peteg's blog - noise - books

David Ireland: The Chantic Bird. (1968)

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Kindle. Prompted by Ireland's recent passing. Geordie Williamson's introduction for the text publishing edition summarises it well as "Australian Psycho" (referring to Bret Easton Ellis and not Hitchcock). He avoids endorsing what is ultimately an insufficiently anchored, excessively ambiguous, uninsightful, repetitious, tedious and boring bit of putatively teenage nihilism which took me an age to plough through. Some minor points. Williamson avoids digging into the references to the Brethren. It skips around like a Sydney crime paperback. The fairy story that gives the book its title is woeful.

Goodreads. I'd say that apart from The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, Ireland's output is not worth reading.

Kazuo Ishiguro: A Pale View of the Hills. (1982)

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Kindle. Ishiguro's first novel and unimpressive it is. A dry run for his particular thing that he perfected later: unreliable narrators, drawing on faulty, forgiving and yet telling memory, Japan's prewar culture as seen by the youth, upper class England. It is a bit soporific; knowing what I was going to get allowed me to plough through it but I can't imagine it set the world on fire in 1982.


Nardi Simpson: Song of the Crocodile. (2020)

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Kindle. I picked this up on the strength of Nardi's conversation with Richard Fidler that I listened to about a year ago. She's got a beautiful voice and wicked laugh. This is a multi-generational tale like Cloudstreet. It put me more in mind of Beresford's The Fringe Dwellers (shifted a few hundred kilometres southwest) than Ivan Sen's Toomelah (from a few hundred kilometres east). After a rough first chapter (too ornate!) it settles into the steady rhythm of the lives of Indigenous women on the edge of the fictional Darnmoor (which I took to be roughly Brewarrina) until these are disrupted by the loss of employment, death, and ultimately the destruction of their remnant homelands.

Plot-wise too many things happen too close together, breathlessly, and I was so lost by the end that I couldn't fathom how the song of the crocodile helped in any way; the horse appeared to have bolted. Some of the characters are more successful than others, and often in a less-is-more way; for instance I found Wil's uncle, who charts his path to manhood, more convincing than saintly Wil. (Wil's marriage to Mili put me in mind of Blue Valentine.) In any case it's brave and many of the observations (especially about the myths of the settlers and townsfolk) cut deeply. The magic realism is sometimes very effective. Like Francine Prose, every so often there's a sentence that totally nails it. I guess she expected just a bit too much from this reader.

Goodreads. Timmah Ball at the Sydney Review of Books was more interested in generic politics than a close or critical reading. (For instance Celie's skilful sister is Bess, not Emma. And Mili holds son Paddy at a distance while embracing the younger Yaramala.) I find her optimism ungrounded.

Tim Winton: Cloudstreet. (1991)

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Kindle. Second time around with this Australian classic about Geraldton and Margaret River meeting in a duplexed mansion in Perth, at the Swan River, about twenty years after the first and more than thirty since it was published. Things were initially absorbingly taut but got flabby (schmaltzy) later on; lurv for Winton is an ungainly beast. The eventual multi-generational household seemed so unlike Australia to me, which was and is on a long-term trajectory to single-person abodes (as is the world). Perhaps Winton's answer to why-do-they-bother, the family, only ever satisfied some. And what to make of the Aboriginal elements.

Goodreads. Yes, many of the named lack characterisation. Marion Halligan at the time: a flawed piece of literature but a great yarn. Joseph Olshan showed how the international press missed the mark. And so on. But really it's beyond reviewing. Somehow I have little interest in watching the bowdlerised TV miniseries.

Ben Stubbs: The Crow Eaters. (2019)

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Kindle. Pre-pandemic travel writing about South Australia, the state which is often subject to a desultory shellacking and yet is recognised as one of the best places in the world to visit. Stubbs did what few seem willing to do: he took the place seriously.

