peteg's blog - noise - books

Gregory Zuckerman: The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution.

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Joe Nocera's review for the New York Times made me think I was going to get a decent overview of how Jim Simons and Renaissance have generated such incredible returns for so long. Instead Zuckerman serves up a bunch of capsule portraits, waves some nouns generically without understanding (as he admits), and recounts some self-serving trivialities verbatim from his sources. There is excess repetition. From the little concrete information presented here it seems that Renaissance's main style of trading is multi-factor mean reversion, powered, of course, by loads of data crankage. Colour me unsurprised.

As Nocera observes a fair chunk of the book is tied up with the Mercer family's politics, though nothing more than you'd've read in the papers at the time. Zuckerman asks the obvious question — why a clearly excellent scientist like Bob Mercer lowers his evidentiary bar in the political sphere — but does not attempt an answer. It is a bit strange that those in favour of small government (etc.) cannot simply assert their backing of Trump for those reasons and not go all-in on the science-denying tribalism. Simons himself swings Democratic.

In any case it is abundantly clear that all these rich guys want to bypass democracy.

It got pulled apart at goodreads.

Ann Patchett: The Dutch House.

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I remember enjoying Patchett's Commonwealth and hence was open to her latest. Again her technique here is excellent: just enough repetition to ease the reader through a twisty maze of under-developed and characterless characters; I just wish she'd found a better story to tell! Briefly this is the cycle of life, or as the Americans have it, the cycle of wealth: poor-rich, poor-rich, but with enough colour to make it their own. Other dualisms abound: Philadelphia, NYC; brothers and sisters, absent mothers and heroically-present-yet-distant fathers, discomfort brought by affluence, the stepmother as witch. The narrative is drenched in nostalgia for the 1940s to the 1980s (I'm guessing). The house itself is ridiculous. Too often it felt like Cloudstreet. The concluding tidy-up is hurried and formulaic.

Parul Sehgal. Goodreads.

John Hughes: No One.

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On the strength of George Kouvaros's review I extracted a dead tree edition of this from the Randwick City Library as there apparently is no ebook. Unfortunately his analysis promises more than the source material deliver, which is a ramble on top of a thin plot larded with excess remembrance and cliched observations. I can't imagine that it makes much of an impression on someone not intimately familiar with inner Sydney.

Jack Cameron Stanton also makes it sound more substantial than it is.

Elliot Ackerman: Dark at the Crossing.

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I enjoyed Ackerman's latest (Waiting for Eden) and so started trawling his back catalogue. This one is a bit of a tease: it's 2016-ish and somewhat ex-Iraqi, somewhat new-American Haris wants to cross from Turkey into Syria to join the Syrian Free Army in their struggle against Bashar al Assad. His timing turns out to be a bit wrong, he's a bit too trusting, and so his inchoate concerns are replaced by those of others. The woman most responsible is aptly summarised as Audrey al-Hepburn. Some of the description of that part of the world is great. The plot is not very satisfactory, which goes to show that Ackerman is improving.

Lawrence Osborne.

Brian Toohey: Secret: The Making of Australia's Security State.

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Grim reading. It feels like an assembly of Toohey's reporting for the National Times and other now (substantially) defunct media outlets. Deborah Snow made it sound like a pile of scuttlebutt, and there is some of that alongside some China apologetics and attempts to sketch a rational policy for the defence of Australia. His most thought provoking contention is that Australia would be in a better place now if it had been forced to build its own relations in Asia after World War II. Unfortunately this and others like it are not very actionable.

The spooky stuff is mostly a waste of time, he reckons, though his assessment is very incomplete. He's harsh on Gillard’s foreign policy; I recall that her government approved the permanent stationing of US Military personnel in Australia, which was something that even John Howard had avoided. On nuclear war and Việt Nam he is too brief and may as well have deferred to Daniel Ellsberg's lifework. I learnt a bit about Exmouth and the fabulous-looking North West Cape during Toohey's lecturing on Pine Gap and U.S. submarine command-and-control. I wonder what to read into our lack of sovereignty.

Reviews are legion. The few I glanced at use this book as a vehicle for banging on about their own preoccupations.

Chan Koonchung: The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver.

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Kindle. Something somewhere reminded me that the author of The Fat Years had a new-ish book out, but not that it wouldn't be worth reading. Briefly: an unqualified Tibetan residing in Lhasa decides he's driven and serviced his Chinese boss sufficiently to justify driving and servicing her daughter in Beijing. Along the way some dognappers (food) are busted and some out-of-town petitioners have their heads busted. It's a bum dream: the first half is mostly porn, and the second tries to throw some Tibetan folk wisdom against the subterranean walls of 2016 Beijing where nothing much sticks, not even blood. All of the characters are sketchy, especially the women.

