peteg's blog - noise - books

Benyamin: Goat Days.

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Mostly read on the short (~6 hour) flight from Doha to Zurich. Somehow I mostly slept through the long leg (~14 hours) from Sydney to Doha. Qatar Airways must hire a lot of Russian pilots, and they seem less bothered about safety than any other airline I've flown with. The stopover definitely evokes this book, as did the previous one I read.

This is a tale of recent-day enslavery and possibly human trafficking in the Gulf states. It's at its best when talking about the harrowing conditions of the first-person goatherd / general dogsbody who was sold a visa for a construction company but got abducted by an opportunistic Arab ("arbab") with pens (essentially a feedlot) on the edge of the desert. The author claims to have sourced this from someone's direct experience (see Wikipedia for details). There's a lot of empathy demonstrated in his connection with the animals. My only real beef was the slow progress through the desert. I wonder if things are improving at all.

The Arabic translation was apparently written by an Indian expatriate in Doha.

Deepak Unnikrishnan: Temporary People.

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Kindle. One problem with working full time is that it leaves little time to read, and makes it harder to plough through things that don't meet their initial promise. Shaj Mathew in the New York Times sold this to me as an innovative take on Indian guest workers in the Gulf states, which has vaguely fascinated me since mrak worked in Doha on the Asian Games with some skillful blokes from Kerala. Unfortunately this composition feels derivative, conservatively stuck in the usual transgressive ruts, and while there's some colour and imaginative licence taken there's not much new insight. Perhaps the highlight for me was the insurrection by the brown men grown on plants.

I should probably have treated Mathew's review with more caution: he holds guest workers up as "arguably the least privileged class of nomads", which on its face is indefensibly crass. The second half of his review (read just now) is accurate. I guess I'll have to see if Benyamin's Goat Days is worth a read.

Tim Winton: That Eye, the Sky.

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Kindle. From 1986. Short, punchy, not much like his later stuff, and dare I say the real story that inspired it is a better yarn. See one of his memoirs. Some of the imagery is pretty amusing.

Patrick White: Voss.

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Jacob remarked a long time back that I was pretentious enough to try to read this. Finally feeling up to it, I rejoined the Randwick City Library, which seemed to be only local library with a (dead tree) copy of what I'd imagined to be White's masterwork, just before I rejoined the workforce. Strangely the library allows anyone (really anyone?) to join, resident or not, who fronts their counter with sufficient proof of address.

Where do I start. It's hard to say what this book is, or if we're supposed to enjoy it. White apparently based the character Voss on the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, and lazily omitted a map or sufficient geographical cues for us readers to figure out where the party got to. (Very roughly they start around Newcastle and head northwest through the Downs towards Darwin-ish. How far they get is anyone's guess.) The two-track structure exhibits the set pieces of 1840s Sydney society in undercooked connexion with the expedition via Voss's entanglement with Laura Trevelyan, who White is clearly fascinated by. The characters are deeply drawn here (in striking contrast to Mohsin Hamid's deliberate genericity), so much so that action is almost purely symbolic. White makes very effective use of all of them in combination, exploring and probing with shifting viewpoints that teach us much through powerful dialogue. It is the central strength of this work. I was a bit put out by his drawing of Mrs Bonner however, for he seems to reflect his disdain for the shallowness of people like her (such as he imagines) with shallow art. Le Mesurier was a cypher to me, and ultimately was little more than a punchline for how crazy one can go in the Australian bush. Belle Bonner becomes intriguingly egalitarian; I wish he'd made more of that.

At times the sentential structure seems aimed to befuddle a formal logical reading, almost as if White was challenging the symbol pushers of his day to represent his work. I found it occasionally fun to try to figure out what was being denoted, but it's a game that is tiring at novel length. Voss acquires a wife by tense (p261), in conversation with Palfreyman, which I guess is an antecedent to Charles Yu's device. What fun, having Aborigines corroborate (p287). I think White believes that goats are the most rational of all animals; did I get that right? It had me more nonplussed than Douglas Adams with his famous championing of dolphins. For a while I believed White to be antipathetic to felines, but later I realised that "knowing the cat" involved a bare back, leather, and sadism.

