peteg's blog - noise - books

Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire.

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Kindle. Second time around with this author. Unfortunately this one doesn't add up to more than its influences, which are legion. Shamsie owns to leaning on Sophocles's Antigone by way of Seamus Heaney and Anne Carson, but is more circumspect about her wholesale adoption of the tropes of the moment. For instance Parvaiz's keen hearing and interest in recording urban soundscapes directly echoes Paul Beatty's Slumberland, and her treatment of race is far less facile, nuanced, insightful or funny than his. The bondage scene with its chains and pain seeking took on shades of gray.

Briefly the book has the son of a jihadi look for meaning by following in his father's footsteps, while his strong sisters attempt to get on with their lives, until they cannot. A Tory politican ex-Pakistan transcends his background by being tough on terror, until he too cannot. At one point a character goes on a Lysistrata-esque sex strike; another trope that was big in 2016 (cf Chiraq). Mostly it's more scenario than novel.

Shamsie traverses a similar mix of cities as Mohsin Hamid did in Exit, West: London, Raqqa, Amherst, Karachi. Her women are powerful, largely not by asserting themselves freely so much as being thrust into demanding situations, and she generally inflates these characters well enough. Conversely the males are stereotypes: the power seeker in need of comeuppance; a fatherless boy, easily led; an effeminate son, also easily led; the nervous shopkeeper dealing with ISIS, the ISIS muscle, totally soulless: all deracinated, instruments all.

Many authors have tried to map the road to terror: Salman Rushdie, Mohsin Hamid, Pankaj Mishra, Karan Mahajan, Jarett Kobek immediately spring to mind. At this point it would have been more interesting to treat the guys with power (Farooq, for instance) or the men who have constructed these organizations over decades, and the women who think there's something in ISIS for them. Shamsie touches on much of this but doesn't get to the heart of it; for that we'll need to wait for a modern-day George Orwell.

Dwight Garner saw more in it than I did, though his review runs to little more than summary, accounting for source materials and picking faults. The quote about the cold fish elides Shamsie's patronising explanation of it being about a cold fish. Peter Ho Davies also reviewed it more critically for the New York Times. He points to even more source material.

George Orwell: Animal Farm.

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All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Kindle. Orwell proves himself to be a great missed opportunity for the advertising industry with his fantastic and timeless sloganeering.

Dennis Glover: An Economy is not a Society (2015).

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Kindle. A segue from Glover's more-recent and substantial The Last Man in Europe. Here he pines for the glory days when Doveton (his working-class hometown near Dandenong) was a community of workers and social mobility was a possibility; this local boy went all the way to a PhD at Cambridge. Since the economy imploded (the car factories and Heinz cannery have progressively closed from the 1990s) the place has been overrun by drug fiends and hopelessness. A local school (now derelict and destroyed) and the massive spaces vacated by domestic industry are put forth in evidence.

Glover argues from the heart, so while I am completely sympathetic to his concerns and conclusions, I found this polemic unpersuasive. The days of nation building are long gone, long before I became an adult, and certainly on the wane when I was born. (Cynically I'd say the game now is to grab a piece of the pie before climate change makes it a lot smaller.) That the ALP has lost the plot is no news to anyone. Interestingly Glover wants the (now non-)working classes to self-organise, to reclaim the ALP, and asserts baldly that the other classes (e.g. professionals) cannot sufficiently empathise with stiffs working on the poverty line to be any use politically. He claims to want a return to low-skilled work but when pushed it's really about artisanal stuff, like specialized toolsmithing, that are obviously intrinsically rewarding activities. Old ideas such as a universal basic income, or encouraging people to take productivity dividends in fewer work hours (let the robots sweat) are completely ignored; I for one am dubious that there was ever any dignity in working for money, pretty much no matter the work. Glover is down on the deification of RJL Hawke and Paul Keating, and fair enough too. He is entirely right that Gough Whitlam executed a far more progressive agenda in far less time and has now been airbrushed from history.

Glover's biggest fault is to gesture at history and not dig into it. Why did the golden era he experienced and champions here come to an end? Could it have gone differently, or were the forces of what we now call globalization too much for any individual nation to tame? (Glover gestures at the state of the old industrial towns in the USA.) John Quiggin observed that Paul Keating always went with the intellectual flow, and has now come to realize the limits of the agenda he himself prosecuted. (Note also that Quiggin often uses professionalism — consider university and hospital staffers — to combat silly talk of paypacket maximization being the only motivator.) Fellow speechwriter Don Watson made similar complaints to Glover in his old book Weasel Words and his 2014 book The Bush that I've half read. David Ireland's The Unknown Industrial Prisoner suggests Glover had limited experience of industrial relations and work and safety issues in the 1970s. Donald Horne and Hugh Mackay laid out the issues of a changing Australia far more systematically, and scientifically, capably demonstrating that the humanities have more to offer in response to heartless econospeak than nostalgic bleating. And of course Barry Jones's Sleepers Wake! canvassed the changing conditions faced by the Australian workforce in the early 1980s. Glover does not contemplate what the internet has done to things.

