About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 30 December 2012

"The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry" by Rachel Joyce

Wow! This was a powerful novel. I cried.

Harold Fry is trapped in a loveless marriage with wife Maureen; only son David no longer lives with them. A letter arrives from an old colleague, Queenie Hennessy. She is dying of cancer in Berwick on Tweed. Harold writes a brief reply and walks to the letter box to post it. But he keeps going. He decides to walk, in his yachting shoes, from his home in Devon to Berwick.

On the route he thinks about his marriage and why it went wrong, of the debt he owes to Queenie, of his mother who walked out on him and his alcoholic father, and of his failed relationship with his son. And his abandoned wife thinks her thoughts too.

I related so very well to the early descriptions of walking. Every year I go for a walk, on my own. I have walked along the Thames, from Oxford to Cambridge, from St Paul's to Canterbury, along the Lea Valley, and along the South Coast from Brighton to Folkestone. I understood when Harold felt that walking was so much more intense than driving; when you walk you are a part of the landscape rather than travelling through the landscape. I empathised with the feeling of embarrassment at being the only person in the guest house on their own. And how I winced with every blister!

But I also wanted so much to understand what had gone wrong with Harold's life. What happened to alienate him from his son? Why had he drifted apart from his wife? And why did he owe Queenie such a debt? These puzzles had me racing through the book when I wanted to talk, step by step.

Will he make it? And if he does, how will he ever go back to being 'normal'? And will Queenie die?

Terrific human drama. Possibly the best book I have read this year. Superb! December 2012; 296 pages

It has subsequently been pointed out to me by another reader that the book loses a little in  the middle part when Harold is joined by a motley collection of hippies and other supporters who publicise and try to take over the purpose of the 'pilgrimage'. This reader suggested that the narrative lost its way at this point (although, like Harold, it found its way again later). I agree that a little momentum was lost here although I understand the point of trying to show how publicity can warp purpose. Perhaps the story would have been better had it been a little leaner and had this sub-plot been excised. Let the readers decide!


"Shopping, seduction and Mr Selfridge" by Lindy Woodhead

I haven't read a book about retailing since, I think, 1967 when I read "My Store of memories" by Rowan Bentall which was published to coincide with the centenary of Bentall's in Kingston Upon Thames.

This book was brilliant.

It starts by describing the retail environment of nineteenth century Chicago where Harry Gordon Selfridge cut his teeth working for 25 years at department store Marshall Field. I was particularly interested by the boom that accompanied the 1893 World Fair, which I have also read about in "The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson which intertwines the story of the World Fair with that of the serial killer H. H. Holmes and is well worth a read. I loved the names that Woodhead dropped, people Selfridge knew: Levi Leiter whose daughter Mary married Lord Curzon, Florenz Ziegfield whose son founded the eponymous Follies, skyscraper architect Louis Sullivan, and the father of body-building Eugen Sandow.

Selfridge gets tired of working for other people; he tries retirement and then moves to London to found his own store. His showbiz ways trump the more established retailers (such as Harrods, which began in Stepney of all places!) But as he becomes more successful he becomes increasingly distracted by life outside retailing. He becomes besotted with aeroplanes, exhibiting Bleriot's channel-hopping machine the day after the channel was hopped. He gambles, heavily. And he pursues a string of mistresses, combining passions in the heavily gambling Dolly Sisters. His life becomes connected with aristocracy and politicians and writers especially Arnold Bennett. He seduces Syrie, wife of pharmaceutical entrepreneur Henry Wellcome, before they both lose her to Somerset Maugham.

Then, as the Second World War starts, he is forced to give up his shop to pay his enormous debts. He becomes a shadow, an old man who takes a bus from his Putney flat to Oxford Street to shuffle past the windows he made famous.

A true tale of triumph to tragedy. Fabulous! December 2012; 261 pages

This is the book that inspired the ITV series Mr Selfridge which is returning for a second series early in 2014.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

"Everything is illuminated" by Jonathan Safran Foer

This very strange book starts with a miracle and ends with a suicide, swaps narrator and jumps back and forwards in time. The author appears as 'the hero' in sections narrated by another person.

The modern part is mostly narrated in hilariously broken English  by Ukrainian Alexander aka Sasha the son of Alexander aka Father the son of Alexander aka Grandfather. It tells of the journey of 'the hero', Jonathan Safran Foer, who is seeking his Augustine, the woman who saved his Ukranian grandfather. JSF is accompanied by translator Sasha, their driver who is Shasha's blind grandfather and Sammy Davis Junior, Juniro the seeing eye labrador bitch. They are searching for Trachimbrod, sometimes called Sofiowka after the mad masturbating squire, the shtetl where Augustine lived but which was obliterated by the Nazis.

And the story goes back to the day when Trachim B's waggon overturned in the Brod river and the only person who was saved was a newborn baby girl who was named Brod and became the ancestor of JSF. The tale tells of her childhood with disgraced usurer Yankel and her tempestuous marriage to the Kolker and it jumps to JSF's grandfather who had a withered arm and, as a result, from the age of ten, a string of affairs with widows and virgins and in one case a virgin widow.

The plot hinges on what Alex's gradnfather did in the war.

Confusion, fantasy and family history intertwine in this novel. At times it is hilarious, at times sad. Both JSF and Alex send their narratives to one another and discuss whether they are true or not.

We are beguiled with truths, half-truths and non-truths in this book about humanity and deception. "Everything is illuminated" means 'everything is made clear' which, in the end, it isn't. I'm not sure whether it is a good book or a great book but it is remarkable for its inventiveness.

December 2012; 276 pages

Saturday, 15 December 2012

"Commander" by Stephen Taylor

This is the biography of "Britain's greatest frigate captain" Sir Edward Pellew. Rising from an ordinary seaman with a particular acrobatic ability in the tops, Pellew's early naval career matched that of his near-contemporary Nelson. Following service fighting Americans in their War of Independence he became captain of a frigate, the Indefatigable, and trained both ship and men to become the most successful prize-winning ship of the time. His later career as captain of a Ship of the Line and later as Rear-Admiral and then Commander-in-Chief in the Indian Ocean kept him away from Trafalgar and led to anti-climax. However, his last fight against the slavers of Algiers restored his reputation.

This is Hornblower stuff. A number of Pellew's exploits (rescuing men from a sinking ship in surf and landing marines at Quiberon Bay) seem to have inspired C. S. Forester. Yet the facts are as compelling as the reading and Taylor has created a brilliant page-turner which encapsulates this brilliant but flawed exponent of the Age of Sail.

Thrilling and fascinating. December 2012; 310 pages

Thursday, 13 December 2012

"Forty years catching smugglers" by Malcolm Nelson

Nelson has been a customs officer for (nearly) forty years from Rummager to Assistant Collector and this autobiography is based on the fifty or so talks every year he gives about his career. The oral flavour is preserved intact. It rambles.  The writing is poor both grammatically and stylistically. It has not been proof read.

I struggled to the end because it does have some interest. I guess we are all fascinated by smugglers and I have a tangential interest in his self-promoting stories of management as well. But I would have been embarrassed to write it.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

"The Summer Book" by Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson is the lady who also wrote the Moomin series of children's books. This was for adults.

Sophia is a young girl who lives in the summer with her father (who is a very shadowy characters who works at his desk and fishes from his boat) and her grandmother who has problems with her balance. Her mother is dead. She roams the island, swimming and playing and talking with grandmother. Because she is a little girl she does not understand everything, she is frightened of things like sleeping alone in a tent, she is petulant and shouts at her grandmother. Her grandmother is wise, although she too can be petulant and selfish.

This is a beautifully written book about growing up with nature and about the relationship between members of the same family.

Lyrical and thought-provoking. The foreword is by Esther Freud who wrote that other wonderful tale about a child's relationship with her mother: Hideous Kinky.


Sunday, 25 November 2012

"Miss Garnet's Angel" by Salley Vickers

Julia Garnet is a virginal school-marm who lives with her friend (but emphatically not lesbian lover) Harriet in a flat in Ealing. Then Harriet dies two days after their joint retirement and Julia rents an apartment in Venice for six months. Here the cautious, waspish, Julia comes face to face with beauty, passion and religion and the winter of Venice warms her wintry heart.

This charming tale of a barren old prude coming to terms with loneliness and barrenness is told with simplicity and elegance. Miss Garnet is so out of place in this modern, sensuous world and nowhere more so than in Venice, yet she is the rock of sense round which the other characters in all their foibles and weaknesses whirl; to whom they cling. Yet she is not a saint. Looking back on her empty life she realises that she has been spiteful, and damaged, and scared; that she has retreated from life and that this is a sort of sin.

Miss Garnet's unfolding is paralleled by a retelling of the Apocryphal Book of Tobit, in which Tobit's son Tobias travels with a spotty dog and the Angel Raphael to win a bride.

We learn a lot about Venice and about the Zoroastrians.

Delightful. November 2012; 335 pages

August 2016: This is one of those books that stay in your mind. Vickers has also written
The Cleaner of Chartres
Mr Golightly's Holiday which is simply superb!

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

"The sense of an ending" by Julian Barnes

My sister hated this Booker 2011 prize winner. It beat Jamrach's Menagerie and Pigeon English; I would probably have awarded the prize to the last.

A recently retired man looks back on his youth with imperfect memory. In particular he remembers the University girlfriend who teased him, whom he dumped, who got involved with his best friend from school. His memories have been jogged by a recent legacy. But is he more sinned against than sinning or is the ex-girlfriend right when she says that he never 'got' it?

Short, very readable and well-crafted. The only problem with this book was that I'm not sure whether I 'got' it even at the end. Perhaps I didn't think the sin so terrible that it merited even a small book and the humdrum, even with well honed prose and carefully measured wit, rarely captivates.

