peteg's blog - noise - books

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?

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.


Thea Astley: Drylands.

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Kindle. I've been meaning to read more of Astley's work since I picked up a couple of her short stories about a decade ago. This one, her last, got her the Miles Franklin in 2000. It's essentially a collection of shorts and portraits organised around the small (fictional) town of Drylands which I think is supposed to not exist not too far west of Rockhampton. While the writing is sometimes fine the content is unfortunately too unoriginal to get excited about; what's here can only be news to someone who's never been on the receiving end of the boredom of people from small country towns. On the flip side it seems beyond her imagining that these little places may thrive again, for instance via online communities and people decamping en masse from the coast. Was she blinded by her dogma that culture means French, that screens have killed the written word? And yet I read her book on such.

Goodreads. Kerryn Goldsworthy on the strengths of Astley's (earlier) writing and her dogmas. Bill Holloway, bang on, says the book is based on Springsure, somewhat near Carnarvon Gorge, and "Red Plains" is Emerald. I quite enjoyed Emerald and its botanic garden and nearby lake. Strangely when I was there the area was flooded, not dry, which is why I didn't make it to Springsure.

Hervé Le Tellier: The Anomaly.

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Kindle. A French airport novel in translation. Briefly an Air France flight from Paris to NYC undergoes an anomaly. I had hoped this would lead to some structural fun, perhaps some symmetry. Told as a multitrack with way too many characters, some of whom cop it in the neck in what I took to be authorial vengeance. (Specifically man-magnet film-editing Parisien Lucie and her aging architect André are set up for slaughter.) Very referential. Loads of cliches, especially American tropes in the button-pushing mode, and my all-time favourite: dropping brand names of pharmaceuticals and hitman equipment. Despite the specific dates there is no mention of COVID. The confrontation of pairs made no sense and was not explained; I mean, the US government still runs Gitmo, right? And disappearing those inconvenient people would have been (and soon is) more in character. I laughed a bit, at not with. The Godfather, canonical in this market segment, has nothing to fear.

Goodreads: yeah, many more reasons to give this one a miss. Sarah Lyall at the New York Times thought it was high concept literature. She sells it as an exploration of all those deep questions when really it's just a stick looking for an eye.

Peter Ho Davies: A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself.

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Kindle. Shame, Peter Ho Davies asserts, is a lie someone told you about yourself. Colour me unconvinced. As always he has his moments but the excessive hand wringing over who can write what about whom is another instance of his annoying oversensitivity to the latest writerly fashions. (The book is about a man writing about abortion and fatherhood, drenched in Christian symbols, featuring not a few bouts of rage.) I struggled with his unreflective conformism, his inane, mimetic desire for a "normal" child. I think of him as culturally Welsh (with Chinese ancestry) but the way this is written suggests his transformation into an American is now complete. Overall he poses too many questions of the kind that go unanswered here and everywhere, often as little more than gestures, tics; he gets older but there is little sense of him getting wiser. Some of the wordplay is quite fun, and he evokes genuine pain, forlorn and lost, in the opening movements.


Richard Flanagan: And What Do You Do, Mr Gable?

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Kindle. A 2011 collection of Flanagan's essays, including the famous Gunns: the Tragedy of Tasmania. Perhaps the best bits are the bread recipes, the love letters to the Tasmanian wilderness and those who get out amongst it. (The abortive kayak trip to the mainland sat somewhere between brown trousers and moronic to me.) In his defense of Australian fiction, he criticizes others for "the sorry retailing of facts as fiction", incidentally providing the perfect epitaph for his own Wanting. The stuff on Latham was hardly ever relevant. On Howard he has the odd zinger but otherwise tells you what you knew at the time and have mostly succeeded at forgetting. There's a touch of Hunter S. Thompson aspirationalism to the political stuff. Overall it has not aged well.

Goodreads. David Free got out the baseball bat: "For all his loathing of politicians as a class, Flanagan writes exactly the way politicians talk." Ouch. On the other hand I'm certain the arguments for Bush War II in Iraq were always bullshit. And on the third hand Free himself is apparently now reduced to writing dreck like this; perhaps they should have made common cause. I guess he took offense to Flanagan dissing Jonathan Franzen. Wow, this pond is so small.

Murray Bail: He.

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Kindle. Scattershot recollections from Murray Bail. Some resonated. There's an Adelaide childhood and a young bloke who couldn't wait to get married, to leave. He evolves into a man who is a bit harsh about himself, about that search for experience that ultimately does not give enough shape to his life, but is generously rueful about others. The abiding self absorption slides into solipsism. Australian painting is just landscapes (presumably in the lee of Namatjira) as if Brett Whiteley never happened. Friends in quantity, immemorable. Lovers some; he suggests he was into Helen Garner for her work, that her feminism wasn't up to a separation. Detachment.

Gerard Windsor: reheated from the Bail notebooks from 2005. Much is absent. Peter Craven. Joseph Cummins.

Amor Towles: The Lincoln Highway.

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Kindle. Towles's followup to A Gentleman in Moscow: once again it's 1954 but this time we're in Nebraska heading for California by way of NYC. I enjoyed it for what it was — a sort-of Huckleberry Finn road trip for a twenty-first century looking back nostalgically, enviously at the twentieth — but I struggled with the cold moral calculus, perhaps because I couldn't tell if Towles was endorsing it, or merely describing how it was (a somewhat precise transactionalism) or should be in the U.S.A. His prose and story construction are meticulous. Ulysses would be at home in Nomadland.

Chris Bachelder (spoiler city). Goodreads.