He covered: Maralinga, the cave dwellers of Coober Pedy, freshwater snorkelling at Mount Gambier, Chinese landing in Adelaide and Robe and walking to the Victorian goldfields at Ballarat, shark cage diving off the coast of Port Lincoln, the coinage of "the crow eaters", maintaining the dog fence, Wilpena Pound, Goyder's Line, the drinking but not the races at Innamincka, the Murray River and Coorong, the RFDS, Kangaroo Island, the City of Elizabeth (cf Jimmy Barnes), some Australian Utopianism (Paraguay, William Lane) and finally Adelaide. He's near the edge of anthropology/archaeology, journalism and travel writing, sometimes with excessive colour (cf The Ghetto at the Centre of the World). There are some good bits but oftentimes things fall away before they really get cranking. He tries to engage with Aboriginal groups and issues.

Stubbs did not cover (in any depth): sport, vineyards, Torrens title (or who Torrens was) or politics in general, the cuttlefish at Whyalla, music (Paul Kelly, Redgum, Doc Neeson/The Angels), festivals, Emu Field, Speed Week, the RAAF, submarine construction and shipbuilding, etc. — which is to say that he didn't get that far off the beaten track. His writing needed a bit of an edit; there are a few too many dodgy non sequiturs. For instance Adelaide being billed as the "City of Churches" bears no relation to how religious people are now. And convict-freedom was more about forced transportation (being compelled to South Australia, coerced to labour or to change religion) and less about being convicted of a crime. Also Newsouth Books needed to employ a fact checker: the old Ghan (the Central Australia Railway) never made it much past Alice Springs, and certainly not to Darwin.

The chapter on Maralinga was excerpted at the New York Times and also Inside Story. Goodreads.

Douglas Coupland: Miss Wyoming. (2000)

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Kindle. Execrable; I kept waiting for it to get better and it just didn't. There were signs of satirical intention but it's not funny. The crappy dialogue and the spaghetti chapter order (that I was too disengaged to follow closely) made me feel that Coupland didn't have a story worth telling. Surely he knew that this area (child beauty pageants, L.A., fame, money, drugs, Lolita, etc. etc.) has been done to death and he had no new angle. The plot is entirely coincidence.


Douglas Stuart: Young Mungo. (2022)

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Kindle. Do we need another account of growing up gay in violent and predatory early-1990s Glasgow? Early on I felt the answer might be yes but towards the end I was rushing through the repetitious and almost circular inevitabilities. The writing is good but not as taut in the small as it was in Shuggie Bain. The convergent two track plot is depressingly unsurprising. And come on, we've known for a long time that every family has a Begbie who's into sectarian violence because it's fun.

Molly Young. Cameron Woodhead. And so on. Could it be that reviewers today are (generationally) unaware of Trainspotting? Much later, Adam Mars-Jones, who spills half his words on other books, shows more of a clue.

Douglas Coupland: Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent. (2014)

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Kindle. Mercifully brief. Coupland doesn't motivate why he writes about this company; it was in decline at the time (circa 2013) and was only ever famous (just maybe) for owning Bell Labs from 2006 until 2016. Wikipedia suggests that Coupland got in just before it was parted out, and you'd have to think that the purchasers are just as hopeless. The prospects for fundamental research (in the computer industry at least) have been grim for some time. There's very little in this text.


David Halberstam: One Very Hot Day. (1967)

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Kindle. Halberstam's take on the early-to-middle part of the USA's war in Việt Nam circa 1965 (when Robert S. McNamara was the Secretary of Defence and the USA had yet to commit more than CIA and military advisers to the conflict). The single thread, with discursive capsule biographies of the main characters, takes us along on a day in the field somewhere between Mỹ Tho and Sóc Trăng on the Mekong Delta. There's not a lot to recommend this specific take: the American elements are essentially drawn from Catch-22 where experience (even under the influence) beats youthful whizz-kiddery, while the Vietnamese emphasise patronage networks but do not provide much insight into the methods of the North (cf The Moon of Hòa Bình). It's tidily written and unsurprising.

