peteg's blog - noise - books

lê thị diễm thúy: The Gangster We Are All Looking For.

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Kindle. A brief collection of interlocked shorts that impressionistically canvasses the author's childhood in Việt Nam (I think Phan Thiết) and the USA (I mostly recall San Diego). There's nothing especially unique here — for instance Andrew X. Pham has a lot more to say, and Nam Le says it better — but perhaps it was something back in 2003.

Paul Baumann.

Bilal Tanweer: The Scatter Here Is Too Great.

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Kindle. A series of interlocked shorts centred on an explosion at Cantt Station in Karachi. The final story seems more autobiographical. A pointer from Ahmed Rashid from a while back. Brief and sometimes effective.

Jess Row. Hirsh Sawhney.

Joshua Cohen: Moving Kings.

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Kindle. New York Jews and their relationships with Israel, immigrants and the precariat, the IDF. Cohen's writing is Brooklyn litfic; this one is easier to slog through than his others. The best bits seem insightful, but the overall vibe is deep alienation.

Zachary Lazar. Loads of commentary at Good Reads. James Wood observes the artistry and bemoans the content.

Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg: Candy.

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Kindle. Something of a bum steer by Dwight Garner. A satire like Starship Troopers, which is to say it's far lamer than one might expect, given that Southern was one of the scriptwriters of the timeless Doctor Strangelove. Doubly annoying is that Garner cribbed his opening paragraph from the notes in the back of the book. I'd be more convinced that this was on the side of the #MeToo angels if a woman had reviewed it.

Conrad Knickerbocker reviewed it back in 1964. There's also a much-panned movie directed by Christian Marquand with a stellar cast that I'll now have to see.

Takashi Hiraide: The Guest Cat.

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Kindle. Another Japanese cat story. This one is mercifully short. The cat herself is mostly a fashion accessory to a couple who decide to quit their publishing industry jobs in the late 1980s for lifestyle reasons. The observations about the boom of the property market in Japan around then are like Sydney now: the prices, the decrepit rentals, stagnancy, the coming crash.

Nicholas Lezard.

David Malouf: The Complete Stories.

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Kindle. An assembly of Malouf's short stories. I particularly enjoyed re-reading those previously in Every Move You Make and Dream Stuff, and some of Antipodes. Nothing in Child's Play struck a bell. I think Malouf generally got better as he went. He's totally across his flora, and his colours ("celestial blue", the colour of a builder's new shirt).

Hiro Arikawa: The Travelling Cat Chronicles, translated by Philip Gabriel.

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Kindle. A fun, mostly breezy life-affirming sorta thing in the Paul Coelho mode. The ethos is basically: enjoy the small fleeting experiences, be good to each other, don't moralise too much, get a cat. Some sections are told from the perspective of a very self-aware feline, quite satisfyingly. Sometimes repetitious but not irritatingly so. The ink drawings that open each chapter are excellent.

John Boyne. Lynne Truss. She's right that the translation is a bit uneven: it didn't settle into either English or American.

David Runciman: How Democracy Ends.

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Kindle. I've enjoyed reading Runciman's essays at the London Review of Books, and figured this book-length expansion of his immediate reaction to Trump's election in December 2016 would be worth a read. Unfortunately it is mostly a rambling walk in need of a disciplined edit; a reflection of Trump's reign thus far perhaps.

This book is frustrating as it is very repetitious, but never gets properly grounded. I came away not really knowing what Runciman thinks democracy is: it's something more than voting; something that promotes individual dignity, but the mechanism by which it resolves conflict is not specified. Apparently others have observed that peace is correlated with greater inequality, and that democracy has generally solved the problem of violence between and within states (but how does that work?). Also it seems that democracy depends on growth. Asserting that democracies prevented nuclear war is unsupported, and one could say that it was a signal antinomy of the US system that allowed atomic weapons to be used twice (the pharaonic President operating in secret against the wishes of the people). I guess he didn't read Ellsberg last year, who points at plenty of evidence for the undemocratic Soviets exercising more restraint than the MAD United States.

Most confusing to me was Runciman's attempt to engage with the epistocrats, who think that better outcomes might be had by restricting the franchise to suitably-edified people. This directly contradicts the expansion of (political recognition of) personal dignity that anchors the enduring legitimacy of a democratic state, says Runciman. Further, capricious democracy is better than despotic epistocracy, as the demos is forever changing its mind; but as we see Krugman arguing in the context of trade wars, this defeats long-term planning. Where the wheels really fall off is that Runciman accepts a utilitarian morality without discussion: he supposes that there is a rational way for me to vote, and that just maybe Nigel by Kimera (now predictably having an ICO after pivoting towards becoming the new social network intermediators) can help me do so; in other words, our decisions are just risk/uncertainty assessments. But that is economics, not politics: democratic voting is about expressing preferences, and those need not be rational. As Runciman observes elsewhere, there are no right answers to political questions, just consequences. On this reading he isn't even talking about the same things as the epistocrats.

