peteg's blog - noise - books

Philip Caputo: Hunter's Moon.

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Kindle. On the strength of Bruce Barcott's review in the New York Times. It goes as he says. A geography lesson for me: the small towns and highways of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Written in rotating first and third person, but the voices all sound about the same. Elegiac. Lots of guns and danger but surprisingly little present-tense violence, at least if you consider nature to be red in tooth and claw. Remaining men together?

Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters: Game of Mates: How favours bleed the nation.

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I want either less corruption, or more chance to participate in it.
Ashleigh Brilliant

Kindle. I'm late to this party so I'll keep it brief. Co-written by one of the Club Troppo stalwarts and released back in 2017, this depressing book outlines how much of Australia's common wealth is being soaked up by what we might call network effects amongst the well connected. They observe that it's a perennial problem and that the gains were spread more widely in the days before Hawke and Keating. The examples are generally well chosen — property development, superannuation, universities, etc. — though I think the tax system could have used some scrutiny. The diagnoses seem about right. Their Rawlsian approach of comparing this country's status quo with world-best practice is valuable. The attempts to bust myths is futile.

I'd pick many nits if I was more timely. Their defences of klepto everyman James from attacks on his character are juxtaposed with stuffily moral language. I don't understand why foreign experts would be any more immune to threats to their career than any other public servant. They doxx quite a few users of the revolving doors, which struck me as a bit impolite. I'm skeptical about the experiments they perform and behavioural economics in general. Their prescriptions could be summarised as: put a price on everything. A better book on the mechanisms at work here is Al Roth's.

Very widely reviewed locally. Peter Martin has a very depressing graph that generalises what I was told a while back, viz that the way to make money in this country is to run a government-mandated monopoly. The more circumspect reviewers cast doubt on this and every other point in this book, which is to say, it's business as usual.

George Saunders: The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.

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Kindle. Brief and not very frightening as it reads like a fascist scarer of days long dead. Having one group of oppressed people being saved from their oppressors by another group oppressing the oppressors is lame. Conveniently the Führer-figure spontaneously combusts during the intervention. This is the first Saunders effort I've read, and I can see how he might appeal with some funny stuff in the small.

Eric Weinberger is dead right that this sounds like a work out of time.

Daniel Nieh: Beijing Payback.

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Kindle. Millennial Chinese gangsta: two sons (just like Madness is Better than Defeat!) separated by an ocean combine to sort out the dregs of their father's business arrangements after his assassination in San Dimas, California. In life he was a legit restaurant magnate, and in death something else. (No, his name is not Robert Paulson.) After some setup in collegetown USA the violence unfurls in Beijing with the denouement via a minor plot flounce back to where it started. The loose ends are left dangling, perhaps in the hope of a deal for a sequel.

This is probably the ethnic lit that Nam Le warned about. The whole thing is overly complicated if the reader ever stops to think, which is not helped by excess discussions of plausibility and hand wringing. It periodically disintegrates. Like David Halberstam, Nieh takes it as axiomatic that the USA is all things to all people, with a US visa being the ultimate bribe. The French journo is a cliche (Bernand Fall?). The femmes are feeble: Nieh cannot inflate sister Jules — sometimes describing her undergrad-level analytic putdown vitriol rather than, you know, just writing it — or sexkitten Wei (an East-meets-West sexpert just like the halfcaste in The Singapore Grip who dominates after taking the initiative, dating this work to now). The vibe is more Hong Kong than mainland, with a nod to the eternal Infernal Affairs and Joe Ide.

For all that I enjoyed it on its own terms. Lauren Wilkinson sold it to me with her review for the New York Times.

David Halberstam: The Making of a Quagmire.

