peteg's blog - noise - books

Graham Greene: The Heart of the Matter.

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Kindle. At a loose end for something to read, I picked this one up on the strength of Greene and it being on some list of 100 great English-language novels of the twentieth century. As always it's cinematic, just waiting to be shot. Somewhere on the coast of Africa, policeman Scobie is a similar character to George Smiley: a certain kind of wise Englishman who's hoping to go to a quiet grave having found his situation and making peace with an unsatisfied wife. The booze certainly helps. There are shades of A Quiet American: some intrigue, probity, corruption, cluelessness. But really, like The Power and the Glory, it centres on how Catholic theology ties ones hands: Greene has it that one must save one's own soul even at the potential cost of others'. Perhaps this was Greene-the-convert himself working it out in public.

Orwell nailed it in his review for The New Yorker: "Scobie is incredible because the two halves of him do not fit together. If he were capable of getting into the kind of mess that is described, he would have got into it years earlier." (etc)

Jasper Fforde: Early Riser.

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Kindle. A pointer from Charles Yu. Drug-assisted hibernation, dreams and their manipulation, corporate corruption, zombies! — all in a snowy landscape that felt very familiar: wintry wastes like something Adam Johnson wrote or maybe just Game of Thrones, mixing in Total Recall and Ishiguro's spare parts, with Atwood-esque breeding units and random psychologising, building worlds via information dumps ala John Brunner. I often felt cheated by the narrator, wondering just how much was a dream and how much a cliché. There is lots of wordplay (the names of the Pool breeding stock), endless reversals (skinny shaming, a new ice age, a declining human population) and far too many secondary characters: soon enough I lost track of who knew what and who killed whom as it didn’t seem to matter. The ethical conundrums are dubious. I don't understand why anyone would feel obliged to preserve the English aristocracy. It's supposed to be fun, like a Douglas Adams, but it doesn't quite get there.

Fans and critics alike at Goodreads.

Andrew McGahan: The White Earth.

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On dead tree from the Maroubra branch of the Randwick City Library after I had no luck extracting it from the depths of the Waverley Library. McGahan's Franklin Miles winner from 1995, and the last of his adult novels for me to read.

It's 1992 on the Darling Downs and the dynastic pastoralists on the savanna (prairie?) are sweating Keating's response to the recent High Court decision (Mabo) that Australia was not, in fact, unoccupied back in 1788. One great-uncle ('great' being a relational distinction without a difference) tries to promote respect for Lockean property rights by evaluating his nine-year-old great-nephew's inheritance-worthiness after said nephew's incompetent farmer father is killed by fire. Somewhat like the current regime, he hotly rejects all aspersions that he is racist, and yet the mob he rallies to his property climaxes in cartoonish Klan action. There are inheritances based directly on Great Expectations, variants on Murray Bail's connection-with-land ruminations of Eucalyptus, a politician not so far from those in Last Drinks, and even a bunyip and a Voss-like explorer and hallucinatory sequence. Afterwards it all goes up in flames and how with a massive confluence of fire, drought-breaking rain, the Senate's vote on Keating's Mabo legislation, generational death (the old man has a heart attack! the mother dies while fetching the proof of inheritance!) and the rest. The symbolism is heavy: the childless daughter adopts the rootless boy. In brief, it is every inch the Great Australian Novel, or may have been if McGahan had held his nerve with the magic realism.

The two-track structure is as well-executed as it is well-worn. The cliffhangers get a bit irritating when the payoffs are such small potatoes: his characters play entirely to type, contrary to Patrick White's vituperative observations. The minor characters drink epically but that's not the focus here. Again McGahan is repetitive in the small: he says it, he says he said it, he reads it to us, and only then does the hand wringing begin.

James Ley.

Evan Ratliff: The Mastermind.

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Kindle. This is heroic reportage about a deeply weird individual: Paul Le Roux, Zimbabwean, South African, sometime Australian, computer geek turned gangster. He's the man who did what Ross Ulbricht set out to do: liquidating (in meatspace! for real!) the people he thought wronged him. Strangely it seems likely that the latter will get a far heavier sentence than the former. This writeup also reminded me of Andrew O'Hagan's on Craig Wright, but there's far less doubt that Le Roux is the real deal.

Briefly, Le Roux hit on a likely-legal get-rich-quick scheme: he opened an online pharmacy (RX Limited) targeting the U.S.A., with doctors there signing the prescriptions and similarly local pharmacies filling them. His edge was in shipping only uncontrolled substances, which should have left him beyond the reach of the Feds. A morally bankrupt operation, sure, but on Ratliff's telling not illegal; I kept thinking the health professionals should have taken more care in their roles.

