peteg's blog - noise - books

Ernest Hemingway: For Whom the Bell Tolls.

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Kindle. I read it quite slowly, resisting getting to the climactic battle as much as Hemingway did. I found it much easier to approach than his Old Man and the Sea, which I started but didn't get far with a few years back, making me think that that might be a gatekeeper suggestion, keeping the casual from the man's better works. He's definitely on the romantic and doomed side of things even as he writes unsentimentally about the Spanish Civil War. The structure is straightforward; he's not bothered with playing tricks with points of view, so it's very easy to follow in time, space and character. Given his reputation I was surprised at how strongly drawn his female character(s) were. I wonder what he would have made of present-day USA.

The Wikipedia page has loads of details. The Russian Karkov trashes the POUM, which George Orwell fought for. I think I'll give the movie a miss.

Amor Towles: Rules of Civility.

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Kindle. I was always going to circle back to Towles's debut after his masterful A Gentleman in Moscow. Unfortunately this is more of a generic The Great Gatsby with a dash of Great Expectations and a side of The Talented Mr Ripley. The first-person lady always seems happier when she finds her evening free, but of course if you're a social climber you've got to be out observing all the fine markers of class stratifications in late-1930s NYC that may help you avoid joining all the men going the other way. Many are faking it until they've made it alongside the old moneyed, it being read that you and everyone wouldn't be anywhere else or playing any other game. Towles reveals himself as a fan of guns, and the gutter press; I thought our heroine was going to end up at the New Yorker and not a glossed-up New York Post or Gawker. Pretty much every chapter pivots on a timely coincidental encounter. He's very opinionated about other writers — thumbs up for Dickens, Hemingway, Russians, Thoreau. It passed the time OK.

Liesl Schillinger adroitly gestures at the cliches and avoids assessment, doubtlessly the right strategy for a New York lass in a publishing orbit. Goodreads generally loved it, though some ladies were not persuaded that Towles did justice to his narrator's voice. Viv Groskop: these are the greatest hits of NYC.

Catherine Lacey: Pew.

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Kindle. I was looking forward to another bout of Catherine Lacey internalism and was somewhat disappointed to be lead directly off the property instead. We meet the entity to be imminently known as Pew wandering into small town Southern USA and immediately drawing current-day identity political lightning, being something of a tabla rasa that other people freely write on. If (s)he/they had been Australian, she'd be a Terra Nullius, exhibiting the impossibility of self containment in spite of modest want. The individuals in the community, and sometimes the collective, do inscribe, unreliably, but Lacey's underdrawing mostly leaves us reinforcing our own prejudices. (I could see the relevance of identifying a gender but not a race; sure, the town is split black/white, that's customary in the USA, but what has skin colour got to do with the mechanics of helping someone in the first instance?) Ultimately the unbearable lightness of Christian charity evaporates in a forgiveness festival that goes as you'd expect if you took the horror movie tropes to be merely providing this otherwise (literally) quotidian work with a pulse. Some pages of description are absolutely cinematic: the old lady with the eyes and the shaking hands, identifying Jesus returned. I saw Agnes sitting at the gas station, lucid, capacious and comprehending, and Tammy in NYC with a Latvian parallel.

Nicole Flattery quotes Lacey explaining what she's doing, picks out some of the cinematic bits, and bemoans the lack of humour. I don't disagree but was more prepared to accept a Pew without volition. She concurs with Dwight Garner that Lacey's previous two long-form efforts (Nobody is ever missing, The Answers) are superior. Chris Power tries to be respectful with the pronouns. I've never found Lacey to be an "economical writer"; I'm drawn mostly by her iteratively-deepened elliptic style. Fiona Maazel.

Ned Beauman: The Teleportation Accident.

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Kindle. I conclude that the best thing Beauman has done was his most recent, and the first of his I read — Madness is Better than Defeat. This is set in pretty much the same era but indulges a weakness for pillorying ze Germans, especially the artistic ones. Beauman's leading man (never ours) goes from Berlin to Paris to L.A. on the trail of a McGuffin in the form of a young lady, encountering various deceptions along the way. The characters are sketchy and the reader quickly learns not to invest much effort in anything as there's a lot of "but actually" retconning in between the stale humour and adolescent sexuality. Beauman clearly wanted to be Martin Amis when he grew up but it's too late for that now.

The reviews at Goodreads sum it up well: the plot would embarass Scooby Doo.

John Brockman (ed): This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress.

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Kindle. I can't remember why I dug this up. Generally meh. Far too many psychologists got their responses to Edge.org's 2014 question recorded here, and yet others in even softer disciplines. Nearly all are obvious and unpersuasively argued, and many "ideas" proposed for retirement are not even scientific. Overall this project is more about eliciting sympathy than making progress, like a first year philosophy class. Goodreads.

Jonathan Lethem: The Arrest.