Wilfrid Sheed (En Route to Nowhere) at the time: these are the bits that Halberstam couldn't get published in his dispatches. Eliot Fremont-Smith, also in the New York Times in January 1968. Goodreads was retrospectively unimpressed.

William Gibson: The Bridge Trilogy: Virtual Light, Idoru, All Tomorrow's Parties. (1993 - 1999)

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Kindle. It seems I read Virtual Light back in 2009; the remainder of the series mustn't have been on mrak's shelf I guess. I didn't get much out of it — again I hurried to finish it, thinking there'd be something later on, past all the florid description. There wasn't. Near as I could tell Gibson merely synthesised a bunch of things that were well known in the 1990s. (He even found room for Chopper.) The plot boiled down to what happens when a disembodied pure spirit (obviously a femme fatale) meets a construction technology (here nanobots). Beyond the obvious, Gibson does not tell us. More annoyingly he does not follow his disembodied conceit beyond the first step; Egan's imaginings appear to be far beyond him. Overall too much object fetishism, too incoherent and too inconsequential.

Goodreads, Goodreads (come on people, Max Headroom was constructed in the 1980s), Goodreads.

Jarett Kobek: Motor Spirit: The Long Hunt for the Zodiac and How to Find Zodiac (2022)

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On a dead tree printed on demand in Sydney by Amazon (52.87 AUD for the pair). More proof I'll read anything by Kobek. This was presumably his COVID project: an internet + library investigation into the venerable Zodiac killings from the late 1960s near San Francisco. I chugged them both in a couple of days (that's about 600 pages worth) and retained very little. It's a lot flatter and more earnest than his previous efforts — there's not a lot of culture crit. I think he meant it to be taken seriously.

Reddit does not appear to be interested. Kobek did an interview with Bret Easton Ellis that I'm not going to watch. Goodreads: #1 and #2.

Robbie Arnott: Flames. (2018)

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Kindle. Arnott's debut. The style and ambit are similar to his more recent prize-winning effort, which is to say it's Tasmanian magic realism that imitates Richard Flanagan's more flighty fantasies. Here the heroines are drawn from comic books; these ladies can do anything because they are empowered with the essential characteristics of men, specifically a capacity for unanswerable violence. The plot leans unassuredly on vengeful elemental spirits, putatively inhuman but really subject to the kind of lurv that excuses all behaviours. Further motivation is generally lacking. The most successful parts cleave closely to genre tropes and things go in obvious directions. It's an amiable way to pass the time.

Goodreads: too much Gaiman's American Gods?

Aamina Ahmad: The Return of Faraz Ali. (2022)

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Kindle. A pointer from Omar El Akkad at the New York Times. The main thread is set against the rise of Bhutto over General Ayub in late 1960s Pakistan. The titular character is charged with cleaning up an "accident" in the red-light district of Lahore by his distant and powerful father. On the multitrack is an account of that man and his acquaintances; one formative experience is in an Italian P.O.W. camp in north Africa during World War II. The son has a parallel but far emptier experience during the Bangladesh Liberation War (name taken from Wikipedia) that I guess does provoke some love in his wife.

Every so often Ahmad nails a sentiment perfectly: Ali, returned to his family from the Indian P.O.W. camp but not yet fully honest with his wife, pretend-drinks tea from empty cups in his daughter's tent. Sometimes the writing is eye-glazingly flabby.

Goodreads. Many were offended by the language.

Jarett Kobek: Do Every Thing Wrong!: XXXTentacion Against the World. (2018)

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Kindle. Kobek completism triggered by his new books on the Zodiac killer. I wasn't familiar with the notional subject of this book or many of the references but as always the real topic is the rottenness of the (American/internet) culture. I found it less angry than his previous effort and also less essential: he's said much of this before. There are some good bits, but not as many as are in his masterworks.