The strange part is that Le Roux took the massive proceeds ($US300M+) of this quasi-legit business to finance criminal operations in a reverse Michael Corleone; he was the man who would be king with boys from Brazil. (I feel like we saw many of the same movies.) Even more strangely, it appears he didn't execute any particular thing well beyond his original RX Limited cashcow. The incompetency of the Fed in the legal proceedings against the online pharmacies is breathtaking, and it is perplexing that they have used Le Roux to round up his underlings.

Alan Feuer brought it to my attention; he publicised Le Roux's testimony about a year ago. Ratliff told most of the juiciest bits in a series of articles for Atavist back in 2016.

John Balaban: Remembering Heaven's Face: A Story of Rescue in Wartime Việt Nam.

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Second time around. I bought a dead-tree copy (a paperback) several months ago with the expectation that there'll eventually be a third.

Andrew McGahan: Wonders of a Godless World.

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Another dead tree from the Georges River Library at Hurstville. This is McGahan's final (adult/literary) novel from 2009; for the next decade he wrote young adult fiction. I might unkindly suggest that he should have started sooner. Here we get some strange happenings in a madhouse/hospital on an island, once again recounted in first person, this time by an orphan. She's mentally underdeveloped but in fine tune with the planet. A devilish though physically inert man arrives and turns her world upside down. Together they embark on some dubious adventures and other unnamed characters cop it in the neck. Much hand wringing ensues before a very tidy ending. Then again, the orphan might be an unreliable narrator! The structure, metaphor and reasoning are cliched and tedious. Most reviews out there suggest there was more structure, metaphor and reasoning that I didn't get, but are very short on specifics.

Andrew McGahan: Underground.

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Finding myself in Hurstville on Tuesday, I extracted a dead tree edition of this book the Georges River Library branch there. Again with the fraternal twins! — and similar dualisms.

Briefly, this is quick-read cinematic juvenalia: McGahan spills a lot of words in railing against the Howard era in 2006. (The end was nigh, but I guess few knew that at the time.) The plot pivots on the nuking of Canberra (!) and such fresh and deep insights as no one missing it. Somehow the resulting apocalyptic/fascistic conditions lead to a grand tour of the eastern states, from cyclonic far north Queensland to ghettoized Brunswick in Melbourne, but not really fortified Sydney. There's a Citizenship Verification Test which is (probably) far too close to the real ones. The prose is at best workmanlike once again. The structure is similar to Last Drinks: first-person revelatory, twisty, but with more action and less effect. It's all in that bias confirmation mode: you're expected to nod along or stop reading, but really Howard's dog-whistling Islamophobia of that time is a grim topic that doesn't pay anyone to revisit, as Peter Dutton is discovering now.

James Ley was unimpressed, as was David Pullar.

Patrick White: The Solid Mandala.

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Kindle. A portrait of a pair of twins who exhibit White's dualisms: numbers versus literature, empathy and haughty withdrawal, the white and the blue collar. Brute strength against fine motor control. Semi-rural Sarsaparilla (Castle Hill) against the city (Centennial Park). There's far more here on the inner life than Smee managed to even gesture at. One point of commonality was Arthur's incapacity to externalise his thoughts for a variety of reasons (inability to formulate them convincingly, unwillingless to persuade or influence, laziness, the ability to see the whole but not its parts, the inadequacy of the medium, so on). Told in technically seamless and virtuosic flashback. White is down on Goethe, like others. The most enjoyable parts to me where the very brief punchlines where White cashes in his extensive descriptions. Some are quite brutal.

Quarterly Essay #72, Sebastian Smee: Net Loss: The Inner Life in the Digital Age.

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On the not-yet-dead iPhone via Overdrive, loaned from the Randwick City Library after quite a wait. Not at all what I thought it would be: Smee seems ignorant of such not-so-recent critiques as Jarett Kobek's i hate the internet and Amartya Sen's capabilities model that aims to move past the blockages induced by overly rigid notions of identity. When will social media be deemed as dangerous to society as Class A drugs? The hand wringing concern comes in commodified form, oh the irony. He avoids following any thought too far. I guess I had hopes for a meditation on what is worth concentrating our shredded attention on these days; this diffuse essay isn't it.

I only briefly scanned the responses to Laura Tingle's previous Quarterly Essay. Both were busts, I feel.

Andrew McGahan: Last Drinks.