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A memoir of his time reporting from Sài Gòn in the early 1960s. So much felt familiar; perhaps he reworked similar material into The Best and the Brightest. I came away thinking that he didn't manage to square the data he dug up, his own analysis and his contention that the USA had to fight this type of communist-containment war, i.e., support regimes and cultures that had little in common with the USA; he falls prey to exactly the same pathology he documents. The postwar European situation is used for contrast but not much is made of the interventions in Korea and Japan. While his Pulitzer-winning journalism was surely a first cut at history, this book had little effect on LBJ's decision to commit American bodies to the quagmire and takes us not very far now. The ongoing war in Afghanistan shows that nothing was learnt. Again the USA does not seem able to successfully prosecute a counterinsurgency, or define a face-saving victory and exit. Again the self-deception is ludicrous. Again the backing of a local strongman did not bear fruit.

That period (1962/63) was a good time to meet John Paul Vann on his way out the door, but apparently too late to get to know Lansdale.

Bernard Fall at the time (1965).

Jill Ciment: The Body in Question.

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Kindle. Curtis Sittenfeld's review sold it to me, and I mostly got what I expected. The first part canvasses a range of issues, not the least being the sexuality of American females deep into middle age, related issues of childlessness, powerlessness, new forms of brutality, care for the young/damaged/aged, and smoking. The focus is a fling or love affair, depending on who's telling, with a sordid court case serving as a backdrop. Like an eternalised Dermansky, Ciment has the ladies taking the initiative since always; there's some fun in her no-means-yes plays. The second half tries to cash the conceits of the first half, and in failing to satisfy perhaps exposes their slightness.

David Halberstam: The Reckoning.

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The other respect in which America was ill prepared for the new world economy was in terms of expectations. No country, including America, was likely ever to be as rich as America had been from 1945 to 1975, and other nations were following the Japanese into middle-class existence, which meant that life for most Americans has bound to become leaner. But in the middle of 1986 there seemed little awareness of this, let alone concern about it. Few were discussing how best to adjust the nation to an age of somewhat diminished expectations, or how to marshal its abundant resources for survival in a harsh, unforgiving new world, or how to spread the inevitable sacrifices equitably.
— Halberstam's closing paragraph.

Kindle. Before longform journalism we got (flabby, repetitious, under-signposted, invaluable) doorstops from the likes of David Halberstam. This is the third of his history-like writeups I've read (after the classic The Best and the Brightest and the minor Ho). It maps out the rise of industrial Japan as a direct function of Japanese culture and post-World War II US intervention, resulting in some shaky years of decline for the US automotive sector (colloquially "Detroit") up to 1986. Apparently he wanted to sound a warning and thought this angle provided a telling vehicle. Of course Robert S. McNamara provides a bridge between fascinations old and new.

The book cleaves into tales of America and Japan. I found his choice to focus on Nissan a bit weird; his afterword justifies it by the parallel with Ford, being the #2 company. (He chose Ford as GM was always well insulated and Chrysler perennially cactus.) For mine Honda and Toyota are both more interesting: Honda for being an unusually innovative Japanese company, and Toyota for its famous Total Quality Management, quality being a big concern here. As you'd expect it's the personalities on the American side that come through most vividly: the recently-passed sales wizard Lee Iacocca and man of duty and large appetite Henry Ford II in particular. I liked his portrayal of founder Henry Ford's conception of work as enjoyable production and not parasitism, though of course that attitude can't last in the times of automation and plenty, or perhaps the capitalism in general that Ford himself did so much to promote. The boom and bust of the unions and their co-option in both the USA and Japan surprised me less than Halberstam wanted it to.

I came away wondering if Japan was ever receptive to anything except technical know-how; Halberstam suggests they were not particularly interested or open to democracy or substantive cultural or societal reform (cf his software/hardware comments). This made me think that Mitsubishi, a zaibatsu that zombie-shuffled through the war, would have made for a more interesting topic: the intransigence of the old ways in the face of proven gaijin superiority and occupation, with some motivation to make this situation transient. That the Bank of Japan owns so much stock in 2019 makes perfect sense in such a controlled economy and society.

