peteg's blog - noise - books

Ray Monk: Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude

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I bought this book many years ago, thinking it was a complete biography of Bertrand Russell's life, and possibly a good one too. Now I am simply glad to have finished it, and will not be reading the second volume.

In essence the books sets out Russell's private life in a lot of detail, and hence with a lot of repetition. My hope that Monk would do a decent job at sketching Russell's philosophical program and prosecution of it was stymied. This was especially suprising after reading Monk's Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius so many years ago. Wittgenstein's Poker this is not.

Moreover the historical framing is repetitive and shallow; it would've helped to expand on how distant an aristocrat such as Russell was from the working class in the late Victorian age, as it would have provided a useful context for evaluating his political views, as well as furnished some idea of what possibilities and constraints his life held.

On the positive side, Monk does explore the contradictions in Russell's thinking, theory and practice, such as setting his crusade to put philosophy on a scientific basis (as Kant argued for, albeit for a different agenda) against his relatively naive approach to political philosophy. Russell did, however, interpret his experiences in what would later be the historically correct way; his writings on the soullessness of Russia after the Bolshevik revolution were an excellent contemporary account.

Ultimately even this single volume is over-long. Most frustrating is that his relationship with Wittgenstein is so shallowly treated. While it is not entirely a hatchet job, clearly Monk found the task onerous; the best quote I could find is from one of Wittgenstein's letters (p574 in my hardcover) apropos Russell's introduction to the Tractatus:

There's so much of it that I'm not quite in agreement with — both where you're critical of me and also where you're simply trying to elucidate my point of view. But that doesn't matter. The future will pass judgement on us — or perhaps it won't, and if it is silent that will be a judgement too.

This book sorely disappoints as a philosophical biography of one of the founders of modern philosophical logic. Time for something more lively.

Wayne McLennan: Rowing to Alaska (and othe true stories)

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McLennan has written a few pieces for the Griffith Review which have tickled my fancy in the recent past. He's something of a modern-day Henry Lawson, with a keen eye for the prosaic and a good turn of phrase; specifically, though, he turns the tables on Lawson's channelling of the bush through English sensibilities by taking a view of the world at large that is essentially Australian.

The stories tend to be tough and blokey, with the odd admission of moral turpitude and fear, but no cowardice. There are many gaps in the stories, yielding a feeling that although a lot of drinking is recounted even more was elided. None of the stories really stood out from the others, although some stang sharply due to a close observation or vulnerability. An agreeable way to pass a weekend.

Stories by Nhat Linh

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The Việt Nam Literature Project hosts some translations of Nhat Linh's stories by Greg and Monique Lockhart. His Going to France is a great period-piece written at perhaps the height of French colonisation of Indochina, roughly when Hồ Chí Minh was in Europe and Northern Asia.

Amitav Ghosh: In an Antique Land

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This is a tale with two threads: a Ghosh-like doctoral student traipsing around rural Egypt and west-coast India in the 1980s, and a fictionalised reassembly of the lives of some marginalised characters from the great trading days of about a millenia ago, which appears to be the focus the student's research. Ghosh wonders how much of their lives he can reconstruct, for the figures of history are usually those who have the education, money and power to inscribe themselves on it. Of course what he in fact does is reconstruct their lives through an educated, cashed up and powerful trader who exchanged many letters with his overseas partners and family. The story of how those documents came to be preserved is quite fascinating, but is not teased out enough here. (That would make a great story, the intrigues of colonial times and the tastiest material in the Geniza. Surely someone's done that already.)

There's lots of old Judaic stuff in this book, too much for this non-specialist to really appreciate. There's also a lot of stuff in general that is difficult to appreciate, especially given the apparently low standards and availability of evidence in this scholarly discipline. The present-day stuff is mildly entertaining in the way of all well-told travel stories, but is not spectacularly distinguished. One grows tired of Amitab growing tired of having to be all of India in one man to a provincial community of Egyptians.

Why the interest in the slave anyway? We really only get one detailed event in his life, viz getting turpsed up in Aden.

