peteg's blog - noise - books

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 well known for its 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 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 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.

Robyn Davidson: Tracks.

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Kindle. You've watched the movie now read the book. Unsurprisingly the book is far better than the movie.

So much of it seems to be about her not knowing what she's doing, why she's doing it or what the consequences might be. For instance she is quick to tell us that the desert is vast and mostly unvariegated, which is to my mind why you don't go there! Or much beyond its frontiers. The (at times self-admittedly unhinged) animal abuse is hard to take, and oftentimes it seemed the camels had the right idea of just wanting to go home. Though she did grow along the way she never resolved her desire for both privacy and publicity, the latter of which she disavows too strenuously; why get on a plane to NYC a mere four days after completing the trek? That she is in these very remote places but often not particularly isolated struck a chord.

It is quintessentially Australian in being substantially ahistorical; there's not much backstory here (hers or the country's). For instance Xavier Herbert observed that "ranch" came into use in northern Australia due to the American influence during World War II; previously these were "stations", which a recent Conversation on the ABC claims came from the Army terminology for the bases they constructed as they moved through. It seems likely she hadn't read Herbert's work despite it being published to much fanfare around the time she conceived of her trip, and them both having strong ties to Queensland.

She experienced a neutered Aboriginal culture; for instance she decides not to cut up a kangaroo based on an elder's assertion that she should never do this, but has her doubts about whether this admonition was only for his land/country or for always, for all women or just for her. Did he assign her a totem, and if so how? This general inaccessibility of the underlying theory results in whitefellas being stuck with dogma, or indeed the pointier end of the law (such as the spearings at the tail end of Poor Fellow My Country), and goes unremarked by Davidson.

A diversity of opinions at Goodreads. Sophie Cunningham reviews Richard Cooke's book that tries to unpack Robyn Davidson as a writer.

Xavier Herbert: Poor Fellow My Country.

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Kindle. I bought this for 19.99 AUD from Amazon on February 9, 2016; it's taken me an age to brave this behemoth, a sequel of sorts to his Capricornia, or perhaps More Cultural Learnings of Murris (?) for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Australia.

First up: it's long, so long that it defies not just a useful summary and assessment but any engagement whatsoever with anyone born since 1980. That his shorter stuff is by reputation drecky may be the main reason his work has passed into history alongside David Ireland, both feted in their day, but it may also be that the times have changed so much.

More later, if I find the willpower.

Sean Monahan gave it a critical treatment in 2003. He asks us to excuse the work's failings as a novel by considering it a didactic project.

Kazuo Ishiguro: Karla and the Sun

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Kindle. Socially dystopian. More service/bondage. Themes of loneliness and what humans imagine will alleviate it. (Even the bull is lonely.) The Sun as God, a being that gets stifled and occluded but never killed, perhaps because he takes a rest each night. The human heart is essentially inscrutable, in aggregate if not individually. Did he innovate here by having a completely reliable, self-knowing narrator? Almost, until her loss of some precious bodily fluids for the greater good calls the whole show into question. The dialogue is as masterful as always. Overall it didn't really push my buttons.

Widely reviewed, of course. Radhika Jones at the New York Times. She seems unaware that the transition from pastoral bucolic to industrialised consumption was a massive theme in American Pragmatism (citing Hardy instead). Thomas Jones at the London Review of Books points to many similar works, recounts the plot and prefers to discuss Ishiguro's previous works. It is difficult to square Klara's lack of cosmological knowledge with her ability to tutor Ricky in physics and thereabouts. James Woods similarly spills more words on prior art. Toy Story, could be.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Committed.

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Sequel to The Sympathizer. It's a bit of a dog that wants to have it all ways. There's a lot of gesturing at but not a lot of engagement with some purported deep thinkers, which is hard to square with the very generic foregrounded gangsterism that similarly gestures at but lacks Puzo's guile and indelible imagery. It did pass the time but I often felt like throwing it across the troopy on this wet, windy and wild Tasmanian Wednesday.

Dwight Garner. I concur that the second half or so really drags, as if the author realised that he's too far gone with cliche and is sick of the project. Garner doesn't appear to realise that "GOOAAAAALLLLLL!" is a direct lift from Trainspotting. Junot Díaz, also in the New York Times, uncritically loved it. Later, so did Rumaan Alam. Still later, Thomas A. Bass.

Richard Beasley: Dead in the Water: A very angry book about our greatest environmental catastrophe... the death of the Murray-Darling Basin.

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Kindle. 14.23 AUD from Amazon. Via a brief writeup by Steven Carroll in the Smage, and because I was just out at Menindee and thereabouts. An account of Bret Walker's royal commission (sponsored by South Australia) into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. There is much anger at much mendacity, indicated by excess repetition and blue language, leavened by some funny bits. I wanted to know more about who has the standing to force the Basin Authority to make what Beasley strongly argues is an illegal Plan conform with the Water Act. It seemed weird that South Australia doesn't make more common cause with the Lower Darling. Entirely depressing.

Michael Pelly at the AFR.

Francis Spufford: Light Perpetual.

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Kindle. Spufford's second novel, after Golden Hill. As always his writing is brilliant and things are generally excellent. We can only really complain that he didn't write more, especially on the parts that were a bit more excellent than the others.

