peteg's blog - noise - books

Ann Patchett: State of Wonder

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Kindle. Third time around with Ann Patchett; I remember enjoying Commonwealth for its sprawling family saga, and being unimpressed by the inessential The Dutch House. This one, from 2011, lies somewhere in the middle. The premise is cliche: a feminized Heart of Darkness embodied in the heavily qualified (surely overqualified) big pharma lab rat Marina Singh. Her job is to go bravely where no Minnesotan half-bred Sikh with father issues has gone before... past the rubber plantations of known Brazil/Amazonia to a magical circle of trees, revealed by her Kurtz (ob/gyn prof Dr Swenson) to solve the problems of age in Western women and disease in Eastern peoples, not to mention the face of God. As before I often enjoyed her writing, which here wears its research lightly and tourism more heavily, apart from the odd bout of excessive handwringing and impossibility; Patchett reminds us constantly of the limits of medical research (etc) in the USA while having us believe that the woefully unsuitable Marina would ever be sent on such a journey and capable of such feats as cutting up an anaconda. The other characters are again not managed well; more interesting to me were the tertiary Dr Budi and Thomas Nkomo than the Bovenders and Saturns and Swenson (etc) who get the focus. There is intercontinental lurv. It's cinematic, or at least telemovie-atic.

As always, a range of views at Goodreads. I think the baseball-bat wielders have it. A book of the decade for the ABC's Sarah L'Estrange; her summary is inaccurate. Fernanda Eberstadt at the New York Times says Lord of the Flies and "megavillainess"; we're adjacent to James Bond territory. Also at the New York Times, Janet Maslin gestures also at Herzog and is more appropriately skeptical.

Catherine Lacey: Certain American States

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More interiority from Catherine Lacey, this time in short form. I didn't find anything particularly memorable here. As always the odd observation or taut sentence or angle is cute and sometimes makes the ramble worthwhile. I wasn't convinced by the male voices.

A variety of opinions at Goodreads.

Elliot Ackerman: Red Dress in Black and White.

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Kindle. This is the weakest from Ackerman I've read yet. It's nothing like his earlier work, except perhaps in the prose being even more pedestrian. I guess he read a book from the first Cold War and figured that we needed an Our Man in Constantinople or The artist who didn't come in from the cold. The city and its subcultures provide only local colour; the only rounded-out character here is Murat, and that's because he's a two dimensional, non-violent Michael Corleone-esque business guy. Plot-wise Ackerman thinks he's got it figured out like Smiley would, but it wouldn't take much imagination for Cat to return home at any point to fetch her and her son's passports; she could depart for the USA while her husband is out one day, and I doubt the embassy could interfere much. The reveal at the end is entirely predictable given the concussive repetition and closededness of what comes before.

Joan Silber talks it up. Perhaps this shadowboxing is something for Americans to wring their hands over.

Robert Perisic: No-Signal Area.

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Even pointlessness looks better when it's finished.

Kindle. A pointer from Ken Kalfus. Translated Croatian. The premise — of building an obsolete turbine in a factory last functional in the days of Communism — seemed adequately kooky. The bulk however is a series of portraits of people making their way through the days after the end of history. There's a bit of everything, but nothing dug too deeply. The humour is great. The rambling inner monologues are trying. When it comes the turn away from industrialism is handled well. The problem is that it takes so long.

Richard Ford: Sorry for Your Trouble.

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Kindle. A collection of shorts. I should have realised what Rand Richards Cooper meant by "trenchant and at times thrillingly downbeat realism": it's code for an extended meditation on the fine distinctions in feeling that people don't make any more. I was instead sold by his pull quote: "He had thought about her every single day. Though he’d thought about many other things as often. To be thinking about something didn’t mean what people said it meant." Ford sticks to where he knows: Ireland and the Irish diaspora, New Orleans, NYC, Maine, the generic Midwest, Paris, the professional classes, first world problems. His shifts in time within these stories are technically virtuosic, but also lead to excess repetition that kills things deader than dead.

Don Winslow: Broken.

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Kindle. A collection of shorts, almost novellas, or offcuts. Upon completing it I realised I'd seen his three-spoked Paradise weed dealers before, in Oliver Stone's Savages. Here they're trying to expand into Hawaii, which the locals, of course, are not happy about. That suggests there's probably more in these stories for Winslow's regulars than I got. There's also the vibe that he's a sort-of short-form West Coast Dennis Lehane, providing raw material to the movies.

All of these stories go about as you'd expect once the premise has been established. Most of the fun is in his punchy sentences and observations, and that none overstay their welcome to the point of resentment. The pick for me was the second — Crime 101 — where he sets up a few overlapping triangles of cops, robbers, jewellers and beach bunnies. The weakest is the concluding The Last Ride, which reads as some kind of manifesto for how he wishes Southern Republicans would behave, i.e., by getting back in touch with what Winslow presents as their traditional decency. Most are about men who are lethally competent in familiar but unreal scenarios where things go unsurprisingly.

Janet Maslin's review sold it to me. She reckons the first (Broken) is the weakest.

