peteg's blog

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.

Ace in the Hole

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The Poetry of Nguyễn Du.

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Apparently Nguyễn Du is the poet-of-all-poets in Việt Nam, and his Tale of Kiều is known to all the people of the country, or at least the motifs are. I couldn't find much about it in English on the internet so I typed up a section of an old book about it. You can find it here.


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At The Ritz with Jen.

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.

/noise/beach/2008-2009 | Link
Midday snorkel at Gordons Bay. I lasted about 20 minutes in the spring suit. Saw some groper and a school of medium-sized silvery vertically-flat fish. The wind was picking up and the storm clouds rolling in...


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A new Mike Leigh effort, something of a return to his late-80s / early-90s efforts without much bite.

/noise/beach/2008-2009 | Link
First swim of the season, an early-afternoon snorkel at Little Bay. Loads of people were on the beach enjoying the 33-degree heat. The water was a bit cold, but not too bad once in, at least in a wetsuit and boots. Didn't see much, was content just to be back in salt water.

The Sting

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Kill Bill: Vol. 2

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Kill Bill: Vol. 1

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Greg Lockhart: The Minefield. (2007)

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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.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

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Lawrence of Arabia

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Colonel Brighton: Look, sir, we can't just do nothing.
General Allenby: Why not? It's usually best.

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.

Waltz with Bashir

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At the Verona with Jen.

Married Life

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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.