From a thirty-year perspective Halberstam's analysis looks accurate, except by curious timing Japan fell away soon after this book was published, and now the USA is again the world's largest producer of oil. (Halberstam himself passed before things really came unstuck in 2008; also Japan's "lost decade" has become two or three, depending on who's counting.) More broadly I felt he could have expended more pages on other points: the financialisation of everything, the rise of the service economy (which in an aside he speculates may be parasitic on the realer forms of industry), the apparent failure of the Japanese computer industry outside gaming, the geopolitics of the oil and green revolutions, and an even broader sketch of the macro forces of the day.

As far as I understand it, nothing has changed for Detroit: Government protection is what kept them alive then, what's keeping them alive now, and we all know what happened during the GFC. More zombies than ever are shuffling across the US corporate landscape: as it goes in Japan, so will it be for the rest?

Reviews are legion. John Kenneth Galbraith. Goodreads. An interview of sorts at the time on C-SPAN.

Tim Winton: Dirt Music.

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Kindle. I read this a long time ago and remember the outlines of the story: wayward, wilful woman falls out of love/arrangement with an affluent fishing scion and falls in with a rough, soulful yet manly artist. Winton set himself a tough challenge in constructing not only the female lead but also female friendship. It's similar to Morton's recent memoir in its description of harsh landscapes, communities, men and dynasties. I felt it was masterfully constructed up to around halfway, up to when Winton needs to get the third leg of his love triangle north of Broome: Jim is too closed a book for us to understand why or how he might be redeemed by finding Fox. It's cinematic, won the Miles Franklin in 2002, and there's a movie in the works (but there pretty much always is).

Reviews are legion.

Rick Morton: One Hundred Years of Dirt.

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Kindle. Got the pointer from the Guardian staff book list for 2018. Briefly this is a memoir by a still-young bloke from far western Queensland who became a journo in the big smoke (in fact all of the east-coast big smokes). He gives some insight into why Queenslanders vote in what looks like beggar-thy-neighbour fashion, incidentally fueling the argument for epistocracy. (I'm not in favour of an epistocracy.) There is a lot of poverty (of means, experience, hope, goodwill and much else), addiction, domestic violence, feudal families, so forth. It reminded me strongly of Nicholas Cowdery's Getting Justice Wrong in saying many powerfully obvious things — often backed by recent, timely and relevant data and economic narratives — that will somehow go unheard by those with power.

Widely reviewed.

Ned Beauman: Glow.

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Kindle. I couldn't make it past the first page of The Teleportation Incident, and this one is shorter.

The Beauman ingredients:

  • Some sort of McGuffin to hunt
  • At least one character with a kooky malady, probably genetic and hence essential
  • Corporate surveillance, marketing, public relations
  • Inventive, descriptive, evocative similes
  • A massive vocabulary with shallow insights, like a TED talk
  • Deus ex, as much as need be and keep going
  • An exotic location
  • A casual relationship with violence

— and yeah, it's getting a bit tedious by now.

In this instance we have a very willing Burmese girl and a similarly willing London boy enjoying the vestiges of the druggy dance scene that produced drug memoirs that Beauman himself observes he is palely imitating. The plot is incomprehensible and not worth recounting; the author concurs by babbling at every fracture. Glow is the drug equivalent of civet coffee, and I'm so sorry to spoil the whole book for you. Japanese girls are apparently magnificent objects; it's the casual racism of low expectations easily met, like an ABC show. Information comes from anywhere and everywhere. It's a string of scenes. There's some naff commentary on commentary (at Lotophage, the amateur neuroexperientialist's forum) — of course people don't talk about enjoying activity x as typically the pleasures of x speak for themselves. Analysis is a means of reliving it, or bragging, or some other thing. Come on editors, run a ruler over this stuff.

Edward Docx at the time.

Ned Beauman: Boxer, Beetle.