There are many worthwhile comments at goodreads.

Dennis Glover: The Last Man in Europe.

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Kindle. An Australian author's fictional account of what brought George Orwell to write 1984. The conceit is similar to David Malouf's in Ransom, and Francis Spufford's in Red Plenty; like the latter Glover presents specific episodes in the sympathetic third person and tips his hand in a concluding author's note. The prose has a dry wit reminiscent of the master, especially as the book becomes a totalitarian freedom-sucking monster that robs Orwell of his life. At times Glover overexerts himself in sourcing the tropes and motifs of 1984. Conversely he doesn't try to include everything his research dug up, overly occlude his source material, or cleave too slavishly to or deviate so far from Orwell's own style.

It's a lot of fun if you're a fan, but perhaps not if you're too much of a fan. Now to re-read Animal Farm.

I missed this last year because it wasn't reviewed by my usual suspects. It received broad coverage in the local media. Glover himself on discovering that 2 + 2 may not equal 5. Stacy Schiff reviews a biography of "the girl from the fiction department" Sonia Orwell.

Sebastian Junger: Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

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Kindle. A suggestion from Dariusz. Junger ruminates on how alienating civilization is by contrasting it with life for the American Indians and during wartime. The first chapter is his best but ultimately he struggles to deepen his case, not least due to his reliance on evolutionary tropes. Once again I need to go read some Studs Terkel. His observations about how calamity recreates the condition of the tribe made me wonder if Kant got his idea for a universal history (implacable moral improvement) from such.

Matthew B. Crawford. Joanna Bourke. Both observe and criticise Junger's cherry picking.

Ben Blum: Ranger Games.

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Kindle. Blum has a PhD in CS out of UCB but decided after a stretch of microbio postdockery in Seattle to do an MFA in New York, and of course now he lives in Brooklyn etc. I picked this up on the strength of Jennifer Senior's review. The writing is OK, the structure is OK, but a substantial edit would have reduced it by a third and made it so much stronger. Like many modern books it contains just about everything the author dug up during an extensive research period, and there is much irrelevant colour (the author's private life; his grandmother's birthday party; the separations and divorces; the random fine-grained details). Ultimately it sits uncomfortably between memoir, journalism, amateur psychologizing, military history and family shenanigans; jack of none, master of none.

Most irritating about this book is that we are supposed to hold as fact that all-American good guy and newly-minted US Ranger Alex Blum was brainwashed into slavish obedience by the US military, and used by psychopath Specialist Sommer in the execution of a bank robbery in Tacoma, until we're not. My irritation was largely that Sommer is never shown to have a plausible motive for the robbery. The iterative deepening device is very trying. There's nothing new said about the extremity of the US Army training procedures (hazing rituals) or exaggerations by those subject to them, or the inability to be real with oneself — we've seen that all before in the movies cited in this book. The entire Dr Phil sequence is pointless. The legal maneuvering is, as Blum observed, basically a matter of money.

Daniel Ellsberg: The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.

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Kindle. I was woken up to this new book by Ellsberg by Adam Shatz's excellent piece in the London Review of Books, and while it's great to hear his voice again, it could have used a severe edit; Ellsberg is repetitious at every level. The salients are entirely contained in Shatz's article and this interview with Lucy Steigerwald. That superweapon policy was and is largely lunacy was confirmed in Ellsberg's mind by the concept of nuclear winter that was developed in the early 1980s. Ironically it depends on the very same climate models denied by those who need business to continue as usual.

In brief, Ellsberg presents a convincing case for what most people probably thought anyway: that mutually-assured destruction (MAD) is actually SAD (self-assured destruction), or more inclusively, omnicide. His wargaming at RAND and restlessly analytic mind somehow needed to know precisely why that was, I guess. Of course Doctor Strangelove was a documentary. I found his calls to action plausible, possibly actionable, and just maybe the American people might decide to allocate some of the trillion-dollar modernization project (thanks Obama) to more useful ends. I would have liked to hear his opinions on Snowden and Wikileaks, especially since Trump's victory in 2016.

Fred Kaplan, who also suggests that The Post is worth a watch, as does Manohla Dargis. Graham Allison. Thomas Powers.

Eka Kurniawan: Man Tiger.