November 2012; 150 pages

Julian Barnes also wrote England, England. I wouldn't bother.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

"The Bloody Chamber" by Angela Carter

This is a collection of short stories ranging from 2 pages long to 42 pages long. The stories are, in essence, a retelling of fairy tales: Bluebeard, Dracula, Beauty and the Beast, Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots etc.

They are transformed by the author's sensuous and luxuriant prose and by a powerful eroticism. Puss in Boots is told from the cat's point of view and imbued with the physicality of a feline. The title piece, the Bloody Chamber, reconstructs Bluebeard and describes with delight the mingled pleasure and disgust as the heroine surrenders her maidenhead to her new husband. The Lady of the House of Love is a vampiress who lures young men into her bed, simultaneously seducing and murdering them.

The theme of this book is the interplay between erotic sex and carnal death and Carter's beautiful gems of stories celebrate the animal in mankind.

Wonderful words. November 2012; 149 pages

June 2015: I think Carter is best at short stories. Although I thoroughly enjoyed Wise Children and Heroes and Villains, both of which are short novels, The infernal desire machines of Doctor Hoffman which is close to a full-length novel I found rather tedious: too much fantasy, too  much sex and ultimately not enough story.

"Fault Line" by Robert Goddard

Another typical Goddard in a genre that is showing signs of aging. The main protagonist, male and disillusioned with life, is obliged to investigate events that took place a long time ago. The story jumps backwards and forwards in time as the elements of the mystery slowly knit together.

As usual, thoroughly readable, marred this time by the fact that the villain was obvious from the first pages. Unlike most Goddards there were very few double crosses and rarely was I wrong footed. Not all the mysteries were cleared up and one sub-plot was more or less entirely separate from the main body. In the final denouement the motives of the villain were still obscure and the only surprise twist at the end was the happy ending.

Not a classic Goddard but I still read it in just over a day.November 2012; 509 pages

Saturday, 17 November 2012

"Pure" by Andrew Miller

Jean-Baptiste, a young engineer, is commanded by a minister at the Palace of Versailles to oversee the destruction of the ancient cemetery of Les Innocents next to Les Halles in only-just-pre-revolutionary Paris. All around the area is a strange miasma. There are reports of weird sightings. Things go bump in the night. Many of those living in the locality are hostile to the project.

He meets many strange characters. He is billeted with the Monnards and their mad daughter. Armand is the organist in the derelict graveyard church; he has revolutionary friends. Jeanne is the virginal granddaughter of the sexton. The priest in the church is a recluse, blinded by the Chinese whilst doing missionary work. Heloise is the local whore; she loves reading.

J-B recruits his best friend and a troop of miners, one of whom is a mystery man, and they begin to excavate the bones.

A very strange book, a comedy of manners set amidst corpses. November 2012; 342 pages

Sunday, 4 November 2012

"Bring up the bodies" by Hilary Mantel

This sequel to Wolf Hall continues the story of Thomas Cromwell, Master Secretary to the government of Henry VIII. This episode deals with the  downfall of Anne Boleyn.

Part of the magic is the way the story is told in the present tense and from the point of view of Cromwell (although continually referring to him as 'he'). Indirect speech is mingled with quoted speech so that one is never quite sure what Cromwell is thinking and what he is saying; this supports the essential secrecy of the central protagonist. The attraction of this man is that he is so modern. Faced with a world of nobles, chivalry and jousts, he organises and manages. In sweeping away the monasteries he places the monarchy on a sound financial footing; he understands trade and banking. Throwaway lines show that he is the man to begin baptismal records, he extends the justice system to Wales, he doesn't use torture (although his interrogations scarcely suit modern sensibilities and the trials over which he presides are show trials), he seeks to place the parish priests on a proper footing, and he tries to bring in a Keynesian law to give public work to the unemployed.

This book doesn't have the immense power of Wolf Hall but it is a very readable sequel. It won the 2012 Booker, beating The Lighthouse by Alison Moore.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

"Atomised" by Michel Houellebecq

This is an overtly philosophical French novel. Michel is a molecular biologist who lives in France and later moves to Ireland (much like the author, Michel). Michel has no relationships with other people except perhaps for the friendship he once had with his childhood friend; he lives alone and does not seem to need sex. In contrast his half brother Bruno is obsessed with sex, seeking as many joyless couplings as possible.
I suppose Michel and Bruno represent the soul and the body in a modern version of classic Cartesian dualism.

It is a long time (over thirty years) since I read Sartre's Roads to Freedom trilogy and I am not sure if I remember it rightly but it seemed to me that Sartre's existentialism was told in a much more believable novel, with a human face, than this cold, impersonal, almost nihilistic book. But perhaps that was the point. Perhaps Houellebecq is trying to show us that we are all isolated individuals gtrapped within our own identities and unable to relate to anyone else in any way that is in the least bit meaningful. But it makes for  sterile and inhuman story.

And if you feel that stories should be about humans and their relationships and that you should be able to suspend disbelief as you relate to at least one of the characters you will, like me, find this novel challenging. There was no-one you could like. The best moments were when the priapic Bruno tries ever more desperately to get laid in a New Age hippy camp while simultaneously trying to avoid the contingent clap trap. But in the end he was unbelievable. And the end of the book, with its swift execution of almost all the major characters amid despair and loneliness degenerated into humourless farce. Finally we descend into a science fiction philosophy and discover that the book is written in the future.
Depressing. October 2012; 379 pages

"Will in the world" by Stephen Greenblatt

Greenblatt never even entertains the idea that the author of the Shakespeare plays might be someone other than the son of a glover from Stratford. He traces the evidence of the Stratford Shakespeare's life, adds a healthy dose of supposition, and relates this biography to the literary output. Was Shakespeare a closet Catholic or a closet homosexual? Was this why he left virtually no documentary evidence of his life excpet the plays? Was he a loner, tight with money to the point of miserliness? What happened between the marriage in Stratford and his appearance as an actor in London? And what were his relations with his wife?

 This was an excellent read and so well-written that it kept me picking it up and it was hard to put down. In that respect it was like Greenblatt's The Swerve (which I liked slightly better). But 1599 by James Shapiro is so much more convincing when it relates specific incidents in the life of Shakespeare and his company to features of the plays (eg when Will Kempe the clown who has created the massively popular role of Falstaff leaves the company Shakespeare writes Falstaff out of Henry V despite having promised at the end of Henry IV that Falstaff will be back; later clown parts are more subtle because the clown is new). Will in the world was slightly disappointing in the links it didn't make. But a single volume life of the greatest playwright in the world is no mean feat.

Get it. Read it. October 2012; 390 pages

Also read:

  • 1606 by James Shapiro about Lear
  • Contested Will by James Shapiro if you want to be convinced that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare
  • The Lodger by Charles Nicholl
  • Shakespeare and Co by Stanley Wells about contemporaries of Shakespeare
  • 1599 by James Shapiro (the man is brilliant) which culminates in Hamlet




Tuesday, 2 October 2012

"Glyndebourne"

I wouldn't normally read a book about an opera house but the publishers were suggesting we might write a book about our school and this was the sample they offered us.

The first chapter explained how Glyndebourne was conceived. A very rich man was owner of a stately home and fell in love with an opera singer; the Glyndebourne Festival was a sort of extravagant am dram. The book managed to combine a tone of reverence with smugness; this seems to perfectly suit opera afficionadoes.

The first chapter was slightly interesting although I wanted to know more about the source of the wealth. I suppose I am a philistine.

The later chapters degenerated into long lists of operas staged and performers involved: In 1957 Svengali's Don Giuseppe was performed; ingenue Janet Sodastream was a memorable soprano; the set design was conceived by Charley Farley. That sort of thing. To someone like myslef who doesn't know his Figaro from his Barber of Seville the author might as well have been listing subatomic particles. The book became virtually unreadable.

Thank goodness it was short: 65 pages; October 2012

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

"The hundred year old man who climbed out of a window and disappeared" by Jones Jonasson

100 year old Allan runs away from his nursing home. Theft and murder ensue. He meets new friends. Parallel to this picaresque adventure we are told the equally picaresque story of Allan's life, involving world travel, Truman, Churchill, Stalin, Mao and de Gaulle and explaining Allan's pivotal if unacknowledged role in many of the major events of the twentieth century.

The century (and Allan's life) start in 1905. I don't think it is coincidence that this is when Albert Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity. Indeed, Einstein's dim half-brother and the atom bomb are both central to Allan's tale.

So in some ways this novel is a satirical view of the events of the twentieth century. In other ways it seems to be an ironic version of Voltaire's Candide. Whilst Candide features violent (apparent) death and resurrection,   The hundred year old man features violent death and (apparent) resurrection. Where Lisbon is destroyed in Candide, Vladivostok is destroyed in The hundred year old man. Both describe near-impossible events in mundane, matter-of-fact prose. In Candide the motto of Dr Pangloss is 'All is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds'; this is Voltaire's most sarcastic irony as he piles disaster on disaster. Allan's motto is 'Things are what they are, and whatever will be will be' which enables Allan to endure castration, repeated incarceration and several death penalties with Panglossian sang froid.

But although this book is equally entertaining it does not have the philosophical depth which makes Candide great literature.


Friday, 21 September 2012

"1000 things to do in London for under £10" by Time Out Guides

Not just the obvious things: museums and the cheaper types of entertainment such as poetry reading. This guide also has the eclectic from walking across the bridges to playing chess in Holland Park to posing nude as a life model to riding the buses to watching non-league football to playing fives to eating ice cream to ringing church bells....
Imaginative and inspirational. September 2012; 309 pages.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

"The making of modern Britain" by Andrew Marr

Brilliant. Andrew Marr charts the influences that have made us what we are by recounting weird and bizarre incidents.