Here he recounts in episodic, fragmentary form the imagined lives of a bunch of kids who didn't actually survive a rocket attack on South London in 1944. (As I understand it the fictional children did not survive the actual rocket attack.) Clearly the closest structural referent is the 7-Up series of movies by Paul Almond (that I've never seen). Some of the characters are particularly interesting, others too tendentious, and yet others are left dangling. The reader is expected to indulge Spufford's philosophical shrugging about how life is, as well as his sometimes ungainly semi-spontaneous bursts of Christianity. Some themes are familiar. For instance a schizophrenic only finds peace/a future within another culture, which here is an inversion of the US tradition of going to Mexico for healing of various kinds (cf Vietnam vets). The description of his condition, and later his eventual wife's back is some of the best stuff he's ever done. (I would've liked to know how she (or her parents) came to London as well.) There's an opera-loving property shyster who thrived under Thatcher; one wonders if before then most English shysters were exported to, or were operating in, the colonies. This is England did more inventive work on skinhead culture. And so on. He is a master of mastering in the service of explication.

Lisa Allardice spoke with him in early February. Kate Kellaway loved it. Alexandra Harris trainspots more structural referents. James Antoniou for the Smage. Reviews are, or soon will be, legion.

Arthur Phillips: The Egyptologist.

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Kindle. His most-recent book was OK so I thought I'd give his earlier work a go. It's peak Egyptology just after the Great War: Carter is discovering Tutankhamen's tomb, and our historically minor figures are intriguing for an apocryphal king. Unfortunately the writing is again flabby and repetitive with too much foreshadowing; what seemed to be a promising premise devolved into a swamp of deluded characters with the exception of the knowing, mocking Marlowe and his Oxford set. Sometimes the Australian characters have the right tone and lingo, and perhaps the same is true for the boys who went up to the university. The epistolary format and heavy stereotyping made it hard to engage, and early on it was clear that the unreliability of the narrators was making a satisfactory ending impossible; the remains of these days don't amount to a hill of beans.

Tom Bissell observes this is a historical novel, of which Phillips apparently made a habit. I didn't enjoy much of the humour as I took the whole show to be a fiasco from the start; it's a farce not a comedy, not even a parody, just a dance with cliches. Bissell does not grapple with the themes of immortality, rhyming, repeating history, fakery and weak evidentiary bases. Goodreads was harsher.

Amor Towles: You Have Arrived at Your Destination.

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Kindle. A short written on commission for Amazon. This is one of those books that makes you wonder if the writer's editor isn't the magician, as for Shantaram / The Mountain Shadow. Clearly bashed out quickly and to spec; there's little of Towles's sophisticated remove here. I wasn't invested enough to divine the novelty or point of it all. Designer babies! In the USA! Ergo military-industrial complex conspiracy. It didn't smell truthy to me.

Goodreads has a range of opinions.

Amor Towles: Eve in Hollywood.

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Kindle. Offcuts from The Rules of Civility. Snapshots of the golden era. Eve befriends Olivia de Havilland, who passed only last year at 104. Eve is always perfectly appropriate to the moment, but also directionless and unmotivated. Eve would now be a chaos monkey at a startup a little further north. Yes, it's all about Eve.

Dennis Glover: Factory 19.

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Kindle. 14.99 AUD directly from the publisher Black Inc. Third time around with Glover; I remember his previous historical novel as better than his polemic on industrial society. Here we are at their intersection, and a contemplation of what the internet has done to things.

The premise is simple: 1948 was the peak of blue collar workers' communitarian welfare, so what happens if a billionaire tries to recreate it as a refuge for the disrupted in Tasmania in our year 2022? This adventure in bleached Australian utopianism (a field long in decline) wobbles between Animal Farm-like satire and Anglophilia/Europhobia. Halfway through it enumerates the joys of the time, just as Red Plenty did for 1950s Russia. The thin disguise draped over David Walsh seems like an appeal to him to give it a shot despite this paradise being, of course, lost.

Glover's essential desire is to undo the impact of the computer on society and industrial practice. Apparently without it the destiny of humankind is controllable by humans who will therefore be happier. He takes it as read that an industrialised society is inescapable, and that a service economy slakes no thirst — humans need to build stuff, to materially and personally disturb dirt.

The central disappointment of the book is the long list of present-day concerns that Glover either ignores or inadequately responds to. Greenies are supposed to be bought off/provoked/triggered/quietened by militant fantasy. Nothing is said about religion and sectarianism; terrorism with religious motivations had certainly arrived by 1948. So it goes for colonialism and nuclear technology. The sexism of the day is described (accepted?) but not defended. Aborigines, post-war non-Anglo migrants and people with disabilities do not exist (which is weird as he does include industrial accidents). Maybe that was the Australia of the 1940s but it doesn't fly to continue to ignore them in the second thread set in the 1970s. Glover need not have addressed every last thing but it grates that he acknowledges other flaws of those periods, including such superficialities as fashion.

Glover's contention that blue-collar workers are poor in present-day Australia is belied by the common epithet "cashed-up bogans" — many contractors, mine workers, tradies, builders, etc have never had it this good. He has no story about creativity, just contentment via consumption. To him the glorious 30 year post WWII Keynesian economy was destroyed by overreaching strikers in the 1970s, led by a caricature of RJL Hawke. Glover is too blinkered to integrate the innovations of that period from elsewhere in the world, such as Toyota's total quality management that reputedly encouraged, for a time, more engagement and satisfaction in factory work.

Overall it's not as well constructed as A Gentleman in Moscow (brought to mind by the quasi-involuntary incarceration/co-option of the non-working-class, cultured main character/narrator), often indulgent and less provocative than I hoped. For all that Glover writes engagingly and if you're sympathetic to his conceit there's some fun to be had.

Jack Cameron Stanton summarised it for the Smage. Jack Callil at the Guardian. In another Schwartz venue, Anna Thwaites observed the equivocating voice that obscured whatever point Glover was trying to make.

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 reader 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.