peteg's blog

Jade Chang: The Wangs vs. the World.

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Kindle. Once again I feel suckered by publicists doing too good a job of pushing Ms Chang's first book. The first two-thirds are decent, sometimes great, but needed a substantial and brutal edit; the stand-up comedy parts are valueless, for instance, and I'm not at all sympathetic to any of the characters as they almost instantaneously transition from riches to rags. We're deep into brand-names-as-meaning here, which I find synonymous with vacuity. By the car crash the novel has degenerated to a travelogue with a side of food porn, and Ms Chang's sporadically bitey social commentary has transmuted into saccharine romantic cliches. It's clear she'd run out of ideas well before she got to the end of the journey, and it's a shame someone didn't tell her.

Kevin Nguyen at the New York Times identifies many weaknesses but somehow found more in it than there is.

James Lasdun: The Fall Guy.

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Kindle. Charles Finch at the New York Times called this "exceptionally entertaining". It wasn't. The plot was pedestrian and railroaded toward an entirely predicted (not just predictable!) outcome. The characters were lifted from Bonfire of the Vanities and thereabouts. Lots of food porn, many nods to events like Occupy, and initially so episodically tedious that when things do get moving you wonder why he wasted so much of your time.

Marcy Dermansky: Bad Marie.

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Kindle. More chick lit, I guess, this time focussing on a girl with poor impulse control, an eye firmly on the moment, somewhat intent on outrunning the past while nurturing nascent maternal instincts in many beautifully captured scenes. France comes in for a solid pasting, accused of superficiality and even worse at controlling impulses than Marie while being so much less honest about it. Mexico is a place that once enveloped and rehabilitated Americans, who have now exported enough of the benefits of development that the natives are resentful. Paradise lost, you know. The one significant male character is a slave to his biology and past. I liked it but it has the tinge of a guilty pleasure.

Peter Ho Davies: The Welsh Girl.

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Kindle. Strip mining Davies's output, going back from his recent set of shorts The Fortunes to this, his first novel. Clearly proud of his Welsh heritage, Davies unpacks aspects of the World War II experience from various perspectives, mostly set in a small quarrying and farming village. Again the writing is fine and it all comes down to whether the stories speak; the extensive research is mostly lightly worn, and sometimes wrought into imagery I found painfully visceral (Chapter 22, a doctor responding to an implicit request for an abortion):

"You're thinking you can blackmail me, perhaps, but in the first place I don't care, and in the second place no one else will either. You know what I have in there? A ward of blokes just brought in on a hospital ship. Pulled out of the North Atlantic. Torpedoed. Know how cold those waters are? Man's lucky to live ten minutes. Know what kept them alive? All the oil burning on the surface. I've fellows in there with the hair scalded off their heads, and frostbitten toes. You think they give a toss what I’ve done in the past?"

The girl herself is mostly acted upon, as are, I guess, all the characters. Rudolph Hess plays a framing role. There's a lot going on here, perhaps too much.

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Vale, Leonard Cohen.


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One more thing to add to the long list of things out of Minnesota. I first saw this a long time ago.

The Accountant

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Odeon 5, 3:15pm session, $11.00. I saw the short a while back and thought I'd give Affleck another chance in an acting role. Well... he did OK in his Vietnamese chilli sauce t-shirt, popping Zolofts and bad men, but was severely let down by the script. I got thinking quite often that Adam Sandler may perhaps have done it better, or that Affleck could be the Arnie of the twenty-first century if only he got on top of the one-liners. JK Simmons pulls his usual schtick. This is the first time I've seen Anna Kendrick on film, and I can't see the appeal. John Lithgow is OK but embodies nothing. The entire thing is a mashup of what's come before: some American Sniper gun action (and also some Arnie-level carnage), Batman-style dual identities, autism cliches (see Rain Man and Cube and ....), the occasional outsized consumerist Scarface edifice, run-(Raymond)-run! from Fight Club, Our Kind of Traitor-style accountant-to-the-mob, etc. In brief, it's entirely derivative, but you can see what they were trying to do, just outside the frame. Enjoy.

Stephen Holden.

Marcy Dermansky: The Red Car.

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Kindle. If this is chick lit, perhaps I should read more of it. Dermansky breathlessly concatenates a series of events that levers a self-doubting writer out of her early 30s awfulness in Queens, where she got hitched to Austrian fellow-writer Hans for visa reasons, and back to her Californian mid 20s. The cast from about that time reassembles and there is sometimes the opportunity for a doing-over. The car of the title is somewhat lethal, and its ultimate fate involving a Japanese beauty flicked the switch a little too neatly to Murakami for my tastes. Dermansky does a good job with the characters, though most of the male ones feel predatory, a tad vacuous, a bit underdrawn, as is perhaps her intention given that her femmes are hypersensitive to their attention. Are the narrator's contradictory thoughts a matter of tense, or of not making the right or sufficiently fine distinctions? Somehow it's not irritating when Dermansky does it.

Daniel Handler at the New York Times.

Ge Fei: The Invisibility Cloak.

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Kindle. Carmela Ciuraru at the New York Times sold it to me in her brief review. Canaan Morse's translation is a little uneven, charmingly so, almost as if he intermittently chooses to forget how Chinese maps to English. Some images and idioms that are presumably amusing and possibly enlightening, maybe even transgressive in the original, and I guess a footnote or two may have helped for us culturally impoverished types. I enjoyed it as a wander through present-day Beijing with an amiable narrator living a straitened existence as a craftsman of high-end audio equipment; such audiophilia is something I can't endorse or condemn. The fluid segues come to an overtly abrupt conclusion in the last chapter or two as things move a little too quickly for satisfaction.

Just to nitpick a bit: Ciuraru's review is wrong about Cui living with his sister and her husband; he lives in her apartment while she resides in their dear departed mother's.

Apparently this is the first novel by Ge Fei to be translated into English, but now Penguin Australia also has his Flock of Brown Birds available. I'll try to get to it soon.

Interview with the Vampire

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I saw this back in 2009. Since then I learnt (from my roomie in Chicago) that Anne Rice is the patron saint of American vampire pulp. I don't remember it being this banal; Brad Pitt is at his blandest, and Tom Cruise hams it up. Antonio Banderas, I don't know. The plot is holey, and I don't really get why Christian Slater wants to be or is chosen. Kirsten Dunst is so young.

Fatima Bhutto: The Shadow of the Crescent Moon.

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Kindle. More fiction from Pakistan: generational separatism in Mir Ali, near the frontier with Afghanistan. Towards the end I realised this humourless text had more in common with Mahajan's The Association of Small Bombs than with her countryman Mohammed Hanif's brave and funny A Case of Exploding Mangoes. In the small things would have been improved with a solid edit. The ending is far too abrupt: whatever happened to the baby? Why did Hayat and Aman Erum collaborate to sell out Samarra? Or were they intending to blow up the Colonel? I wasn't invested enough in this book to think too hard or be bothered by any inaccuracies. I don't think there's anything spectacularly imaginative here.

Fundamentally I guess I want a book that doesn't capriciously hide things from me. I don't mind a flashback structure that unfolds details, but I have little patience for omissions that are supposed to generate tension. Perhaps that's why I don't find crime fiction very satisfying.

Lorraine Adams spills a lot of words on it for the New York Times. As she observes, it helps if your grandfather is Benazir Bhutto's dad, even if he was hanged by Zia back in 1979.