Also irritating is his poor framing of Nozick's conception of the ideal society (or utopia), as something like the intersection of all the societies that individuals might wish to join. Personally I'd prefer to have more undespoiled nature than less, which is a joint action problem that I doubt is solvable entirely within my "society". Similarly Runciman does not have a lot to say about the Singularists: come on man, why the demos should not expect to share in the future is right there in the name. However infinitely fascinating humans are supposed to be, technology is more and increasingly so to those with power. I didn't understand why the bureaucracy cannot already serve many of the functions the Runciman asks of the internet, big data, whatever, or flipping it around, why the latter would be immune to the pathologies of the former.

Reviews are legion.

Ceridwen Dovey: Only the Animals.

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I found this via a pointer from a review of her most-recent novel in the aspirational Sydney Review of Books. Surprisingly Randwick City Library had it in electronic form, but I had to read it via Overdrive: mostly on the laptop, a couple of chapters on the iPhone. Dovey works at the Institute for Sustainable Futures.

This is a collection of shorts that pay homage to various authors, often adopting or referring to their stories, with a heavy feminist slant, in the animalian first person. Dovey starts out strong with a camel and Henry Lawson, a French cat in World War 1, and does not quite cross the taboo with a chimpanzee. And so forth. All have their moments, though they often depend on (a lack of) familiarity with other people's work. Fun on its own terms.

Richard Flanagan: First Person.

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Waiting for the painter to complete his work on Tuesday, I happened upon a dead tree volume of this in the Randwick City Library. An alternative would have been Flanagan's much-feted The Long Road to the Deep North, which Dave made some equivocal noises about last year.

This is the story of a Tasmanian writer charged with ghosting a memoir of a generic 1980s sort-of-Australian shyster. Those were legion at the time and still are, having learnt to live large so privately that even the current Royal Commission won't damage their sleep. As such it is in an entirely recognizable Australian genre (see, for instance, several of Patrick White's novels — Flanagan sometimes echoes Voss — or perhaps Wake in Fright). There's a lot of hand wringing about the state of things, whinging about the soullessness of Port Melbourne in the early 1990s and sundry else; mostly it amounts to little more than a Chewbacca defence of a hack writer. Annoyingly Flanagan keeps saying that words cannot capture Heidl's venality, which strikes me as the thoroughgoing failure of this book: we never get a clear sense of how Heidl has possessed the writer, beyond a dog-returns-to-vomit reflex and a crippled morality. Domesticity mostly comes in broad brushstrokes: Suzy is little more than a clumsy, heavily gravid object, Bo has a favourite bedtime story and no more. Jez Dempster is how Flanagan views his competitors: writers who can self-Heidl.

Flanagan often writes extremely well in the small, particularly when riffing on cliches and quotations, and describing the overly familiar. One vivid chapter gives us a strong sense of being bored, fearless and male in 1970s/1980s Hobart, another the birth of his twins: both are anomalous in never being retrod, and I found the iterative-deepening structure to be even more annoying than the current fad for the multi-track. The story was exhausted not just at the two-thirds mark, when the Chekhovian gun necessarily went off, but every twenty to thirty pages along the way. A decent edit could have reduced the book by at least a third and yielded a better product, and maybe something artful.

The courage with which David Ireland set about showing us how ugly things have gotten (note also Ireland's previous efforts that recorded how ugly things were at the time of their writing) seems lacking here. The recent revival of the recent bullshit jobs meme, and the dystopias of Kafka et al ask more of a new novel than we get. I'm still curious about Flanagan's Booker winner — having been dubious that it will measure up to David Malouf's The Great World — but will, for now, try to find something else.

Olen Steinhauer and all other reviewers observe that this is Flanagan fictionalizing his own story (see, e.g., Wikipedia on John Friedrich). Andrew Motion. Peter Kenneally reminds me that society has substantially given up on identifying cons of the Heidl kind: Theranos embodied the "fake it 'til you make it" startup culture, and he's dead right also that Flanagan demonstrates little interest in the truth or how we might apprehend it; the abyss may have stopped staring back for all we know. Geordie Williamson riffs on the artless co-option of bullshit jobs as a corollary of neoliberalism. Roslyn Jolly argues that we've seen it all before, more or less, in Heart of Darkness and thereabouts. Eoin McNamee. And so on.

