peteg's blog - noise - books

Nadeem Aslam: The Wasted Vigil.

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Kindle. Powerful stuff, mostly handled well. As topical now — with the Taliban swinging back into power — as it was back in 2007/2008. The Taliban, the local war lords, the CIA, the Pakistanis, the Soviets fight in Afghanistan. It's a bit pox-on-all-your-houses but comes down hardest on the foundations of Islam. (As a non-expert on Islam I found it difficult to accept many of the quotes as canonical.) Aslam solves the structural problem of the novel (that there appears to be only about ten people in the whole country, each with unique and unusual histories) by focusing on a small village with a deep history of conflict, and people with rare skills (doctors, female teachers, CIA agents, ...).

Many and varied opinions at Goodreads. Yes, the dialogue/speech bubbles all sound about the same. This sometimes made it difficult (and unrewarding) to untangle who was making what claims with what evidentiary basis. Lorraine Adams. Yep, it has its moments of overwriting.

Douglas Coupland: Hey Nostradamus!.

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Kindle. Coupland tries to be serious, or at least earnest, about religious fundamentalism and school shootings. The result is as shallow as anything else he's done but worse due to its heavy themes and poor execution. The third chapter (Heather) is epically poor: a lonely female court stenographer who can only be completed by a man, waffling away in Generation X flights of fantasy. Just as well he tells us she's awesome, things are great, etc. as we'd never have figured that out for ourselves.

Goodreads. If I'd checked there first I wouldn't have bothered.

Quarterly Essay #69, Mark McKenna: Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s Future. (March 2018)

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Kindle. I've been enjoying some of Midnight Oil's The Makarrata Project from late 2020; it's an unabashed return to a sense of Oz-ness that has been missing from these strange and grim days. The best bits are when Peter Garrett isn't singing, as Bernard Zuel implicitly observes. The best bit is the second half of Change The Date when Dan Sultan takes over ("drinking down your chardonnay / how long can you just look away?"), leading to a duet (?) with Gurrumul Yunupingu in what sounds to me like a friendly and playful conversation. Unfortunately the album wears off (out) quickly.

This is Mark McKenna's response to Turnbull's flat (offhand, stonkering, rude, obnoxious) rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. (I add those adjectives as it was the result of a very long consultative process that supposedly had bipartisan buy-in.) It is deeply felt but not great at explaining why any particular thing happened or is going to happen. For instance, how did the Kurnell joint projects come to be? Is that a process that can be replicated elsewhere? He seeks (as always) to link reconciliation to his pet republican project in a flimsy manner. Wishful thinking I fear. Overall it is more polemic than argument.

The best parts were some quotes he pulled, like this one from Galarrwuy Yunupingu in 2016:

The Australian people know that their success is built on the taking of the land, in making the country their own, which they did at the expense of so many languages and ceremonies and songlines — and people — now destroyed. They worry about what has been done for them and on their behalf, and they know that reconciliation requires much more than just words.

There's a lot more there than here.

Recent events suggest another path forward: Australia could simply join the USA, either as seven distinct states (minting the N.T. as a state while abandoning Canberra to the sheep) or as one. We could use the opportunity to rejuvenate our dysfunctional political structures. The Aboriginal causes would instantly benefit from the robust native title and human right protections of the US Constitution.

Followup correspondence is linked from the Text Publishing page. Megan Davis responded with another essay which mostly recapitulates McKenna's. The delta is an emotional account of the before, during and after of drafting the statement. Michael Cooney apparently leads the Australian Republican Movement now (who knew it still existed?) and shares my concerns that the politics of the republic and indigenous recognition can and should be separated lest one irreparably damage the other. Russell Marks makes some good observations about South Australia and concludes with a paragraph that succinctly and powerfully summarises the anxieties of the beneficiaries of dispossession. McKenna's response is not linked there.


Atticus Lish: The War for Gloria.

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Kindle. It feels like a long while since his first novel, but perhaps that's just the times. I was disconcerted to read that this effort was substantially funded by his father.

Briefly we're in working-class Boston in the midst of a mother decaying from ALS while her devoted high-school son attempts to care for her while getting through school and managing his complex relationship with his father. There's some unskilled construction work, mixed martial arts, an aspiration to become a Navy SEAL, and a perspective on the incels that will probably be passed on by. Some it smells of Dennis Lehane. I can't say I understood the point of Adrian or found him to be well developed. Physics and mathematics are gestured at as places of incontrovertible truth, tarnished by humans who overclaim.