He starts by explaining that in pre-WW1 Britain it was so easy to buy guns that when in the Tottenham Outrage of 1904 the unarmed police were chasing armed anarchists they borrowed guns from passers by. In the 1930s Oswald Mosley seeks funding for his fascists from the Jewish owners of Marks and Spencer. When his Blackshirts get political uniforms banned the Greenshirts (the political wing of the folk-dancing tendency) march carrying their green shirts aloft on coat hangers. Sculptor Eric Gill (famed for Ariel at the BBC and Gill Sans) enjoyed all sorts of sex including homosexuality, incest and bestiality. Earl Marshall Haig's 1928 funeral was attended by more people than Princess Diana's.

At every turn Marr amuses and then upends your prejudices about this fascinating era. Brilliant. September 2012; 429 pages.

"The child in time" by Ian McEwan

The typical McEwan tale begins with some earth-shattering event; the novel is then devoted to chronicling the  consequences that ripple out from this. In the same way, the hero's daughter (writer of children's fiction Stephen Lewis) is stolen from a supermarket. McEwan charts the bereavement of the young parents as it destroys their relationship and their lives.

But for once McEwan has sub-plots. Why has successful Charles Darke, Stephen's publisher and best friend, suddenly left a promising ministerial career? What is the point of the subcommittee of the Official Commission on Childcare on which Stephen sits?And how did Stephen see into the past when he looked through a pub window to see his parents thirty years ago?

The book, set in a dystopian near future, attempts to portray childhood from a number of perspectives and plays with the perception of time. An adult acting like a schoolboy climbs a tree. School is an exercise in pointless regimentation. The Official Commission hears crackpot views about learning to read. Stephen buys toys for his missing child's birthday. Thelma, wife and maybe mother figure to Charles Darke, tries to explain to Stephen a modern Physics perspective on time.

I struggled to find a unifying sense to all this. Was it a retelling of the Faust legend, seen from outside the bedevilled doctor? Charles Darke (is there a clue in his name?) acquires riches, then power, then seemingly everlasting youth. Or is there a theme of everything sliding from organisation into chaos (the entropic direction for the arrow of time)? The loss of his daughter drives Stephen from a stable life to a whisky soaked squalor. There are licensed beggars on the streets. The weather is becoming worse, floods succeeding droughts. Stephen drives from gridlocked London to a forested countryside; gates are hidden by tangles of jungle. On one journey a lorry crashes. But just when things seem to have utterly disintegrated, order slowly returns. The spat at the Olympics nearly develops into nuclear war but doesn't and the Olympics continue. The lorry driver emerges from his wrecked vehicle more or less unhurt. Stephen begins to study classical Arabic and tennis as his life gets back on track.Is this another theme? Although entropy seems to increase there are localised areas in which order prevails? And death is followed by birth.

I was confused by the plot but the prose is luscious. September 2012; 220 pages

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

"The good soldier" by Ford Madox Ford

A rich, leisured American couple meet a rich English couple at a German spa. Very Henry James. I meandered through the first few chapters feeling that this was a gentle Victorian novel.

Then, in a sentence, you becomes aware of hideous tensions between the couples. Two of them are having an affair. And the facades of respectability are repeatedly stripped away.

With that sentence the novel lurches into the twentieth century. The rambling narration shifts up and down through time and makes little mistakes and claims unlikely innocence. Those who seem weakest turn out to be deceitful, those who are wronged turn out to be manipulative. Adultery, violent death and madness lurk just beneath the surface.

The book grips you till the end. At the end I wanted to start again.

Possibly the best book I have read this year.


Or you can get it free on Kindle.

 August 2012; 179 pages

Saturday, 1 September 2012

"Outrage" by Arnaldur Indridason

Elinborg is a typical Reykjavik lady detective. With one failed marriage behind her she lives with her partner, Teddi, and their three children (eldest, a boy, is on the internet all the time and suffering teenage angst, youngest, a girl, is very gifted) whom she hardly ever sees because she works too hard. She has written a cook book.

 Every detail of her life is told to us in the stark prose of this latest exponent of Scandinavian noire.

In fact Indridason doesn't believe in the 'show, don't tell' principle of fiction. His prose is simple, flat and sterile. I have no idea what Elinborg looked like because the author doesn't really do description. The victim dresses in "black jeans, white shirt and a comfortable jacket"; neither description nor character are allowed to get in the way of the plot.

Compared to this book, Agatha Christie's characters are living, breathing and multi-dimensional.

It is a pleasant enough yarn. It rattles on. There is not the sense of clues being carefully dropped into the prose, each revelation is expected as it comes.

I was most interested in this book because I have been to both Reykjavik and Akranes but I think I might write with more local flavour having known Iceland for a whole five days.

Potboiler. September 2012; 386 pages

Friday, 31 August 2012

"Cod" by Mark Kurlansky

Since I had previously read Kurlansky's 'Salt' and found it a fascinating discussion of history from the perspective of a commodity I was very keen to read 'Cod'. It is much the same. He explains how Cod was important in the discovery of America, suggesting that the Basque fishing fleet were off Newfoundland long before Columbus or Cabot, and played a crucial part in the War of Independence. He also details how overfishing has led to the closure of the Grand Banks.

Cod is not (at least to my life) as important as Salt and inevitably the book is more limited because of this. And I was not at all interested in the endless recipes although I understand that this is a food book (and it did inspire me to choose Bacalaho when I encountered it by chance in a little Eastbourne cafe principally devoted to burgers and omelettes but run by a Portuguese couple who were delighted that someone ordered their national dish even though I couldn't finish it).

What I really disliked was his perpetual use of 'off of' when a fishing boat was 'off of' Iceland or 'off of' Newfoundland etc. Surely one can say 'off' Cape Breton.

This was an enjoyable book but Salt is better!

August 2012; 276 pages

Thursday, 30 August 2012

"In the springtime of the year" by Susan Hill

Don't read this book on the train! Whilst it might be acceptable (just) to laugh in public, it is embarrassing to weep.

Ruth's husband of less than a year, Ben, has been killed by a tree falling on him. This book charts the progress of her grief, and the utterly individual griefs of his father, mother, sister and brother, and how his death affects the tight knit farming community. It charts the progress of the rural year, it details rural poverty, and it is suffused throughout by spirituality and the rituals of the church.

It is brilliant. It is harrowing. I found my eyes leaking water at moments unbearably, poignantly mundane. This is bereavement vividly and remorselessly chronicled.

Gut-wrenchingly perfect.

August 2012; 254 pages.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

"Heroes and Villains" by Angela Carter.

This was my introduction to Carter's work. She writes fantasy novels. This is set after a 'war' (presumably a nuclear holocaust). (June 2015: I now discover that I have already read her Wise Children which is rather different!)


 Marianne lives in a 'white tower' with her father who is one of the Professor's of an agricultural community closely guarded by soldiers. From time to time they are raided by the Barbarians: as a child she watches from her window as her brother is killed. But she finds the safe community stifling and she runs into the surrounding forest with a beautiful Barbarian boy. She joins his tribe which is dominated by a renegade professor turned shaman.

Carter's style mirrors the mythic themes. Moments of lush, gorgeous description is interrupted by arid, sterile dialogue which in turn gives way to sensuous eroticism reflecting the professorial enclosed villages in the barbarian countryside, perhaps echoing a view of stilted civilization and fertile nature. Marianne tries to understand the new world in which she finds herself in philosophical and sociological terms but in the end she is controlled by passion. She, her barbarian boyfriend and the mad guru indulge in a weird power play in which each tries to outwit and kill the other. Throughout, the reader is challenged when characters respond strangely. Thus conversations are rarely dialogues but rather each character states their position (or doesn't because everyone seems to speak in riddles). And the responses of characters to rape, death and betrayal seem intensely unhuman. Finally Jewel  the Barbarian, butcher, warrior, gravedigger and leader, tattooed with temptation, is so educated for a barbarian, sometimes so mundane, but othertimes so mysterious and so contradictory.

I wondered if he was Mick Jagger as seen by Marianne (Faithful).

Such a strange book; sometimes so unfullfilling and sometimes so profound. I pledge to read the entire Carter corpus on the strength of this first taste. (June 2015: Now I have also read The Bloody Chamber which is a brilliant collection of short stories based around fairy tales and The infernal desire machines of Doctor Hoffman which is a picaresque journey through a fantastic landscape with lots of sex.)

Weird and upsetting at every level. August 2012; 164 pages

"Drive" by Daniel Pink

This is a fantastic and deeply thought provoking book.


 It is to do with what motivates human beings. Pink describes the two traditional types of motivation as our biological drive (food, sex etc) and externally imposed rewards and punishments. Then he points out that these are simply not enough. Children play. Adults volunteer. Health care workers do more than they are expected to: they talk to patients, they assist nurses. This happens all the time. Clearly there is a third form of motivation. Wikipedia works because of this third form.

Then he asks how we can use this third drive in business and schools. He describes what not to do. He shows how carrots can actually demotivate in the long term. If you start paying your kid to do chores he will (a) only do the chores if he is paid and (b) see chores as inherently unpleasant and lose enjoyment from doing things. Pink says the secret is to turn work into play and suggest that what traditional motivations have done for too long (especially perhaps in schooling) is to turn play into work.  And finally Pink explains how to use drive 3.0: by giving people autonomy and purpose and by encouraging them to seek mastery.
OK, so it's not that easy. But I have made note after note in the margins and I am going to try to adapt these ideas at my school big time.

Brilliant and potentially revolutionary. August 2012; 215 pages.