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Kindle. I balked at Kurniawan's much longer Beauty Is a Wound, which is by all accounts more of a ramble than this one. Even so this would have been improved by being twenty percent or more shorter. Some sections are very repetitive, which may be the fault of the translator. The excessive detail tends to wash out the character and plot development. The poverty of West Java is not so exotic now that flights are so cheap.

Kanishk Tharoor: Swimmer among the Stars.

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There was no point to honesty in a time of cold truths.

Kindle. A collection of shorts. Tharoor has a very dry, precise and inventive mode of description that is somehow unsatisfying, often robbing his stories of soul. For instance the first story (from which the collection drew its title) has no plot, and is purely syntactic, while the second is presented as a countdown to the razing of a city by marauders, but ends up trying to be about something else. I did like the elephant at sea, which demonstrates great empathy. The tales around Iskander are sometimes good; the motif of the man tree was also used by Deepak Unnikrishnan. Letters Home continues with Odysseus after he returns to Penelope; it is nowhere close to what Malouf achieved.

Meron Hadero.

Charif Majdalani: Moving the Palace (originally Caravansérail; translated by Edward Gauvin).

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Kindle. Brief, well written. Something of Conrad's Heart of Darkness transplated a bit further north (to the Sudan), and sure enough, an encounter with T.E. Lawrence and Prince Faisal during the First World War. (Majdalani gives a nod to Lawrence for the raw material on which he leans for a description of their meeting.) Instead of finding all our colonial maniacs at the end of a river, Samuel Ayyad has to continue up the Nile past Cairo, through the Suez and up the Hijaz, lugging his slightly-used ex-Tripoli palace all the way. The British are presented as dotty, as likely to indulge an Oriental fantasy as do some hard-edged soldiering. Early on it seems we're going to be told of how Samuel cuts his deals in the Sudan (beyond distributing a vast stash of British gold), but we never are. The romantic outro seemed undercooked; I really wanted to hear about the reassembly of those thousands of pieces. I wonder if this isn't somewhere in the thousand-and-one nights. The references do pile up, and I lost track of which tribes remained in the caravan and which had gone home.

Suzanna Joinson pointed out the obvious source materials and found more humour in it than I did; to me it was elegant and melancholic. Joe Geha observes an echo of Odysseus's voyage (albeit with a flawless hero).

Carmen Maria Machado: Her Body and Other Parties.

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Kindle. Parul Sehgal sold it to me: as she says, these are unruly fairy stories of a feminist, disreputable, occasionally shameless kind. The writing is fine and sometimes fun; othertimes it feels like B-grade horror. The central Especially Heinous seemed like a riff not just on Law & Order but also the fluid identities, incarnated magic, misogyny and untidy storylines of David Lynch's Twin Peaks. I found The Resident a less effective or telling piece of semi-autobiographical writing-about-writing than Nam Le's Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice. I took Inventory to be trying to tell desperate people's biographies through short-term commitment-free sexual encounters, which is too narrow a window to satisfy.

Emily May. Blair: indeed, full of sex and yet unsexy.

Pankaj Mishra: The Age of Anger: A History of the Present.

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The promise of this book is a diagnosis of the maladies of the present by delving into the flaws in Enlightenment ideals and pointing to other traditions. No attempt is made to spell out a positive agenda; what there is is a muted reflection of Amartya Sen's attempts to broaden the terms of engagement between cultures. I guess this is Mishra's latest gesture at Niall Ferguson. While it's clear he has read a lot, he has little appetite for nuance and suffers from a perspective that strips Adam Smith, Hegel, Marx and co of their power. I am mistrustful of his tendentious wordiness, and that he never (or too rarely) discusses how previous ruptures in history were resolved. I also wonder if the long run doesn't mostly come down to economics and our understanding of it. It would be mimetic of me to speak more of what I did get from his text.

Reviews were legion, and certainly better value than reading the book itself. Richard J Evans. Dennis Altman. Franklin Foer makes a cutting observation: Mishra wants to somehow link the motivations of a radicalised ISIS Jihadi to "theory" (of the Western critical kind; but fine, whatever) while freely admitting that these guys don't even know their Islam. He also misses; people keep trying to cash in the Western promises of mobility and affluence because (as Mishra observes) there is no longer any other culturally-valid objective on offer. Foer's coming A World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech might be worth a read. Stefan Collini.

Catherine Lacey: The Answers.