Rupert Winchester at the Mekong Review. John W. W. Zeiser.

Andrew McGahan: The Rich Man's House.

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I heard about McGahan's imminent demise a few months ago but somehow did not register the posthumous release of this novel. That goes to show that I was premature in ranking his output.

Briefly: presumably drawing inspiration from David Walsh, McGahan takes us on a ride of fanciful geography and history to the Southern Ocean — somewhere not too far from Hobart — where a billionaire mountain climber has built a "submerged" mansion in the summit of a 3km high mountain that stands about ten kilometres away from the 25km high "Wheel" that he conquered in his youth. Layered on top is a weak parapsychology which powers a revenge plot overstuffed with horror tropes. The writing is his usual: loads of foreshadowing, overly repetitious and occasionally quite fine.

The main flaw in this work is that it is a puree of so many other things. The mountain climber as Ozymandias. The billionaire as Bruce Wayne. Elements of a James Bond villain, mental instability where previously there were none, an anguished planetary consciousness like Asimov's Gaia before Daneel. Innuendo reported as interleaved excerpts, somewhat like a fat Brunner. Architectural fetishism; the main character is approximately the daughter of Frank Lloyd Wright. The neatly folded clothes of Jasper Fforde. The Sherpas. Tales from the Crypt moralism. There's an Alien: Prometheus vibe, and of course Solaris and doubtlessly other disaster movies I haven't seen. Drugs are bad ok. Portal!

A less severe flaw is that the characters all have the same voice — McGahan's — and it often feels like he's talking to them and not us for we learn little. Another is that the whole thing reads like the Risks Digest doesn't exist. Yet another is the sheer quantity of Chekhovian devices, many of which went off without motivation.

I'm going to rank it at 4.5 — above Underground and below The White Earth.

James Bradley reminded me that we've seen some of this before, in Wonders of a Godless World. Reviews are legion and typically fawning. Much later (2019-11-15), James Ley provides a broad retrospective.

Elliot Ackerman: Waiting for Eden.

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A brief and powerful story about a couple of Marines, a wife and the ravages of war. Ackerman brilliantly focuses on precisely and only what he wants to observe, giving few words to the familiar and expected things. The plot is a bit too predictable but that's not critical to what he has in mind. I came away thinking that this is what (obvious referent) Johnny Got His Gun could have been.

Anthony Swofford reviewed it at length.

Tim Winton: The Riders.

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Kindle. Second time around. Winton wrote about writing this in one of his autobios; suffice it to say he is very kind to his Irish hosts and less impressed by the rest of Europe, save for Greece, which "is like Australia invaded by the Irish ... Nothin' works and no one gives a shit. Perfect." He's ready to admit it probably depends on the people you meet. The opening movement teases with tales of the hard yakka of nesting and the mateship that arises. Soon enough we're supposed to be on the hunt for a missing person but really it's a story of a working-class salt-of-the-earth bloke from Fremantle and his young daughter going for broke in so-recently-friendly locales in 1987, which in turn is really a vehicle for Winton to opine on various touristic black holes, somewhat like the most-recent Kevin Barry. I wasn't satisfied; all I got was the odd transcendent description and a lack of countervailing voices, perhaps because I didn't stop to interpret the horse riders. The section on Amsterdam was particularly poor. Was this Winton's only book set outside Australia? Clearly he was too far from his littoral zones for comfort.

George Stade for the New York Times at the time.

Kevin Barry: Night Boat to Tangier.

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Kindle. Transparently Trainspotting meets Waiting for Godot, without the iconoclasm of either. Two early-50s Irishmen sit in a ferry terminal in Spain waiting for their "crusty" (dreadlocked; Australian "feral") daughter of ambiguous parentage to arrive. Most of the book is a retrospective of them running drugs from Morocco via Spain to the west coast of Ireland, their rudimentary indulgence of women and drugs, their squandering of the proceeds in real estate projects, all tendentiously: Moss is not a "colourful character", Charlie makes a minor Begbie. The remains of these days have little to say to those who weren't there on those nights of "legend". Things get a bit twins-y like The Solid Mandala without making enough of the dualisms. On their telling no-one would ever do drugs (so don’t do drugs ok). There is nothing like Lucky's "thinking" here to mesmerise and centre; the style is uninnovative modernism. Some of the writing and motifs are quite fine, but clangers like "the answer to love is not hate" let alone the numerology and busted superstition make me think that Barry is too much category error.