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Kindle. I figured I'd see if Beauman's earliest work (from 2010) was an improvement on his most recent. It is mercifully short. Once again we're on a McGuffin hunt, skulking in an England of Nazi sympathisers and memorabilia hunters and unsympathetic Jews. Poland serves as a place of ethnic hatred and entomological discovery: after exposure to the right kind of thinking, a slightless species with swastikas on their extended wings morph into hardy flesh eaters, or a crass metaphor for those who took eugenics seriously. Much of the (British) Fascist exposition is bald unchallenged assertion (sounding a lot like what was trotted out for BREXIT), presumably because Beauman cannot empathise with, imagine or even look into the faces of these people. Conversely he seems at ease with American quantities of violence. There's little insight here, and the cut-up narrative suggests the author thought the story too weak to chug along by itself. Once again I felt he doesn't deliver on the promises made early in the book, or live up to his gift.

Scarlett Thomas seems to have forgotten about the people at the Fascist conference dinnertable. Goodreads suggests his next two are superior.

Marcy Dermansky: Very Nice.

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Kindle. I enjoyed the previous two things I read from Dermansky — The Red Car and Bad Marie — but with this the well has run dry. I think she's trying to capture a moment in time (the northern summer of about 8 months after the pivotal 2016 US election IIRC) by portraying a rich, disintegrating Jewish family with a fabulous house in Connecticut, a pair of fabulously gorgeous passably-white-but-actually-black twin sisters, a fabulously irresistible but negligible Pakistani author and perhaps most sympathetically his fabulous apricot-coloured standard poodle. (Hang on, I thought Muslims weren't big on dogs...) We're sometimes taken to Brooklyn but mostly remain in the house, unless we're visiting the crazy Republican family across the way.

The focus is on contemporary sexual politics. Ladies, young or old but all willful and desirous, need to make the first move these days. Blokes are passive, excessively risk-averse unless they're holdover alpha males of the Gordon Gecko variety. Lesbianism is apparently the safer bet on the NYC dating scene, especially if you want to make it big in featureless finance. A Chekhovian device is introduced very late and used to unsatisfactorily terminate a very slight plot.

We're told all this in rotating first-person. Are the voices distinct? Sometimes! Khloe (the not-Kardashian) provides no deep ruminations on finance and what that really means; she's just in it for the money and not the bros. Her twin sister Kristi is a similarly underdrawn literatti. The 54 yo mother deals with bereavement by poaching the dog. The father is Wall St. Daughter Rachel, the fulcrum, is a confused 19 yo who has far more than most. Everyone is an abyss of want. A repetitive, iteratively-deepened narrative? Mostly! — maybe this is how Philip Roth rolled.

I felt that to get even this much out of this book required more of me than it had to offer.

Ned Beauman: Madness is Better than Defeat.

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Kindle. Entirely too much is trying to go on here. It's impossible to summarise and also probably impossible to successfully execute. A classic McGuffin hunt by Americans in the Central American jungle running from the 1930s to the late 1950s through NYC, Hollywood and some Mayan ruins. The title comes from an unmade Orson Welles film (Hearts in Darkness) which doubles as the movie in this book. It is a sprawling mess. There are endless segues. It is difficult to follow. Most annoying is the periodic retconning, or maybe it's the actively misleading assertions ("met the gods"), or perhaps the iteratively-deepened narrative. There's some Hunter S. Thompson, some Will Self quantity theory, some magic realism, and many voices that sound about the same. Beauman wears his learning heavily.

Is this a story of when America was great? The greatest generation tropes made me wonder if Beauman was playing a commercial angle. Our principle narrator morphs from a journalist into an OSS/CIA Quiet American without even a montage, and as we all know, even Rocky had a montage. Beauman wants to be taken as seriously as Ken Kesey with his account of a brutal, lobotomising Texan mental health clinic and slight readings of Leibniz's patently inadequate monadology. There are shades of the old Australian utopias (hint: don't try this in Australia) but none are as utopian. There's a nod to Lenin's sealed train. I heard the faintest of echoes of a far more impressively erudite effort from a long time ago.

