peteg's blog - noise - books

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

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

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

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

A range of views at Goodreads.

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

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

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

Nadeem Aslam: Season of the Rainbirds.

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

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

David Stratton: 101 Marvellous Movies You May Have Missed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There aren't many reviews out there.

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

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

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

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

David Marr: My Country.

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Kindle. A collection of Marr's journalism and other things since about 1975. There is not much framing and little in the way of updates, so most are about times past and often blissfully forgotten. Does anyone really want to read about John Howard these days? And for those who do, do you want Marr's take on things?

Marr is a Sydney boy, well-educated in the liberal arts. That means that political commentary takes the form of discerning character by psychoanalysis, and often shades into theatre reviews of the kind regularly derided by Andrew Elder. Sometimes we get a burst of historical context, such as for the much feted 1967 referendum that ended up having some deleterious effects on the native title holders of Hindmarsh Island, but these frustratingly fail to be complete explanations, and you won't find him anchoring the big issues in the Western canon. Marr's take on "[his] country" does not extend to music, sport, the environment (much), cars, food, the beach, economics or the 1980s. His enthusiasm for Jim McNeil shows that he was hopelessly naive about (domestic) violence and alcoholism.

Sometimes this approach is wildly off the mark. Marr claims Australians "[t]rust our politicians. We expect them to look after us." but recent data — and indeed data going back as far as I remember — show this to be patently false. It seems more likely that the majority of Australians are epically politically inert, passive beyond the imagining of this kind of writing. The whole corpus falls far short of the analytic depths of Donald Horne's classics and Hugh Mackay's empirics.

Reviews are surprisingly thin on the ground. Helen Razer on Marr's response to the marriage equality outcome. He seems to have learnt nothing about unintended consequences.

Joe Ide: IQ.

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Kindle. South-Central L.A., the setting of Paul Beatty's The Sellout, finds Isaiah Quintabe ("IQ", geddit?) in the thick of an angling-for-a-TV-series hybridization of The Godfather and Sherlock Holmes. This Michael Corleone finds himself railroaded into the dark arts by two-track workmanlike prose that tries to keep us guessing within the genre constraints of crime/mystery/thriller. There are mercifully few characters, and doubtlessly more sapient readers than I figured it all out by halfway. I lost interest in what the author was doing with all those drugs. Gangsta rap is tired, as is the violence. Cheap guilty fun, not cinematic. The misogyny is unreconstructed. I don't think anything comes under substantial scrutiny. There are two more since this came out in 2016.

Janet Maslin.

Mireille Juchau: The World Without Us.

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Kindle. On the strength of her book reviews for the Sydney Review. This is apparently her third novel.

Briefly we're thrust into the mythical Bidgalong Valley (just think Nimbin) where the local commune (the Hive, of course, ruled over by a despotic King) has been razed and its denizens are still dealing with the fallout perhaps a decade later. (Time is not one of the themes of this novel.) We are given an outsider's sense of the place via escaping cross-dressing teacher Jim Parker, who desires his neighbour, free woman Evangeline, and stumbles upon her performing some rites of memory in a state of undress. Later on, she makes the move. Her husband, seemingly taken casually or prevailing upon her at a moment of forgetful weakness, is Germanic ex-surfer/libertine Stefan, who aspires to keep bees as well as his grandfather did in post-war Berlin. Other characters present as survivalist preppers, drunken nymphs, mute schoolgirls, dying daughters.

At some point I realised that the plot is at best secondary; too many points are left to simmer for far too long, and too much time is spent manipulating the epistemic states of the characters. Why are these bitchy women spilling these secrets now, or suppressing the facts then? Each may or may not learn anything or unknowingly spill some beans but us readers don’t learn a thing. In any case the stakes are too often too low. Needy city-girl Sylvie is impossible to warm to, and taxes Jim's loyalties not at all: he knows what he doesn’t want. Similarly I had to wonder if his opinion of Evangeline's pregnant belly ("Has he ever touched anything more erotic in his life?") was justified by any field research. I still don't know why he'd be embarrassed by being allergic to bee stings, and it's a stretch to have him move next to a bee farm. The final part has the big revelatory deck-clearing moves of a soap opera's season ender.