Friday, 10 August 2012

"Vacant Possession" by Hilary Mantel

Deputy Headteacher Colin has a dysfunctional family. Teenage son Alastair and the vicar's son Austin sniff glue and burgle. Wife Sylvia embraces good causes. Undergraduate daughter Susannah gets pregnant by the husband of the woman whom Colin had a fling with ten years ago and leaves university to live in a squat. Mad mother is booted out of her geriatric hospital to live next door with his unmarried sister, Florence.

And Muriel Axon, the previous occupant of the house he now lives, in has been discharged from mental hospital and now, a mistress of disguise, has come to seek revenge.

But revenge for what? Muriel's problems come from her mum who was mad and kept her in the haunted house. The one time she escaped she was made pregnant (by the father of the woman Colin had an affair with); her mother then persuaded her to drown the child in the canal.

This is a black comedy. The characters lead meaningless lives against the bleak backdrop of unemployed Britain in the seventies and eighties. Their lives are tightly and intricately intertwined; coincidences abound. And Muriel isn't mad or stupid, she is wicked.

The one clue to what this all means is given when Sylvia reviews her decaying home and says that it is like the  Fall of the House of Usher to which Colin replies it is more like the fall of the House of Atreus. The House of Atreus was cursed by the Greek Gods because Tantalus cooked and served his son Pelops in a pie to the Gods. From there the crimes spread. Thyestes, twin brother of Atreus, had an affair with Aerope, wife of Atreus and unsuccessfully challenged Atreus for the throne of Mycenae. Aegisthus, son of Thyestes, killed Atreus, who had adopted him. Aegisthus then went on to have an affair with Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon, son of Atreus. When Agamemnon returned from the Trojan war Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murdered him; Aegisthus usurped the throne. Later Orestes, Agamemnon's son, murders Clytemnestra and is punished by the Furies for his matricide.

But I suspect that Mantel does not intend her book to mean anything. She creates this tight knit cohort of saddoes and the she manipulates the coincidences and the crimes of Muriel until we build to a potentially horrific climax. The only logic to this is the mad perversities of Muriel (although we can feel that in some ways she is also a victim). And what happens next surely has to be in the sequel.

Black. Not really a comedy, not really a farce.

Mantel has written better books. Similar to this is the wonderfully funny Beyond Black, about a medium who really does interact with the spirit world even though she would rather not, and (of course) the brilliant Booker winning Wolf Hall. In the panels below the second and fourth are the kindle editions.


August 2012; 239 pages


Thursday, 9 August 2012

"Jerusalem" by Simon Sebag Montefiore

This book is a comprehensive history of Jerusalem from at least 1500 BC. It scarcely ever flag: with 2,500 years of history to get through it is difficult to see how it could!

But.

All the reviewers rave about it. Charles Moore, Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, Colin Thubron... Who am I to disagree?

Although it acknowledges that the only source of information for much of the early history is the Old Testament and although it notes that there are inconsistencies and multiple voices in the OT nevertheless it then treats much of what has then been said as fact. And repeats it. So it is less a work of history than a retelling of the OT tales.

And I wonder how impartial SSM has been in his description of the more recent history.

But the most lasting impression from this monumental work is the tragedy of humanity. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a microcosm of the City which is a microcosm of the world. The Holy Sepulchre is used by eight (?) Christian sects including Copts, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Ethiopians and Catholics. They fight over their areas (you can lay claim to the floor you sweep so there are broom wars) and the right to have precedence during certain festivals. The fights extend to weapons including guns and cause injuries and sometimes deaths. Similarly the City is fought over by Moslems, Jews and Christians. In its history these fights have led to mutilation, castration, torture, bisection, impalement, crucifixion, burning and wholesale deportations, enslavements and massacres of entire populations.

The message of this book is that the more sacred something is, the more evil is done in its name. The message of this book is: Do not live in this city. It is accursed.

A monumental history. But this author has written better: the sometimes confusing but brilliant Stalin: In the Court of the Red Tsar and the unbelievably exciting Young Stalin.



August 2012; 628 pages

Monday, 30 July 2012

"The Tiger's Wife" by Tea Obreht

Set in Yugoslavia after its disintegration, a young girl doctor explores her memories of her grandfather, also a doctor, and the circumstances of his death. The petty feuds and jealousies of the isolated village in which he grew up serve as a microcosm for the internecine wars that have torn families apart in the Balkan civil war. And with the hatred and fear comes superstition.

A tiger escapes from the zoo and finds its way to the village in which the grandfather is a young boy. Here he is looked after and fed by the butcher's deaf-mute wife; the butcher who is gay and a wannabe musician and who was tricked into marrying her, batters his wife. Then the butcher disappears and his wife is pregnant. The village believes that she has wed the devil, in the shape of the tiger, and seeks her death.

This story is mingled with the tale of the deathless man whom the grandfather doctor meets at key moments. The deathless man may or may not be a vampire; he claims to be death's nephew; it is certain that he carries a coffee cup in which he can see whether a man will imminently die or live.

An unusual mixture of reality and magic, lyrically and compellingly told. July 2012; 336 pages

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

"When we were orphans" by Kazuo Ishiguro

Celebrated private detective, Christopher Banks, returns to Shanghai to solve the mystery of the disappearance of his parents.

The book is written in a sort of diary style. There are a number of extracts purportedly penned on specific dates. The narrator can look back on what happened before in each extract but, of course, the narrator has no knowledge of what will happen next.

As a society detective the narrator comes to believe in his ability to solve mysteries that have puzzled others for many years. He also comes into contact with Sarah Hemmings, an intriguing character who is seeking to marry a man she can help to achieve things and who is ruthless about pursuing those objectives, dumping boyfriends and making a fuss at soirees with no sign of embarrassment. Sarah is a figure who recurs through the narrative; she is also an orphan.

The book becomes quite bizarre when the narrator returns to Shanghai in 1937, leaving behind an orphans girl he has casually adopted. He assumes that everyone he meets knows of his and his case. The embassy seems so convinced of his ability to find and rescue his parents from their kidnappers that they are planning the welcome back ceremony. He becomes utterly arrogant and obsessed, convinced that his solving this case will mend the degenerate Shanghai community even as the Japanese fire shells over their heads into the Chinese army. He is taken to his old home where a family of Chinese live and they tell him that he is entitled to his old house back even though it always belonged to the Company. This is becoming bizarre.

The book takes leave of reality when his obsession takes him into the war zone and he convinces a Chinese lieutenant to lend him troops to rescue his parents. This now becomes a nightmare. He travels through the poorest Chinese slums, destroyed by bombs, dodging the fighting armies, listening to men dying, avoiding rotting piles of human intestines. He rescues a wounded Japanese soldier from vengeful Chinese peasants; the soldier just happens to be his childhood friend. Despite the squalor and the incredible danger he obsessively pursues his mission.

In the end he has betrayed everyone for what seems to be nothing. He meets a celebrated Communist traitor and the story is resolved.

I found it extraordinarily difficult to believe that the war zone sequence was anything more than an allegorical nightmare and yet I couldn't reconcile that with the rest of the story. I never really accepted the main character; his actions seemed arbitrary and strange. Perhaps that was the point.

A puzzle written in Ishiguro's finest prose. July 2012; 313 pages.

Monday, 23 July 2012

"Peter Schlemihl" by Adelbert von Chamisso

The eponymous hero sells his shadow to a 'man in grey' (because "the devil isn't as black as he's painted") in return for a purse of never-ending gold. But he is shunned by everyone (except his faithful servant) as soon as they espy his lack of shadow. The devil then offers to sell the shadow back to Peter in return for his soul.

An adult fable written by a man who fled revolutionary France for Berlin, joined the Prussian army, fought against France, later returned to France but for the rest of his was always a German in France or a Frenchman in Germany.

One nice touch: it is purportedly written by Peter to "my dear Chamisso", the author.

Naive. July 2012; 124 pages

Saturday, 21 July 2012

"A More Perfect Heaven" by Dava Sobel

The author of Longitude, which told of John Harrison's struggle to perfect the chronometer and claim the Board of Navigation prize, now turns her attention to 'How Copernicus Revolutionised the Cosmos'"

Sobel is a brilliantly readable writer of Science history. She makes her subject come alive. Copernicus was a  Catholic Pole in Minor Orders (never an ordained priest, only a canon or trustee of his cathedral) who did a lot of good work administering the cathedral lands (in effect a self-governing state of the Holy Roman Empire) at about the time the Lutheranism was infecting large parts of Germany. Against this backdrop he pursued his interest in Astronomy. He became well known in astronomical circles and contributed to a papal committee investigating calendar reform. He clearly realised early that he could better calculate astronomical tables if he put the sun at the centre of the universe rather than the earth; it probably took him longer to decide that this reflected physical reality. There were two objections. In the Bible Joshua commands the sun to stand still; why would he have said this unless the sun was moving? Copernicus seems to have decided quite early that this should be interpreted differently. The second problem was that the earth does not seem to move. It may have taken Copernicus a little longer to accept that the appearance belied the reality.

Nevertheless he delayed publishing his book because he was fearful of the inevitable backlash, both ridicule and angry charges of heresy. Finally a Lutheran mathematician, Rheticus, travelled to Copernicus to convince him to publish; this seems to have been the catalyst that bred De Revolutionibus.

Having written plain history, Sobel turns to play-writing to dramatise the moment when Copernicus met Rheticus. There were other pressures at the time. The Bishop was trying to persuade Copernicus to give up his housekeeper because of the scandal of a once-married woman living with a canon. Rheticus seems to have been gay (later he was accused and convicted in absentia of sodomy). It is an interesting device to insert fiction into history but Sobel seems to carry this off perfectly.

