting (a mutant derivative of Screaming) was somewhat amusing.

See also Steve Earle at the New York Times.

Frenzy

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A late Hitchcock (1972). Colour, London, lushly photographed. The cast is solid, the plot a tad predictable: a man gets implicated in a series of lurid sex murders. I think he did a better job on Rope. Following David Denby's pointer from a while back.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Pretty drecky. Way too much action and a very thin plot. Trying to make something of all these mismatched characters is beyond anyone's ability, I fear. Robert Downey Jr is genuinely annoying here.

The Danish Girl

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4:10pm session at the CGV CT Plaza, near the airport, with Tigôn. 210,000 VND for the both of us. There were more people than I expected. A spur-of-the-moment sort of thing; Ip Man 3 looked more appetizing but is in Cantonese with Vietnamese subs.

This story of one of the first people to attempt gender reassignment is unfortunately recounted in a vacuous style that is visually lush but fails to unfold inner lives; contrast with, e.g., Mr Turner. I don't fault the cast, who while solid often have little to work with; I didn't find Eddie Redmayne that evocative. Alicia Vikander is her usual brave self but starts on the doe-eyed martyr thing a bit too early. Amber Heard is fun in all her look-at-me unsubtlety, brief sparks breaking long periods of banality. Sebastien Koch, Matthias Schoenaerts are scaffolding. It is overlong. There are many nice small domestic touches early on that fade away as the plot is supposed to take over.

A. O. Scott. Dana Stevens. Vikander got an Oscar for her efforts.

Blade Runner

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It's been an age since I last saw this.

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Vale, David Bowie.

The Big Short

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On David S's recommendation. I started watching this one a bit late and absorbed the last half osmotically, in a state of semi-sleep. I was expecting it to explain the financial terminology and structures more. Steve Carell is very good. Ryan Gosling is funny.

Dana Stevens. A. O. Scott. Michael Wood.

Kim Huynh: Vietnam as if...

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Kindle. The author is an academic at ANU, and holds a PhD in international relations. This is the first foray of ANU Press into fiction, and is available as a free download. I would suggest reading the outro (Postscript: The Other Turtle's Tale) before embarking on the five novellas: I took most of them to be unsuccessful (unfunny) satires, but having read that I get the impression that the author is actually sincere. There is the odd bit of colour amongst the mostly heavily-drawn characters and well-worn tropes. I would have liked to know just why, in the last story, granny needed to be dug up and reburied.

Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger.

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Kindle. On Kate's recommendation, and it seems, Andrew T's. For mine the Booker prize has been the kiss of death for any book, with the sole exception of Rushdie's Midnight's Children. This won it in 2008. Adiga pays homage to Rushdie by adopting his timeworn episodic first-person narration with more digression than central thread. (It is also the same structure used by Beatty.) We get a series of daily diary entries, expressed as letters to Wen Jiabao, erstwhile Premier of the PRC, written from tech hotspot Bangalore and not some pickle factory on the edge of Bombay. The light structure and plot are merely vehicles for exploring the myriad issues plaguing modern India, many of which can be seen from the drawing rooms of Delhi, where this book loiters for some time, and some not. Gavaskar was in the cricket team for some of the story, and Azharuddin, the captain at the time, is a Muslim.

Adiga is out to paint an unsentimental, occasionally hilarious, and provocative portrait of his mother country, aimed squarely at Westerners; there's no language masala here. Placing kill-the-rich-and-steal-their-stuff at the centre of it strikes me as a failure of imagination, which may have been his point. Drawing an equivalence between rooster coops and the mechanism for indenturing servants made little sense to me; the narrator's search for and achievement of lebensraum had more to do with his family being hostages to his misfortune than his relation to his fellow indentured servant. That his granny was a rapacious schemer made it so much easier to do what it took to get filthy rich in rising Asia, but I far prefer Mohsin Hamid's take on that. The election rigging was depressing.