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Showing posts from 2010

Keynes: The Return of the Master - Robert Skidelsky

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On to my birthday presents... first up is an impassioned defence of the economist John Maynard Keynes by his leading biographer, Robert Skidelsky. The Return of the Master is a much slimmer affair than his original three-volume opus (which I haven't read) and has no time for any nuance that a longer work might provide. Appropriately for a book with such a Star Wars-ish title, Keynes is here presented as a Jedi master of economics, guardian of great monetary truths which later generations have foolishly cast aside.

The book opens with a potted history of the financial crisis and its aftermath. It's not a bad summary but I'm not sure what sort of reader it is aimed at. Anyone who has been following the story closely will find it short on revelations, while people with less abnormal interests will surely be baffled by all the unexplained jargon.

More substantial is the second chapter, which describes and denounces the three pillars of modern conventional economic wisdom: rat…

The Age of Wonder - Richard Holmes

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The Age of Wonder tells the story of the Romantic era of science, which Richard Holmes defines as beginning with Joseph Banks' voyage aboard the Endeavour in 1769 and lasting until Charles Darwin's voyage on the Beagle in 1831. Romanticism is conventionally seen in opposition to the rational view of the world espoused by science, but Holmes describes how many leading scientists of the age shared the same spirit.

Each chapter concentrates on a different person or group, starting off with Banks' work as a botanist and hands-on anthropologist among the indigenous people of Tahiti. He was the talk of the town on his return and quickly ascended to the position of President of the Royal Society, where he had a talent for encouraging other intrepid schemers. The following chapters tell the story of William and Caroline Herschel, the brother-and-sister astronomy team, the craze for ballooning in France and Britain (which Banks was distinctly more sceptical about), and the ill-fate…

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

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In the wake of the government's decision to cut £18bn from the welfare budget as part of its madcap experiment on the UK economy, there could hardly be a more appropriate time to review a book which reminds us why the welfare state was set up in the first place.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a story about a firm of builders and decorators in an English town at the turn of the 20th century. Britain is at the height of its imperial power, and never has it enjoyed so much wealth and abundance. But for the workmen of Rushton & Co life is a constant to struggle to survive. Even when times are good and there is Plenty of Work, they have barely enough money to house and feed their families. When the winter comes and work is all but impossible to find, they live a perilous existence, pawning everything they own and begging for credit from shopkeepers.

Robert Tressell chronicles the workmen's hellish lives in highly realistic detail, drawing on his own experiences to do s…

Jonathan Franzen at the Whitworth Art Gallery

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It's all gone a bit cultural in Manchester this weekend thanks to the efforts of the creativetourist website. Top of the bill was a chance to see Jonathan Franzen (he of The Corrections) in conversation with the writer and DJ Dave Haslam.

The event took place in the grand surroundings of the Whitworth Art Gallery on Oxford Road, in a room which appears to be used for exhibiting the world's greenest wallpaper. It held about 150 people and was sold out. There was a fairly broad mix of people attending, with ages ranging from student to fifty-something and demeanours ranging from quite arty to ridiculously arty.

The evening started with an impromptu comedy turn from Franzen, who is a tall guy and had to get creative with the very short lectern he'd been given. He then gave a reading from his new book Freedom. Despite a fair bit of flicking through I haven't yet found the passage he read from, which concerns a character called Joey facing the wrath of his girlfriend's…

Advanced, Forthright, Signifficant

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Reviewing Molesworth is a dangerous game. As Philip Hensher points out in his introduction to the Penguin edition, it's all too tempting to try to imitate Molesworth's unique narrative voice. And you only have to glance over at some of the Amazon reviews to see how unwise this is chiz. But the failed attempts highlight what an achievement that voice is: 400 pages of note-perfect schoolboy ramblings that will leave you wondering whether Willans and Searle really made it all up or whether they just pinched an unwitting pupil's exercise books.