So, is there anything for us to learn from a 1950s take on events from a century prior to that? I mean, as a/the great work of Australian literature, Voss is resolutely backward looking: it provides absolutely no guide to the future, to what might be possible once the country has been explored and subjugated. This conundrum has beaten all Australian minds, great and small; there has been no vision since Howard built a petite bourgeoisie on the back of Keating's economic rationalism. Unlike Hardy's fabulous Jude the Obscure, I don't feel that White's characters suffer timelessly. They burnt bright, and are now burnt out. Is it unfair to characterize this novel as a failure of a Kurtz to reach his heart of darkness? Or a variant of the timeless Wuthering Heights stripped of hope? In any case, often in spite of myself, I did get right into it: Voss the man, wedged between the competing traditions of German idealism and German pragmatism, is so perfectly contrary and fatal.

I later read A. D. Hope's infamous review of White's The Tree of Man at the Fisher Research Library (included in Critical essays on Patrick White compiled by Peter Wolfe). It's not so bad; the "illiterate sludge" charge is the final phrase of the piece and the rest fairly evaluates the author's strengths and weaknesses. I'm glad Voss wasn't written in that experimental style; perhaps this is the later "very formidable prose style which [AD Hope] can enjoy very much."

The ABC had a series on White back in 2014 that adds some colour.

Mohsin Hamid: Exit West.

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Kindle. $AU16.99 from the Australian store on the day it was released in this market, which was either a vote of confidence in Mohsin Hamid or in desperation for something decent to read. Having finished it I wish I'd waited: the author repeatedly talks down to his readers, spelling out careful, beautiful allusions to negligible details. It is this sort of thing that destroys momentum. I was also irritated by his naive politics, him being a fan of more men and accepting the further wholesale destruction of nature that entails. The door mechanism is not even magical, it just is, and that's not enough. His taxation proposal is ... pretty much how things are now? To those who were born into a world with fewer people we will give more? And they wonder why Gen Y is smashing avocados rather than scrimping for their own piece of Australia, or thinking about the long term. I found the characters generally tendentious, almost inhuman, and so much of the refugee experience is made light of. The interstitial stories are generally feeble, merely small portraits of places Hamid has visited, or has friends at. The ending, a reprise, a variant on that of his excellent How to get filthy rich in rising Asia, has the central couple reconnect when aged to no great effect. Why ever does he resist having them come from a specific country?

Michiko Kakutani found more in it than I did. Viet Thanh Nguyen. Andrew Motion. Isaac Chotiner is more skeptical, and while I generally agree with his criticisms, he is in error to hold that Moth Smoke is Hamid's finest.

Adam Johnson: Fortune Smiles.

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Kindle. A 2015 collection of shorts (some offcuts from The Orphan Master's Son) which won Johnson a few prizes. The stories seem to have direct antecedents in recent cinema:

  • Nirvana: The prez is assassinated and reincarnated R2D2-style as a hologram, and responds in the manner of the I Ching. Yes, relationships with constructs: Dirk Gently, Her, Ex Machina, etc. The reincarnator's wife has a degenerative condition and is a big Cobain fan.
  • Hurricanes Anonymous: Louisiana, post hurricane. The bloke works for UPS, probably-his-kid's mum is in prison, his girlfriend is not entirely straight.
  • Interesting Facts: Very Sixth Sense.
  • George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine: The Reader? The East Germany prison warder narrator is obtuse and reflexively defensive, which in combination with the dog put me in mind of David Ireland's recent outing.
  • Dark Meadows bravely reflects on child abuse, and is thoughtfully, provocatively ambiguous. Johnson is not really across his technology though.
  • Fortune Smiles is the material left over from the novel. Johnson places two quirky North Korean defectors (one tricked into doing so, the other being his driver) in Seoul. At times it reads like a travel guide, taking us along random subways just for the hell of it. Gangnam Style, for sure.

Johnson has his technique down cold but struggles to find things worth writing about; Lauren Groff seems to agree, but found more here than I did. Michiko Kakutani wishes there were fewer.

Steven Strogatz: Sync: How Order Emerges From Chaos In the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life.

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Kindle. I enjoyed Strogatz's wonderment at moving amongst mathematics, biology, physics and bridge design. The idea of things (often brainless) synchronizing is fascinating, and appears to carry significant exploratory force, as he observes about superconductivity and other quantum mechanical phenomena. I would have consulted the significant chunk of endnotes (roughly 25% of the book) as I went along had I known of its existence. The main text may have benefited from a few equations, or more precise descriptions, or directly pointing into the literature, or to deeper popularizations. I didn't manage to visualize the waves he discusses at length, and the repetitions (many almost word-for-word) just made my eyes glaze over. My only beefs are that Strogatz emphasizes the aha moments of scientific insight and plays down the sweat of scientific validation, and that it would have helped if he had multiple metaphors and explanations at hand that target different kinds of thinkers. That sync is an important but limited concept is revealed by his extensive discussion of "small world" networks.