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Kindle. McGahan's third novel, and the third of his I've read. Apparently having exhausted his semi-autobiographical resources in his first two, he decided to give the all-Australian crime genre a go. Fellow Brisvegan John Birmingham wrote a boostery blurb (see also his own take), and a Ned Kelly was conferred.

Briefly this is a variation on the classic noirs. Taking, for instance, Sweet Smell of Success as a starting point, McGahan transplants the action from NYC to the epically corrupt pre-Inquiry Old Queensland of Joh and the epically cafe-d and bar-d Brisbane of now-ish, apparently amoral in a taking-the-fifth sort of way. He retains the focus on the social columnist as narrator and possible patsy. There's a femme fatale (not entirely a success, certainly not as much as Cynthia), the old mates, some graphic violence, and an excess of booze. So perhaps it's more Once Upon A Time In America with that love triangle, the unexpected marriage and the two-track, the good times going sour as they always do in stories like these. Similarly those guys only wanted to party all night. Or maybe there's too much Remains of the Day obliviousness; it's not funny, and too predictable.

So far McGahan has been structurally sound but very repetitious in the small, and across paragraphs, as if he is getting paid by the word. His excuse for the confessionals is that all players are Catholic. Marvin spilling the beans to George was particularly implausible. The South-East Queensland's electricity grid as a metaphor for politics was heavy-handed. Does going cold turkey in a motel room (at The Last Chance Motel of course) and an 11km mountain bushwalk owe anything to Trainspotting? Despite being essentially derivative, the core of this book is addiction and quite often McGahan nailed it.

Queensland is a rich seam and someone's got to have mined it more deeply than this. Joh's Wikipedia page is a ripping read. Chris Masters at the height of his powers (and thanks ABC for letting us download your archive). The cupidity! and so dumb. Bob Williams read this book so you don't have to.

Andrew McGahan: 1988.

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Kindle. McGahan passed recently, and that prompted me to take another look at what he wrote after Praise. Where else to start but with this followup, its prequel.

Here a not-yet-smoking, pre-Cynthia Gordon takes a road trip in a Kingswood from Brisvegas to Darwin with Wayne, an effeminate and somewhat useless artist who mostly rubs him the wrong way, for a job at the Cape Don meteorology station. Yep, it's isolated. Yep, the blokes are unprepared and inept. There is epic drinking, epic circlework and epic boredom. Some Aboriginal dreaming. The more responsible characters are sketched. One is a frustrated desert-country Steve Irwin, parked by the NT conservancy management in this swampland largely because the previous guy was more alpha. Another is an elder who metes out some rough justice. Most if not all tropes of Australian manhood are trotted out and found wanting, and find Gordon wanting too. His ability to disappoint everyone, including himself, is his not-so-secret superpower. The shame he feels for his body overshadows it all. I think McGahan wedged in all the horror genre moves he thought he could get away with. The outro is a bust.

The prose is workmanlike and I enjoyed it more than I remember enjoying Praise. The Russian movie How I Ended This Summer has a similar setting with similar fishing and surprisingly far less epic drinking. Goodreads: I imagine the ratings fall along gender lines.

Mohammed Hanif: Red Birds.

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Kindle. I remember really liking A Case of Exploding Mangoes but not his second effort Our Lady of Alice Bhatti. This one is a bit of an interpolant of those two: we're parked in a (re)fugee camp in close proximity to an abandoned (?) military airbase and I didn't get the gist of it at all. There is so much circling around whatever it was that the characters do not do the obvious thing of going to The Hangar until the 80% mark.

Structurally it's all first person with the narration rotating amongst a dog (with the obvious and sometimes cutting conceit of describing things by smell, e.g. "objectivity smells of stale piss"), a teenage tearaway Milo Minderbinder-esque entrepreneur, his mother, a downed American pilot, Lady Flowerbody (a spy? a do gooder? a temptress, a token, a cliche), a doctor-of-sorts. What are we to make of Hanif's recycling of the myth that Neil Armstrong converted to Islam while on the moon? Are the red birds drawn straight out of the M. Night Shyamalan playbook? There is no resolution.

Reviews are legion. Jonathon McAloon observes that things are too damn ambiguous. Hanif is apparently at UNSW next week.

Amor Towles: A Gentleman in Moscow.