A wonderful little book. July 2012; 236 pages

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

"The best from fantasy and science fiction sixth series" edited by Anthony Boucher

When I was young I used to go to Sunbury library and select books. There was magic there. I read the entire series of Swallows and Amazons, a dozen books in all. I read wonderful adventure stories: one I remember vividly involved tracking down the lost treasure of King John that had been presumed lost on the Wash; another involved travel to a future where the wheel was banned. And I read Science fiction anthologies.

Remembering a story about a place called Kroywen I decided to track it down. I found it in 'Fantasy and Science fiction' so I ordered one of the series.

I suppose I was bound to be disappointed. My tastes have changed. So have literary styles. And science is so different today from 1957. And I remember only the few golden nuggets from the many anthologies I read.

Some of the stories in this collection are extremely brief. Some are just silly. Some are scarcely connected with science fiction. Many of them betray America's fifty's preoccupation with nuclear war and doomsday.

A Viking tells of the American soldier who time travelled to Iceland. Martians explain how to cope with insects. Human colonists arrive at a distant planet to be enslaved by the natives. A census taker tries to count the devil. People travel to heaven by train. A man seeks solitude after a nervous breakdown catalysed by the News; having been brought back to reality he becomes a serial killer. An actress travels through time warps and relentlessly worries about her wickedness.

Perhaps the best story (if rather misogynistic) is by C.S. Lewis who reads or rather enters the mind of a woman who comes to see him.

Of its time. July 2012; 250 pages.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

"In the shadow of the sword" b y Tom Holland

This is my fourth Tom Holland book. Rubicon was brilliant, Persian Fire and Millennium were excellent. This is the weakest so far yet it is still a good read.

It charts the birth of Islam. The chronology is a little confusing: we open with the defeat in battle and death of the king of a Jewish kingdom in what is now the Yemen. Holland then takes us back to the recent histories of the Persian Empire and Constantinople. When we are back up to date we rush through Mohammed and on into the Ummayyads finishing with their annihilation by the Abbassids.

His thesis seems to be that this was the time when people of this region began to write down their religious beliefs; possible to protect them since they lived largely in the border area between the continually feuding Persian and 'Roman' empires. So he shows how the Zoroastrian priests of Persia start to write things down and then the project is enthusiastically taken up by the Jews of the area who develop the Torah. Justinian writes his laws, carefully based on scholarship to demonstrate their ancient provenance. The Bible is collected as a way of imposing orthodoxy on the feuding Christian sects of Constantine's empire although the hadiths amplifying the Koran (largely developed in a town thirty miles from the centre of Jewish learning) seem to be rather an attempt by the religious community to have an authority separate from the say-so if the Caliph.

What I found far more interesting (and frustrating) was the way he challenged the conventional view of Islamic history. Thus is a footnote on page 304 he claims that the concept of their being only a single version of the Koran dates back to 1924; before then it was largely accepted that there were seven 'readings'. The first mention of Mecca outside the Koran was in 741 (Mohammed died before 634). 'Mecca' is described as a significant trading town which presumably required significant agricultural resources: impossible for this remote part of the desert. The Koran itself is unmentioned in the early Islamic writings; it only mentions Mohammed four times.

And so he develops his thesis although he does little more than hint at it (whether this is because there is so little evidence in any direction or he is afraid of a Moslem backlash is not clear). The context for Mohammed's life and the development of his thought is on the borders of Palestine, perhaps in the Negev desert, where Arab tribes lived who were paid by the Romans to guard the borders of Palestine from the Persians. The holy city was originally in this region and was moved to Mecca well after Mohammed's death (there is evidence that the direction of prayer and the alignment of mosques moved). There were a number of ka'bas; the Arabs rather liked worshipping at cube-shaped shrines. Mohammed's teachings were originally thought to be a refinement of the Torah; thus the punishment for adultery changed from the Koranic prescription of 100 lashes to the Jewish stoning. A number of Islamic ideas came from Zoroastrians: for example Moslems were originally required to pray three times a day, Zoroastrians five.

And these revelations are shocking and exciting. However, Holland never really explains the chronologies carefully. Exactly when was the Koran first mentioned by another witness? And when was Mohammed first described? I wanted more dates and details even if certainty is impossible.

A fascinating appetiser. July 2012; 432 pages

Sunday, 24 June 2012

"Second honeymoon" by Joanna Trollope

When actress Edie's last child leaves home she gets a dose of empty nest blues. On the other hand, husband Russell (a theatrical agent) looks forward to discovering his wife again. So when his daughter Rosa gets the sack and finds herself in debt and asks to come home he says no. Then elder son Matt breaks up with high-powered business woman girlfriend Ruth and returns home, Edie gets cast in an Ibsen play and offers her son on stage a room in her house and soon the house is full again. But a house full of resentful rent-paying adults isn't quite as comfortable as a family home and tensions rise.

Essentially a well written Mills and Boon saga without the muscles and heaving bosoms and with one or two of the characters nicely drawn. It lacks depth but it certainly kept me turning the pages.

June 2012; 382 pages

Sunday, 17 June 2012

"Single and Single" by John Le Carre

John Le Carre's latest book starts with an English lawyer being shot dead on a Turkish hillside. It cuts to adivorced children's entertainer in a depressing seaside town. Linking these two is the private bank of Single & Single whose proprietor, Tiger Single, launders money and does dodgy development deals with Russian, Polish, Turkish and Georgian gangsters. Meanwhile British customs hunts the Hydra, the corrupt organisation at the heart of the British establishment.

This is Le Carre's stylish answer to what happens to the spy novel when the Cold War ends. Harking back to his classic work, Single turns pages.

June 2012; 335 pages

"The monk and the hangman's daughter" by Ambrose Bierce

This novella purports to be a rewrite of a translation from a German original which allows Bierce to create an archaic romantic tale. Told in journal form in the first person by a young monk who has been sent into remote mountains to test his vocation before ordination as a priest. Here he meets a hangman's daughter. She is shunned by the community and by the church (she is not allowed to be baptised) because of her parentage. He champions her to the point of tragedy.

It is one of those books where the reader is one step ahead of the narrator. Thus we realise that the monk has carnal desires for the girl before he does.

The story also allows Bierce to subtly criticise religion. We are outraged with the monk that the church has cast out the girl even when she has no sin (and there is a scene where she is wrongly punished). There are also sly digs: at the end of the first chapter the monk says that the Lutherans believe that faith can move mountains but, looking at the mountains he is about to climb and from the perspective of a Roamn Catholic, "I greatly doubt it." Later, when climbing the mountains, he doubts the belief that the Lord has a purpose for everything since stones "are a blessing to neither man nor beast".

Although the structure of the book is transparent and we are always several jumps ahead of the narrative (except right at the end when Bierce plays with your expectations about the identity of the victim) this is a charming little book and well worth the very little time it takes to read.

June 2012; 93 pages

Friday, 15 June 2012

"Death of Kings" by Bernard Cornwell

This historical novel is set in the last year of Alfred the Great's reign and the year after that. The Danes of the North are ready to invade Wessex as soon as Alfred pops his clogs. Alfred's brother's son is ready to challenge Alfred's son for the throne of Wessex. The Ealdorman of Cent wants to be King of Cent rather than Alfred's son Edward. The Mercians want Mercia to be independent of Wessex. And into all this steps Uhtred of Bamburgh, a pagan Saxon born in Northumbria but fighting for Alfred, lord of a poor manor near Buckingham in the part of Mercia the Saxons hold.

Uhtred journeys down the Ouse past Bedford to fight the Danes at St Neots. Then he travels to meet a prophetess and burn Danish long ships in Nottingham. He is a sort of Dark Age James Bond, fighting the Danes and protecting the Saxons, even though they don't much care for him. I didn't like him very much either, he is casually brutal, hanging prisoners without a thought, and he has sex with any women he wants although love is reserved for the King's daughter (much to the annoyance of her husband). He has about as muh three dimensionality as James Bond too; he kills and he fucks, he has no personality.

And the plot is complicated by the fat that every other Saxon is called Aethel-something. There is almost too much history and insufficient wonder.

A decent yarn but lacking in depth.

June 2012; 335 pages

Friday, 8 June 2012

"The Black Spider" by Jeremias Gotthelf

This bucolic allegory was written by a Bernese pastor. A charming rural farming community are celebrating a baptism. Much is made of the celebration: it revolves around multiple meals of vast proportions and everyone politely urging everyone else to gluttony. At considerable length, after lunch, the grandfather tells a tale of the village in mediaeval times when the peasantry were oppressed by the knights in the castle on the hill. Impossible demands led them to despair and then to making a pact with the devil. But then they try to trick the devil out of his side of the bargain (an unbaptised child) and he visits a spidery scourge upon them.

This novella is flawed in two ways. Morally it is horrible that so many people should die as a result of one person making an agreement with the devil, especially when that person was under tremendous pressure. Admittedly the rest of the village (except the priest, who also died, but his was a good death) went along with the satanic bargain but the multiple death sentence seems vastly out of proportion even for a smug Vistorian pastor. The second flaw is literary. Apart from the jolly godmother who is repeatedly obliged to eat more than she professes to want and is deadly scared of forgetting the baptismal name all the other characters are two dimensional goodies or baddies with nothing to round them.

Very much a book of two halves, the beautifully observed christening (which has no function in the narrative) and a straightforward folk tale of devilry.