Murray Bail: The Pages

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Fairly poor narrative, even by Bail's low standards. Of course one is reading him for the details, the closely-observed mannerisms, the sparse arid landscape and occasionally slippery punctuation. Characters are somewhat weaker than before, too, and the plot devices, the rising romantic tension, flimsier. A feeling of emptiness (or perhaps an awareness of vacuity) arises on completion. The shadowy central character makes the elementary error of imagining he will find philosophy in the old cities, where the climate is suited to it, little realising that one can only philosophise about what one is born into, it seems to me. Let us quietly ignore the psychoanalytic white elephants.

Reviews were myriad, for Bail is somehow famous despite his laconic output. (Ten years since Eucalyptus? Was anyone holding their breath?) I am glad I read it, but would have preferred a series of short stories, perhaps even meditations, on these themes.

The Smage interviewed him around the time of the book's release.

Deborah Robertson: Careless

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I've been meaning to read this for a long time now, on the strength of her short story collection, and was fortunate to find a copy in the UNSW Library.

Briefly, I struggled to get into it. The male characters are mostly shallowly treated, and those that do get fleshed out seem like low-grade automata. The foibles of the female characters are keenly observed, but generally not interesting; I couldn't make anything of a walk-in female character checking her skin in the mirror, and noting that the antibiotics have kicked in. Later referring to it in a pedestrian bedroom scene seemed like a waste of this reader's concentation. There is little character development, more an unfolding along rails predestined by narrative, a bit too tidy.

... and the narrative, well, it is mostly a series of still-lifes and flashbacks, descriptions of interior lives that are all effect without much analysis. Danish Sonia had an abusive mother, now long dead, and slept with her husband before she was in love with him. How does this substantiate a decision to move to Australia? We'll never know, for that is all we have to go on. All the other characters have shadowy histories — who is Pearl and Riley's father? — and one's curiousity is slowly stymied by the realisation there are not enough pages or plot devices left to unpack them all. Having so many rhetorical questions smacks of laziness, or perhaps there being too little in the tank after such stirling efforts on the technical fronts.

Robertson is at her best when she portrays the children at the centre and fringes of the novel, making a lot of her overarching concern of carelessness and the unthinking violence adults do to children's senses of how things should go. I can't help but think she would have been better writing this piece as a series of short stories rather than trying to tie it all together.

Amitav Ghosh: Countdown

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Countdown is a little book, about 100 pages, on the strategic and political machinations underpinning the overt nuclearisation of the sub-continent immediately after the Indian tests on May 11, 1998. A variant was originally published in the New Yorker.

The text is sombre. His unpacking of the Kashmir dispute is a highlight, helping explain the absurdity of fighting over the barren icy wastelands of the Karakorams. I found it a bit tedious when he tries to quantify the damage a Pakistani nuclear weapon would do to Delhi. Depressing stuff.

Greg Lockhart: The Minefield

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I don't tend to read books on the military, but as the Smage review says, this one is worth making an effort for. I found it somewhat disconcerting that there are about forty years between the events and their recounting here, which perhaps reflects that it could only be written by someone with Dr Lockhart's almost-unique abilities and concerns, towards the end of his career.

The book is brutally frank about the military situation in the south of Vietnam in the latter half of the war there. He puts the foreign policy concerns of the day in post-colonial perspective, and gives the commanding brass an almost scornful damning. Perhaps most valuable is his compilation of first-hand accounts of mine incidents, from both the Australian and Vietnamese perspectives. I had a sense of relief when the order comes to clear the minefield, and the tenacity of the engineers charged with the task brought some lightness to a mostly fraught narrative.

Nguyễn Huy Thiệp: The General Retires and other stories, translated by Greg Lockhart.

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I prefered this collection to the later The Light of the Capital, mostly because the stories are closer to folk tales, albeit ones rife with social commentary. The author is, like Dương Thu Hương, a product of the đổi mới policies of 1986, and there is apparently a similar ambivalence about his work.

