peteg's blog - noise - books

Wayne Macauley: Simpson Returns.

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Kindle. I was expecting some laughs or keen observations from this imagining of a temporally distended Simpson and his donkey setting out from Melbourne in search of the great inland sea circa 2003. Of course this is at Lasseter's behest. As social commentary the book hits all the familiar notes and no more. It is well written for the most part, though the use of "Afghani" where he means "Afghan" is an annoying tic.

Extensively reviewed locally. Ronnie Scott ambivalently sums up the parts. Goodreads. Elizabeth Flux provides some much-needed context. Alex Cothren.

Elliot Ackerman: Places and Names.

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Kindle. The last and most-recent of Elliot Ackerman's work for me to get to. Here he lays bare the source material for his first two novels in a brief, almost diary-format memoir. Again it is well written. Some or perhaps all of these vignettes are inconclusive, which is perhaps his point: that his war continues, even now. He has a Robert S. McNamara moment of meeting with the enemy, perhaps too soon for a full rapprochement; his interlocutor is still searching the Islamic millenarial tea leaves for a prognosis. This book is ahistorical, a reflection on tactical experience and not policies nor strategies. The final chapter fleshes out his silver star citation to uneven effect. He now seems to be based in the USA after some time in Istanbul.

Anne Barnard reviewed it for the New York Times: more effing the ineffable.

Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson: Buzz, Sting, Bite: why we need insects.

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Kindle. Anecdotes about insect behaviour from a Norwegian entomologist. A quick and sometimes quite funny read. It's not as diverse as it needed to be: there's the usual focus on ants and bees, cicadas, true bugs, etc. but the eternal mystery of whether mosquitoes are in any way essential to any ecosystem went unexplored (as did several others). The last chapter is an excessively-generic plea for preserving biodiversity. Lucy Moffat's translation is mostly good but too often her choice of adjectives reveals some fuzzy thinking about evolution.

Sam Kean at the New York Times.

Ted Chiang: Exhalation.

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Kindle. Recycled shorts. About what I expected having seen Arrival. There's chaos without Lorentz attractors or James Gleick's indefatigable fascination; a glance at the philosophy of mind, an insistence that learning is required for intelligence; a feeble imagining of a parallel-world Christian teleology and ontology; a rejection of Asimovian psychohistory again on the basis of chaos/quantum mechanics without a consideration of the broad sweeps that statistics allows. None of it is too originally imaginative. The prose is flat. Things are deadly serious and have no air for the playfulness of Douglas Adams or Charles Yu. Chiang is judgemental and essentialist. The often weak argumentation trails off as things get a bit interesting.

Reviews are legion and he clearly has his fans.

Amaryllis Fox: Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA.

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Kindle. Prompted by a review in the Asian Review of Books that I only skim read. It's meh: an ahistorical memoir of a relentlessly successful American girl who joined the CIA as a knee-jerk response to 9/11. There is little discussion of policy. Much is montage. The framing story of meeting Al Qaeda in Karachi was clearly a bolted-on sex up. There's far more to learn about what national service is and can be from Daniel Ellsberg and Liz Pisani. The writing is workmanlike. Her tic "my truth" implies she never mastered anything abstract or objective, as does her restlessness at the theory she encounters in her undergraduate days at Oxford.

Adam Higginbotham: A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite.

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Kindle. A piece of Atavist reportage. Not great; the story is weak and there's too much colour. The Wikipedia article tells you all you need to know. I'm hoping there's more to his more recent and highly-rated Midnight in Chernobyl.

Elliot Ackerman: Green on Blue.

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Kindle. Ackerman's first outing, and for mine not as good as his more-recent two. This is war in the small: how self interest perpetuates small-scale skirmishes through double dealing. Things go as they need to; there's some convenient plot happenings that allow the narrator to be where he needs to be. Ackerman presents no real objectives beyond the perpetuation of the funding arrangements, i.e., a continuation of the status quo corruption. The ending suggests that the only out is for the entrepreneurial to sell out whoever they can. We get a bit of Afghan culture too.

Tom Bissell refers back to David Halberstam's Ho and wants it to be a lot more than it is.

Perumal Murugan: Poonachi: or the story of a black goat.

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Kindle. Mentioned as a new paperback release in the New York Times. Translated from Tamil. Yes, this is the story of a goat, and slightly more about how miracles can curse. I was expecting something more fantastically real.

Goodreads.

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

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Kindle. 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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Kindle. 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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Kindle. 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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Kindle. 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.