Dwight Garner phones his review in; he seems to excessively quote every text now. Alan Warner suggests Endgame is more apt, and is more indulgent. Declan O’Driscoll reckons Pinter is the even more apt referent, also quotes at length, and provides the keenest critique I found. Perhaps Barry's point is that these gents represent a solipsistic generation that will plead for romantic indulgence of their past crimes and vacuity while the futureless-future as represented by daughter Dilly will just walk on by. And yes, it might be that trite. Also Nicole Flattery.

Randy Kennedy: Presidio.

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Kindle. Texas borderlands noir. Kennedy cites The Last Picture Show as an influence but clearly wasn't paying enough attention as he omits society inductions requiring hot young things to get naked. Far too many words are spilled on descriptions that don't develop plot or character, such as all the times the main character parks the car, goes for a walk, and returns. It sometimes felt like a failing attempt to mine similar territory to Lish's Preparation for the Next Life. Adam Johnson made far better use of Clovis. Briefly, two brothers and a Mennonite girl go for a road trip across the Texas Panhandle. All are defined by their actions (variously thievery, duty, cuckoldry, apostasy) and a general lack of interiority. The vibe is, like Tarantino's latest, rampant nostalgia for the great days of the 1970s and a long time before.

Lee Child sold it to me.

Salman Rushdie: Shame.

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Kindle. I've been meaning to re-read this for a while. It's a quasi-historical-fictional account of Pakistan's political upheavals of the 1970s and early 1980s: the unsteady rise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and concomitantly his nemesis Zia-al-Haq. They and their families are lightly disguised; Rushdie winkingly denies that the "virgin Ironpants" is Benazir Bhutto and so forth. I liked his authorial insertions, though they are strongly normative and unsurprising, and my history remains too weak to draw deeper parallels with actual history or fathom his mythology. Mohammed Hanif is far funnier in his account of al-Haq's end days.

The book is very quotable.

Politeness can be a trap, and Bilquis was caught in the web of her husband's courtesy. 'As you wish,' she wrote back, and what made her write this was not entirely guilt, but also something untranslatable, a law which obliged her to pretend that Raza's words meant no more than they said. This law is called takallouf. To unlock a society, look at its untranslatable words. Takallouf is a member of that opaque, world-wide sect of concepts which refuse to travel across linguistic frontiers: it refers to a form of tongue-tying formality, a social restraint so extreme as to make it impossible for the victim to express what he or she really means, a species of compulsory irony which insists, for the sake of good form, on being taken literally. When takallouf gets between a husband and a wife, look out.

On the dangers of a theocratic state (Rushdie claims that only Iran and Israel were such at the time, but Wikipedia suggests he was blinkered):

So-called Islamic 'fundamentalism' does not spring, in Pakistan, from the people. It is imposed on them from above. Autocratic regimes find it useful to espouse the rhetoric of faith, because people respect that language, are reluctant to oppose it. This is how religions shore up dictators; by encircling them with words of power, words which the people are reluctant to see discredited, disenfranchised, mocked.

But the ramming-down-the-throat point stands. In the end you get sick of it, you lose faith in the faith, if not qua faith then certainly as the basis for a state. And then the dictator falls, and it is discovered that he has brought God down with him, that the justifying myth of the nation has been unmade. This leaves only two options: disintegration, or a new dictatorship ... no, there is a third, and I shall not be so pessimistic as to deny its possibility.

The third option is the substitution of a new myth for the old one. Here are three such myths, all available from stock at short notice: liberty; equality; fraternity. I recommend them highly.

As with everything Rushdie, coverage is legion on the web. Shehryar Fazli provides a broad perspective from 2012.

Philip Caputo: Hunter's Moon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2019-08-29: Tamsin Shaw observes that, for mates, it's free markets until you've made your pile then government-mandated monopolies forever after. She does well until she blithely asserts that American (wannabe) oligarchs made their piles legally; might that not be a case of protectionism, and the old saw that behind every great fortune there is a great crime? Legal at the time, of course. Antitrust?

George Saunders: The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.

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

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

Daniel Nieh: Beijing Payback.

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

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

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

David Halberstam: The Making of a Quagmire.

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

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

Bernard Fall at the time (1965).

Jill Ciment: The Body in Question.

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

David Halberstam: The Reckoning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Winton: Dirt Music.

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

Reviews are legion.