Molesworth (which I have borrowed from the lending library of Mrs Tomsk) is a collection of four books set in a 1950's prep school called St Custard's ("built by a madman in 1836"). Nigel Molesworth is the self-proclaimed "goriller of 3b", and an acute observer of school life. Naturally he spends much of his time decrying the oppressive teachers (particularly the headmaster Grimes and Sigismund the mad maths …

A Place You Can Figure Out If You Think About It Really, Really Hard

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The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is the second book I've read by Haruki Murakami, the first being Norwegian Wood. The two share many similarities in style (engaging descriptions of everyday events, mellifluous prose) and characters (easy-going protagonists called Toru with unstable lovers, secondary characters who have only a tangential relationship to the story but provide plenty of colour). But where Norwegian Wood is restrained and cohesive, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is big, messy and very surreal.

Toru Okada's story starts mundanely as he looks for a missing cat, which triggers a succession of loosely-connected meetings with curious people. The plot is almost as hard to summarise as it is to understand, but it centres on the fate of Toru's wife Kumiko and her brother, mixed in with grim tales from Japan's troubled history that seem to echo in the present. Toru meanwhile takes the time for some deep soul-searching and his aimless wanderings bag him a peculiar job. Eventu…

Flashman's last hurrah

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If you're familiar with the Flashman books you won't need a review of Flashman on the March, just a note that this time our hero is in Abyssinia.

If you're unfamiliar with the Flashman books this is maybe not the place to start, as it's the last in the series. Having said that, like all the books it is a fully self-contained story so you could start here if you really wanted to. I started with the fifth in the series, Flashman in the Great Game, and it didn't do me any harm. The order of events in Flashman's life is not the same as the order in which the books were written anyway. But if in doubt, it's worth starting with the first, if only to find out how Flashman's illustrious military career began.

Flashman is the bully from the Victorian novel Tom Brown's Schooldays, and Fraser's conceit is to imagine what happened to him after he was kicked out of school for drunkenness. It's not necessary to have read Tom Brown to follow the Flashman …

World Cup special!

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In the run up to the World Cup I was fortunate to be able to borrow my brother's copy of Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics, not that he could have stopped me given that he's currently in a different hemisphere to his books. Anyway it was originally a birthday present from me, so fair's fair.

The pyramid of the title refers to the shape of the team on the football pitch. In the early days of the sport, when passing was thought unmanly, teams would generally play with almost everybody in attack. Gradually this settled down into the 2-3-5 formation (2 in defence, 3 in midfield, 5 in attack), still hugely attacking by today's standards. Over the course of the century formations became more and more defensive, to the point where 5-3-2 was a common sight. The pyramid had been inverted.

Jonathan Wilson's book tracks this long-term trend along with more detailed looks at tactically advanced teams through the ages. The chapters are divided geographically,…

Election special!

Let me indulge myself for a moment to imagine the best of all possible election outcomes: a hung parliament, leading to a government committed to a referendum on voting reform. In this joyous dream world, we then have to decide what system should be voted on.

It's no use asking the politicians, of course, as they will only support what serves their own interests. The Conservatives support the status quo, as the split in the centre-left vote between Labour and Lib Dems gives them a huge advantage under first past the post (FPTP) rules. Labour, after many years of dithering that happened to coincide with large majorities in parliament, have undergone a deathbed conversion to the Alternative Vote (AV). Believe it or not, Labour would do handsomely out of such a change. The Lib Dems meanwhile support a form of proportional representation called the Single Transferable Vote (STV). The Lib Dems would more than double their seats under such a system.

Fortunately we don't have to ask …

The middle of the film

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I was given Michael Palin's first volume of diaries by my father-in-law and admired them so much that I was inspired (not for the first time) to keep a diary myself. I soon realised (not for the first time) that I'm not one of life's diary-keepers. The secret, if Palin is any guide, is to write up your previous day's adventures first thing the following morning. Presumably this requires an engaged brain at an early hour, so there's no hope for me.

I've resisted any urge to try again in the wake of Halfway to Hollywood, Palin's second volume of diaries. This is not a reflection on the book, which is just as admirable as the first volume; quite a surprise considering that the time period covered is, in hindsight, a lull between his great successes as a Python and as a travel documentary maker. Part of the joy is knowing the denouement before the author, the opposite of the normal reading experience.