I wondered if Beauman was commenting on surveillance capitalism by proposing a drug that opens the doors to the panopticon; the concept is used too erratically to be sure. Sometimes it put me in mind of a quote from Becker's The Denial of Death, that we've been suffering from the overproduction of truth for quite a while now, and at others that this must be the essence of Atlassian's appeal to the command-and-control classes. Similarly the imperial ambitions of the camp's company scrip made me think of Facebook's recent corporatist movies with their borderless Libra currency. How long until they try to make their staff subsist entirely on bits made out of people?

Widely reviewed. Helene Stapinski sold it to me. Cal Revely-Calder. Something of a self-review by Beauman. Joe Blessing asks why.

John Brunner: The Whole Man.

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Kindle. More Brunner due to a lack of imagination or bravery on my part. Telepathy, mentalism of a pedestrian kind, written in a world that already had Foundation and Stephen Hawking. The hard-scrabble upbringing (in an unreconstituted Chicago?) in an otherwise utopian world is married to some inevitable psychoanalytic BS. Maybe he hadn't yet found himself a reliable dealer. It passed the time, I guess.

John Brunner: The Traveller in Black.

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Goodreads suggested this collection of Brunner shorts wasn't totally dire, and perhaps it isn't if you like moralising fantasy. Reading further down that page I see that this is a work firmly in genre.

John Brunner: The Squares of the City.

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Kindle. Looking for something light and breezy, and because it got mentioned alongside Brunner's fat books, though goodreads suggests none of his stuff is rated in absolute terms.

Brunner takes us to the fictional Spanish-speaking country of Aguazul in Latin America in 1965: perhaps an island, perhaps Central, I imagined South. The perfectly modern 20th century city we arrive in was built in the time-honoured fashion: by underfunding the rest of the country. As the slums encroach the powers that be hire our narrator, a(n Australian!) foreign traffic expert, to give them the right answer. In many ways it's a Graham Greene novel: the country is Catholic, the landholders rich, citizenship has been extended to the foreign help, the peasantry excessive and restive, the newspapers partisan. There's a beautiful woman or two, an uprising and a fascination with chess. It's a sort of psychohistory of a totalitarian technocratic government, but more a demented extended metaphor. By midway it was too hard to track so many bit players, making for a choppy read.

Later reflection made me wonder if Brunner was giving the nod to famed early cyberneticist Stafford Beer, but no, Beer made it to Chile only in the early 1970s. Similarly Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual, also a structural riff on chess, came thirteen years later. I conclude that once again Brunner was ahead of the curve.

It's widely reviewed out there on the free web.

J. G. Farrell: The Singapore Grip.

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Kindle. I was in the mood for some historical fiction, which I sort-of got, albeit set in the circa 1940s and not the genesis story I was hoping for. This is Singapore as a mongrel English colony whose exploiters are being challenged by the Japanese war machine, spreading southwards from Shanghai; Raffles is just a place here.

Briefly Farrell wears his researches very heavily. He tries to exhibit meaningful misunderstandings amongst a diverse cast of characters, none of whom are drawn deeply despite the tendentious scenarios. The anchor is Walter, a crassly constructed capitalist, imperialist boar complete with bristles down his spine and a trophy wife. There's a love triangle centred on the hapless scion nephew of his deceased business mentor/partner which involves ridiculous nudity and wilful aggression from Walter's soulless daughter and a Eurasian she is somehow acquainted with. Guess who comes out on top. The Quiet American Ehrendorf is annoyingly characterless and ineffectual. The bit I enjoyed most was a sketch of the pre-war Great World Amusement Park. Looks like it became a shopping centre, surprise.

Apart from the characters, the most annoying part is the climax where our small band of stereotypes somehow traverse Singapore and reunite as it falls to the Japanese army. It's like the city contains just five people and a few million something elses who just get in the way, but only so much. It's cinematic, tediously repetitious and feels like the author ran out of gas around halfway.