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Kindle. A recommendation from Kate. An elegant eulogy for a time when Russian Counts were awesomely cultured and internally-exiled to house arrest in grand hotels. That is to say, it is a fairy story for adults and completely out of time in this age of Trump. We also get some potted history about the revolution, the passing of Stalin and so forth; it's a bit of a social complement to Red Plenty, sort of. The observations are fantastic. The set pieces go off like clockwork. There's a beaut romance between the Count and an actress. I was gripped throughout, though it flagged a bit at times. The ending was a tad unclear: Towles is American and may take it for granted that emigrating to the USA from the East in 1954 was a no brainer, but Spufford might disagree: the Soviets were beginning to demonstrate their (brief) engineering superiority with nuclear power, Sputnik and Gauguin (etc). In this book noone (ever) believes too much in the communist project.

Craig Taylor's review left me cold at the time, but it seems more positive on a reread. Goodreads generally loved it.

Kim Un-su: The Plotters, translated by Sora Kim-Russell.

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Kindle. I picked this up after reading Rupert Winchester's review at the Mekong Review. Published by Text. It's a pretty stock piece of cinematic Korean lowlife ultra violence. Our lonely protagonist is an orphan dumped in a garbage bin at a convent who was raised to be an assassin by a lame librarian. He's a cat man. All the fun is in the colour: an eight-sided matchbox, bottomless soju, endless Korean-style drinking, the rise of democracy in South Korea fuelling rather than quelling the demand for assassinations, the Doghouse library master-crafted by a Japanese, finding love but insufficient meaning amongst provincial factory workers. Apparently the author is big in Korea. One bum note stuck in my head: he asks "whoever heard of a Californian bear?" as if that's not a bear right there on the state flag. Sure, it's been extinct for a while.

Alison Flood. Charles Finch.

Fintan O'Toole: Heroic Failure: BREXIT and the politics of pain.

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Kindle. I picked this up on the strength of O'Toole's short-form work at the New York Review of Books; in particular his excellent piece on the DUP telling May what was possible. I hoped he'd expand on this topic of non-English views of BREXIT, but instead he serves up a psychoanalysis of the English character. Roughly English self-pity in the aftermath of World War II (they won but it cost the empire, and the bested nations seemed to do better afterwards) has left them looking for an oppressor to rail against. It's the coloniser trying to appropriate the attitudes of the colonised. It's the Sex Pistols in Westminster, and a desire by those who can to return to buccaneering capitalism. Yeah, well, maybe.

Just like David Runciman, O'Toole freed of a word limit and strict editor spills too many words on the obvious; he says it, then digs up a quote and reads it back to us. There's an undercurrent of dripping scorn that likely prevents this book from persuading anyone of anything much. I think he admits that the BREXIT campaign (he read all that dreck so we don't have to) diagnosed the anxieties of the day quite well, though like Trump their prescription is probably not going to solve much. As anyone from a British colony can attest, and the French have always known, the cognitive dissonance required to be English is forever bemusing. The deep mystery is why the working classes of everywhere don't vote in their own economic interests but instead focus on quaint social values or identity politics and end up making common cause with the twitty ruling classes; but you won't find much insight into that here.

O'Toole clearly loathes Boris Johnson. He repeatedly observes how juvenile English culture can be (football, pop music, empty-headed neo-imperial ambitions): it's not insapient, it's just having itself on. There's nothing here on the Irish backstop, or more broadly what it will take to preserve the peace or the possibility of reunification. It's a bust.

Hari Kunzru nods along and proposes a quantity theory of xenophobia: the decline of traditional English racism made room for Euro septicism. A range of views at Goodreads.

Robert Olen Butler: A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.

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Kindle. I read this over several years as the stories are all written in the same highly-repetitious, workman-like style. As much as I remember the protagonists are always Vietnamese expats (typically refugees) living in or near New Orleans and trying to interpret their experiences in traditional terms. I got the pointer from a review of his more-recent Perfume River collection. Somehow this one won the Pulitzer in 1993 for fiction. I found it to be shallow, and nowadays it would probably be charged with cultural appropriation.

George Packer observes that in its day these stories may have helped humanize the Vietnamese, remembering that 1995 was the year when the U.S. normalized relations with Việt Nam. A variety of views at Goodreads.

Nadeem Aslam: Season of the Rainbirds.

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Kindle. I've had this one sitting on the pile for ages. Aslam's debut recounts a week or so of soap opera in a small Muslim town somewhere in Pakistan, perhaps near Lahore; Arrubakook is mentioned but Google Maps knows it not. The monsoon is incipient. The many characters allow him to cinematically describe many locations: houses, courtyards, mosques, the legal and journalistic workplaces, the hairdresser's and his friend the butcher's. The now-crumbling school is built on a pool that was filled with rubbish. The judge gets murdered — politics, perhaps, or maybe his wife feared another pregnancy. The deputy commissioner has a Christian mistress. One of the local maulanas whose orthodox mosque is possibly in decline gets the most airplay. Some mail delayed by 19 years promises plot action that never comes. The date is implied by missiles being fired at Zia al Huq's plane, and flooding in Bangladesh. Loads of details and motifs: unrefigerated vaccines, utensils as weapons. Hunting birds: eagles, hawks, from the the mountains. The chapters end mysteriously with some italicised first-person child's view. Much is unresolved. There is little humour.