Evan Ratliff, ed: Love and Ruin: Tales of Obsession, Danger, and Heartbreak from The Atavist Magazine.

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Kindle. Over an extended period of time, since I read Ratliff's fascinating The Mastermind. This is a collection of long articles drawn from The Atavist; some hits, some misses, some omissions, and one I'd read before. Most were good but nothing was particularly memorable.

Tim Winton: The Turning.

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Kindle. I've had in mind for a while that I should rewatch the movie from 2013. Instead I picked up its source material, which is good in its way. Since its release Winton's autobiographies have made its origins more transparent, and perhaps the whole thing redundant.

There's been a deficit of specifically Australian stories these past several years, or maybe I haven't been looking hard enough. Either way this seems unlikely to change with the virus and the eternal pursuit of world city status.

Arthur Phillips: The King at the Edge of the World.

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Kindle. Dominic Dromgoole sold it to me. The premise is rich: an educated Muslim in the royal courts of England and Scotland around 1600 CE, apparently a time of Queen Elizabeth I and James VI/I. My history is too weak to have gotten all the allusions; I spent most of the book waiting for an account of how the highly ambiguous and underdrawn James came to commission the King James Bible, which — I'd've thought — did more for his claims to Protestantism than anything presented here. It's a bit Visit of the Royal Physician, a bit A Gentleman in Moscow, and the ending is entirely 25th Hour. It's too repetitious; the early foreshadowing worked well, but at some point he just needed to get on with it. A decent edit might have cut 15% and yielded a taught philosophical thriller.

Aravind Adiga: Amnesty.

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Kindle. Not great. A Tamil student-visa overstayer from Sri Lanka in a Sydney dated by the pre-Opal card Travel Tens and those green machines (which, incidentally, didn't require a swipe off and so there's no timestamp for that), a pre-lockout Kings Cross as a red-light district, the Coke sign when it was neon. Conversely the bushfire smoke and release date made it feel like this past summer. There are heaps of books on the experiences of South Indians being exploited in the Middle East (e.g. Temporary People, Goat Days); fair enough that it be Australia's turn. Unfortunately this is no more than an aimless tour of the touristic parts of the city, a generic rumination on the plight of guest workers/illegals (what about the Pacific islanders?), and a long way from great; things get very repetitious, like circling a drain.

Dwight Garner sold it to me; I did keep reading and it didn't get any better than those opening scenes. Juan Gabriel Vásquez.

Deb Olin Unferth: Barn 8.

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Kindle. I remember enjoying Unferth's collection of shorts Wait Till You See Me Dance. Here she's even more of a romantic, breathing Brooklyn all over so-uncool animal liberation (but don't call it that, it's uncool). She renovates some of the old revolutionary tropes and applies a liberal cinematic gloss: a narrator can voice all her funny stuff, which is mostly descriptional. Concretely this is getting the cracked actors of Fight Club's Operation Mayhem back together for one last campaign against the big-ag factory farming of egg laying chooks. Capitalism is so busted it doesn't even come in for critique, and similarly for a tired and cynical populace. There's a touch of Occupy, but these are the flyover states. Mostly it is contrivance forgivable, with so often the right image: a row of cages is Zenoean. There's a bit too much foreshadowing and repetition. Overall it put me in mind of Francine Prose's Mister Monkey.

Harriet Alida Lye at the New York Times.

Fred Kaplan: The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War.

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Kindle. Throughout I took it to be an update of Kaplan's PhD thesis from 1983 but in an afterword he claims that this is about policy and policy makers whereas previously he focussed on the intellectual apparatus of nuclear warfare. As such it's dispiriting to see so little recognition of the apparent fact that nuclear weapons are pretty much militarily useless: it seems that there is no situation where their use will lead to any worthwhile outcome. Daniel Ellsberg has repeatedly pointed this out, for instance in his book from several years ago. I was disappointed that Kaplan does not observe how the concept nuclear winter could or should have changed policy in the 1980s, and in general how strategy and policy should be influenced by the shifting balance of terror. (For instance, there was a window from 1945 until some time in the 1950s when the USA could — and did! — unilaterally use nuclear weapons without much restraint, but after this time a first strike became far more hairy.) On the plus side I did enjoy reading about how the powerful transitioned from World War II into the Cold War, and some context around the Korean War, about which I know very little.

Justin Vogt. He observes that Kaplan could usefully have contrasted all this sterile policy development with the actual decision to use atomic weapons in Japan in 1945. The stories around the end of the Cold War are, as he says, fascinating and grounds for optimism. Conversely the command and control infrastructure remains a worry.

Charles J Murray: The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer.

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Kindle. Not to be confused with the "supermen" theories of another Charles Murray. I was always a bit curious about what Seymour Cray actually did. Suffice it to say that this book is at the popular, business-y end of things with insufficient technical detail. It needed a bit of an edit. For most of it the author tries to push the unconvincing line that Cray was somehow conservative in his designs when clearly he had a lot of insight into the risks he was and should be running. Cray's greatest hits are the CDC 6600 (a prototypical RISC design by the sounds of it) and the iconic Cray 1. I don't know what exactly he was expecting from gallium arsenide semiconductors; Intel et al seem to have gotten there with silicon.