June 2012; 109 pages

Thursday, 7 June 2012

"The state of Africa" by Martin Meredith

This is a comprehensive study of Africa since independence. It travels, more or less chronologically, from country to country, starting with Ghana as Kwame Nkrumah makes the jump from political prisoner to Prime Minister in a single day. We travel to Afrique Noire as France reluctantly releases its hold on Dahomey, Niger, Upper Volta, Cote d'Ivoire, Chad, the Central African Republic, the French Congo, Gabon and Senegal in a single month, August 1960. It was even more reluctant to release Algeria. We learn of the difficulties faced by the new countries as they tried to recover from colonialism with a minimum of infra-structure, almost no skilled workforce, and national boundaries that ignored traditional ethnic and tribal divisions. It talks of the Big Men such as Hastings Banda in Malawi who was a South London GP until he was 60 when he returned to Nyasaland and led it to independence, ruling it for another 30 years. We hear of Mobutu and Gadaffi and Nyerere and Idi Amin.

Africa's misfortune was to be colonised. Then it suffered from an era of dictators who plundered whatever resources they could. First they nationalised everything so they could get rich from controlling revenues and bribes. Most of the nationalised industries were incredibly inefficient; ghost jobs were created for friends and family and those who paid bribes. The industries were propped up with state loans or foreign aid. Then the Big Men  privatised everything so that their cronies and their families could get their hands on state assets cheaply.

 Then they fought wars. They fought for oil fields and diamond fields. They fought civil wars to control the government so they could divert government revenues into their own pockets. They fought to placate political interests at home. They fought to even old tribal scores. And they fought as proxies for the cold war superpowers.

The superpowers and the old colonial masters made things worse. Even after the genocide was a matter of public knowledge, France intervened in Rwanda on the side of the Hutu who were killing the Tutsis. The US regularly backed Mobutu even against African leaders who were relatively good guys. International aid kept Biafra fighting enabling Biafra's leaders to cynically sacrifice even more of their population.

Even now most of the Big Men have gone the democratic regimes replacing them have mostly been deeply corrupt. And now we have the scourge of AIDS. In Botswana, uniquely peaceful and democratic since independence, 37% of its 1.6 million people have HIV; life expectancy is 27. AIDS kills teachers faster than they can be trained.

This is a deeply gloomy book. Africa has so many natural resources and is mired in such endemic poverty. Aid and debt relief are wasted or stolen or used to maintain armies. There seems to be no solution.

Sad. But a beautifully written  book. Very readable.

June 2012; 688 pages

Monday, 28 May 2012

"The God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy

This was the winner of the 1997 Booker Prize. It is set in the Indian state of Kerala where they speak Malayalam. Befitting this palindromically named language, Estha(ppen) and Rahel, two egg twins, often speak words backwards. They way children see the world through different eyes, with innocence, is captured in the author's nursery rhyme approach to language and the repetition of certain words to capture misunderstood ideas.

The book starts with Rahel coming back to India to meet her twin brother Estha who has returned from where he was sent (to be with his abusive father). Estha has returned to the family home as an elective mute. Rahel watches him and explores the past. And we become aware of a great mystery in the past that is the secret reason why the twins are traumatised and dysfunctional. A secret that involves their Baby Grand Aunt.

Sophie Mol, the daughter of their jolly fat Uncle and his English wife, died on her short visit to their home when she and they were children. At the same time something happened to Velutha the Untouchable Odd Job man. Ammu, their mother, who tried to right whatever wrong was done, has died.

I read this story with a growing sense of dread. Something terrible has happened. Something awful. I wanted to know what had happened and I hoped that discovering the truth would set the twins free, but I feared that I would learn that they were guilty of terrible things. With deft dance steps the story moves around the truth, sometimes a little nearer, weaving a spell.

And the prose evokes the colour, the chaos, and the fecundity of India. And the characters are dazzlingly real, though mythic archetypes. And the narrative is hauntingly sad.

This was a book that I wanted to rush through to find out what had happened but I wanted to read slowly and savour every word because of the richness of the language.

Wonderful.

May 2011; 340 pages

Friday, 25 May 2012

"50 Political Ideas you really need to know" by Ben Dupre

This book puts Politics into perspective. It shows that the latest ideas have been around for centuries. It points out that one's least loved ideas have something to be said for them and that their is a valid alternative viewpoint to one's core values. Politics is really the art of running society so that it functions. What works in one country or age or context won't work in another. No cows are sacred; we just have to find the next compromise.

May 2011; 203 pages



Tuesday, 22 May 2012

"A Strange Manuscript found in a Copper Cylinder" by James de Mille

This is a short allegorical novel. It is told in the format of the 'story within the story'; a group of indolent Victorians becalmed in the Atlantic on their yacht, find a copper cylinder bobbing about on the waves and discover a manuscript written on papyrus in it. This framing device enables the author to explain and analyse the rest of the story (and to debate whether it is fiction, fact or philosophy).

The narrator of the manuscript is a sailor named Adam More. Accidentally abandoned by his ship (shades of Robinson Crusoe) he travels to a mysterious land (Gulliver's Travels) at the South Pole where the inhabitants love darkness and death and hate light and life (there is a clear influence here of Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket). He is befriended and honoured (the people love poverty so adore finding someone they can give things to) and meets Almah. At the point where they fall in love the carefree existence becomes a nightmare: they re condemned to the highest benefit the land can offer which is the benefit of death. Thus Adam's idyllic Edenic existence is destroyed by tasting the fruit of love which condemns him to death. They are transported from that land to the 'Amir' where wicked Layelah falls in love with Adam and schemes to flee with him.

At one level this is therefore Paradise Lost. At another level this describes (Adam's surname is More) Utopia: a nowhere land where possessions are a curse so that every man does his best to do his best for his neighbour. But utopia has its dark side too.

This book is partly a cheap romance of the Lost World/ Lost Horizon ilk and partly a work of ethical philosophy. Intriguing and weird.

May 2012; 203 pages.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

"Medieval Intrigue" by Ian Mortimer

Subtitled 'Decoding Royal Conspiracies' this book is an attempt by Ian Mortimer to defend his controversial theory that Edward II was not murdered at Berkeley Castle by having a red hot poker thrust into his anus as popularised by Christopher Marlowe but survived imprisonment at both Berkeley and Corfe Castles to become a hermit in exile and later as 'William de Galeys' secretly to meet both son King Edward III and new born grandson Lionel of Antwerp.

To support these ideas he explains his technique of interpreting information streams (for example on the original reports of Edward II's murder at Berkeley and the narratives of the Earl of Kent's subsequent attempt to 'spring' Edward II from Corfe Castle which seems stupid if the king, Kent's brother, was already dead) and speculates on Edward III's relationship with Italian bankers. Edward acknowledged debts that these bankers could not possibly have supplied, given their limited capital. Mortimer hints that these were payments partly to keep his father captive abroad and partly blackmail (because if his father was alive then Edward III was complicit in the fraudulent death narrative). He also considers stories of royal pretenders in an attempt to suggest that they are somehow different from the Fieschi letter which was sent to Edward III describing the purported survival of his father although the story of Harold II surviving Hastings and travelling abroad as a hermit seems remarkably similar to the Edward II tale.

This book's misleading title led me to expect rather more conspiracies and I was disappointed. I also thought Mortimer fell between the two stools of academic and popular history writing. He is a brilliant popular historian and clearly an excellent if controversial academic historian; I just felt the academic side would have been better restricted to the academic journals.

From my point of view, Mortimer's least interesting history so far.

May 2012; 345 pages

Saturday, 12 May 2012

"City of Sin" by Catherine Arnold

I suppose I was naive to be quite so surprised at how rude this book was. It is an explicit history of sex (mostly in London but Arnold is happy to spread her wings when necessary) focussing mostly on prostitutes and rent boys. She is very good on words:

  • because Roman prostitutes satisfied their clients in the open air under arches (fornices) the practice became known as fornication which became the Germanic fokken which led to another word
  • wed means payment; Saxon wives were bought by their husband; the payment being symbolised by a ring
  • gay was the street slang for prostitute in Victorian days


Other discoveries included:

  • Gropecunt Lane was the haunt of cheaper prostitutes, It was later changed into Grape Street and later Grub Street "reminding all those who live by the pen that there is more than one way to prostitute oneself". 
  • The mistress of Edward IV, Jane Shore, survived both Richard III and Henry VII and is buried in Hinxworth Church.


My only criticism is that Arnold's historical research is sometimes suspect. She repeats urban myths as more or less true. She also dwells overlong on familiar stories such as Oscar Wilde and the Profumo Affair.

Well written, interesting and a real page-turner.

May 2012; 333 pages

Thursday, 3 May 2012

"The Swerve" by Stephen Greenblatt

I still can't quite understand why I loved this book so much. In 1417 Poggio, a Florentine, having lost his job as Apostolic Secretary when his boss, Pope John XXIII was deposed and imprisoned, finds an old manuscript in an anonymous monastery. The manuscript is the lost poem De Rerum Natura by Roman poet Lucretius and it outlines the atomic theories of Democritus embedded in the atheistic philosophy of Epicure. These powerful ideas spell the end of the middle ages and the beginning of the modern world.

It sounds like a cheap thriller by Dan Brown or a dry as dust history. It is fact and I loved it. It is a wonderful book, beautifully written, and full of some mind-bending ideas of which the Epicurean philosophy is just a gourmet taster.

"Humans, Aristotle wrote, are social animals: to realize one's nature as a human then was to participate in a group activity." On page 69 Greenblatt debunks the Enlightenment idea of the lone genius in favour of a distinctly modern 'team work' approach to collaborative learning.

On page 71 Greenblatt quotes Flaubert: "Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone." Perhaps that moment has returned to us today.