Overall this novel is frustrating. It sometimes fires, sometimes misfires. The quotes from literature are tedious, apart from some gold by Maurice Maeterlinck. There is the odd good observation, for instance, that the use of GMO and pesticides has made the country as filthy as the city. The author is on a first-name basis with much pharmacology; using proper nouns to connote authorative knowledge is shallow. Is this chick lit, or have we gotten to the point where all Oz lit sounds like this? The writing is mostly fine, but a hefty edit and narrower focus would have helped.

Andrew Riemer baldly states he's talking it up. Just maybe it will be turned into a soap opera. Juchau spent some time working on this at the Bundanon Trust. Julieanne Lamond does the literary analysis. Lisa Hill. Goodreads. And many other local boosters who helped get it onto the long lists of many prizes circa 2015.

New Australian Stories 2 (2010) edited by Aviva Tuffield.

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Another almost total bust. I skipped at least half after two-to-three pages, and mostly regretted not skipping the others. Tuffield states in her introduction that this collection is intended to put new writers in front of readers.

The Best Australian Stories 2010 edited by Cate Kennedy.

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Kindle. Mostly a bust. I skipped anything that didn't grab me in two or three pages. The hits:

  • Gillian Essex's One of the Girls has lots to say in one big run on sentence: mothers at their daughters' gig, mining the generation gap, supporting each other as they all age, learning to accept what comes. Tight. She doesn't seem to have much of an internet presence.
  • Nam Le takes up the most space with The Yarra: a Romper Stomper-ish account of young brotherhood, a tad flat but executed with his customary technical excellence.
  • Joanne Riccioni: Can’t Take the Country Out of the Boy. A well constructed two-track with the thick Australian country patois and near horizons; the brittle prison of farm life.

The reviews are provincial and boosterish.

Peter Carey: A Long Way From Home.

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Kindle. Peter Carey's latest novel, and his first Australia-focussed one in how long? The alternating male/female first person narrators tell us a story about Bacchus Marsh, Holden versus Ford, parenting, Aboriginality and the Redex Reliablity Trials of the early 1950s; topics (mostly) beyond the pale of John Howard's nostalgia for that era. The somewhat tiring setup introduces the supposed novelty of a female driver, and just like in Kushner's novel, she's actually really good. Cue the eyerolls, and more when the father in law turns out to be an overbearing white man who can’t deal with her and his son’s relative success. Quiz champ protagonist and apparent ladies' magnet Wilhelm Bachhuber is given a German gloss that allows him to take on aspects of Voss and his tormentors, for instance by being at a suitable remove from the horrors of the real, internal Australia. Carey wants Aboriginal culture to have innovated since 1788, but his "new Law" is apocalyptic, millennial, unimaginative: a new Noah’s ark and holocaust for those very same reasons found in the Bible. Similarly the proposal that you can go home again, or at least rework your earlier stuff (Until the End of the World etc.) in the museum of your mind is sterile. I like to think his juxtaposition of Banjo Paterson and Jack Brabham, Orange boys as I understand it (sorta?), was a wink to those of us brought up in small towns.

Reviews are legion, of course. Craig Taylor wants more. Ron Charles bemoans the beginnings of what to him becomes a worthy narrative. Andrew Dickson. Natalie Quinlivan wades into the mucky politics of cultural appropriation. Goodreads has the unvarnished truth.

David Free: Get Poor Slow.

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Kindle. David Free writes ridiculously high-brow reviews for The Australian, for instance this one about Peter Garrett's autobio, which some NIDA students have recently turned into theatre. This book appears to be his attempt to imitate Peter Corris by retooling his wordsmithing from reputable yet penurious criticism to that grand Australian moneymaker, crime. Is that trick still working for those who started in 2017? From his sickbed Clive James provided a cover blurb that identifies the genre as psycho thriller, and throws around accusations of excellence.