The standouts were The Water Nymph, The General Retires, A Drop of Blood and A Mother's Soul. As with the previous collection, the translations are perhaps trying to be too close to idiomatic English; I think it would be better to let more of the Vietnamese locutions leak through, given how much of the culture is encoded in them.

You can read Linh Din's translation of the title story here.

The Light of the Capital, translated by Greg and Monique Lockhart.

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A collection of three stories set in Hà Nội towards the end of French colonial rule, around the 1930s. The translations are quite good, apart from the irritating convention of stripping all the decorations from the Vietnamese characters. Are Western presses incapable of printing them? (Well, I guess it is probable that the word processors of the early 1990s couldn't cope.)

The stories:

  • Tam Lang's I Pulled a Rickshaw is an enlightening account of a newspaper reporter slumming it with the rickshaw coolies, ala George Orwell's Down and out in Paris and London.

  • Vũ Trọng Phụng's Household Servants is the pick of the collection, canvassing the topic of domestic help from all angles. Apparently there is a recent translation of one of his novels (Dumb Luck) into English. Once again, the author is a newspaper reporter slumming it.

  • Nguyen Hong's Days of Childhood is a rambling account of the author's childhood (surprise). I struggled to get into this one.

There is an extensive introduction, written in what I think is the style of literary criticism, which provides a lot of useful background to the times in which these stories are set.

You can get a feeling for his prose and politics in his (long) review of a collection of Wilfred Burchett's writings at The Australian, and for his and his wife's translations at the Việt Nam Literature Project.

Tim Winton: Breath.

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I liked it, and can think of little more to say.

Graham Reilly: Saigon Tea

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Meh. Apparently the author spent three years in Hồ Chí Minh City and the best he could come up with is this. In a tale spread across three cities, Glasgow is the only one that is described in more detail than a tourist could manage after a day's visit, and if you really wanted to know about Scotland you'd be reading Irvine Welsh anyway. Reilly's evocation of Saigon hardly exceeds what one learns from the Lonely Planet, soured by the usual questions ("Why do the people smile so much after all that's happened?") that are never properly addressed by pop writers. Let's not even mention Melbourne, the book hardly does. One ends up with no greater insight about the places, the peoples, mixed marriages, cross-cultural humour or any other thing one finds canvassed here.

I found it especially irritating that his Saigon was little more than Westerner-friendly District 1, with District 3 being characterised as a rich people's ghetto, and District 4 as comprised entirely of criminal trash. He doesn't even mention Chọ Lớn! Lame, lame, lame... there is no depth here, and the humour is mostly clunky and derivative to boot. Sliding in some pigeon tiếng Việt does nothing for this book.

Apparently he is an editor at the The Age.

BTW, the best way to see Vietnam is from a motorbike. Walking everywhere gets old fast with all the street hawkers. If you don't want to drive, either find a mate who does or pay a local. Bring a helmet.

Nam Le: The Boat

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I picked this up on the strength of a gushing Smage review, and really, what's not to like: a young bloke, born in Vietnam and raised in Melbourne, cranking out self-confident self-aware prose in Iowa.

There are so many reviews and things — many helpfully catalogued by the man himself — that I have little to add. I would more strongly recommend this interview from earlier in the year if the interviewer weren't so overbearing.

My favourite effort was the first story, Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice, which is available here. Perhaps the stylistically weakest is his Winton-alike Halflead Bay, and even that is redeemed by some strong themes.

Dương Thu Hương: Paradise of the Blind

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I have mixed feelings about this book; the endless food pornography dulled the edge of some sharp social commentary, particularly centred around the land reforms and the lifestyles of the post-war political cadres. Some of the loyalties are stretched super-thin, and the uncle character is barely more than a caricature. I enjoyed it when the plot was moving, and I do appreciate that many nuances were lost in translation.

The Herald Tribune has a good interview with the author. It was written at an interesting time in the country's history and apparently things are still not settled.

Growing up Asian in Australia ed. Alice Pung.

