peteg's blog - noise - books

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.

Catherine Lacey: Nobody is ever missing.

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Kindle. On Kate's recommendation, and perhaps the review in the New York Times of her newer The Answers. The plot and setting are entirely ancillary to the main game of rattling around in Lacey's head, and enjoying her massively run-on sentences cut with fine observations. The title of the book is the self-realised slight revelation that it is now impossible to fully slip the chains of one's life; and of course the slightness of it is worked over at length. (There is far more than that however.) Lacey is most effective when she finds precisely the right few words to evoke a feeling, and less so when she merely asserts her emotional state, but most of the enjoyment came from her need to immediately rework each sentiment, striving to juice everything, struggling to own her responses and be original in a world that constructs new methods of stifling mental activity daily.

Dwight Garner.

Raymond Smullyan: Who Knows?: A Study of Religious Consciousness.

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I've had this dead-tree book for an age. It's a bit disappointing. The first part is a review/critique of a book where Martin Gardner defends his Christian beliefs. I hadn't heard of it and won't seek it out now. The relatively long and interminable second part is trench warfare against Christian theology, specifically attitudes toward hell as esposed by the Jesus of the Scriptures and later traditions and interpretations. I don't think of this as "religious consciousness" (which I now see I read as "spiritual consciousness") and was a bit astonished that Smullyan expended so much concern on it.

The last is perhaps what I came for: an exploration of "cosmic consciousness"; the idea that there is a higher state of consciousness and some people have achieved it over the millenia. Again it takes the form essentially of an endorsement of Richard Maurice Bucke's book on the subject, and the long excerpts of it and other texts often occlude Smullyan's own voice. At times I heard echoes of Kant's Universal History though of course one is immanent (though not revelatory) and the other more worldly; I guess it was the teleology that brackets them so strongly in my mind. (Smullyan rubbishes Kant's ethics.) I also wonder how this stuff fits with Nietzsche et al's ruminations on Man's construction of God. This whole area is firmly in Emerson et al's tradition of American pragmatism, and the more out-there considerations of Miss Nha Trang and William Pensinger, stopping just short of the New Age. Too much to read, too many other things to think about, so I'll leave it there.

In contrast to his say-it-once book First Order Logic, Smullyan really needed an editor post-retirement.

Joshua C. Cohen: Leverage.

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Kindle. I picked this up thinking it was by Joshua Cohen; the bloke with the middle initial C writes young adult fiction, so this was a surprise. Briefly: football jocks are the establishment and wildly abuse their power, culminating in some sexual deviancy and other extreme behaviour. It's all violent, law of the jungle stuff, and the weedy gymnasts get creamed until they don't. Unfortunately things get squared by tediously normativity, the power of strong women to civilize any man, I-blame-the-parents, an adult's take on justice that I don't remember encountering in my youth; really I wanted the ex-special ops teacher to unload some manners on one of the jocks, or maybe for one of the subculture geeks to go postal (in a non-violent way). Presumably this kind of thing cannot happen every generation, or in every school, for otherwise they would be proscribed organizations. Well written for what it is, but what is it?

Adam Johnson: Parasites Like Us.

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Kindle. Johnson's first novel. I enjoyed it about as much as The Orphan Master's Son. Like Will Self's classic The Quantity Theory of Insanity, we get a story of the weird from the vantage of some bent academicians, or alternatively, a prescription for a new way to teach anthropology. It's apocalyptic, survivalist, a little random like Shaun of the Dead, and the Dusk to Dawn pivot around the 70% mark leads us into American War territory, albeit in a from-hell's-heart-I-stab-at-thee sorta way. The prison ("Club Fed") comes in for some Ken Kesey-like scrutiny. The book-within-a-book (here The Depletionists) evoked Paul Beatty's The Sellout. (Johnson seems to be complaining that the boomers — or does he mean all adult Americans? — haven't left future generations with much, but somehow felt the need to observe this via the Clovis.)

Is this novel an echo of Rousseau, entirely man in his natural state? It is a bit funny but.

Gary Krist.

Vivek Shanbhag: Ghachar Ghochar translated by Srinath Perur.

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Kindle. A brief quotidian novella originally written in Kannada, centred on Bangalore, an idle first-person's account of sudden wealth and what it does to family dynamics. The whole thing might be a metaphor for modern India for all I know. Some enjoyable bits, some uninventive, and it just stops. Short but.

I didn't read Parul Sehgal's review until afterwards, and it is in the sweeping universal referential mode that should have made me wary.

Jaroslav Kalfař: The Spaceman of Bohemia.

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Kindle. A personal view of Czech history refracted through dreams of traversing the cosmos. The first half is stronger than the second, and the outro when it comes is limp, something like enduring without forgiving or forgetting. The plot pivots somewhat on the Velvet Revolution, and the time-honoured question of whether the son can outrun the sins of the father. I wish he'd captured his grandmother's personality as well as he does his grandfather's; similarly his father is even more sharply drawn, whereas his mother is totally MIA. The village life is probably gone for all time, the backyard raising of pigs and rabbits and all that. Some of it evokes Kundera's philosophical whimsy.

Jennifer Senior nails it in her first paragraph. It seems I was more prepared to indulge the arch commentary on "humanry." Hari Kunzru.

Omar El Akkad: American War.

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Kindle. The first two paragraphs Michiko Kakutani's review sold it to me as having a rich conceit: that the United States has a second Civil War. I've thought for a long time that the U.S. Federal Government is too powerful for anyone to challenge, but the divisiveness of the recent election result struck me as a plausible mechanism for El Akkad's premise coming to pass. Unfortunately he opts for a retread of the actual Civil War, pitching South against North once more, rather than mining the city/country schism suggested by current-day Trumpistan.

The book squanders its promise with too much detail (irrelevant to this story, and better treated in factual accounts) and an eye-for-an-eye causal determinism where everything is justified by completely unimaginative conjoined events (cf Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist). The tight linear structure and somewhat formulaic, exacting prose made me think that El Akkad was a computer programmer, but the author's bio states he is in fact a journalist.

Concretely we get accounts of life in a container in Louisiana (familiar to fly-in-fly-out mining employees), climate change (look outside), a refugee camp (see the newspaper on Manus Island and Nauru, and sundry Vietnamese accounts), the full Gitmo experience (see Michael Mori's book etc.), child soldiers, a Quiet Egyptian (see Graham Greene), a love-it-or-leave vibe, a mixed martial arts non-novelty, mindless capricious drones (newspaper), and an uninsightful take on Southern culture (see Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full for a better effort). OK, we're yet to see biological agents kill millions of people. Sarat is the great woman in history, and pivot around her the country does, her being an otherwise empty vessel with no stake in creation. The interstitial faked news is a move lifted from John Brunner.

Reading Kakutani's review to its end just now: she is right that the morality does not escape the Star Wars universe. Justin Cronin took a second bite for the New York Times. Both act like they've never heard or thought about any of this stuff before.