It's funny with a strong intro and high culture referentiality that comes for the ride. The humour is mostly of the predictable, oxymoronic kind: comfortable and effective. I'm guessing the implausible storyline is a fantasy recreation of the author's own biography: a bloke living in the Blue Mountains reviews books in return for (sub-)subsistence income having failed to get his novel published. He occasionally ventures into the city to what I pictured was the old News Ltd. offices in Surry Hills. A woman on the make uses her sexuality for personal gain in that old fashioned way and winds up dead; something similar for a TV interviewer. There are love bites that draw blood, freely given and received. Some graphic murders. A police inquiry, more in sorrow than in anger, that leads to a do-it-yourself investigation because they won't. A dutiful sexy scene. A final brawl following a less terminal one. An outro that is not much of anything after a few too many iterations without deepening. All of this is made possible by alcohol and pills: pain killers for nerve damage suffered literally as a kid and figuratively in the present.

Thematically Free bangs on about the culturelessness of Sydney, the death of the Australian book and newspaper industries, the emotional shallowness and fragility of Australian men, that sort of thing. He gestures at every loose literary reference he can think of; for instance T. S. Elliot's classic "distracted from distraction by distraction", an apposite observation of the new manners, of making people wait while you play inessentially with your phone. Never be lonely again, except with others. I probably read in a critique of any or all Australian writers, with Ern Malley representing some kind of excellence (in fraud if not art) contrary to the use Peter Carey made of him. Disappointingly Free reaches for the Goldberg variations and not the cock rock he writes so fondly about; it's a kick in the teeth to all those Australian males who are totally prepared (without having undertaken any specific preparation) to engage in extreme existential violence.

B. C. Lewis on the local boy done good. GoodreadsRake? Sure, why not. Man Genius of OZ Lit. has given him the review he deserves.

Peter Carey: The Chemistry of Tears.

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Kindle. This book does involve a lot of crying, blubbing, sobbing, torrential downpours and their every cognate. It's a bit apocalyptic, like his movie Until the End of the World, and is set in England and Germany, which is to say that he doesn't spend too much time in Australia. Horology, the sex lives of conservators at stuffy museums, Deepwater Horizon, life in the Black Forest in the mid-19th century, varieties of theft, imitations of life, consumption of alcohol, medicated mental illness, that sort of thing. I got the impression that Carey does not have much mechanical sympathy. His presentation of Wittgenstein's rule-following paradox is befuddling: amusing it really isn't; You cannot see what you can see is obscure enough to originate from the same master. Cruikshank is transparently Babbage. Structurally we have an English woman recounting the framing story in first-person circa 2010, and an Englishman talking about commissioning a mechanical duck from the German master (cuckoo) clockworkers but getting a swan (I think). Overall I struggled to get a sense of what he was trying to achieve.

Andrew Miller. There are heaps of other reviews, none of which really spoke to me.

Peter Carey: My Life as a Fake.

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Kindle. Picked up when the philosophical bio of David Lewis got too dry, or at least too hard to think about while I'm travelling like this.

This novel felt like an assembly of spare parts from the classics. It's a bit Coleridge (an albatross), Joseph Conrad (a failure to kill or accommodate Kurtz), an Australian literary scandal from the 1940s (Ern Malley), and much else I'm sure. The outer frames are expressed in the female first-person, who is recounting her long-ago experiences in semi-colonial Malaysia being subjected to a long and twisty yarn about a poet, or poets, that takes us in further retrospect to Melbourne, Sydney and Indonesia. The multi-layered stories don't fully cohere, and while Carey's technique is impressive, the shifting pronouns at frame transitions are a bit tricky to parse at times. I don't think there's any poetry in there really.

Terrence Rafferty, back in the day. Of course, this is Frankenstein. And so forth. He also reminded me that I've recently seen this change of meaning without changing a word: Borges's take on it was canvased at length by Errol Morris. Peter Craven. Blake Morrison.