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I picked this one up at the UNSW Bookshop on the strength of a Smage review. It's a real mixed bag; there are some excellent stories but too much samey-sameness to really push my buttons. The best are those that recount specific incidents which are indeed exotic to (most) other Australians, in much the same way as Henry Lawson's were a century ago. Memorable:

  • The Leaving Home section:
    • Diana Nguyen's Five ways to disappoint your Vietnamese mother.
    • Pauline Nguyen's The courage of soldiers.
    • Paul Nguyen's You can't choose your memories.
    • Emily J. Sun's These are the photographs we take.
  • Jacqui Larkin's cute Baked beans and burnt toast.
  • Blossom Beeby's account of finding her Korean birth mother, The face in the mirror.
  • Hai Ha Le's Ginseng tea and a pair of thongs.
  • Ken Chan's Quarrel.
  • Diem Vo's Family life.
  • The Battlers section: Hop Dac's Pigs from home is hilarious, as is Annette Shun Wah's Spiderbait. Lily Chan's Take me away, please is wanly endearing.
  • Kylie Kwong's My China, excerpted from her book of the same name.

There are others. On the balance I'm glad I read it, even though many stretches of tens of pages left me cold. It serves as a good entrée to authors I would not have otherwise found.

Alan Chalmers: What is this thing called science?

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This book was on the reading stack for a long time; I believe I purchased it at Gould's many years ago. Unfortunately it happened to be the outdated second edition, without the additional, possibly fascinating, chapter on Bayesianism. I read this book as I've always been interested in the philosophy of science but never received any formal education on the topic.

I came away quite impressed by the first half of the book, where Chalmers takes an axe to naive inductivism and falsificationism. I was curious how these arguments relate to Ehud Shapiro's MIS, and machine learning in general, and came to realise that there the languages are quite rigid, with a careful identification of "observations" and "theoretical terms" that skirts some of the problems with refining theories in the face of unreliable evidence. It remains unclear to me how much one can learn about science-in-the-large from MIS, though the algorithms are cute beyond belief.

The latter half on research agendas, paradigms, programs, and the division of science into different activities lost me, largely as my interest in how a given scientific theory is structured and refined by "normal scientists" was unsated by the first half. The accounts of the higher-level activity of "disruptive science" offered by Kuhn and Lakatos are also interesting, of course, but stand on a different strata.

Samir reviewed the third edition. I concur with him that some discussion of what constitutes scientific explanation might have been helpful.

Howard Marks: Mr Nice

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Read all-too-quickly on the road from Hanoi to Hoi An. What starts as a moderately entertaining drugs, sex and rock-and-roll story set in Oxford and London degenerates a bit into a bitter diatribe against the DEA. The humour tends to be wry, and the secondary characters suffer from a lack of detail. The portrayal of prison life is quite good, but one has to wonder just what his ethics are, given how many greasy people he would've had to deal with.

Andrew X. Pham: Catfish and Mandala

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Read very rapidly on the road from Hồ Chí Minh City to Hà Nội. Anyone interested in post-đổi mới-Việt Nam should read this book. While the prose is not uniformly excellent, by-and-large it is, and the stories are masterfully woven even when some go unconcluded. It is the most insightful book I've yet read about this country, and the lives of those who stayed and those who left.

David Chandler: Brother Number One

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This is a somewhat enlightening biography of Pol Pot, and therefore a selective account of the political situation in Cambodia during the 20th century.

One has to take a shine to a book that asks the question you're interested in on the third page; in this instance, just what the hell did the Khmer Rouge have in mind? How could the leaders of a country decide to decimate it so thoroughly?

Ultimately the book fails to provide a satisfying answer, but does justify this failure by showing how thin the record is. I came away with the impression that the party was a dictatorship of one man who managed to play his underlings off against one another with sufficient skill to remain in the role of chairman almost to his death. It is perhaps most difficult to comprehend why the fellow travellers went so far with him in the face of such thorough-going and brutal purges.