The title is an accurate summation of the contents. As Pali…

The root of almost all evil

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"What we measure affects what we do. If we have the wrong measures, we will strive for the wrong things." - Joseph Stiglitz

After hearing so much about The Spirit Level over the past year, actually sitting down and reading it was almost an anticlimax. The authors point out that the results of social science research often seem obvious in hindsight, once the evidence has seeped in. Just how obvious the arguments of The Spirit Level now seem is a testament to the weight of evidence that Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have brought to public attention.

The book opens with a startling observation: that the rich countries of the world can no longer achieve gains in wellbeing from increasing their material wealth. This is illustrated with a graph of life expectancy versus national income per person. For poor countries life expectancy rises rapidly up until an average income of around $10,000. After that it starts to slow, and beyond $25,000 the curve flattens out. Similar resul…

On the Oregon Trail (via Newark)

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As I was saying before I rudely interrupted myself several times: I visited America for the first time ever in November, with two free days to explore the city of Portland. You could argue this is not sufficient to draw deep and general conclusions about American life, but that won't stop me trying.

The first thing that struck me about Portland was how big the hotel we were staying in was. I was on the 12th floor, which was less than halfway up the building, and there was another tower of a similar size across the street. My hotel room was also insanely huge, and I'll leave the TV set to your imagination.

The second thing that struck me was how nice the beer in the hotel bar was.

Describing everything in America as bigger is of course a tired old cliché, and not really true either as there's a hotel that's just as high in Manchester. But there was a definite sense of bigness about the city in general which I think is caused by it being oddly spread out. The city centr…

J. D. Salinger 1919-2010

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When a great writer dies, the most respectful response is surely to plug their merchandise. So if you haven't read The Catcher in the Rye yet, I advise you to get on with it before his estate allows some idiot to make a phony film adaptation.

It's one of my favourite books of all time, perhaps only bettered by a certain other book with 'catch' in the title. I particularly recommend it if you're a cynical adolescent, but cynical people of all ages will find plenty to admire. Plus it's still one of the most frequently banned books in America. What higher recommendation can there be?

I have to admit I've never got round to reading any of Salinger's other books. Partly it's because I'm scared they won't be as good as Catcher. If you've read any of them, let me know how they rate.

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble

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Whoever designed my 1996 GCSE history syllabus was, in hindsight, inspired. One of the modules was on the Roaring Twenties in the US. We learned about jazz, flappers, prohibition and so on, but also about the causes of the Wall Street Crash of 1929. As far as I can remember, it was a mixture of laissez-faire government and excessive hire-purchase of lawnmowers that did for them. But the main thought I came away with was this: how could they be so stupid? Why didn't they see it coming?

The inspired part came a bit later, in 2008. After years of economic hubris, we found out that we're not so very much more sophisticated than our predecessors after all. That's probably the most important lesson history can teach us (after "don't invade Russia"). So how could we be so stupid? Why didn't we see our crisis coming?

The truth, now as then, is that some people did. They just weren't listened to. This time round Paul Krugman was one of those people. Back in 1…

The trouble with jokes

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Apologies to anyone waiting on tenterhooks for my account of Portland. Christmas intervened when I was still only half-way through Sometimes a Great Notion. But don't despair! My new year's resolution is to have it finished before its centennial in 2064.

Meanwhile I've been seeing some Christmas presents behind its back. Charlie Brooker's Dawn of the Dumb was a present from Mrs Tomsk, and is just the thing for the festive period when Great Novels don't really appeal. It's a collection of Brooker's Guardian columns: a mix of his 'Screen Burn' TV reviews and his writing on other weighty matters.

Brooker's columns are both puerile and misanthropic, and all the better for it. Above all they're very funny. I'm not a fan of tasteless humour in general but he has elevated it to an art form. If you're not familiar with his work, pause now and contemplate his 2006 end of year TV review. If you laughed at his summing up of Torchwood, you'…