Amartya Sen: Home in the World. (2021)

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Kindle. I've been a fan of Sen's technical presentations for quite a while and was hoping his memoir would shed some light on how it all came about. This is mostly about his childhood and early adulthood — the economist as a young man — and there's not a lot after he got the chair at Delhi School of Economics. The bulk is on his very early days in Bengal. He rambles at times; for instance the glosses on social choice are a curious mix of the obvious and the narrow or technical. He is clearly very proud of his analysis of liberalism but does not really attempt to explain it.

Varun Ghosh summarised it for the Australian Book Review: "regular digressions into tangential (and often esoteric) subject matter will limit the readability of the book and leave the picture of Amartya Sen himself largely unfinished." Abhrajyoti Chakraborty adds some recent colour. Goodreads. And so forth.

Elliot Ackerman, James G. Stavridis: 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. (2021)

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Kindle. I don't usually read this sort of militaristic strategic imagineering. The draw was Elliot Ackerman despite the strong sense that the returns have been negligible for some time.

Briefly it's 2034 and China has decided that it's time to take Taiwan. (Putin, despite making a hash of many of their premises in the real world, is still in power.) The USA has tied itself up in technological knots and cannot do more than react. Contrary to Daniel Ellsberg there is a nuclear exchange that most humans survive. India has risen as the USA slid into third worldism.

Well, what can I say. The plot is derivative and holey; we begin with an almost scene-for-scene replay of the Kobayashi Maru from Star Trek II, right down to having a woman in charge. Soon enough it's Dr. Strangelove with "Wedge" standing in for the far more entertaining Slim Pickens. It's probably intended more as a think piece, exploring their concerns through provocative situationalism, but even so their research is not good enough. (Just one example: severing internet cables running through the Arctic would have no effect on connectivity in the continental USA; I mean, just ask Google. I thought everyone knew it was designed to survive nuclear war.)

The authors have developments depend more on personal connections than the institutions that the West claims to be comfortable with. (Some big moves depend on stale family connections.) For all that and despite women being placed in positions of power, responsibility, and violence, when it comes to the substance of decision making men dominate.

Torn to shreds on Goodreads.

Ayad Akhtar: Homeland Elegies. (2020)

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Kindle. Prompted by a glowing review by Dwight Garner.

In earlier times this may've been derided as autofiction or just perhaps on the edge of Tom Wolfe et al's New Journalism, whereas now it's billed as a fictionalised memoir. The view from the native-born son of educated Pakistanis who migrated to the USA is broad and shallow, treating topics done to death by others recently; while Garner (and Akhtar) point back to Scott F. Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, I kept thinking of Mohsin Hamid's work from about a decade ago (The Reluctant Fundamentalist, How to get filthy rich in rising Asia) and Pankaj Mishra's capacious The Age of Anger. Performative mimesis, in short, and nowhere as punchy, transgressive or funny as Paul Beatty.

Topically we get Trump, a dash of Obama and bin Laden, racism in Pennsylvania, daddy issues (see, for instance, Lewis-Kraus), that economics (really financialisation) now dominates all other concerns and that this was observed by Emerson and Thoreau a long time ago, the limitations of a litigious society, black politics and how the white man's political machine is not going to solve anyone else's problems. A billionaire executes a slow-burning revenge fantasy, sending some racist municipalities broke with weaponized finance of mass and indiscriminate destruction. There's the odd self-contradiction, such as an affluent (self-described) black man thinking that spraying his money around ("maybe if we play our own game by their rules...") will make a difference. That's the general modus operandi I guess: the USA has snookered itself.