Politically Brother Number One seemed to think that the individual's only worth was in the labour he or she could provide to the state. With most of the expertise of returning Cambodian ex-pats squandered (they got executed), the regime was always heavily dependent on foreigners for anything more sophisticated than the most primitive agricultural techniques. Apparently there was no contradiction here with the idea that Cambodia is (in Western speak) God's own country, and neither is there one with the party leadership coterie living in relative comfort while their countrymen endure enforced poverty.

Most shocking is the incompetency of the Democratic Kampuchea regime, and the realpolitik machinations of a United States that had just begun to come to terms with their conflict with Vietnam. Pot entertained some pretty weird ideas of being rescued by the U.S. military, though he was right to bank on some support against the newly re-unified and communist Vietnam. In the end it was Vietnam, through occupying Cambodia in 1979, that sorted this particular mess out for the people of Cambodia. The occupation lasted about ten years, and so it is for only a relatively short time (almost twenty years now) that this country has been at peace.

I have no idea what the current regime is or how they reconciled the border tensions with Thailand. (Clearly the new government is friendly enough with Vietnam.)

There are some thoughtful reviews at Amazon. I expect one of the more recent biographies would be even more insightful.

Nikoly V. Gogol: The Cloak

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I read this after seeing The Namesake about a year ago. The descriptions are prodigiously lengthy and occasionally funny, but the narrative is weak. Do we have to die before getting retribution on the bureaucracy? Doubtlessly I missed some higher meaning in the text.

You can find it as part of the Project Gutenberg Best Russian Short Stories.

Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything

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What can I say... I couldn't put it down, and found myself quite liking it after a while. There are some irritatingly heat-over-light sections, such as a general ramble about the arcana that is theoretical physics, but these are wonderfully counter-balanced by the extended geological threads. Most of the stuff on botany was lost on me as I have no grasp of the classifications (genera, phyla, etc.) and he doesn't stop to sketch the tree of life. (Perhaps he did, my (photo)copy was missing ten pages somewhere in the middle.)

I was most disappointed by the sections on DNA and evolution however, coming away with absolutely no new insight into either. Indeed, based on what is said about Charles Darwin I cannot fathom why he was credited with anything.

I could imagine someone coming along and writing something similar but using information as a unifying theme, rather than Planet Earth: one could take the line that local order is increasing (while the universe at large is subject to the second law of thermodynamics, of course) and run with it.

If only science was actually what this book was about. At best Bill Bryson characterises scientific practices ("so-and-so realised that..."), but usually he goes on about the individuals eccentricities rather than the processes (experiments, insights, philosophies) that led to their results. I find it fascinating that Newton and Einstein could have such huge ideas without dirtying their hands with more direct forms of empiricism. (This is somewhat less surprising in computer science as the formal models are more-or-less "cleaned-up" versions of reality.) I fear that modern science is generally a lot more tedious than one might be lead to believe from this book.

There are some good reviews at Amazon. (Having just pasted in some Wikipedia links, I'd have to say you may be better off following your nose there.)

Michael Maclear: The Ten Thousand Day War: Vietnam 1945-1975

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A fairly concise and selective account of the war from a mostly American perspective. As such it is not bad, but it gets a bit too breathless a bit too often. Still, at this length I doubt there is much better.

Graham Greene: The Quiet American

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Much better than the movie led me to believe. (I must have seen it at the cinema back in 2002 or so). There's a great article at Literary Traveller about how the locations in the novel map to modern-day Hồ Chí Minh City. Specifically rue Catinat is now Đồng Khởi.

Pierre Brocheux: Hồ Chí Minh

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Somehow I got the idea that there was such a thing as Hồ Chí Minh's autobiography in print [*], and I've made sporadic efforts to find it over the past six months or so. It turns out I should've looked harder on the internet, as I would have found the Communist Party of Vietnam's extensive stash of his papers.

Anyway, while in Sydney I bought this book on a whim, largely because it seemed to be the best thing that the UNSW Bookshop had on the big man. It really is quite a disappointing work, though; the reviews on Amazon and in the Times Higher Education do a good job of explaining why.

So I guess I'm still looking for a book that tries to explain what Bác Hồ had in mind for Việt Nam, and how things have actually played out.