Lish keeps us unbalanced all the way along, and not by selectively withholding information but by keeping his vantage tight. At various points I wondered if the (omniscient) narrator was reliable, which is clearly intentional. Towards the end we get something of an Ann Patchett wrap up, a few 25th Hour alterna-futures, which I felt left some of the main themes unresolved.

Dwight Garner. Harvey Keitel as Leonard? That'd make it Holy Smoke!. Goodreads makes it seem that the ladies did not go for it, but here's Martha Anne Toll for NPR. She seems to miss that Lish consciously juxtaposes structured and unstructured violence. Andre Dubus III. And we wait for the next one.

Jamil Jan Kochai: 99 Nights in Logar.

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Kindle. A pointer from Mohammed Hanif. Briefly, a family living in the U.S.A. returns to Afghanistan in 2005 to visit their ancestral compounds and adventures ensue. There's some magic realism and some funny bits ("You swear to God you'll lie?") that mostly mine the chasm between the cultures. I often found it hard to figure out the family relationships and pronouns and articles of clothing etc. Cross-dressing in a burqa was a crime of cliche. It is mostly well structured but I'd lost interest by the time the story of Watak was presented as pages of untranslated text.

Very well marketed. Hanif softens many things: for instance Marwand doesn't "tease" the dog, he tortures it, gleefully. I didn't see the motivation for that and hence felt it undermined rather than underpinned the whole story. Goodreads didn't dig it.

John Clarke: Tinkering.

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Kindle. Hard to believe he's been gone four years now. This is a compilation of excerpts and offcuts of his written work. We get some Dagg, a diary of the Stiff shoot (he was starstruck by David Wenham), some political historiography that was sadly wasted on the muppets of that time and much else. Some is clearly quite rough or intended for very targeted amusement. Overall I'd say you're better off poking around his website or watching the ABC's tribute. I wonder what he'd make of these farcical days.

Goodreads is a bit tepid about it. Robert Phiddian: "Surely deathless prose (even from the dead) is an improvement on an endless stream of nouns prefaced by 'How good is ...?'"

Richard Flanagan: Gould's Book of Fish.

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Kindle. Is this Flanagan's For the Term of His Natural Life (unread by me), where conviction is a pastiche and conceptual theft (or co-option or appropriation) of the big 20th century novels? Anchored in Europe, set in Tasmania, convicts are slaves where history (recorded at least) is rewritten as in 1984, the boot is on the human face, Kurtz has his palace and railroad, while the American black man (Capois Death) dies a Benjamin Button death. I grant that the verbiage and periodic bouts of doubt about this project are all Flanagan though.

Briefly Gould is a painter transported from England who is charged with painting the fish indigenous to the Sarah Island penal colony. Wish fulfilment via coincidences and magical realism ensues.

Wanting now strikes me as offcuts from this: Flanagan could not house here all of his research on the bloke rounding up the remaining wild Tasmanian Aborigines, or Towtereh and his daughter. Both novels spend some time on collecting heads and sending them to England. As phrenology is a softer and more ridiculous target than eugenics, strawmen can be sighted everywhere.

I didn't get all of it. At times the eyeglazing verbosity got the best of me, especially towards the end. Overall it is probably more interesting to dig into the actual history that he's working off and reacting to. I enjoyed a few of his lines ("Is there nothing that doesn’t mean sex to [Americans]?" the [Italian] Conga had one day asked, to which [the Vietnamese] Mr Hung had replied, "People".) and his offhanders like blackfella-whitefelon language. But as with his other work the whole thing felt like mere scaffolding for such lines and brainfarts about love and the goodness of the world. Does Flanagan ever get to grips with the idea of love? He bandies it about like a brand name.

Michiko Kakutani. The people at Goodreads dug into it. Brian Matthews makes his observations and some polite excuses for making them. Ovid's Metamorphosis perhaps; in my frame, clearly Kafka, and Heart of Darkness of course. And so on.

Douglas Coupland: Microserfs.

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Kindle. Also last read in Chicago in 2014. Coupland is a bit addictive. It's essentially a romance that doesn't really hold together if you think about it for long. Their Oop! product sounds like Minecraft to me (having never played Minecraft).

Goodreads has a higher opinion of this than Generation X.

Douglas Coupland: Generation X.

