29 June 2007

Tim Harford - The Undercover Economist

I wonder if there's scope for a pop-economics book on the effect of pop-economics books on the behaviour of the population. There are so many out there at the moment - Freakonomics was the last bestseller - and this one is added to the pile.

Harford is an FT columnist and economics writer of some experience, and this book attempts to explain real-world phenomena in terms of basic economic theories - Ricardo and Adam Smith, for example. It's hard to do this right - identifying the audience is tricky. Should he expect them to have a basic understanding of economics, or assume no knowledge at all? Harford tends towards the latter, which means that much of the book is quite simple, but he manages to illuminate a few things even for people who are used to seeing the world in economic terms.

He starts off with the example of coffee shops, something that people can readily identify with. Why is coffee so expensive, and why are there different prices for different coffees? His explanations are lucid, and appear obvious - coffee is sold at a price that people are willing to pay for it (if they weren't, the price would drop) and the high rents coffee shops pay for prime sites are determined less by the landlord and more by the coffee price - competing retailers bid up the price of rent according to what they can afford to pay.

Harford introduces subtle concepts such as marginal rents, comparative advantage and scarcity value, which he repeats like a mantra. This is more of an economics primer than Freakonomics, which was a little specious in its attempt to illuminate economic oddities by showing examples from the fringes. He tries to show why Cameroon is poor and China is rich, with more success in the latter case than the former, but the last couple of chapters lack structure.

Although I learnt a bit from this book, it was neither as entertaining nor as informative as it might have been - I felt it fell between the two.


28 June 2007

Nicholas Mosley - Time at War

Nicholas Mosley is most famous for being the son of Oswald Mosley. This was true in 1939, and, despite his best efforts, and a distinguished career as a novelist, it remains true now he's 84. He gave up the struggle to get out of his father's shadow when he wrote his biography, having been handed the task by Oswald himself, despite their political opposition and occasional estrangement.

Mosley junior had a brief but distinguished war experience, earning an MC in a skirmish in Italy, and always planned to write an epic novel or memoir about it. Now, 60 years later, he's got round to it with this slim volume.

Too young at 16 to join up at the start of the war, Mosley volunteered upon leaving Eton before he was conscripted, and was trained in a rifle regiment. He was worried that his stammer might preclude him getting a commission - the prospect of an officer being unable to get his words out under fire being a serious consideration - but a string pull saw him through (not his last)

His memoir has been reconstructed from letters he wrote and received at the time, many to his father - debating Nietszche, mostly - and convey not just his physical experience of war, but his spiritual debates at the time, and mostly his desire for knowledge, in that hungry gap between school and university. Occasionally he comes across as a prig, but the old Mosley is well aware of it and punctures his youthful pretentions as a philosopher or literary critic.

Mosley is certainly a good writer, and witty, and in this brief memoir you see the genesis of some of his ideas - his opposition to war, and to fascism, and attitude to religion and sexuality. I've only read one of his novels, his most notable one, which has themes of war and sexuality, and am encouraged to read some of the others I have.


Kiran Desai - The Inheritance of Loss

The Desais, mother and daughter, have much in common - both were educated and have worked in both India and America, both have written novels about the contrast between the two countries, and both have been recognised by the Booker committee, mother nominated three times, daughter winning with this, her second novel. And on the basis of the last two books I've read, the daughter is a superior writer.

This book has much more depth than Fasting, Feasting, more detail and humour, and is more politically engaged. The structure is balanced, alternating between the story of a family unit - grandfather, a retired judge, granddaughter, cook - in North Eastern India in the mid 80s during political unrest, and the cook's son, scrabbling to survive in New York's restaurant kitchens as an illegal worker. The judge recalls his experience in going to England to study, and the effect it had on him, turning him into a not-quite-Indian, not-quite-English member of the Indian Civil Service, with arrogance and affectations, and a fear of women.

Desai is strongest in the emotional detail, of the granddaughter's budding romance, the cook's son's frustration, the judge's distance. Where Anita Desai uses a broad brush, Kiran has a fine one, and pinpoints attitudes and feelings expertly. This is likely to be a bestselling Booker, deservedly, rather than a forgotten one.


