peteg's blog - noise - books

Deepti Kapoor: Age of Vice. (2023)

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Kindle. A bum steer from Dwight Garner; he's trending to more miss than hit. Marketed as India's answer to The Godfather — and what a marketing effort it's been! — and so soon after the age of anger.

This book is long, its referents are exhaustively exhausting, the author's execution and continuity patchy. Let's not mention the dialogue, the overuse of brands and (my favourite) the overly specific pharmacopoeia. Is this Shantaram in world-class (so much world class) Delhi? Not really; it's more Trishna wanting to be Breaking Bad. The inert, touristic set piece on a deserted beach in Goa put me in mind of Ben Affleck, bloated and broken on the shore, powers dissipating, with shades of (dominant) grey. There are way too many confessions — more than your average no-I-expect-you-to-die! James Bond — and it attempts subtlety with a Star Wars I-am-your-father-Luke sotto voce. Basically if you've ever met a trope you'll meet it again here.

Goodreads. Oh no, she intends to write two more. The rating there has slid as the masses have filed in with their opinions. The White Tiger? Could be. Literary? Nope. Would Puzo be concerned? Not at all.

Ned Beauman: Venomous Lumpsucker. (2022)

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Kindle. Sometimes you just want to read something with a plot, some characters, a little pace and verve, maybe even a point of view. You'd even settle for some magpie storytelling where vast foraging, cracked perspectives and too many zingers make it easy to forgive the shortcomings.

I feel a bit bad re-reading what I said about Beauman's Madness is Better than Defeat: it was better than all that. Here he returns after a few too many years with a marginally saner take on green capitalism, specifically extinction credits. Amongst the many random jags are: short squeezes (GameStop is name checked), intelligent animals (initially provoking an oh no, but deftly deployed: the lady is looking for a species with sufficient intelligence to consciously take revenge on the humans who are wiping them out), game theory for fish (these lumpsuckers supposedly engage in retribution based on some risk assessment), Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, seasteading (canonically pilloried back in 2016 by Hermicity: "We now have the technology to live completely alone. Hermit cities powered by DAOs on the Ethereum blockchain." / "Solar powered drones delivering soylent to hermits, ran as a DAO on the Ethereum blockchain!"), BREXIT (the U.K. is now the Hermit Kingdom), a very dodgy take on the preservation of information (as a physical principle) and consciousness simulation on whatever (cf Permutation City).

Does it cohere? No it does not. Does that matter? Not at all. And isn't it time he got a movie deal? This is at least as good as any of the recent James Bond plots.

Goodreads. Wai Chee Dimock spoilt it at the New York Times. And so on.

Shaun Prescott: The Town. (2017)

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Kindle. Prompted by the release of his new book. Notionally about the disappearing towns in the Central West of NSW, but sufficiently banal, insecure, repetitive and unassured that my eyes glazed over anything that may've been interesting or novel.

Widely reviewed (and, of course, feted) locally. Kerryn Goldsworthy (amongst many others) is quick to fend off the charge that Prescott is just aping Gerald Murnane. Goodreads. And so on. Even trawling the apologetic reviews is a slog.

Yasmine Seale: The Annotated Arabian Nights: Tales from 1,001 Nights. (2021)

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Kindle. A pointer from Robyn Creswell at the New York Review of Books. I did enjoy the language/translation but somehow the stories seemed shallower this time around; perhaps I mostly enjoyed the colour in Richard Burton's effort.

Ray Nayler: The Mountain in the Sea. (2022)

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Kindle. A bum steer from Nicole Flattery in the New York Times. A murderous, sapient octopus society near a sandy shoreline of Côn Đảo (I haven't been). I usually bitch about novels being overstuffed with research but here it's the other way around; this is a novel of other people's ideas that already have better treatments in the scifi canon. For "humans trying to make sense of exotic consciousness and/or society" see Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama and sequels, Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life (filmed as Arrival), etc. For synthetic sapience, see positronic Asimov, etc. For connectionist ("cellular") artificial intelligence, see, well, the venerable field of connectionist AI. For "non-human species with a culture" try the elephants. The moral hand wringing and righteousness can be found anywhere.