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Kindle. Last read in Chicago in 2014. Having friends like that must be exhausting.

Goodreads. It's undergoing a thirty-year anniversary sort of thing now; see, for instance, Diletta De Cristofaro and the man himself.

Omar El Akkad: What Strange Paradise.

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Kindle. The second novel from this Canadian journalist/author (the first being American War) and again well-marketed. I found it difficult to get past the first few chapters with their transparent attempts at creating a sense of curiosity about a crash landing on a beach via selective withholding. After these he settled into a standard two-track where one took us back to Syria and the other remained on Kos (a Greek island, second-best loved by the tourists). We spend a bit of time in Alexandria along the way. The trip on the boat with a diversity of characters is a bit harrowing and the most powerful piece of writing; the foreshadowing is particularly effective here. Every so often I found his punchlines quite affecting, despite it all being quite familiar from the experiences of the Vietnamese diaspora so long ago. Overall it's better than his first effort.

Goodreads loved it. Wendell Steavenson. Perhaps it is the taking of a tight vantage of children that made the improvement. Egyptian (?) people smuggler Mohamed did have his moments. Army Colonel Kethros is more a vehicle for making such observations as:

His father once told him that every man is nothing more or less than the demands he makes of the world, and that the more a man demands of the world, the bigger the magnitude of his success or failure in life. This, his father said, is what matters — the size of the asking. And this is what the colonel thinks of as he studies Nicholas's darting eyes, studies the weight of the lie on him; this is what the word weakness can never properly describe — the absolute poverty of the boy's asking, the willingness with which he seems ready to shuffle meekly through the world, making not a single demand. Weakness Kethros can tolerate — this other thing, he can't.

Richard Flanagan: The Unknown Terrorist.

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Kindle. The worst thing I've read from Flanagan yet. It's like he spent a weekend in Sydney and thought he'd have a crack at a detective/crime effort ala Peter Corris. The formula involves loads of locations, moving between those locations, a dash of local colour (Mardi Gras, the Cross) and a cast of stereotypes: here a stripper, a Muslim drug mule, an inner city single mum, a self-deluded Richard Carlton-ish reporter, not to mention the tarnished but not bent cop with a heart of gold. It's as if he hasn't heard of Roger Rogerson, who made this sort of fiction redundant a long time ago. The plot moves like a train on a railroad alongside telegraph poles, binaries strung between cliches. The post-911 ASIO arrest laws are spelt out carefully but Flanagan seems ignorant of Howard's gun laws from a decade previous. Everyone and everything is on a downward spiral.

Goodreads. Michiko Kakutani dug it.

Richard Flanagan: Wanting.

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Kindle. A two-track about Dickens (writing in London and acting in Manchester), and the last of the Tasmanian Aborigines. Asterisks attach to both. The link is Sir John Franklin and his wife, who also bear most of the characterisation. Things go as you'd expect. Flanagan in his concluding author's note asks that we not take the historicity of it all too literally. I don't think it engaged very broadly with wanting so much as how those with stature and power take what they can. This is the essence of the colonial project, and the Imperial centre, both well known for hypocrisy.

Goodreads has many opinions. Geordie Williamson claims it is a universal fable; I'd agree it's generic. Michiko Kakutani didn't like the fake history but passed up a chance to observe Flanagan's recycling of a central plot point of Great Expectations. Alexander Theroux was unimpressed.

Francine Prose: The Vixen.

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Kindle. Fourth time around with this author in book form I think. I have been enjoying her essays published in various forums, and movie reviews. This is some sort of commentary on the ethics of the book publishing industry/scene using the Rosenbergs as a fulcrum. (Deborah Friedell wrote a great article about them recently which I'm glad I read before this.) Also a romance, and a coming of age. Overall it's not as punchy as Mister Monkey. I felt there was far too much hand wringing, repetition about the moral dilemma(s), and too many pages went by between her very amusing punchlines. The plot wasn't that suspenseful and a bit disappointing that it went the way many conspiracy theories do. The lady characters are not that deeply drawn.

Amy Bloom (unabashed double thumbs up). Goodreads.

Rohinton Mistry: A Fine Balance.

