peteg's blog - noise - books

Asimov: Foundation and so forth.

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A new Kindle from Amazon AU turned up back on 2018-09-18 and I cleared most of the dead tree backlog about ten days later. This time it's a Paperwhite, $AU179 minus a $AU30 credit for having a dead, now discontinued Voyage, and a too-cheap but well-designed origami case for another $AU14. So far the touchscreen is far better than its predecessor's ever was.

It's been an age since I read Asimov. Last time I chugged through these seven books (this time in publication order!) I was underage, and now I can detect his influences more transparently: there's a lot of stock (Roman) history in there, some stock 1984 or Brave New World dystopianism, a naive fascination with the "too cheap to meter" nuclear technology of the day, an empty-headed teleology that is trumped by statism. The 1980s fat books are tediously repetitive. I'll resist too much critique as none of that is the point.

Asimov reckons that something like psychohistory is only going to work if those the subject of its predictions are oblivious to those predictions. At the time he was formulating this position, others were making self-reference mathematically respectable, leading to the solution concepts of game theory and similar that account for the effects of reasoning about other's strategies and knowledge. Asimov's position might be rescued by considering it more like biology: the existence of a reflexive entity stymies many desirable properties (e.g. locality, robustness, sustainability). I wonder if his take on zombie ideas (that they get tried repeatedly because they're not fatal) really holds.

Since I first read this series Asimov has passed and others have added their bits. I'm sure the canon is now as confused as every other.

Patrick White: Flaws in the Glass: A self-portrait.

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A dead Kindle means extracting dead trees from the library, in this case from Compactus (their stacks) at the Maroubra branch of the Randwick City Library.

White clearly resented writing this autobiography, so much so that one wonders why he bothered doing it straight when he might have made some theatre of it. It's pedestrian and there's less score settling than I was led to expect. I skipped the second section Journeys. We get a very few anecdotes about fellow culturalists (Brett Whiteley and fam come to visit for instance, also the Nolans, an early encounter with Melba he tells twice) but little about other sybarites (Norman Lindsay for instance) who were further down the food chain in his eyes. There are some clangers: no clear picture emerges of life-partner Manoly, or the basis of attraction; at some point White decided to move to Centennial Park and we don't hear from the other parts of the household. Somewhere in there White observes that Aussie women are blokey (there's some truth in that), but also somehow concludes that the blokes are feminine. London, World War II in North Africa, nothing much about the jackerooing, the Queen comes to Sydney Harbour and other old, upper-class Sydney, when all the money was young.

As with everything White, reviews and commentary are legion. I think I read C. K. Stead's contemporaneous review. Similarly Humphrey Carpenter. More colour on the Castle Hill of the day from Mireille Juchau. David Marr on scattering Manoly's ashes at Clovelly. He says "Howard appealed to something in Australians that White knew, feared and fought all his life: our yearning for small comfort and respectability." — and yet White himself never did motivate many Australians to reach for more than this.

Don Walker: Shots

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Another dead tree from the Randwick City Library. Second time around, and just as good. Here he is on zombie ideas (p106):

Ideas are the oldest software virus, the history of ideas being written by those fortunate enough to get born into enough physical and mental spare time to think beyond food and shelter and the protection of those they love, always blind to the resulting bias, the resultant imbalance of perspective. Ideas kill and maim as many children as any epidemic, they mutate and reappear as new strains, now immune to the propaganda that killed them off a generation ago, the science of actively combating a virulent idea being still rarely more sophisticated than crude attacks on the hardware, the meat. "Enlightened" people claim ideas should be free to spread and compete in our soft minds, always, you'll find if you really talk to them, with the exception of one or two ideas considered beyond the pale to people like them for no consistent reason beyond their mounting rage and fear as they spray you with the reinforcing dinner-party repartee of their peers, the soothing commentary and opinion published in broadsheets and parroted by the gazette brains of public broadcasters and the social and political satirist "comedians" who comfort them all in their othodoxy.

Quarterly Essay #70, Richard Denniss: Dead Right: How Neoliberalism Ate Itself and What Comes Next.

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More dead tree from the Randwick City Library. Denniss pushes a simple argument: the right's decades-long pitch that politicians are untrustworthy and government is the problem, not the solution, or is anyway ineffective, has come home to roost in the form of the fragmentation of their parties; for what does it matter who you vote for if these assertions hold? Adding in a war on expertise, waged on the public service in particular, has made for some dire political times.