Incidentally Dijkstra worked at Burroughs from mid-1973 so I guess their paths didn't overlap so much. Little is said in the book about programmability and nothing about Brooks's software crisis.

Charles Yu: Interior Chinatown.

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Dead tree from the Book Depository, bought the very second I became aware that he had a new book out. I guess you could say this is a more direct take on what it means to be "Asian-American", by which he means ethnically Chinese, culturally American, and living in L.A. He expands on his parents' experiences as immigrants (cf his previous take on that), father-son relations and expectations (cf op. cit.), and the variety of aspirations that only lead to Kung Fu Guy. There's some pretty funny stuff in there, and some poignancy, and a few moves that I'm told are familiar to Westworld viewers. Older Brother is somewhat reflexive; Yu's got a law degree and the book pretends to a literate defence of the experience of the "model minority". I think he's better in short form (cf Sorry Please Thank You and Third Class Superhero) but perhaps my memory is faulty.

Jeff VanderMeer draws a parallel with Beatty's The Sellout (oh the irony, despite the shared city). A bio-of-sorts by Adam Sternbergh. Reviews are legion.

Adam Higginbotham: Midnight in Chernobyl.

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Kindle. Prompted by Dave mentioning that the Chernobyl TV series was some chop, and its appearance on the New York Times best books list for 2019. The details about the atomic city of Pripyat, the Soviet bureaucracy, the operational matters and design of the nuclear power plant, ... are often riveting. Conversely Higginbotham doesn't give us the story of the other three reactors at Chernobyl; for instance, when they were shut down, restarted and operated after the crisis that engulfed the fourth. The moral appears to be that not-immediately-lethal ionising radiation is on the rise, but don't you worry your pretty head about that.

Reviews are legion. Jennifer Szalai.

Nadeem Aslam: The Golden Legend.

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Kindle. This is the third of Nadeem Aslam's I've read, after The Blind Man's Garden and Season of the Rainbirds. The themes are his usual: the faultlines of contemporary Pakistan with a particular emphasis on the lives of its liberal elites. The focal couple are well-to-do Muslim architects who share what they have with a low-caste Christian family. Much is made of a book that seems to record what Aslam regards as the sum total of human experience. Bad stuff happens and Aslam doesn't so much shield us from it as elude banality. Again his prose tends to the workmanlike.

Francine Prose at the New York Times. Matthew Wright is right that Aslam's politics comes across as simplistic, almost naive.

Wayne Macauley: Simpson Returns.

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Kindle. I was expecting some laughs or keen observations from this imagining of a temporally distended Simpson and his donkey setting out from Melbourne in search of the great inland sea circa 2003. Of course this is at Lasseter's behest. As social commentary the book hits all the familiar notes and no more. It is well written for the most part, though the use of "Afghani" where he means "Afghan" is an annoying tic.

Extensively reviewed locally. Ronnie Scott ambivalently sums up the parts. Goodreads. Elizabeth Flux provides some much-needed context. Alex Cothren.

Elliot Ackerman: Places and Names.

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Kindle. The last and most-recent of Elliot Ackerman's work for me to get to. Here he lays bare the source material for his first two novels in a brief, almost diary-format memoir. Again it is well written. Some or perhaps all of these vignettes are inconclusive, which is perhaps his point: that his war continues, even now. He has a Robert S. McNamara moment of meeting with the enemy, perhaps too soon for a full rapprochement; his interlocutor is still searching the Islamic millenarial tea leaves for a prognosis. This book is ahistorical, a reflection on tactical experience and not policies nor strategies. The final chapter fleshes out his silver star citation to uneven effect. He now seems to be based in the USA after some time in Istanbul.

Anne Barnard reviewed it for the New York Times: more effing the ineffable.

Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson: Buzz, Sting, Bite: why we need insects.

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Kindle. Anecdotes about insect behaviour from a Norwegian entomologist. A quick and sometimes quite funny read. It's not as diverse as it needed to be: there's the usual focus on ants and bees, cicadas, true bugs, etc. but the eternal mystery of whether mosquitoes are in any way essential to any ecosystem went unexplored (as did several others). The last chapter is an excessively-generic plea for preserving biodiversity. Lucy Moffat's translation is mostly good but too often her choice of adjectives reveals some fuzzy thinking about evolution.

Sam Kean at the New York Times.

Ted Chiang: Exhalation.

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Kindle. Recycled shorts. About what I expected having seen Arrival. There's chaos without Lorentz attractors or James Gleick's indefatigable fascination; a glance at the philosophy of mind, an insistence that learning is required for intelligence; a feeble imagining of a parallel-world Christian teleology and ontology; a rejection of Asimovian psychohistory again on the basis of chaos/quantum mechanics without a consideration of the broad sweeps that statistics allows. None of it is too originally imaginative. The prose is flat. Things are deadly serious and have no air for the playfulness of Douglas Adams or Charles Yu. Chiang is judgemental and essentialist. The often weak argumentation trails off as things get a bit interesting.

Reviews are legion and he clearly has his fans.