G. Bard Ermentrout's review for the AMS in 2004 is probably what I should have read (but I'm done with this topic for now).

Graham Greene: The Quiet American.

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A comfort book of sorts in these strange times, completed on the northern headland of Coogee beach. Somehow this is far superior to anything else I've read from Greene. I had come to think that he had completed this by 1953 and hence predicted Điện Biên Phủ, but the final lines of the book say he worked on it from March 1952 until June 1955.

Ge Fei: Flock of Brown Birds.

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Kindle. Some sort of completism on my part, having read his only other book in English translation a while ago. It's something of a strange folk tale, heavy on the metaphor and symbols, shy of narrative and possibly meaning didn't make it all the way from the Chinese original. It might just be crap though; the author gives himself an out in the intro:

Whenever anyone complained to me about how difficult it was to understand, I would give the joking response, "I don't blame you. I'm not sure I understand it either."

One thing going for it is that it's short.

Peter Carey: Amnesia.

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Kindle. This is his latest novel, from 2014. Again I scraped this from the Chicago Public Library, but probably would have been better off giving it a miss. Carey knows he's not in a position to write a great cuberpunk / steampunk / Gen Y novel and so pads it out with extraneous conspiracies and historical detail that he's far more comfortable with. Are all of Carey's male leads born in Bacchus Marsh? He stumbles into David Malouf territory by canvassing wartime Brisbane (specifically the Battle of Brisbane), and I didn't see the relevance of the Dismissal or Gough Whitlam's gastronomics, though love letters to the latter are always welcome. This is ethnic lit of the kind Nam Le derides, and is why I won't seek out more from Carey.

Structurally we have two men and a woman in the foreground, her daughter and the daughter's lover in the inner story. There's a touch of Assange-like hacker-god sexual deviancy, a nod to generics like Jackman's risible Swordfish. The foreground settings change regularly but pointlessly, and annoyingly it is about the same for the story the journo is charged with telling. The endless staving-off of plot progression saps the thing of tension, and we're often stuck most uncomfortably between verifiable fact and light fiction. The burning house evoked Manchester by the Sea. I'm bored with Carey's alcoholic normalism, and his descriptions are far weaker than those he managed for high art. He really shows his lack of chops when championing the Nintendo, so thoroughly rubbished by Clune in his memoir of 80s gameplaying. Zork is beyond anachronistic, and who has ever seen an acoustic coupling modem? The main weakness is probably that he has nothing to say.

Peter Carey: Theft: A Love Story.

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Kindle. Kate recommended this one to me after I told her I'm not a fan of Carey. I have vague memories of abandoning Oscar and Lucinda after the first 100 or so pages; perhaps I extracted it from mrak's Ashfield abode a long time ago. Ah yes, I did read Bliss. The Chicago Public Library had the ebook of Theft, and I was glad to find that my membership still works.

It is indeed an agreeable read, putting me in mind of Patrick White's The Vivisector and David Malouf's Harland's Half Acre that I read too long ago. (Here is Andrew Reimer expressing similar sentiments about Malouf, and Patrick Ness relating this book to a few of White's.) Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Carey owes something to these predecessors, given he published this in 2006. Fundamentally these are all riffs on class and how art of all forms is somehow a weird conceit in this country; it seems that all Australian painters come from rough stock, and their art grants access to women and places otherwise denied to the likes of them. Carey goes to extremes with location specificity, naming streets, pubs, creeks, dating a place by the arrival of refrigeration and the presence of wonder (here in the patriarchal butcher). I liked the jag up to Bellingen but Japan and New York struck me as superfluous. The perspective switching between the first-person narration of the two brothers works well; Hugh in particular is a reactionary voice from an almost-extinct Australia. Marlene is from Benalla, for which I retain a soft spot. I have no idea if their high school was ever burnt down, let alone by a gamine.

The language here is completely unaffected, with both brothers trying to act normal, and the artist anti-snobbily refusing to dumb down technique and palette. Bacchus Marsh is where Carey was born, says Radhika Jones. James Wood.