The title is a bit confused as the neoliberal/economic rationalist project is still broadly supported across the political spectrum, having been started by Hawke and Keating, furthered by Howard and Costello, and now zombie-shuffling along as even Keating now accepts (and rants about; Ken Henry was there a lot earlier). Denniss wants the parliament to respond to popular ideas (i.e., to destigmatise populism to some extent) and makes a few suggestions along lines he thinks are non-partisan. However it's clear from other polities that even civics education (p68) is contentious; one route forward for parties with demographically declining support is to doctor the electoral process with gerrymandering and voter suppression, as the Republicans are apparently doing in the U.S., and to generally discourage citizens from engaging in politics. Perhaps his best argument is that economics be put in a proper perspective; that Australia is richer than ever but can't afford the services of previous years is absurd.

Ross Grittins is a bit skeptical, and he's right this is a book more for the heart than the head. Many other responses were predictably reactionary.

Quarterly Essay #60, Laura Tingle: Political Amnesia: How We Forgot How To Govern.

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I read this on the dying iPhone and laptop via Overdrive, on loan from the Randwick City Library. From circa November 2015, which may have been when Turnbull had some amnesiacs thinking he could take things somewhere. Tingle bemoans the loss of institutional governmental memory, and cites several egregious examples of it. This process has been ongoing since at least the 1980s as part of the neoliberal / economic rationalist project, so one has to wonder why it took so long for the journalists to catch on. (I saw some of this lobotomising towards the end of my father's career at the NSW Department of Agriculture.) The active destruction of expertise and resulting churn is overly familiar to anyone who works in the modern computer industry; a case in point is Javascript and the perpetual motion machine of user interface frameworks, which inevitably converge on the old ideas.

Tingle seems to be sparring with David Marr on the tired and frankly empty topic of political leadership in Australia. As she observes here, the best functioning parts are those that self-evidently do things only governments can do (e.g. the Reserve Bank, the military, foreign affairs); perhaps those contain governance and structural expertise that can be transferred to other spheres, and Australia can have the technocracy she deserves. Her commentary on Shorten is dated: it doesn't seem that he'll need much of a policy agenda to ascend to the throne, given Tony Abbott's destruction of the Liberal party. The stuff on the Roman Empire is completely dispensible. Much concords with Donald Horne's classic critiques of the Australian situation; I tend to think that more technocrats will increase the luck that our second-rate politicians lean so much on.

Andrew Leigh observes the fine prose and corrects the framing (as economists are wont to do). Surprisingly Andrew Elder did not take this one apart at the time (or since AFAICT); this defence of the Canberra press gallery reads like classic special-pleading material custom designed to press his buttons. Tingle wrote the current Quarterly Essay, on authoritarianism.

Josephine Wilson: Extinctions.

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My Kindle Voyage died (bought for $US263 in August 2015; the touchscreen was always a bit dicey and is now unusable). Needing some escapist fare I extracted a dead tree edition of this Miles Franklin 2017 winner from the Randwick City Library. (I bought a Kindle edition of this last year that was so broken I got a refund.) So far I've found the Miles Franklin-awarded novels mostly a bust, though it sometimes surfaces authors worth reading for their other works; David Ireland being a case in point. This novel unfortunately doesn't prove the rule.

Zooming right out, this is a (Perth boomer's?) take on on the boomers and their children, which might lazily be branded Generation X, and the cultural appropriations that arose from good intentions and the stolen generations. America intrudes in the form of vernacular and a Jewish ex-NYC wife who was somehow bowled over by a English concrete engineer, and later an Australian blowhard. After a dolphin brings a radical personality shift, we're on the road to Cloudstreet with some David Williamson characters and settings (a university engineering department, suburbia) in decline.

I was frustrated and bored by many things. The observations tend to the banal. The dialogue is weak. The male characters are poorly drawn: patriarch Fred considers himself a monster, in an especially tedious, self-absorbed narcissistic boomer caricature. Wilson seems convinced that the stuff that has come to own the boomers is desired by their children; is that true? There is so much death.

I came away thinking that Anne Patchett's Commonwealth was a more successful execution of similar ideas.

Roslyn Jolly. Dorothy Johnston observes the heavy-handed metaphors etc.

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. Mireille Juchau.

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.