25 June 2007

Anita Desai - Fasting, Feasting

This novel had some reasonable acclaim when it was published in 1999, and a Booker shortlist nomination, but I didn't find it very satisfying. Neither as funny nor as moving as claimed, it has mostly plastic characters, and a relentless, downbeat tone of rejection and isolation.

The life of Uma, a plain woman dominated by her parents, tricked out of marriage 3 times and prevented from gaining either education or self-respect, is contrasted with that of Arun, her brother who is given every opportunity, goes to university in America, but finds himself alienated and unhappy. There is some wit, and a little substance to the social comment, but it's pretty light stuff.


22 June 2007

Martin Gardner - Did Adam and Eve have navels?

Martin Gardner is a veteran American science writer - very veteran, as he's 93 this year, and this book was published only 7 years ago. He's notable for popularising mathematics, and also for 'debunking pseudoscience', which is the subtitle of this book. In addition he's published The Annotated Alice, so has a wide range of interests and competence.

This book also has a wide range, being articles written for Skeptical Enquirer, the magazine of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), co-founded by Gardner and the magician and fraud-buster James Randi, among others. Targets include Creationism, Intelligent Design, UFOs, Urine Therapy, Homeopathy and other pseudo-medicines, Freud and numerology. I say 'targets', but Gardner is actually remarkably soft, and makes few strikes.

His style is to list the attributes of each 'pseudoscience', the practitioners, and some history, to use a few quotes and then leave it, as if just presenting the facts on the page condemns them. Occasionally he'll say that a theory is preposterous, but he almost never says why. This is very frustrating, given so many of his subjects are open goals for a knowledgeable scientist who knows about empirical methods. I'd hoped that the book would be more like the excellent Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, but too often it disappointed. Perhaps Gardner was always like this, or perhaps, like Alistair Cooke, he's lost his bite in his dotage. Never mind, there are tips in here towards further reading, such as Stephen Jay Gould, who I've neglected until now (but then, I haven't even read any Dawkins yet)

Bad Science


20 June 2007

Michael Chabon - The Final Solution

Arthur Conan-Doyle is held in genuine respect and affection by 'serious' modern writers, less so for his style, which is limited and functional, than for being the creator (or major developer) of a genre, and for inspiring them to read as young boys. Recently a couple of the stars of modern fiction, Julian Barnes and Michael Chabon, have paid homage to ACD, Barnes by novelising a true incident in his life, and Chabon by writing a new Holmes story.

Neither, wisely, attempts to imitate ACD's style. Barnes's spare, emotionally precise prose is well-suited to portraying Doyle's inner-life and its repressions. Chabon's novella , while initially structured like a Holmes story, is written with an inward gaze that Doyle would not have considered. It's very much a Chabon story.

Sherlock Holmes (never named in the book) is now 89 and living out his long retirement keeping bees down in Sussex. He is called upon to help in a murder in the neighbouring vicarage (so far so cliched), and the disappearance of a parrot - animals are a classic Holmes story essential. With typical insight he dismisses the police's first suspect, and eventually tracks down the murderer, via a misdirection or two.

As a Holmes story, it isn't particularly satisfying. The slight twist at the end is neat and resonant, but doesn't really impact on the story in retrospect as it might. Chabon's strengths, of characterisation, emotional description and insight, work to make this a fun modern novella, but not a Doyle story.The no-nonsense Doyle approach - description and analysis, with a touch of wry humour, then into the action - loved by young boys precisely because of its emotional shallowness, is the style most suited to the genre. Chabon's ventriloquism overreaches when he has one chapter in the mind of the parrot. But I've no doubt though that Chabon's newest novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union, will succeed as his previous ones have.


19 June 2007

Peter Carey - Theft: A Love Story

Carey has been acclaimed by a well-read acquaintance as possibly the best author currently writing in English, so I thought it was time I read one of his books. I read half of Illywhacker about 20 years ago, but felt it might be better to try a more recent work.

Theft: A Love Story is in a fashionable modern genre - the lit fic art history mystery. Frayn's Headlong is another example. The genre is useful for modern writers as it enables them to use art as a proxy for literature - the creative act being a major obsession - and also to have characters having intelligent discussions, displaying the author's research. Frayn wore this last too obviously; Carey is more subtle than that, and his descriptions of painting techniques feel less like lectures than Frayn's digressions on Bruegel.