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Kindle. Second time around with Mistry. It was on the pile for a long time. An ecumenical: variously some Parsis, Muslims, Untouchables/Dalits/Harijans/... form new kinds of households in India during the Partition and Emergency. There's some tailoring, some begging, some good and bad Godfathering, and no satisfactory romancing. Well-written and bleak; his vocabulary is vast and the clarity is all in the service of intricate, efficient and unsentimental storytelling. As someone who hasn't read Tolstoy I had to wonder if the ending was Anna Karenina's, and if so why. The most reliably funny scenes are set in a vegetarian restaurant, where I thought the cook and waiter played large enough roles to deserve names.

A. G. Mojtabai at the time. Generally well-regarded at Goodreads, and widely read as it was an Oprah's Book Club selection.

Richard Flanagan: The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

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Kindle. I'm very late to this party, mostly because I couldn't imagine a better, richer take on the WW2 Australian POW experience than David Malouf's The Great World. I still can't. Allowing for that, Flanagan does nail enough things to countervail the busts in this multi-threaded and heavily researched novel. At times it feels like he's conforming Tasmanian history to his characters or vice versa (e.g. the 1967 bushfires, the half-caste nephew). As impostor syndrome stretched to book length, percussion at some point became concussive. It is better than anything else I've read from him.

Widely reviewed, of course, both before and after it won the Booker. A splattering: Michael Hofmann was not a fan, and fair enough, but some of his complaints missed the point; for instance, Dorrigo represents the constructed militarism of Australia and that he "seems to consist in being anything he is required to be" was not a failing of Flanagan's but entirely intended. (I'd say Flanagan is showing us aspects of the ANZAC mythmaking of the twenty-first century, when he was writing, which may or may not have been those of the 1950s-1970s.) Goodreads has all the opinions. James Ley (paywalled). Michiko Kakutani: having recently stalled at 40% through D.H. Lawrence's Kangaroo, I felt fortunate that Flanagan's efforts here are superior, being at least readable. She (and others) were right that the Amy thread is weak. Ian Buruma calls Flanagan on stereotyping the Japanese characters. Thomas Keneally forgave all flaws. And so on.

Alexis Wright: Carpentaria.

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Kindle. This was on the pile for a very long time. It's something of an Aboriginal Cloudstreet. Can I say I liked (some of) the characters and landscapes but not the writing so much? My eyes glazed over in some sections, which fatally impaired my ability (and willingness) to follow the whipsaw changes in perspective (tense/sense/dreaming) that often hung on just a few words that blended in with all the other words. These switchbacks were not particularly fluid or unambiguous, and nowhere close to what Murray Bail achieved. Amongst other things her take on the stars seemed well off — surely the Aborigines don't think of them as Westerners do, as Orion etc — and this after observing the meaninglessness of a whitefella naming ceremony for a river that had had a name for millennia. The plot is entirely wish fulfilment. It is a bit cinematic and I wonder why hasn't it been filmed.

Widely reviewed and celebrated. Elizabeth Lowry. Goodreads. And so forth.

Christos Tsiolkas: On Patrick White.

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Kindle. Brief and passionate. I've avoided Tsiolkas because I didn't like the premise of The Slap; I think there's a lot less to learn from scenarios like that and the Trolley problem than people pushing them think. However I did enjoy this for the most part. I had hoped he'd probe Manoly's contribution to White's work some more, being very well positioned to do so. I wasn't persuaded by the tendentious Old Testament parallels. He talked up The Tree of Man so much and without mentioning that infamous review that I might give it a go. I wasn't surprised that he could only draw a line (apropos Aboriginal storytelling) from Voss to Alexis Wright's Carpentaria, demonstrating that while White, with his Nobel Prize, moves in and out of fashion, Xavier Herbert does not.

A cursory check of Goodreads suggests this is his highest-rated effort there.

Richard Flanagan: The Living Sea of Waking Dreams.

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Kindle. Flanagan's latest, a 2019/2020 bushfire memoir. It's too heavy handed; was he suggesting that Mother Earth is in and out of intensive care, tubes sticking out of her everywhere, and just wants to be let go? But the successful, the powerful, the sixty year olds (the younger boomers?) won't oblige? Because they're too busy doomscrolling? Or losing their own bodyparts?

I wonder what he's going to make of COVID.

Damien Cave at the New York Times. Beware the passive voice. Beejay Silcox: unsubtle. James Ley. Goodreads. And so on.

Bruce Pascoe: Dark Emu.

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Kindle. Many people recommended this to me. I was always diffident for reasons very well and fairly canvassed by Russell Marks about a year ago, which I'd summarise as too much culture war.