There were so many bullshit assertions I felt like throwing my device across the troopy every few pages. (It's unfortunately quite a flabby trip to nowhere new.) Nayler has a character (that sounds like every other character) assert that "silicon based AI is no threat to humans" — as if he hasn't given a moment's thought to Cathy O'Neil-and-co's concerns. The memory palace acts as an index to data in the brain, so destroying an entry in that index is not the same as forgetting the information; you know, the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. (In my experience magpies know this but cats do not.) Evrim is ridiculously sub-human: he could be Doctor Manhattan or Rutger Hauer or Arnie or whoever but is instead a purely emoting reactionary, like an extra on a teenage vampire series. (I found the pronouns tiresome.) Most offensive were the assertions (not arguments!) for lethal violence, as if there are no alternatives ever. I'll stop there.

Mystifyingly highly rated at goodreads.

I close with one of my favourite quotes, from Don Marquis: "If you make people think they're thinking, they'll love you; but if you really make them think, they'll hate you."

James Gleick: Isaac Newton. (2003)

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I read Gleick's Chaos a long time ago and have fond memories of it. I dug this up after realising that I know little about Newton beyond his mathematics, physics, interest in alchemy and the dispute over priority with Leibniz. Unfortunately this book mostly just rehearses these topics, adding only a few biographical details: some but not all dates, where he lived and who he shacked up with, the politicking at the Royal Society (primarily with Hooke), the boosting by Halley, the heretical thoughts. Newton's Wikipedia page is broader, deeper and more interesting.

Goodreads.

Shehan Karunatilaka: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. (2020/2022)

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Kindle. The Booker Prize winner for 2022. More historical magic realism from the subcontinent, like that other famous Booker winner. Throughout it struck me as very derivative. Written in the second person (like How to get filthy rich in rising Asia). We're taken by a hedonistic gay photographer into Colombo and more obliquely Sri Lanka's civil war in the 1980s (Tamils v Sinhalese v other minorities) with about twice as many words as are functional. The plot is notionally motored by who-killed-Roger-Rabbit (sorry, you) but circles this and other points often, and without significant progress. None of the characters are particularly engaging. The rules for the spirit universe are arbitrary and unenforced; just noise. There is lots of local colour but mostly it collects set pieces (like poker games) sourced from things like James Bond movies and the internet of the past decade. The life philosophy is bogus, and the author has no grasp of probability or risk. He is obviously angling for a movie version.

Reviews are legion and mostly fawning. Goodreads.

Joshua Cohen: The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. (2021)

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Judy was cruel. She had that smart cruelty to her of someone who'd gotten what she wanted. And she'd gotten it the fairest way, through suffering.
after a long digression on notions of fairness for the purposes of college entrance essays

Kindle. Prompted by Netanyahu's restoration to the throne of Israel and Cohen's amusing take on Kushner's memoir. Told in the first person by a Pnin-ish academic in upstate New York. The Netanyahus come to visit for the purpose of a job interview at the local college. The setups are a bit clunky — it's often obvious where he's taking us — as the visitors are predictably horrible, the academic overweening, the backbiting. I probably missed many of the finely calibrated distinctions amongst the Jewish diaspora (ancestry, linguistic proficiency, cultural symbols) but there is still a lot to enjoy in the small, and he is damn funny. Overall, though, is there anything much to it?

This got Cohen the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Reviews are legion and generally tedious.

Russell Marks: Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System. (2015)

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Kindle. On the strength of his regular essays for The Monthly, which are mostly excellent. At book length (and seven years ago) he's not as taut or well structured. Marks hammers the restorative justice drum in a similar way to how I remember Nicholas Cowderey doing it in the 1990s, expecting data and money to persuade. Things have changed a bit since then (for instance McGowan in W.A. far out landslid Newman in Queensland) but remain essentially the same or worse.

I also read Marks's The Book of Paul immediately prior. It's brief and has its moments. On the other hand Keating's recent sprays about Barangaroo, Packer and casinos are some of the most asinine things he's ever said.

Goodreads. Yep, Marks needed to walk more of the less happy paths.

John Brunner: The Sheep Look Up. (1972)

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Again, second time around with this fat Brunner. Depressingly it became even more congruent with reality in the intervening decade.

I read it while waiting for the troopy to get serviced in Berri, South Australia. Don't believe the hype — there's very little to do here on the Riverland when the river is up and flowing rapidly. The rain (past and forecast) precludes escapist red dirt adventures to the north and east. Stay home, I suggest; even more so with the outbreak of Japanese Encephalitis along the river (see also the Guardian).