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Kindle. I gave this a go on the basis of the first few paras of Charles Yu's review. If I'd read further I'd have noticed that he mostly just summarised the thing and was only really sure that the author had written better books previously. (I did learn that Lethem authored the braver Motherless Brooklyn.) I don't think that dystopia and post-apocalyptica are quite as dual as either of them thinks.

Frank Herbert: Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune.

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Kindle. At the suggestion of David S, prompted by the noise about a new movie and a nagging sense that I'd missed out on more than just Back to the Future as a kid. I'd put it off for so long because the books are so fat. The first lives up to its reputation, the second is OK, while the middle two are unremitting slides into indulgent unmotivated and unfocussed verbiage that showed no sign of abating. I'll therefore give the last two a miss. It's not really sci fi; if Herbert was writing this now he'd probably go in for unabashed historical fiction with a side of fantasy. For all the supposed erudition exhibited here, al-historical Lawrence is far more interesting. Perhaps Brunner lifted his style from Herbert, as both like to introduce each chapter with some fake journals or historiography and other random crap. Whereas Brunner sometimes made these more interesting than the main writing, Herbert never does.

Greg Egan: Uncanny Valley.

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Kindle. A short riff on what it might be like to be an edited, artificial revival/incarnation of a successful gay man. I don't really know what he was getting at; there were moments of Brunneresque social commentary but not in an imagined future.

Douglas Stuart: Shuggie Bain.

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Kindle. The best thing I've read in an age. Briefly, this is the story of a mother whose addiction to booze costs her her family. It's well constructed and somehow sufficiently familiar with just enough Glasgwegian to sound like a west-coast Irvine Welsh. Early on, at Blackpool, we get a variation on human observation: the woman looks at the brightly-lit world in wonder, while the man looks at the other men looking at his woman. That night, amongst many others, does not end well. I felt he accurately portrayed Scottish literalism, community, coarseness, concern, cliches, etc. His inventive description (like The Godfather) and masterful unfolding of his characters made it cinematic. Kelly Macdonald is a shoo-in for Agnes.

Leah Hager Cohen at the New York Times.

2020-11-20: won the Booker Prize for 2020. Presumably this prompted a tepid review in the LRB.

Ceridwen Dovey: In the Garden of the Fugitives.

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Kindle. The problem with reading on the Kindle is that it's too expensive to throw across the room every time a book gets too irritating. The legions of local reviews fawn over Ms Dovey's prose, but too often I see clanging repetition, contradictions within the same paragraph, and characters celebrating the awesomeness of other characters' observations and unsupported assertions, shading into authorial self praise. Much could be fixed with clearer thinking about what she's trying to say, and pondering if it's, you know, actually worth saying; the hiding behind unreliable narrators does not add layers via self perception, it just needlessly musses up the message. The Remains of the Day this is not.

Structurally this thing is supposed to be an exchange of emails. This almost immediately proves unsustainable and is replaced with the old reliable two-track. The voices, initially somewhat distinct, are entirely flattened, including the dialogue within the dual but not duelling monologues. All I concluded is that you too can go to Harvard (or New York University as the case may be) and come away with an unfurnished mind.

I picked this up because I remember enjoying her inventiveness in Only the Animals. There's none of that here, or any humour. The excess of researched, touristic and psychoanalytic detail is trying, reminding me of that fad from a few years back (Rushdie, Ghosh, ...) that requires a home for every factoid the author encounters. Overall it looks like we're watching Ms Dovey do her South African white guilt therapeutic exercises in public. A cursory scan of the reviews suggests this is easy to see but difficult to engage with.

Greg Egan: Incandescence.

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Kindle. I went in cold, forgetting that with Egan the blurb on the back is not an accurate guide to what he has in mind. The afterword tells us that he was playing Raymond Smullyan's didactic game for Einstein's general theory of relativity, and not the promised Star Trek V mystical journey into the centre of the galaxy to meet some isolationists. Being lazy I quickly stopped following the lessons too closely, and I'd say it's not worth reading unless you do try to keep up.

Initially I liked how his universe respected the physics we know, with life (not as we have it) moving around on a galaxy-wide data network with transit delays of millennia, but of course the didacticism gave him no other option. I was less of a fan of the sentients having backups, given his broader conception of consciousness in Permutation City and readiness to lean on quantum encryption. Why should consciousness remain local in such a system? More fatally Egan struggles to keep his epistemics straight: how do the Splinter critters know about the hub, the void and all that when they haven't been outside for generations? Why ever would they expect their local observations to hold universally? Why would they ascribe a speed to light? So much (too much) ontology is taken for granted.

As a story it reminded me of McGahan's posthumous sapient eco disaster. The two-track structure takes the edge off the didacticism, and many explanations are too hurried; more diagrams would have helped, as Egan admits on his companion webpages. Around the mid point I realised that the stories must be very separate in time, which while skilfully suggested made at least one into deterministic history, robbing them both of forward momentum. For all his understanding of science, Egan shows less awareness of and interest in how societies may need to be structured to thrive; it seems likely that some basic empathy, truth telling or goal sharing is necessary for collaboration to arise, and that seems like a prerequisite for technology. He did make me wonder if nature knows about binary search. Oftentimes there's a bit too much science and not enough engineering.