T. Coraghessan Boyle: The Relive Box.

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Kindle. On the strength of Deb Olin Unferth's review. Well, her review is better than the source material. The titular story made me wish for Charles Yu's inventiveness (time travel via tenses); this one is more mechanistic, less playful, and small minded. Addiction, escapism: the modern world is fully horrible or at least thoroughly incapable of satisfying. The story on Argentine Ants was nothing special, and the one about the classic spam fraud/hoax somehow left out all novelty whatsover. Well written, sure.

Deb Olin Unferth: Wait Till You See Me Dance.

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Kindle. A collection of shorts, many too short, barely more than an idea or scenario, picked up on the strength of her review of T. Coraghessan Boyle's The Relive Box. Some are fun, most are tied up with being a woman in a city, often a member of the precariat, sometimes an academic, maybe a family member. I most liked Bride, on not really getting over someone while they move right along, and Online, with doubt that there is much life beyond the screen these days undermining all attempts to kick computer addiction. Within these frames Unferth is assured and funny, and quite often empathetically painful. Brief. She's such a romantic.

Helen Phillips provides a synopsis of Voltaire Night and the other more-fully-conceived stories here.

Errol Morris: The Ashtray (or the man who denied reality).

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Kindle. The book-length version of a story Morris started telling back in 2011 about his relationship with his onetime supervisor, the incommensurable paradigm-shifting Kuhn, and the non-relative "truth". Moving past the colourful stories of the day, some fun interviews with Kripke, Putnam, Weinberg and others, some great quotes from Bertrand Russell, the text acts mostly as a sourcebook. Morris points at the following amongst many others:

Morris sometimes seems confused: he mostly wants to be able to refer to a truth that is out there in an absolutist, realist sense, but sometimes writes as if it were a mutable thing, somehow forgetting the roles of belief and epistemology. He makes Kuhn sound like a Supreme Court originalist.

Originally a pointer from Tim Maudlin, who rails as hard against Niels Bohr's Copenhagen interpretation as Morris does against Kuhn. Laura Miller and commentary at Hacker News. David Kordahl observes that Morris is often constructing the Kuhn he is dismantling. Philip Kitcher. These reviewers and the many others should thank Morris for allowing them to parade their esoteric knowledge at mainstream venues.

David Runciman: Politics: Ideas in Profile.

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Kindle. A brief introduction to political philosophy. The first section is on violence and Hobbes's insight that any politics is superior to an every-man-for-himself "state of nature". This sets the explanatory bar quite low, so we get some Machiavelli, and Max Weber's definition of the state as "that entity which successfully claims a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence." The second section wants to separate out political knowledge from the technical, and technocracies are bad, ok. The final section slides into philosophical ethics though it wants to talk about justice. Runciman observes that democracies don't fight each other but are extremely brutal in warfare. Fukuyama is rehabilitated. Amartya Sen and Rawls are name checked.

As with How Democracy Ends, but more so, Runciman is quite sloppy: he often cutely phrases a series of overly strong assertions that are not causally or necessarily connected before weaseling out of drawing their (implausible, ridiculous) strong conclusion. These presentational failures detract from the fine points he makes. It strikes me that Rousseau's notion of the social contract was a way to progress past Hobbesian inertia, but Runciman does not go there.

An excerpt at the Guardian is probably most of it.

Steven Johnson: Farsighted.

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Kindle. Adam Grant led me to believe this book would have an interesting take on decision making. I read it closely and got bored by its repetition and failure to map well-known techniques for groups to individual circumstances. Recounting the final days of bin Laden and praising story-telling and novel-reading as empathy-building was tendentious at best. I didn't see what Collect Pond and NYC's High Line (cloned by Chicago's The 606 and Sydney's Goods Line, and doubtlessly others) had to do with much of anything. At best a pointer to other works in the area.

Better value are the comments at goodreads.