"Epicurus thought it mad to think that divine beings would be interested in human activities. Why should God take human form rather than that of an ant or an elephant? "Christian are like a council of frogs in a pond, croaking at the top of their lungs, 'For our sakes the world was created'." (p98)

"As every pious reader of Luke's Gospel knew, Jesus wept, but there were no verses that described him laughing or smiling, let alone pursuing pleasure." (p105)

"The pattern of dreaming and deferral and compromise is an altogether familiar one: it is the epitome of a failed life." (p151)

"The quintessential emblem of religion .... is the sacrifice of a child by a parent." (p194): Agamemnon and Iphigenia, Abraham and Isaac, God and Jesus.

Amerigo Vespucci described the life of the natives of Brazil as Epicurean. Vespucci was a Florentine and part of the humanist circle who read De Rerum Natura. Thomas More used Vespucci's book as a source for Utopia.

Thomas Harriot observed sun spots and the lunar surface and the sine law of refraction etc etc before others but did not publish for fear of being accused of atheism.

And there is so much more in this wonderful, wonderful book.

May 2012; 263 pages

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

"His Illegal Self" by Peter Carey

This novel follows an 8 year old boy, Che,  and is written partly from his perspective and partly from the perspective of his ex-nanny Dial.

Che lives with his wealthy but bohemian grandmother in New York. His parents are American urban guerrillas, outlawed and in hiding. His mother arranges for Dial (who also has a radical past) to take Che from his grandmother for a single hour of agreed contact, but the plans change and Dial takes Che to Philapelphia where Che's mother is killed by the bomb she is making. The grandmother thereupon accuses Dial of kidnapping Che and they go on the run together, ending up in a Hippy-run township in the Australian bush.

The interplay between the 8 year old misunderstanding everything and the framed Dial who resents the way she has been manipulated away from the cushy bourgeois lifestyle she was about to enjoy into the desperate existence of a fugitive in the bush is excellent. Other notable characters include Trevor who rips them off and steals their money and looks after them and tolerates Che's thefts and gives them their money back because after all he is a Hippy who likes to go naked and used to be a Barnados boy who was shipped out to Australia and lived with priests. The hippy lawyer worships Jazz musicians. The head of the hippy neighbourhood hates cats because they kill birds.

And the prose is wonderful. And the ending a surprise in the penultimate paragraph.

So why didn't I want to turn every page?

I think it was just a little too weird. April 2012; 272 pages

"Winter King" by Thomas Penn

This fascinating biography of Henry VII focuses on the years between 1500 and his death in 1509. This was the time when Henry, having fought his way to the throne and married Elizabeth of York to legitimise his issue, suffered the twin succession crises of losing his first born and his queen leaving a very young Henry VIII (still only 17 when he ascended in 1509) as heir at a time when father to son succession had not occurred for nearly a century and with the Plantagenet pretender de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, waiting abroad.

And Henry VII became the richest monarch in Europe through tax avoidance (he smuggled Venetian alum to circumvent the papal monopoly) and extortion (by accusing almost anyone of trumped up crimes and then either fining them or binding them over in excessive sums).

A fascinating and compelling portrait of one of England's lesser known (and least charismatic) kings. 

But I so wanted to lerarn about the first half of the reign. After the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, Henry had to reunite the country still reeling from the divisive Wars of the Roses. His own claim on the throne was marginal (Henry V's widow, ex Princess of France, had married her household steward). So how did he persuade everyone to follow him? This story deserves to be told.

Quotes: 

  • John Skelton exhorted us to "Love poets: athletes are two a penny but patrons of the arts are rare."
  • Henry VIII's tutor Lord Mountjoy lived near Greenwich Palace at Sayes Court (later lived in my John Evelyne, Admiral Benbow and briefly Czar Peter the Great)
  • Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, lived at Collyweston Palace near Kettering
  • Henry VII confiscated Ampthill from the Earl of Kent because Kent was in debt here there and everywhere and mismanaging his lands
  • Another compulsory purchase was Hanworth which he made into a palace. 
  • Catherine of Aragon's wedding procession (to Henry VIII) went [ast the Cardinal's Hat Tavern near where the Globe now is.
A wonderful, beautifully written book. April 2012; 378 pages

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

"Herd" by Mark Earls

his is a UK take on a US-style marketing management through popular psychology book. Mark Earls works in marketing, worships Rugby and sings in a ska group. He writes well (which kept me going because I soon discovered that I wasn't really interested in marketing) but I suspect the shallowness of his research (despite lots of references he is prone to relying too much on a few academic authors and bulking this out with websites and newspapers). He is well described in the blurb as Malcolm Gladwell on speed.

His essential thesis is that we are 'super-social' animals and that therefore classical economics, marketing and management with their attempts to understand the group as the aggregate of the individuals are wrong. Rather, you need to understand the interactions in the complex organism-ations.

Most market people seek to develop one way channels of communication in an attempt to persuade people to buy their products. They fail to realise that the best marketing is done by peer-to-peer networks of word of mouth. The only way to market in the future is through developing trust by having sincere beliefs and being truly interested in other people.

On the way I learned that the Broken Windows approach to fighting crime in NY was to always mend broken windows and clean up graffiti because by taking care of the details we can persuade people that they want to live better lives and so they will start to behave in line with our aspirations. Or maybe just copy us (super-social apes imitate one another a lot) by mending their own windows and cleaning up their own graffiti. Perhaps this would also work when trying to persuade pupils to do homework.

Interesting but not overwhelmingly so. April 2012; 370 pages

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

"Peyton Place" by Grace Metalious

Peyton Place was the 'Desperate Housewives' of its day. India Knight's introduction tells me that it sold 60,000 copies in its first ten days; the TV series had an audience of 60 million. It scandalised America.

I found it almost unreadable. Even allowing for the fact that the sexual mores seem desperately outdated, I found it really badly written. Most novelists know the detailed back story of each or their characters and, using hints, make the reader interested in the characters whilst wanting to read more to understand the mysteries that the author has not yet set out in full. Metalious  introduces you to each of the characters in turn by explaining their back story. In full. Perhaps on the theory that in a small town there are no secrets. Except that her thesis is that Peyton Place is a small town run on the secrets that everybody hides or at least tries to hide from everyone else. There are a lot of characters. By page 100 I was bored. And the focus was on this silly spoilt little girl who was growing up.

The pace varies widely. Sometimes the book jumps a couple of years. Some critical episodes are described in a few pages; trivia is given as much space. Allison and Norman go on a picnic and discuss which sandwiches they prefer which has absolutely no bearing on either plot or character development; this just wastes words.

Characters don't really develop. Like robots in a Greek tragedy they follow their predestined dooms, wearing masks, except that they don't even discover their fatal flaws because every aspect of their personalities has been laid bare by Metalious. She doesn't believe in 'show, don't tell'. She explains everything.

The very worst bit is where Tom explains his view of sexuality to Constance. This is like an essay entitled 'what I have learned from the Kinsey report'. It should have a box around it and the words 'author's message' in bold above.

Yes, shocking things happen. But I did not care enough about any of the characters to really care. In any case, the wicked eventually got their just deserts and the good triumphed. This book is more like an extended morality play than a novel.

A dreadful potboiler. April 2012; 475 pages

Sunday, 8 April 2012

"The Last Day of a Condemned Man" and "Claude Gueux" by Victor Hugo

A novella and a short story in a slim volume.

"Le dernier jour d'un condamnee" is a plea for the abolition of the death penalty purportedly written by the condemned man himself. He sits in his cell reflecting upon his trial (although we never learn the exact nature of his crime) and his six weeks awaiting his appeal. Following the rejection of the appeal events move swiftly. In the single day he is transported to another prison, dreaming up pathetic escape strategies. He meets his daughter who is too young to remember him and has indeed been told that her father is already dead. Various priests try to comfort him but he is unable to imagine his fate, let alone reconcile himself to it. At the end he begs for five more minutes in the hope that a reprieve may come.

Given that this was written in the era of sentimental romanticism it could have been dreadful. But Hugo keeps the melodrama at bay and produces a powerful and eloquent plea for abolition. It is a clear precursor of Les Miserables; it mentions the yellow passport which means that a released convict cannot find honest work and so soon returns to a life of crime.

Claude Gueux continues the theme that noble characters might, because of the circumstances and social classes into which they were born, thieve by necessity and be relegated to the dregs of society but can still retain nobility whilst their captors can be brutal.

Beautifully written, powerful and short. April 2012; 130 pages


Thursday, 5 April 2012

"One flew over the cuckoo's nest" by Ken Kesey

This is the story of how a petty criminal called McMurphy blags his way into a mental asylum with a psychopath diagnosis because he thinks it will be a cushy alternative to the work farm. But he is a natural rebel and refuses to fit in with the rules of Big Nurse Ratched, even after he realises that he had been Committed and will never get out unless she endorses his sanity. So he and Big Nurse lock horns. She is for order and control and he is for laughter and gambling. She keeps the patients bullied and downtrodden; he tries to free them.

The story is narrated by a giant half-Indian who plays deaf and dumb. He remembers his old life in the hills and forests and rivers of Oregon before the government "tried to buy their right to be Indians" and build a hydro-electric scheme on their river. Now he sees and hears the machinery whirring as the Combine process human beings in their factory.

Because this book is about who controls us and how they control us and how we are complicit in our own control (most of the patients are voluntary but they are too frightened of the world outside to be able to escape from this frankly horrible ward). Big Nurse is the symbol of totalitarian authority. McMurphy is the little man against the system, the rebel who adopts a cause, the joker, the spirit of chaos who always threatens to destroy the world that we have organised. You want him to win so much.

Brilliant book: strong characters in a gripping plot with some laugh out loud moments and an ending to make one mad.

April 2012; 280 pages

Monday, 2 April 2012

"Mary Boleyn" by Alison Weir

This book is subtitled 'The Great and Infamous Whore'; Mary Boleyn, wife of the more famous Anne,  was said to have slept with both Francois I of France and Henry VIII of England.