Akhtar is not a scientist; he operates entirely in the confirmation mode, constantly looking for validation and not the refutation that might prove his idea(s). (Consider the lengthy section on the predictive power of his dreams — I struggle to see it as something done for effect, a nod to the new age conspiracy theorists.) He is annoyingly patronising at times, talking to an imagined audience that he just knows is ignorant of Pakistan (and Afghanistan and ...), which doesn't work too well when he elides more telling episodes in history such as USA realpolitik in early 1970s East Pakistan. Performative amnesia? There's also a strange, irrelevant and wrong gesture at Gödel’s theorem. The originality or correctness of his claim that Robert Bork's The Antitrust Paradox set the stage for the current-day megacorps (concomitant with loss of diversity and exacerbated fragility) is not clear to me. I did want to know more about the Muslim concept of corporation; that the absence of such precluded development in Islamic cultures is intriguing.

Goodreads. Hari Kunzru at length: the slab quote is a great way to avoid judgement.

Nelson Algren: A Walk on the Wild Side (1956).

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Kindle. Richard Flanagan's introduction to a recent reprinting prompted me to dig up this mid-century American classic.

Essentially a series of portraits of hard living in the South from 1930 to 1932 as the depression put the screws on many people. It struck me as a sourcebook for many movies. First up Algren has thirty-year-old Latina Terasina take pity on illiterate sixteen-year-old Dove Linkhorn in the Rio Grande Valley (shades of Licorice Pizza). By jumping the rails (ala Scarecrow) Dove makes his way to the red light district of New Orleans, where many of those insulated from the economic fallout burn their money, to morph into Dirk Diggler of Boogie Nights. The final movement has Dove learn to read and write before being incarcerated for public drunkenness; one of the characters has a touch of Cool Hand Luke. Ultimately he returns home after he is blinded by a wrestler who lost his legs to the rails.

Overall it's almost entirely colour drawn from Algren's direct experience. Unlike John Steinbeck there's less moralising and more direct memoir or reportage; perhaps Of Mice and Men was the inspiration for a jailbird who echoes what's said to him. I found it to be a slog at times.

Goodreads. Russell Banks's introduction to a 1990 edition: even more referentialism.

Matthew Spektor: Always Crashing in the Same Car.

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Kindle. On the strength of David Thomson's scatty but intriguing review at the London Review of Books. In brief, a series of capsule bios of artistic L.A. people mixed in with the author’s personal life: the passing of an alcoholic mother, a relentlessly successful father, making it in NYC, getting divorced in California. Overall this mourns what was, melancholic rather than elegiac in its focus on what happens after success.

His notions of success and failure are very American but don't entirely own to the commercial forces at work. (Sure there are the studios but how about Madison Avenue? Would you still write or create for the screen without the economic imperatives?) The premise worked OK for Carole Eastman and the Perrys, largely due to their obscurity, enigma and self-effacement, but started to flag with the chapter on Tuesday Weld which leans heavily on a very few interviews (such as this one in 1971). By the time we get to Renata Adler the staleness is pervasive as Spektor critiques her criticism. (You may as well cut to the chase with that LRB review's extra layer of criticism.) He wants her famous takedown of Pauline Kael to have not killed her career, and sure enough it didn't, but that is to gloss over her persona non grata status amongst the NYC literati for telling tales out of school. That's obvious even from the antipodes as, for instance, the New York Review of Books never published her again. This general lack of nuance reads like the wishful thinking of third-shot boosterism.

So I'd say that the review was better than the book, though I was happy to get a few pointers to movies that just maybe are worth a look.

David Sanchez: All Day is a Long Time.

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Kindle. From a review by Tommy Orange in the New York Times. I've been a sucker for addiction lit since Trainspotting but I'm used to it being either heavily fictionalised or memoir (e.g. White Out). This falls somewhere in between, claiming to be fiction but written as humourless realism. Briefly we're in Tampa, Florida (home of the everhanging chad) with a restless young bloke born in 1991. His overactive brain leads to many behavioural issues, criminality, excess interiority. Eventually AA does the trick and he begins to think beyond himself. My eyes started glazing over a bit too often and I skimmed a good chunk of it.