Pajtim Statovci: My Cat Yugoslavia.

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Kindle. A young migrant Finnish author's tale of migration and not fitting in. He canvasses Albanian/Islamic marriage customs in a way that somewhat echoes Salman Rushdie (blood on the sheets and so forth). I didn't really get into it, beyond appreciating his portrait of Emine; I probably missed the allusions he was reaching for with the snakes and the cats. It is mercifully short.

Téa Obreht. Sukhdev Sandhu.

Rachel Kushner: Telex from Cuba.

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Kindle. The first of Kushner's novels, and the last for me to read. Consists of stories around the end of days in Cuba for the Americans of the United Fruit Company (now called Chiquita, I learnt here): Prio exits, Batista has his moment, then the Castros do their thing. In between we get too many characters, much like Tim Winton's Cloud Street; she even has a Fish-like character in the form of morally-unformed Duffy, and all are similarly somewhat caricatured, some being miniature grotesques. The whole thing smells the same as what played out in Saigon (16 years apart) or Once Upon a Time in America, and almost always goes as you expect. Women are empowered by saying no to men; many observations are similarly trite, particularly early on. I wasn't particularly gripped. Perhaps the best parts ended up in the novella The Strange Case of Rachel K.

Susann Cokal seems surprised that the natives are as racist as the American neo-colonialists.

Rachel Kushner: The Flamethrowers.

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Kindle. Kushner's second novel, again heavily researched: set in 1976, she hops amongst the art world of New York City, industrial relations in Italy, rubber harvesting by Indian slaves in wartime Amazonia, land speed records on the salt flats of Utah, and a Reno childhood. What links these are a girl who rides motorcycles and her paramour, a scion of the Italian company (Moto Valera, presumably standing in for Ducati; or more likely Moto Guzzi) that makes them.

As always, she writes well, and I ploughed through this in only a few sittings. As with her other novels, there are gestures at notions of freedom; for instance, whether it is OK for society to prevent a couple from some unnecessary partial amputation for amorous activities, and other undergraduate ethical conundrums; all this while pitching the benefits of access. There are echoes of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff and Radical chic, and she inserts cultural criticism just like Jarett Kobek (cf his most-recent The Future Won't Be Long), but less bitingly. I don't like the multi-track storylines too much. Nam Le got an acknowledgement which only made me miss him more.

Dwight Garner observes that the ending is too diffuse. Cristina García. James Woods: he seems to have it backwards about who did the sexual gifting.

Rachel Kushner: The Mars Room.

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Kindle. A story of a woman from San Francisco ending up in the penn and how that worked out for her, circa 2001. Like Francine Prose, a zinger every ten or twenty pages can't add enough zest to the well-canvassed American underbelly for it to reach, for instance, Paul Beatty levels of insight or power. Still, the writing is good, the descriptions occasionally arresting, sometimes evocative, and Kushner kept open the possibility of going somewhere right up to the end. The chapters on the protagonist's stalker were too much, too late, and entirely dispensable. Country music for the subversive win.

Dwight Garner points to myriad antecedents. It's unclear the stalker is a sicko; deperately lonely and screwed up, sure, but he doesn't really do anything so very bad. Garner is right about Doc: more noir please. Charles McGrath is not quite right about the protagonist capturing that corner of the world: she speaks almost entirely without argot. There's plenty out there more deeply connecting the political currents of today with the violent resentment of the Unabomber and ‎Timothy McVeigh; oh right, those interstitial bouts of violence are drawn from the former's diary. Madeleine Schwartz.

Karl Sigmund: Exact Thinking in Demented Times.

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Kindle. I found this via a review by Ernest Davis after enjoying his take on Valiant's PAC learning book. It certainly sounds promising: an accessible account of the Vienna Circle, though what we really get is a potted history studded with capsule biographies of some players, with words expended roughly commensurate with the size of the personality. Coming to it completely cold, a reader would learn about such standards as Wittgenstein's poker and Gödel's construction of a model of Einstein's field equations that allows time travel. Conversely there's not much explanation of the philosophy itself; for instance, why did the Circle rail so hard against metaphysics, and of precisely what kind? Did Rudolf Carnap's agenda have any lasting impact? Was the Circle's agenda killed by Karl Popper as legend has it, and if so, precisely how? Did anyone build on Moritz Schlick's ideas?