Reviews are legion. His later work is generally deemed superior.

David Stratton: 101 Marvellous Movies You May Have Missed.

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Kindle. A brief and pleasant read. The selection seems pretty random: some are not that rare, others are pretty much lost to history. There are no Asian movies. Almost every Australian movie seems to have Ben Mendelsohn in it. He's a fan of Tommy Lee Jones and Jake Gyllenhaal. Only covers the period since 1980. I wish he could appreciate movies that disagreed with his politics, or sense of how politics should be portrayed, like Team America. I'd seen perhaps ten of these, and picked out about twenty to chase up.

Quarterly Essay #71, Laura Tingle: Follow the Leader: Democracy and the Rise of the Strongman.

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For some reason Randwick City Library changed eBook provider to Borrow Box, which meant installing yet another app and leaking still more personal data to unknown parties. I read this on the still-dying iPhone. This one dates from August 27, 2018, which was approximately when Turnbull got knifed for the second and presumably final time. I don't think it added up to more than a summary of what Tingle has read since her previous and far superior QE; for instance, what she got out of How Democracies Die (the subversion of institutions) is precisely the same as what Runciman helped make commonly known.

Tingle's points are often flat out wrong, and rarely justified. She seems overly credulous when she identifies the strongman with a political leader, especially when Trump is trying to do more-or-less what he promised albeit with unconventional means. Ultimately his main role might be to distract while the real business happens (or doesn't happen) elsewhere, and it is for these reasons that a government shutdown suits him just fine when it would be poison for earlier Presidents. Just like Bush War 2, I don't know how anyone could ever think that Trump made any progress with the situation in North Korea, let alone a breakthrough. We're told that political success implies popularity, but this is so clearly untrue of Tony Abbott. And Scott Morrison for that matter. And Bill Shorten. And ultimately John Howard. Oh yeah, what about Paul Keating?

I hadn't seen that much slab quoting since Alan Ramsey retired.

I could go on. Instead I propose that the right way to think about the leaders of modern Australian political parties is not along the lines of Ronald Heifetz's doubtlessly hugely valuable work but as pirate captains. The representative class is now essentially parasitic — they can't really make the pie any bigger by their own efforts, especially not without further environmental destruction or suicidally curtailing their cronies' activities — and the effective ones know all about the balance of terror. I'm going to see what Peter Leeson has to say about that.

The book concludes with responses to Dead Right. John Quiggin generously wrote the essay he wished Denniss had written. McTernan ripped Denniss apart at the level of technique. The Australian's economics editor Adam Creighton responded sensibly. I didn't read the rest.

There aren't many reviews out there.

Dan Davies: Lying for Money: How Legendary Frauds Reveal The Workings Of Our World.

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'Settlement'. The process of checking the trade’s paperwork, updating the shareholders' registers and sending the payments from the buyer's bank account to the seller's. The sort of thing which people, even very experienced traders and investors, don't tend to think about. People outside the market would presume that this happens instantaneously and auto-magically over big sophisticated computers and tend to be surprised and appalled when they find out the extent to which it doesn't. Actually, things have got a lot better since 2008, but that only means that if you wanted to carry out this sort of fraud [Bayou Capital] today, you'd have to do it in emerging markets or in credit derivatives or some other market with less efficient settlement systems than the New York Stock Exchange. Things tend to improve in settlement systems one megafraud at a time.
— Maybe! But that's not how the ASX sells it.

Kindle. Who doesn't want to know how to get away with financial fraud? This is a book-length expansion of that Guardian article. Amongst many others we're told about the massive Bre-X mining fraud, which reminded me of an otherwise forgettable McConaughey movie. Davies often points to the lack of existence of incentive-compatible mechanisms in many markets; for instance, pharmaceuticals start to look like movies and BitTorrent to me (and I'll have the generics thanks, even so). Particularly valuable are his explanations of why fraud cases are so difficult to prosecute and what to look out for. He gets funnier as he goes along as he builds up a foundation for referential humour.

The whole thing is worth a read, if only to see how pervasive trust is and how little that's going to change whatever the technology.