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Kindle. Read a bit too quickly, and early on I reflexively began to think of this as a literary variation on Soderberg's The Girlfriend Experience, which I haven't seen as it strikes me as uninspired. There are moments, and it is tighter than her debut Nobody is ever missing but could have been tightened further by ejecting some superficial and unoriginal material such as that on love at first sight. The male characters are mostly caricatures and stereotypes — where can you go with a religious off-grid father? Surely not Captain Fantastic — and Lacey doesn't feel the need to unpack Mary's maternal relationships too much, beyond observing that Mary doesn't value them until it's too late. The sex is generally unpleasant. Leading man Kurt Sky struck me as a Bret Easton Ellis grotesque, or a riff on Oscar Isaac's character in Ex Machina. (Mary may not have known of these, but Lacey surely does.) The writing is generally fine. The temporal slips and slides are not as smooth as Murray Bail's. I wasn't invested enough to unpack the signs and motifs: Chandra's emails from the light, Ashley's need to bond with Mary, Union Park. Somehow the new age PAKing was a gizmo that worked.

Dwight Garner claimed he got into it but made quota with some dubious quotes. Molly Young asserts that Lacey never describes Mary's appearance, which is not the case. Sarah Ditum is more skeptical.

Ron Hansen: Nebraska.

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Kindle. I picked this up collection of shorts via a reference in the NYTimes book review a while back. The opener Wickedness is electric: weather more extreme than what I ever saw in Chicago brings forth vivid and unflinching paragraph-length portraits and the odd extended passage of survival and not. Playland sympathetically surveys a kitsch amusement park in perhaps larger Nebraska. I found the rest a bit meh: too much guns-and-dogs, and a ghost story I couldn't get into. Was this the tail end of modernism? — at times Hansen has as great expectations of his readers as Patrick White, and moreover rarely succeeds in making the culture of the day accessible to those who weren't there.

Mary La Chapelle reminds me that Hansen authored The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Michiko Kakutani concurred with my pick of the stories, and added the closing Nebraska, which I just skimmed. And yes, Hansen can indeed write.

Rose George: Deep Sea and Foreign Going: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Brings You 90% of Everything.

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Kindle. A blancmange of journalist Rose George's experiences aboard the container ship Maersk Kendal and some shallow research. One novelty she presents is that hostage negotiations use actors, though the obvious connections with Team America elude her. She touches on so many rich topics but never seems to get anywhere near their cores; for instance, shipping containers lost at sea are a source of toxicity but have also seeded marine ecosystems. A mild bit of googling suggests there's a lot to be fascinated about right there, but George mostly just serves up brief, pat impressions about octopus sapience, and that's a topic treated at book length by others. Then there is the story by which the world got so thoroughly containerised; somehow the joint action problem was solved, and one has to wonder how, but George isn't going to tell you.

Dwight Garner sold it to me.

Jarett Kobek: The Future Won't Be Long.

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Kindle, pre-ordered from Amazon, $US13.99. This is Kobek's longest outing yet, and the least imaginative, being the backstory of the comics artist Adeline and her best friend Baby we met in i hate the internet. It's long on the glory days of the clubs of New York, dropping names and nostalgia freely. Elegy or eulogy? The literary and cultural criticism here lacks the conviction of his previous outings.

Kenneth Grahame: The Wind in the Willows.

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Kindle, from Standard Ebooks. I was looking for an easy read, and vaguely remembered a movie based on it from my childhood. Well, the vocabulary here is extensive and perhaps now a bit obsolete. Certainly the class consciousness is, as is the blithe presentation of socialising animals eating other animals; perhaps Grahame separated the industrial from the native or wild animals in his mind. The story is pure triumphalist English essentialism. I much prefer Oscar Wilde's stories for children.

Michael Chabon: Moonglow.

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Kindle. This made a big splash sometime last year. I enjoyed it for the most part, though it is lengthy and some sections drag. I cynically wonder if Chabon didn't target this book with excess precision at the market segment with the time and money to read: a piece of greatest-generation hagiography with a side serve of ungrateful boomer-ish children/parents from an adoring grandchild. Some mental illness (much slighter than Ken Kesey's) and decreased vigor, respectfully and sometimes crassly treated through violent action and language. There's more Wernher von Braun in here than I expected, and perhaps I should have been reading Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow instead.

A. O. Scott.

Michael Knight: Eveningland.

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Kindle. I picked this one up on the strength of the first few paragraphs of Rick Bass's review in the New York Times; I see now that he proceeds to meander through the rushes, looking for things to stuff his writing with. I found this collection of shorts a bit wan; perhaps you had to be there, and not just be there, but be rich enough to really be there.

Keigo Higashino: The Devotion of Suspect X.

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Kindle. A recommendation from Tigôn, who read it in tiếng Việt. It's a solid and enjoyable murder mystery, airport-novel style, a page turner, but inverted: we always know who did it. Perhaps this is a common trick in this genre I rarely visit. Misato seems a lot more perceptive than Yusako, and I thought she'd come to the fore later on, but she never really moves into sharp focus. Quite a few movies were made from it.