The writing is unforgivingly prolix, mostly good but nothing too exciting; even the the bombing of Singapore is mundane. There's a touch of Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day though the author can't bring himself to endorse pretty much any part of the European presence in South East Asia. Perhaps he was groping for the panorama of Pasternak's classic Doctor Zhivago. And of course your time is far better spent with David Malouf's The Great World, who perhaps misleads by suppressing the unkind descriptions Farrell applies to the Australian forces present at the time.

Reviews make it sound like this is the weakest of Farrell's "Empire" novels, which I now won't be seeking out. Goodreads has a range of views. Paul Fussell at the time.

Trent Dalton: Boy Swallows Universe.

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Kindle. Cinematic, mongrelised magic realism. Another junk novel. Funny. Very deus ex. We're in the western and later northern suburbs of Brisbane: Darra next door to Oxley, Moorooka, thereabouts. Things start in the early 1980s for two pre-adolescent brothers and proceed for about a decade, the ambient level of corruption remaining constant. There are Viets and Poles: both deal heroin but only the Viets have good food. The endless stories leave us yet wondering why Queenslanders vote the way they do.

Dalton tries valiantly in that Australian/Ned Kelly way to distinguish crims with hearts of gold from truly evil bastards, having it both ways with the heroin dealers and bikies but not the vivisectors who are literally beyond the pale. The obvious referents are:

I'll stop here. It's done well enough that you won't care.

Apparently Joel Edgerton is going to make a TV movie of it.

Amelia Lester's flat review didn't sell it to me back in May, but Helen Davidson's brief notice did. John Collee found something profound here. Local reviews are legion, as are pointers to even more source material.

Robert Harris: Fatherland.

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Kindle. Some days all you want to read is an airport novel and can't remember why you picked this one. (Scavenging the various memory holes shows that David S suggested Harris's The Ghost, but the movie version of that put me off.) I have some vague memories of learning something from the Frederick Forsyth books I read back when I was a kid, which is unfortunately not the case here.

Briefly: Circa 1992 Harris served up this alternate history of circa 1942 to 1964 in which the Nazis, having won World War II, establish a co-prosperity sphere bearing a strong resemblance to the actual EU. This rich conceit is squandered with the central McGuffin (spoiler) being that the Holocaust still happened but was successfully turned into #fakenews. I had hoped for tales of something supernatural dug from the cold dead ground under the streets of dreary Zurich instead of this replaying of old PK Dick moves. Perhaps Harris was reflecting on the denialism of the day, which has since gone toxically viral.

There is much Speer architecture. There are loads of SS officers. The lead is investigating a murder, later murders, and of course gets into bed with a freedom-loving American journalist/girl. Even-handedness is attempted by yammering on about Joseph P. Kennedy's antisemitism. The smoking is similarly endless. The "German look" and sundry totalitarian imaginings are drawn straight from 1984. The writing is workman-like, not too patronising, and does what it needs to do.

Rutger Hauer starred in the 1994 movie. Apparently the adaptation was loose.

Loads of opinions at Goodreads. It seems Harris has form for cloning earlier plotlines: the summary of Archangel reads just like The Boys from Brazil with Stalin subbed for Hitler.

Nam Le: On David Malouf (Writers on Writers series).

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Kindle. From Black Books Inc for 10 AUD.

Yeah, Australian identity politics. It's unenlightening stuff: somehow Australia has gotten less comfortable with being a nation of migrants even while the USA has made hyphenated nationalities almost mandatory. Le speaks less about Malouf's life's work than his own contradictory feelings about it all. Unfortunately this spills over into overly strong and unsound factual assertions in a vocabulary unleashed.

This being the first substantial thing from Nam Le in more than a decade, excerpts are legion: at Granta, The Monthly, The Paris Review, etc. etc. Hats off to his agent. Reviews are thinner on the ground so far. James Ley was unimpressed.