More context at Wikipedia: apparently prophetic for 2007.

John Brunner: The Shockwave Rider. (1975)

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Kindle. Second time around with this Brunner classic.

Hernan Diaz: Trust. (2022)

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Kindle. Gatsby meets unreliable narrators. The roaring-then-cratering 1920s setting put me in mind of Amor Towles's Rules of Civility; clearly it's intended to be topical, with gestures at financial engineering, high-frequency trading exploits, the disconnection of labour from reward. My eyes started glazing after the first part (a novel that introduces us to the financier and his wife). The second part is hard to wade through (an incomplete ghostwritten beat up of the financier's putative achievements). The third part is quite repetitious and self-justifyingly tedious (the ghostwriter's account of those days and her Italian father's incoherent anarchism and typesetting). The fourth part is about meeting expectations: the financier's wife is the genius, not him, but we knew that already.

Diaz misses the crucial foundation of the strategy that Ishiguro made his own: I was never sympathetic to any of the characters. But now I wonder, even being as uninvested I was and am, if this wasn't an Ouroboros.

Nicole Rudick at the New York Review of Books: man looks at world/other man, woman looks at man/men. Yawn. Adam Mars-Jones at the London Review of Books: tea from a bag and warm water, not a patch on Spufford's Golden Hill. Michael Gorra at the New York Times. Goodreads. And so on. Hats off to the marketing team.

Jamil Jan Kochai: The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories. (2022)

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Kindle. Some of these stories are ingeniously constructed, such as the first one with its video game that encodes the past in fractal detail, enabling a sort-of magic realism to rub up against sort-of omnipresent surveillance: it's a twenty-first century USA reconstruction of 1980s Soviet Afghanistan in the mode of a Charles Yu thought toy. There are tales of metamorphosis (it's having a moment), and some spy-stuff that reads like The Lives of Others. However this collection, while better, suffers from the same limitations as his debut novel: the few things he wants to tell us (typically about war zones) are repeatedly presented, spreading the point, if any, thin.

Wyatt Mason at the New York Review of Books. Elliot Ackerman. Goodreads. And a little related to the title of the book: The Hajj Trail simulator.

Douglas Rushkoff: Survival of the Richest. (2022)

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Kindle. On the strength of a promising excerpt in The Saturday Paper. That may've been the best bit: at book-length Rushkoff rambles, rants, riffs, self-aggrandises, self-contradicts and appears ignorant of history. There's not much about the promised billionaire survivalism and prepping, and the remainder is too generic. There are very few interesting or novel pointers; the only one I came away with was to John Rutt (ex Santa Fe institute) and his Game B (which presently seems moribund). These failures are especially vexing if you share any of his concerns. I think Rushkoff is mining the vein of similarly-unsatisfactory late-period Douglas Coupland.

Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner: Heat 2. (2022)

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Kindle. Read mostly in the Flinders Ranges between bouts of bushwalking. I haven't picked up an airplane novel or thriller in ages. These are Heat scenarios, set in Chicago and L.A., apparently developed since the movie. Despite implausible coincidences, secondary characters in need of more development and its length, it's quite effective; cinematographic — which goes without saying — and effectively dated, like a cold war thriller, by forcing you to consider what tech existed at the time. But Mann missed a trick: he should've made a video game like Grand Theft Auto. The ending suggests there just might be a Heat 3.

Adrian McKinty at the Smage. A lengthy interview of Mann by Jonah Weiner.

Mohsin Hamid: The Last White Man. (2022)

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Kindle. The premise is right there in the title, so I can't say I didn't know what I was getting. The plot, as it were, is that the great arc of life continues whatever metamorphoses occur, however tedious and shallow those might be. Mercifully short but it could've been shorter with less annoying waffle and repetition, if he walked back fewer assertions and just said what he meant in the first place. For mine it's the worst yet from Hamid, the second consecutive thumbs down from me. I do not know who he wrote this for.

Goodreads. Apparently it provoked thought in some readers, though these thoughts are generally unshared or unshareable. David Gates at the New York Times: flat-footed fabulism. And so on. The vibe is general bemusement.

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.

Goodreads.

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.