Steven Strogatz: The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity.

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Kindle. This is a compilation of his columns in the New York Times from a few years back. There are some hits, some misses, and almost all could do with expansion; the notes make up for this somewhat. Strogatz wisely defers to others for depth and I have quite a few pointers to chase now. I guess that was his intention.

Adam Johnson: Emporium.

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Kindle. I was in the mood for some shorts, even sci-fi shorts, and figured Johnson is a safe pair of hands. Well, the style is a precursor to his later novel, but these are not as good. There are some very funny descriptions and dialogue. The Canadanaut takes some cheap shots at Canada, has a lot of fun crazy particle physics and sends Wolverine (?) to the dark side of the moon. The opening Teen Sniper made me think I was in for a Charles Yu tale but rougher, and I was a bit disappointed it didn't go that way. There's a lot of isolation and brokenness, and overall you can kind-of see why people voted Trump but not why they stay together or want to continue.

Michiko Kakutani, at the time.

Adam Johnson: The Orphan Master's Son.

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Kindle. I stumbled upon this Pulitzer Prize winner via a review of his shorts Fortune Smiles in the New York Times. In some ways it's an update on George Orwell, an exploration of identity in totalitarian North Korea, just as biting but far funnier than that might sound. Kim Jong-il rules with a thin-skinned capricious forcefulness that propaganda can't really obscure; the people seem to know there's more out there, but not what it might be. The leading nameless character undergoes a lengthy journey from the orphanage to the yangban milieu, from zero-light tunnel fighter to third mate on a fishing boat, to people thief, to Minister for the Mines. Some scenes shock, even though they are unsurprising. Johnson has a great talent for breaking the tension by cashing in his Chekhovian devices at what seem almost arbitrary times, at will, and wearing his research lightly. My only very minor beef is that the behaviour of several characters wasn't entirely plausible within Johnson's North Korean logic itself.

Michiko Kakutani. Barbara Demick warns that there's a lot of make believe here. Johnson talking with Karan Mahajan. Wyatt Mason at the New Yorker is more critical. I think the second half works as the setting moves to Pyongyang, itself a place of magical realism.

Rachel Kushner: The Strange Case of Rachel K.

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Kindle. This seems to be offcuts (pre-cuts?) of her first novel, Telex from Cuba. There are three stories:

  • The Great Exception, about the discovery of Cuba by the Portuguese. Cannibalism and a randy Queen. Also a credulous American lady named Aloha taking up residence and being fleeced by a Ferdinand K.
  • Debouchment: a short take on the debauched idle lives of Americans prior to the revolution, and just-as-it-happened.
  • The Strange Case of Rachel K. The leading lady is a cabaret dancer, and her customers of note are the Cuban President before Batista's coup and a French Nazi.

The writing is good, and there's something to everything she describes. It's not at all funny, or spectacularly horrible.

Peter Cameron: Finishing School for Blokes: College Life Exposed.

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I read this before, back in 2009, which is why it was more familiar than I expected. This time around it took a day and an evening. Extracted from the Fisher Research Library.

Joshua Cohen: Four New Messages.

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Kindle. Three shorts and a novella. All are a lot like Kobek's i hate the internet but generally funnier and more effort to parse. The inventive language is sometimes laugh-out-loud ludicrous.

  • Emission. A drug sub-dealer's life is ruined by ... the internet. It's revved up, and Cohen has some with the characters' epistemics: the shady fix-it lady already knows all that we know. Some great terse, economical imagery.
  • McDonald's. Should writers use brand names? A quote near the end — "[...] there's a clock there, ticking shifts above the citations and mugshots: Employee of the Month wanted for armed robbery, nonsupport." — evoked the missing-persons board in the Maccas on Broadway. There's no plot and not much to hang onto, but certainly Halalabad.
  • The College Borough. Washed out writer goes to ... Iowa? The prof exiled from NYC literally addresses his students' writing flaws by prescribing apt vocational manual labour. They recplicate the Flatiron, he jumps. I guess it's a riff on the shopcraft as soulcraft meme, current at the time.
  • Sent. Ruminations on internet porn, the amateurs, small town Eastern Europe, finishing school and failing to launch.

Mildly surprisingly to me, Rachel Kushner reviewed it for the New York Times about six months (early 2013) after Dwight Garner (mid 2012). Both are spot on, and make me want to dig into Kushner's oeuvre.

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.

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.

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.