[*] This is somewhat like my attempts at finding the ABBA museum in Stockholm in 2004. Hmm, perhaps there is one now...

Griffith Review #19: Re-imagining Australia (Autumn 2008)

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Hey, here's an idea: let's publish a journal on the future of Australia, now that it has one... I know, we can invite some ALP has-beens and let them run rampant with triumphal gushings. Let's also get someone to flog that republican horse one more time!

This is the weakest Griffith Review I've read yet. A significant portion of this journal is dedicated to dancing on the graves of the culture warriors who have apparently lost due to John Howard's election defeat. (It is news to me that they were winning before.) To someone who has very limited interest in the history wars, these are wasted pages; indeed this edition feels more like an exploration of Australia's past, and is a bit short on ideas for the future.

Skipping lightly over the articles that failed to excite, these were worth the read:

  • Tom Morton's Dreams of Freedom, though really just an advertisement for his upcoming book on Georg Forster, intriguingly portrays the Enlightenment ideals and aspirations at the time of Britain's discovery of Australia.
  • Bruce Elder trekked out west to Hungerford and wrote In Lawson's Tracks. Of course Henry Lawson suggested a better name would have been Thirstyford... There's not much meat on the bone in this piece, which illustrates the argument Lawson and Banjo Paterson had over the nature of the bush by quoting them as extensively as the space limit allowed. It is a pleasant amble, though.
  • Marcia Langton's essay Trapped in the Aboriginal reality show is a compelling call to action. However to a non-specialist it is difficult to understand who (substantively) she is disagreeeing with, and so the false dichotomies (symbolic versus "practical" issues, for example) are irritating clangers.
  • Listening is harder than you think, Kim Mahood's essay about her involvement with a remote Aboriginal community, is the kind of thing I buy Griffith Review for: direct, personal reportage with some perspective thrown in, without overwhelming ideology.
  • Jenny Bowler's memoir Mungo memories is a quiet celebration of her father's life's work, and I wish there were more pieces like this. Australia has loads of world experts in all sorts of arcana, and it would be good to hear about them more regularly.
  • Similarly Barry Hill documents his father's industrial relations (unionist) expertise in A letter to my father.
  • Wayne McLennan returns with another great piece of writing, Meat. He's got a tidy set-piece at the end of the first section:

    "What are you, a wog or something?"

    "He's Dutch [...] and so am I", I lied, "so shut your fucking mouth."

    [...] "What's going on?" C asked.

    "Australian egalitarianism," I answered. "We like everybody to be the same as us."

    I'm going to have to check out his books.
  • Maria Tumarkin's article Life in translation is in the same vein as Peter Mares's one from the previous edition, taking aim at an immigration department that seems thoroughly resigned to wasting human capital.
  • I liked Oren Seidler's A new land, 1976, though it is fizzy and rotted my teeth.

Griffith Review #18: In the neighbourhood (Summer 2007-2008)

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One thing I miss about Sydney is ready access to books. I picked up this one from the UNSW Bookshop, who are still kindly offering a 10% discount to all comers, and read it while in Randwick and on the plane back to Hồ Chí Minh City.

This edition was not as good as I hoped; indeed, it is somewhat of a re-tread of issue #9, Up North, but with an overly strong focus on China. Memorable:

  • In Location, Location, Location, Michael Wesley discusses the changing international dynamic, from Western institutions to Eastern ones, as the balance of power shifts after 500 years.
  • Geremie R. Barmié's Sharing Values shows how ironically close the State-articulated aspirational values of Australia and China are.
  • Phil Brown's Hong Kong 1967: Summer of discontent recounts his experiences as a child in the former British colony.
  • Ouyang Yu's Book without bonking amusingly recounts his experiences with the Chinese censors.
  • Nicholas Jose's Back to the avantgarde details the commercial rise of China's artists.
  • Tony Barrell's Japan's paradoxical neighbourhoods is a great account of how the concept of a furusato ("the neighbourhood in which everyone feels they truly belong", usually a farming village) has been exploited and pork-barreled by generations of politicians.
  • Rachel Buchanan's Remembering a forgotten survivor tells of the relationship between illustrator Ronald Searle and Henry "Lofty" Judge Cannon, beginning with their time as POWs in WWII and following the post-war divergence in their fortunes.
  • The poem Heroic mother by Hoa Pham is a short anecdote about the Vietnam War, from a somewhat conventional Northern point of view.
  • Wayne McLennan's A night at the fights is a bit stomach turning; the Thai boxing boys know how to inflict damage on each other.
  • Peter Mares's A routine removal is an excellent and heart-rending account of a Fijian family's time in Australia as illegal economic migrants. (I use that description precisely, not enthusiastically.) This article makes plain the global importance of remittances and strongly advocates for some kind of guest worker program. My two concerns are that the unions will label the latter job-stealing, and the former may stifle reform in the countries of origin. Hopefully someone will write a follow-up article from the Australian "national interest" perspective, suggesting a pragmatic solution.
  • Jane Nicholl's Capitals of the world is a cute little anecdote about Nepal, from a latter-day convert to the concept of HECS who is now busily exporting something like it to developing countries.

Another two articles talk about Việt Nam. The first is Larry Buttrose's Lotus blossom day tags, an essentially touristic take on the country which avoids any possibility of controversy by asking (the usual) rhetorical questions. He claims that the locals have won the peace, but I am not so sure; the apparently over-free market surely creates inequalities, and the apparent lack of aspiration for universal education and health care are cause for me to worry. I have a feeling, but no proof, that USA-style prosperity is the goal. Australians should be well-familiar with the mixed feelings that brings.

He also implies that the women are universally emancipated; his stay at Cô Lợi's should have made apparent to him that a lot of women are stuck at home doing little other than domestic work, and it is at best unclear to a foreigner (non-Vietnamese speaker) just how egalitarian marriages are. Sure, the eye-catching young ladies on their scooters do look like they're got it made, no question.

The second article is, with presumably accidental irony, on page 187: Laurie Hergenhan's A lasting sorrow, a sort-of interview with Bảo Ninh. So much is lost in translation that it amounts to little more than a summary of the book. The flavour is similar to this piece in the Guardian.

Quarterly Essay #28, Judith Brett: Exit Right: The unravelling of John Howard

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Judith Brett returns with another Quarterly Essay. This one is a distillation and filtering of the news of 2007, and some of 2006, and as such added almost nothing to my understanding of Howard's final term in office. (It may be of use to future scholars, though, particularly those who weren't politically aware at the time.)

I remarked a while ago about her call-to-debate in her earlier Quarterly Essay (#19 Relaxed and Comfortable: the Liberal Party's Australia, 2005), and her analysis here seems somewhat incongruous with that work; it is as if she is still seeking the perfect metaphor for these "conviction politician" Strong Leaders, and what square pegs she found last time have now been discarded. Here is the direct quote I alluded to earlier (QE19, Howard's Australia, p39):

Many intellectuals are suspicious of nationalism. They know its power to harden boundaries between people and to make them hate and kill each other. But are nations necessarily pathological? Is any appeal to a national "us" a sort of warm-up attack on a non-national "them", a dog-whistle letting people know they really can hate the other? I know many of Howard's critics think so, and this has in my view shaped much of the Left's commentary on his prime ministership. It is also the basic reason for its ineffectiveness, because it has made it impossible to devise successful oppositional strategies.

Because whenever hes has evoked a national "us" he has been accused of really demonising a non-national "them", Howard's critics have been unable to develop any effective or plausible counter-strategies for talking to their fellow Australians. If you regard any talk of "us" as illegitimate, it is not clear to me whom you are going to talk to. Nations are not simply formed and defined by their opposition to or difference from some Other; they are also formed and defined by shared experiences and collective memories. They have centres as well as borders. As I have been arguing, Howard speaks persuasively from that centre. One does not counter him by arguing that the centre is empty, or does not exist, and that he is really only ever policing the borders. One stands in the centre with him and argues about its meanings and its responsibilities, and tells different stories to one's fellow Australians about their past and present and the bonds they share.