Goodreads has many words spilt on this one. Egan's page suggests this work is insufficiently self contained. He emphasises that (as is usual with physics) almost everything he says are white lies, implying that he is not playing with the right foundational concepts. For all his protestations I didn't feel like the Aloof ever turned up.

John Brunner: The Stone That Never Came Down.

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"Inside my head," Malcolm quoted, "a man is trying to ride a dog which is trying to ride a lizard."

Kindle. The best of the thin Brunners in quite a while. The VC total recall virus presented here as the all-saviour is a minor variant of the scepticism/science/rationality/Enlightenment meme-virus that ripped through Europe and later the world quite a while back. Apparently if our memories worked better we'd be able to solve all the problems of humanity. Then again, we might just end up with more movies like Kaufman's latest.

I guess his major failing as a novelist was his inability to construct complex characters. That and his unnuanced criticisms of religion etc.

Ron Rash: Burning Bright: Stories.

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Kindle. A 2010 collection of shorts from a much-feted writer from the Carolinas and (somehow) more specifically Appalachia. They're well written but thin. None have the kink Carver put in his. Good always beats evil; Southerners are redeemed by not all being Confederates, and no women are helpless but some could use a little help in their twilight. I'd forgotten that previously I'd read his Nothing Gold Can Stay and seen the feeble movie adaptation of Serena. I guess this is more of the same: the meth, the Civil War, the grinding poverty, the ties that bind. Mercifully brief.

Janet Maslin is a fan of the man.

John Brunner: The 100th Millennium.

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Kindle. Very thin Brunner. His conceit here is entirely busted: apparently a star is going to swing past the Earth in a few hundred years past the 100th millennium and the solution is to dig deeply into the past. Jarringly Brunner also wants a progressive society, one still hungry for something, and yet cannot imagine the production of new knowledge. He's all too ready to focus on new sources of addiction, all of which lead to decadence.

Goodreads tells me this later got expanded into Catch A Falling Star.

John Brunner: Web of Everywhere.

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Kindle. And yet more thin Brunner. Here he toys with the concept of instantaneous matter transportation... again. Something apocalyptic has gone down so there's only three women for every five men. We get a couple of strong characters and a weak plot. There's just nothing there.

John Brunner: The Super Barbarians.

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Kindle. Thin Brunner is inexhaustible but exhausting. This is a retread of the swords-and-starships conceit: feudal, barbarian aliens who have little technology on their home world conquer Earth with superior starships. Conclusion: some other aliens gifted these aliens that technology as some kind of experiment (motivation unknown). Douglas Adams had far more fun with his Vogons. It's a mashup of the Mongols and China, of Arabia, of the Romans and the Greeks, of the bible. It's like Brunner was trying to convince himself that all that study, erudition and drug taking added up to something, or at least could be monetised. With more conviction and fewer coincidences it might have been Dune.

John Brunner: The Stardroppers.

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Kindle. And yet more thin Brunner, apparently based on even thinner Brunner (the novella Listen, the Stars). There's a lot of disposable wind up to the final exposition, all seen through the eyes of an American FBI-like agent. It's so disposable that you could pretty much read the first and last ten pages and get the whole benefit, which is that alien consciousnesses are spraying their knowledge around the universe and humans only need to be in the right head spaces while listening to their transistors to learn how to teleport etc. I guess it's all deus ex machina without a substantive machina or any specific deus.

John Brunner: Interstellar Empire.

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Kindle. Once more unto the breach of thin Brunner. Swords and starships, the latter being entirely irrelevant and the former only mostly. What makes him worth reading — his insight into social structure — is almost entirely absent here. Moreover, as he admits in a foreword, all three are derived from Asimov, right down to a robot advising an emperor. His foundational conceit, that humans don't invent interstellar spaceflight but discover massive caches of alien ships, goes completely undeveloped. Objectively a total bust.

John Brunner: The Shift Key.

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Kindle. Quite the worst book by Brunner I've read yet. The set up is horror but many words later we're told it was just a chemical leak. Too many irrelevant characters and vignettes and repetitions. The point, I think, was to hitch a ride with a/the cultural revolution and riff on the perfectibility of the once and future paradisal English village. Pagan hippies to the rescue.

John Brunner: The Long Result.

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Kindle. Continuing with the thin Brunners. This is a chatty noir that is padded with excess and unimaginative detail. The premise is what happens when the (imperial) centre is surpassed by its more grasping progeny. Read the USA versus Britain, with Japan and perhaps China looking benignly on. All of the plot moves are telegraphed too far in advance. He wants psychohistorical determinacy but doesn't have the patience to make it coherent, or vague enough for that not to matter.