The problem with the book is that there is very little information about Mary Boleyn but a great deal of speculation. Alison Weir spends an awful lot of this book debunking the rumours and ending with the statement that 'we just don't know'. Thus we don't know whether Mary slept with Francois I but Weir assumes she did but not for very long. We don't know whether Mary slept with Henry VIII but Weir assumes she did, for some years. We don't know whether Katherine Carey was Henry's daughter (but Weir assumes she was) or Henry Carey was Henry VIII's son (but Weir assumes not). We don't know whether Mary spent years in Calais or when she was born or whether she was older or younger than Anne.

All of which makes this book somewhat unsatisfying. It reads more like an academic trying to score points off the other scholars who have gone before her rather than a popular history book. There are large sections when we sift through other people's comments and the endless Henrys and Katherines and Marys, most of whom change their surnames as they marry or as they come into yet another temporary title.

Not exactly a ripping read.

April 2012; 256 pages

Saturday, 31 March 2012

"Lyttelton's Britain" by Iain Pattinson

Pattinson is the man who wrote Humphrey Lyttelton's scripts for I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue and this book is a compilation of the descriptions of towns with which Lyttelton would introduce the programme.

Humph was a master of the double entendre and this book has a great selection of those. It also slags off every town. But somehow, reading the same basic joke time and again just gets boring. As a minute long introduction to a weekly programme this humour is often laugh aloud but in a book it gets a little boring.

Disappointing.

March 2012; 221 pages

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

"Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel

I have read Mantel's Beyond Black and thoroughly enjoyed it but Wolf Hall is such a doorstep of a book that I thought I would find it tedious.

For at least the first hundred pages it was a historical bio-epic of no especial literary merit. No way was it worth the Booker. I was interested by the character of Thomas Cromwell, depicted sympathetically rather than the black-garbed devil of historical propaganda. I was slightly annoyed by the first person narrative in the third person: Cromwell refers to himself as 'he' but it is written entirely from his point of view and you think his thoughts.

Then I began to seriously identify with his character. As Deputy  to a larger than life Headteacher I have been the fixer, the manager, the creator of possibilities and sometimes the hitman, always surviving within and by the favour of my boss. And yesterday at a meeting I started thinking to myself: 'What would Cromwell do in this situation'.

I was also desperate to find out what happened to him and why the novel is named Wolf Hall.

When a character in a book grabs you so completely then you have to admit that somehow the novelist has become a magician and you are enchanted by her spells. And that is why it won the Booker Prize.

Page turner.

March 2012; 650 pages

Monday, 19 March 2012

"Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War" by John Stubbs

It wasn't what I was expecting!

I thought in terms of straight history explaining the Cavalier but this was more a multiple biography, meandering from character to character.

It starts during the civil war when Captain Chudleigh, a messenger from the Royalist army at York, meets Davenant, Jermyn and Suckling in London.

We then reverse to the days of James I to someone called Carew, a young man who finds it difficult to settle into a career but enjoys writing poetry (and who during the Civil War rests in Wrest Park). We learn about Prince Charles trip to Spain to woo the Infanta da Castille (unsuccessfully) in the company of three other friends including the soon-to-be Duke of Buckingham. And we learn of Buckingham's subsequent career and assassination. Someone called Herrick who later becomes a country parson is working for the Duke. And so we start discovering that all these characters are known to the future because of their literary connections.

The two key characters are aristocratic gambler and petty poet Sir John Suckling (who is a known coward but soldier and cavalier and roue about town) and William Davenant, son of an Oxford innkeeper (and sometime Mayor) but godson (and illegitimate son?) of William Shakespeare who became a friend of Ben Jonson, a poet and playwright, a cavalier and courtier, famed for inhaling Mercury as a cure for syphilis which caused his nose to drop off, a fixer and smuggler during the Civil War, a failed coloniser of New Jersey, and the man who restored the Theatre during the restoration. But these two weave in and out of a huge cast. As well as Herrick we meet Milton, Marvell and Dryden, we meet Aubrey and Lovelace ("Stone Walls do not a Prison make nor Iron Bars a Cage") and Archbishop Usher of Armagh who calculated the age of the Earth, Izaak Walton (who as well as being a keen angler was part of the chain who smuggled Charles II's father's garter medal away from the failed Battle of Worcester, when Charles had to hide in the Oak, back to London to be reunited with its owner in exile abroad).

We find out about the English Olympics on Cotswold Hill and about Edward King who drowned on the way to Ireland and is famous for nothing else than the fact this his tragedy inspired Milton's Lycidas. We discover that near the start of the Civil War Queen Henrietta Marie spends a night with Shakespeare's daughter at New Place in Stratford. We learn about the great Viscount Falkland, England's first atheist, whose philosophical circle at Great Tew was destroyed by the Civil War; and how his legacy lived on when the Earl of Newcastle, a Cavendish, married a philosophical lady whose tutor was Thomas Hobbes and who spawned the scientific Cavendishes.

One whom I was ashamed never to have heard of was a neurotic Calvinist in Edinburgh named Archibald Johnston who practised law and, through chance as much as anything, became a co-author of the Scottish Covenant and thus one of the Scots whose interventions tipped the crown from Charles' head.

In short this is a ragbag of a book, full of strange characters. It reminded me of God's Philosophers.  It hangs together through an extraordinary narrative. People come and go, they wander in and out, like some chaotic play. And in the final analysis they gave birth to so much English poetry and so much of the modern world.

March 2012; 470 pages

Sunday, 11 March 2012

"Notes from Underground" by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This slender Dostoevsky is a book of two halves. The first half is a philosophical tract written by a disillusioned embittered man who lives like a mouse under the floorboards hidden from the society that rejects him without even noticing him, plotting his revenge. But so full of introspection that he cannot act.

The second half is a fragment of a memoir about how he meets up with some old school friends whom he dislikes, how he acts the bitter rude boor, how he follows them to a brothel (but the give him the slip) and talks to a young fresh girl, how she subsequently comes to his flat whilst he is in a dispute with his servant, and how he (apparently) rapes her. Thus he spoils what his philosophical arguments tell him should not be spoiled. Thus he rejects any hand of friendship, compassion or love. And presumably thus he dooms himself to eternal punishment in his own private hell under the floorboards for the rest of his life.

The first half I found nearly unreadable; the second almost disappointingly short.

March 2012; 115 pages

Saturday, 10 March 2012

"Nudge" by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

This 'hugely influential' book is really rather limited and boring.

These are the big ideas. None are original.

  • Human beings are not as rational as the ideal consumer portrayed by Economists.
  • Therefore, humans make choices based on rules of thumb such as 
    • Anchoring (based on the latest information you have; they demonstrate this by asking you to add 200 to the last 3 digits of your telephone number and guess whether Attila the Hun sacked Europe before or after this date; strangely for me the right answer was exactly equal to the last three digits of my telephone number added to 200!); 
    • Availability (we choose based on the evidence most readily available to us such as the horrendous aeroplane crash in the tabloids), 
    • Conforming to others, 
    • Overconfidence, 
    • the fact that we would rather avoid Losses than make Gains, 
    • seeking false patterns in random data, 
    • and sticking to the Status Quo. 
  • (All of these ideas are much better covered in Stuart Sutherland's Irrationality.)
  • A choice architect designs the way we are presented with a choice. There is no such thing as a neutral choice.
  • A choice architect can therefore influence our choice by manipulating the choice architecture in line with the rules of thumb. This is a nudge.
  • This is morally acceptable within the framework of libertarian paternalism if the nudges influence us to make choices that are in our own best interests. Our best interests can be demonstrated: no one ever makes a New Year's resolution to start smoking or exercise less. 


They need to spend some time defending libertarian paternalism from the American right. They argue that it is better that government should nudge us to do what is in our own best interest rather than to force us to do this. They suggest that not all government officials are necessarily incompetent or corrupt. (I think they could go quite a way further here and suggest that it is more likely that a civil servant will try to influence your choice in a way that is good and positive than that a capitalist seeking to maximise the profit of himself or his shareholders will. They do say: "One the face of it, it is odd to say that the public [choice] architects are always more dangerous than the private ones. After all, managers in the public sector have to answer to voters, and managers in the private sector have as their mandate the job of maximizing profits and share prices, not consumer welfare. Indeed, some of those who are most suspicious of governments think that the only responsibility of private managers is to maximise share prices." (p238) )

So far the book has been interesting though not revolutionary. The test of the pudding as always is in the eating. Here they apply their theories to a variety of spheres (health care, pensions, sub-prime mortgages etc; mostly from a US perspective). What do they come up with in terms of practical advice?

  • Default options are important but especially so when it becomes difficult to choose. Madly (because of fears of being sued) the default prescription option for seniors under the Bush health care legislation was to pick a plan at random even though in healthcare the past is a pretty good indicator of the future.
  • Transparency is good. They recommend that for investment plans etc banks are required to send annual statements detailing all charges to prompt people to consider whether they really made a good choice before. Generally information is good although when the choice becomes complex it becomes critical as to what information you present and how your present it. This too is part of choice architecture.
  • Escalators are good. People are more likely to save for their pensions if they are asked to set aside a small amount now with a commitment to an automatic increase every time they get a pay rise.


To keep choice architects on the side of the angels they suggest the slightly novel moral principle (they credit it to the moral philosopher John Rawls) that you should only do what you would not be embarrassed about. If you place mirrors into restaurants to nudge people into eating less you might be happy for this idea to be publicised; you might be less happy if you had used subliminal advertising to achieve the same end.

So overall this was an interesting book although I had encountered most of its ideas before and the practical applications do seem rather limited. I hope there is more potential for the essential idea.

March 2012; 260 pages