Sigmud has a fine German sense of humour, of which Wittgenstein is often the butt (apropos glossing over Austrian history circa World War I and II: It was a fine example of that old Viennese proverb, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."). One comes away with the impression that he would bracket the great philosopher with the other obscurantists that he freely derides (... in university libraries, whole shelves are filled with erudite tomes explaining Wittgenstein’s thoughts — a task as thankless as that of explaining jokes); Heidegger, for instance, cops a dismissive pasting. Sigmund summarised a question of abiding interest to me:

Later, Ludwig Wittgenstein summed matters up as follows: "Gödel’s theorem forces us to view mathematics from a new perspective." (Most scholars agree, however, that neither Wittgenstein nor Russell ever really understood Gödel’s ideas.)

Stuart Shanker's article in the book he edited (Gödel's Theorem in Focus (1988) with a contribution from Kleene amongst others) begs to differ, and apparently Putnam weighed in a decade later. (I came away from Shanker's article negligibly enlightenend.) Sigmund observes that Wittgenstein must also have encountered Turing, whose analysis of computation is far less open to misinterpretation. Martin Davis wrote an article on why Gödel did not proceed to do what Turing did. I'd also be interested to understand what Wittgenstein thought of Brouwer's intuitionism. Sigmund is not wrong about the old coffee houses being closed.

This book has been extensively reviewed.

Francis Spufford: True Stories & other essays.

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Kindle. A collection of shorter works. I've enjoyed much of his recent output, but found myself skipping entire pieces here. There are some interesting offcuts from his earlier books: I mostly skimmed the polar exploration stuff, but deeply enjoyed the section on Red Plenty, and to a lesser extent, Unapologetic where we again get further defences of the defence. Boffins summarises the state of British ingenuity, sad only in being incapable of thriving in a time of plenty, and is superior to his book-length treatment Backroom Boys. There's probably some rich cultural anthropology to be mined there, in the "great man of history" mold. Spufford's generous review You could read forever of Robert Irwin's The Arabian Nights: A Companion was probably the pick for me.

Phillip Lopate reviewed it for the New York Times.

Francine Prose: Bigfoot Dreams.

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Kindle. By far the worst thing I've read by her yet; perhaps Mister Monkey really was her high point. This novel is lost in the dangerous subways of 1980s Brooklyn and Manhattan. There are too many references that almost no one will get any more; I guess that will also be the fate of much of the current overly-familiar east coast literary output, in contrast to the timeless conjuring of the exotic by Salman Rushdie and Thomas Hardy. Excessive referentialism is no more than excess ego, and this feels too autobiographical, too dug from an odds-and-sods sock drawer. An awesome sentence every five or more pages can't save it.

Susan Allen Toth reviewed it for the New York Times back in 1986.

Francine Prose: The Glorious Ones.

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Kindle. A very early (1974) dry run for her mature work Mister Monkey based on the classic and cliched Italian commedia dell'arte theatre form circa C17th. Some of the members of the itinerant troupe of actors were apparently historical personages, and certainly all are stereotypes (no! archetypes). Each gets a chapter to say their piece; at the time Prose had yet to master them all. It's fun for what it is. Kirkus Reviews has the salients but otherwise the internet has not gone ape over it.

Leslie Valiant: Probably Approximately Correct: Nature's Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World.

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Kindle. Valiant's theoretical basis for machine learning is far more real-world plausible than the logical accounts of the 1960s (the learning-in-the-limit model of Gold and Blum) and here he posits it as one of the missing links in Darwin's account of evolution amongst many other things. I took extensive notes as I went but lack the time to write them up; now I wonder where I can find the debate this book must have caused since its publication in 2013. It seems unlikely that his neologism ecorithms has stuck.

Edward Frenkel reviewed it for the New York Times. Marcus Feldman points out some of Valiant's blind spots. Ernest Davis is also skeptical: he observes the lack of a story about theoretical terms (which Davis calls "higher order constructs") and that PAC does not exhaust all forms of learning. It strikes me that ID3 neatly spans information-theoretic and computational readings of learning processes.

Tim Winton: The Shepherd's Hut.

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Winton's latest on the sorry state of Australian masculinity (in general, and not just the cricketers). As always it has been heavily reviewed in the local press, and feted as the best thing since the last book he wrote. I guess there are tepid connections with Breath (with a movie soon to be released) and just slightly Eyrie. Maybe I read it too fast, or had heard enough already, for the slaughtering of animals to have the impact he was looking for. There was ample room to leave God right out. The first person stream of consciousness is not entirely effective; at times the phrasing gets a tad too sophisticated, the reflections not those of a traumatised teenager. I don't think any of the characters are truly original. Perhaps not a book to enjoy, but to find what one can in; but Winton has made his views very accessible on these topics in other media.

A random selection: Geordie Williamson. Michael McGirr. Tim Elliot spoke with Winton during the publicity tour, as did many others.