peteg's blog - noise - books

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 Fight Club's Operation Mayhem cracked actors back together for one last operation 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 ditto), 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.

Amaryllis Fox: Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA.

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Kindle. Prompted by a review in the Asian Review of Books that I only skim read. It's meh: an ahistorical memoir of a relentlessly successful American girl who joined the CIA as a knee-jerk response to 9/11. There is little discussion of policy. Much is montage. The framing story of meeting Al Qaeda in Karachi was clearly a bolted-on sex up. There's far more to learn about what national service is and can be from Daniel Ellsberg and Liz Pisani. The writing is workmanlike. Her tic "my truth" implies she never mastered anything abstract or objective, as does her restlessness at the theory she encounters in her undergraduate days at Oxford.

Adam Higginbotham: A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite.

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Kindle. A piece of Atavist reportage. Not great; the story is weak and there's too much colour. The Wikipedia article tells you all you need to know. I'm hoping there's more to his more recent and highly-rated Midnight in Chernobyl.

Elliot Ackerman: Green on Blue.

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Kindle. Ackerman's first outing, and for mine not as good as his more-recent two. This is war in the small: how self interest perpetuates small-scale skirmishes through double dealing. Things go as they need to; there's some convenient plot happenings that allow the narrator to be where he needs to be. Ackerman presents no real objectives beyond the perpetuation of the funding arrangements, i.e., a continuation of the status quo corruption. The ending suggests that the only out is for the entrepreneurial to sell out whoever they can. We get a bit of Afghan culture too.

Tom Bissell refers back to David Halberstam's Ho and wants it to be a lot more than it is.

Perumal Murugan: Poonachi: or the story of a black goat.

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Kindle. Mentioned as a new paperback release in the New York Times. Translated from Tamil. Yes, this is the story of a goat, and slightly more about how miracles can curse. I was expecting something more fantastically real.

Goodreads.

Gregory Zuckerman: The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution.

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Kindle. Joe Nocera's review for the New York Times made me think I was going to get a decent overview of how Jim Simons and Renaissance have generated such incredible returns for so long. Instead Zuckerman serves up a bunch of capsule portraits, waves some nouns generically without understanding (as he admits), and recounts some self-serving trivialities verbatim from his sources. There is excess repetition. From the little concrete information presented here it seems that Renaissance's main style of trading is multi-factor mean reversion, powered, of course, by loads of data crankage. Colour me unsurprised.

As Nocera observes a fair chunk of the book is tied up with the Mercer family's politics, though nothing more than you'd've read in the papers at the time. Zuckerman asks the obvious question — why a clearly excellent scientist like Bob Mercer lowers his evidentiary bar in the political sphere — but does not attempt an answer. It is a bit strange that those in favour of small government (etc.) cannot simply assert their backing of Trump for those reasons and not go all-in on the science-denying tribalism. Simons himself swings Democratic.

In any case it is abundantly clear that all these rich guys want to bypass democracy.

It got pulled apart at goodreads. A discussion of Bradford Cornell's take.

Ann Patchett: The Dutch House.

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Kindle. I remember enjoying Patchett's Commonwealth and hence was open to her latest. Again her technique here is excellent: just enough repetition to ease the reader through a twisty maze of under-developed and characterless characters; I just wish she'd found a better story to tell! Briefly this is the cycle of life, or as the Americans have it, the cycle of wealth: poor-rich, poor-rich, but with enough colour to make it their own. Other dualisms abound: Philadelphia, NYC; brothers and sisters, absent mothers and heroically-present-yet-distant fathers, discomfort brought by affluence, the stepmother as witch. The narrative is drenched in nostalgia for the 1940s to the 1980s (I'm guessing). The house itself is ridiculous. Too often it felt like Cloudstreet. The concluding tidy-up is hurried and formulaic.

Parul Sehgal. Goodreads.

John Hughes: No One.

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On the strength of George Kouvaros's review I extracted a dead tree edition of this from the Randwick City Library as there apparently is no ebook. Unfortunately his analysis promises more than the source material deliver, which is a ramble on top of a thin plot larded with excess remembrance and cliched observations. I can't imagine that it makes much of an impression on someone not intimately familiar with inner Sydney.

Jack Cameron Stanton also makes it sound more substantial than it is.

Elliot Ackerman: Dark at the Crossing.

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Kindle. I enjoyed Ackerman's latest (Waiting for Eden) and so started trawling his back catalogue. This one is a bit of a tease: it's 2016-ish and somewhat ex-Iraqi, somewhat new-American Haris wants to cross from Turkey into Syria to join the Syrian Free Army in their struggle against Bashar al Assad. His timing turns out to be a bit wrong, he's a bit too trusting, and so his inchoate concerns are replaced by those of others. The woman most responsible is aptly summarised as Audrey al-Hepburn. Some of the description of that part of the world is great. The plot is not very satisfactory, which goes to show that Ackerman is improving.

Lawrence Osborne.

Brian Toohey: Secret: The Making of Australia's Security State.

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Kindle. Grim reading. It feels like an assembly of Toohey's reporting for the National Times and other now (substantially) defunct media outlets. Deborah Snow made it sound like a pile of scuttlebutt, and there is some of that alongside some China apologetics and attempts to sketch a rational policy for the defence of Australia. His most thought provoking contention is that Australia would be in a better place now if it had been forced to build its own relations in Asia after World War II. Unfortunately this and others like it are not very actionable.

The spooky stuff is mostly a waste of time, he reckons, though his assessment is very incomplete. He's harsh on Gillard’s foreign policy; I recall that her government approved the permanent stationing of US Military personnel in Australia, which was something that even John Howard had avoided. On nuclear war and Việt Nam he is too brief and may as well have deferred to Daniel Ellsberg's lifework. I learnt a bit about Exmouth and the fabulous-looking North West Cape during Toohey's lecturing on Pine Gap and U.S. submarine command-and-control. I wonder what to read into our lack of sovereignty.

Reviews are legion. The few I glanced at use this book as a vehicle for banging on about their own preoccupations.

Chan Koonchung: The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver.

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Kindle. Something somewhere reminded me that the author of The Fat Years had a new-ish book out, but not that it wouldn't be worth reading. Briefly: an unqualified Tibetan residing in Lhasa decides he's driven and serviced his Chinese boss sufficiently to justify driving and servicing her daughter in Beijing. Along the way some dognappers (food) are busted and some out-of-town petitioners have their heads busted. It's a bum dream: the first half is mostly porn, and the second tries to throw some Tibetan folk wisdom against the subterranean walls of 2016 Beijing where nothing much sticks, not even blood. All of the characters are sketchy, especially the women.

Rupert Winchester at the Mekong Review. John W. W. Zeiser.