As she observes in the current issue, her earlier speculation that the Workchoices industrial relations legislation might be a bridge too far was spot on; Howard's special connection with the centre was more-or-less severed by it, whereas Labor and the unions were listened to as they have not been in years.

Conversely, almost the entirety of QE28 shows that her proposal to go toe-to-toe with the Strong Leader on any of what have become "Left" issues (the arts, social justice, ...) was a waste of resources and doomed to fail, simply because Howard could often not budge without losing Strength. (Paul Keating was no different, of course.) The weak and chaotic capitulation of the Liberal party on any number of recent issues (the apology to the Aborigines and industrial relations being the obvious two) shows how much he held his party in thrall, and just how Faustian they had been while in power.

So yes, "progress" in the traditional Leftist sense is possible, now that the Strong Leader has been laid to rest. I do agree with Brett that one can hope that the election drew 17 or so years of aggression politics to a close. Rudd may not be the everyman RJL Hawke was, but his early efforts to establish bipartisan projects (the flagship focussing on Aboriginal housing) mark a welcome departure towards bureaucratic politics. Now, will they make technically superior decisions, I wonder? [*]

Four Corners covered similar ground with their "we told him to go" interviews with ex-ministers last Monday 2008-02-19. The lack of loyalty was a bit breathtaking, e.g. from Minchin, who one may expect still aspires to something.

[*] Well, I think we're still stuffed on the communications front, with the ALP's net-nanny policy apparently going ahead. Remember kids, if you opt-out you're clearly a pervert.

Bảo Ninh: The Sorrow of War

/noise/books | Link

A rambling account of the American War from the perspective of a North Vietnamese soldier. It has its moments, it really does.

Griffith Review #9: Up North: Myths, Threats & Enchantment

/noise/books | Link

This is a great topic for a Griffith Review, and for the most part the articles are up to their usual excellent standard. (I bought this one a while ago at half-price from UNSW Bookshop, lucky me.) For the most part, excepting some highly suspect fiction and a "debate" piece that lacks any kind of rejoinder.

I particularly enjoyed:

  • Peter Stanley's Threat made manifest, on the bombing of Darwin in World War II.
  • Peter Spearritt and Michele Helmrich's photojounalistic essay An enduring furphy documenting the exhibition Defending the north: Queensland in the Pacific war.
  • David Malouf's The exotic at home, about his journeying to the far north in the 1950s.
  • Murray Sayle's Even further north, is perhaps the article most in tune with the overarching theme of "the north".
  • Creed C. O'Hanlon's In ancient wakes describes a curious and welcomely out-of-place voyage around the north of the British Isles.
  • Matthew Condon's Of the bomb is an excellent personal memoir of his researches for a piece on Wilfred Burchett.
  • Bob Wurth's Curtin's hand of friendship, extended to Tatsuo Kawai, was a nice complement to the ABC's Curtin.
  • Dewi Anggraeni's The pain of disrespect, about the public relationship between Australia and Indonesia on the big issues of the day, is a good beginning but way too short.
  • Andrew McMillan's We're all eccentrics here reports on the lives of the Larrimah, N.T. locals.
  • Megan Lewis took some great photos for her series Conversations with the mob.
  • Robyn Davidson's Return of the camel lady, a memoir of her time travelling overland from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean and her relationship with the indigenous peoples is truly excellent.
  • Mark McKenna's A symbolic life tells of his inspiration by and brief relationship with Gatjil Djerrkura. The text of that speech can be found here.
  • Christine Zorzi's The delegation tells of how she and her student cohort housed the indigenous ambassadors from Far North Queensland when they were negotiating with the the State Government.
  • Phil Brown engages in some contemporary Henry Lawson-ism in his memoir Our man up there, about the artist Gil Jamieson from Monto, Queensland.
  • These people, by Lucy Palmer, recounts her experiences amongst the ex-pats and locals in Port Moresby.

So yeah, most of them were good.