Having read it, I'd say the best parts are about (incontrovertible) Aboriginal ingenuity — the intriguing Brewarinna fish traps and those at Bermagui, the eel traps of western Victoria, the woomera, the transmission of knowledge — and that Pascoe looks like Sterling Heydon playing Papa Hemingway in The Long Goodbye. Along the way he observes that there is no pristine state to return Australia to; this environment has been engineered by humans longer than anywhere else. Therefore the best we can aim for is to adopt (OK, adapt) what used to work. To my mind everything in the book needed to speak to this. Also provided are some interesting factoids about grains, such as the natives being perennials rather than annuals, though I expect they are not nutritionally competitive with their modern engineered cousins.

The central flaw in the work is that if you're not prepared to read it charitably, to search for these good bits and indulge a bit of plausible what-ifery as the flights of fancy of a farmer on his tractor, doing science for the good of the nation and the planet, you'll get bogged down in apparent dodginess that invites quibbling or worse. I'm not going there, except to observe that much value survives even then. OK, just one: Pascoe seems to accept that sedentism signifies progress (I don't, and others don't either). I'd say we're now at just about peak sedentism, so where is the progress? This and other assertions merely distract in a why-go-there way.

Reviews are, of course, legion, and nasty stuff very easy to find.

Bruce Chatwin: The Songlines. (1987)

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Kindle. Wikipedia claims he hooked Robyn Davidson up with Salman Rushdie in the 1980s and wrote travel lit focusing on nomads. This book was pitched as the result of his time in Central Australia. It reads like non-fiction but Chatwin claims it is intended as fiction.

In any case it's thin gruel: apparently his travels through the Dead Heart and thereabouts yielded less than half a book, and robbed him of the will to process his notebooks of previous jaunts into reader-friendly coherence. Chatwin wears his erudition heavily; the language is often the opposite of George Orwell's unadorned English, and while he was at pains to exhibit his wide exposure to the Western canon, he paid little attention to Australian sources, preferring to recount personal history and self-aggrandising interviews/observations from his travels in Europe.

The central conceit is an attempt to universalise Aboriginal ontology, their connection to land, where (in his view) songs notionally act as some kind of map, to all of human development. We'd call that cultural appropriation now I guess. Another and more defensible theme is that we should walk everywhere, or at least more often.

Some clangers particularly stood out to me. He goes roo hunting with some locals, which quickly descends into the obscene ala Wake in Fright, or, you know, camel abuse. How could he be surprised? Are mulga trees actually "leafless in this season"? And it seemed implausible that "songline" fragments would be assigned before birth, given infant mortality, the possibility of failing initiation, and that the child's gender would be unknown at the time.

Some of it echoes Xavier Herbert, or perhaps the converse in the sense of being fictionalised didacticism rather than didactic fiction. For instance local man Flynn is some kind of genius, something like Prindy. But what is his dreaming? Similarly Ukrainian Arkady, who asserts that Australia would've been so much better off if it had been colonised by a people who weren't scared by expanses of land (i.e., not island people like the British) — leaving the place unexploited by Europeans is, however, not an option. John Hanlon here is Herbert's commie Pat Hannaford. But Chatwin shows no awareness of Herbert.

Reviews and commentary are legion. Goodreads. Many are also irritated by the commingling of fact and fiction. Walter Goodman and Andrew Harvey at the time. The latter speaks of how other Englanders were drawn to Chatwin, how rickety the whole show is, and pulls the choice quote that was stuffed into the mouth of Arkady: "The world, if it has a future, has an ascetic future."

More recent retrospectives: Richard Cooke expands on everything, and observes that Chatwin quickly passed into history. He says Flynn was based on Pat Dodson. Paul Daley also in 2017. Philip Jones too. There are plenty more.

Jones refers to A.P. Elkin's attempt to capture Aboriginal "Dreaming" but neither Jones nor Chatwin make the obvious connection to Plato's cave. There are also echoes of an unchanging Creation, an essential stasis, that is now strongly held by some Christians. It bothers me that no source I've yet found explains why the "songline" knowledge is so sacred or dangerous to share with the uninitiated; as presented here and elsewhere it is survival stuff. Similarly Chatwin's claims that "songlines" are the personal property of individuals that cannot be transferred but can be lent out etc. strikes me as metaphorical at best. Yes, the "songline" concept has never been particularly truthy.