Theft has two narrators - Michael Boone, a forgotten Australian artist, and his brother Hugh, a huge lunk, damaged and socially incapable, but occasionally insightful. These two narrators revolve around each other, Hugh dependent upon Michael, as the action moves from Sydney to Tokyo and then New York. The plot evolves with increasing tension and involvement, as Michael is dragged into an art fraud, and his loyalties are stretched between a woman and his brother.

Carey's strength is characterisation, and more his ability to create character through narrative voice. While I haven't read his previous works, The True History of the Kelly Gang was noted for its supposed authenticity of voice, and that's evident here. Hugh, in particular, has a stumbling grace to his narration, and there's an energy and anger to both men that drives the story forward.


18 June 2007

Nassim Nicholas Taleb - Fooled by Randomness

Taleb is the man who came up with the Black Swan theory, the subject of his latest book, and no doubt lots of misinterpretation by broadsheet columnists (cf the Tipping Point, long tail, chaos theory, etc) The Black Swan, which he introduces in this book, is a highly unlikely event that cannot be dismissed as too improbable - even if you were to count thousands of white swans and no black ones, you cannot conclude that black swans don't exist. It's tied up with the Popperian precept about the falsifiability of a theory, and also with common notions of probability.

Most of this book is about probability - how important it is, how people, even very smart people in jobs that are all about probability, misjudge it, and about how biases in the perception of evidence lead people to wrong conclusions.

Taleb has been a Wall Street trader, and has worked in derivatives, but now is an academic, and came to fame on the crash of LTCM, when he was able to explain the downfall of the company by his Black Swan theory - the Nobel prizewinning founders of LTCM had dismissed as near impossible the eventuality that actually brought them down, which showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the cost of the risk involved. In these sorts of probabilistic events, says Taleb, you can't afford to ignore the upper and lower ends of the distribution curve, because it's not the frequency of the event that's critical, but the magnitude of it. This means that if the extremely rare event is potentially catastrophic, it must be taken account of.

Taleb quite deliberately puts as few numbers in the book as possible - he didn't want it to be a text book, and wanted just a general discussion of his principles. However, this means much of the book is frustratingly vague, not helped by his unstructured, chatty style. There are a lot of decent points made, helped by his voluminous reading (which he never fails to remind the reader of), but he claimed he didn't want to put a quote in that wasn't on the top of his head, so that it didn't become a dry, library-created tome.

Some of the most interesting points are about the biases that people have, unwittingly, when analysing data, and these can apply across almost all general activities. One of the most common is survivor bias. This is an assumption that those items of data that are visible are the whole sample, and drawing conclusions from that, while ignoring items that have failed from the total sample. So, for example, there are books written on millionaires and successful businessmen that attempt to find common traits, and therefore work out what qualities might be required to achieve. So it turns out that successful entrepreneurs are hard-working and risk-taking. Taleb points out that so are most unsuccessful entrepreneurs (some of them may also be lazy and cautious) These are necessary, but not sufficient qualities, but because the sample only inlcuded the millionaires, there was a survivor bias.

Another example is of quotes from reviews that are on the backs of books, or on theatre billboards. They are intended to convince a potential buyer that the review represents a consensus opinion of critics, whereas of course they have been specially selected precisely because of their favourable attitude.

A further example of survivor bias, and a very literal one, that I have long considered, is of holocaust literature. It's natural, when reading the works of Primo Levi, or similar writers, to be in awe of the fortune that he survived, through all the selections and illnesses and transports and marches. What was the chance of his survival? 100%, as it happens - we are only reading about him because he survived to tell us. If we'd chosen to follow his life back in 1938, the chance of our picking a man who would go to Auschwitz and survive would of course be very very small, and it would be highly unlikely that we'd have any story to tell at all - only the survivors tell their tales.

Most of Taleb's discussion relates to traders - that is his background, and that is what he is trying to explain. Much of it attributes the success of traders to pure luck, although he isn't very convincing as to why. In a book that is about randomness, he doesn't explain why the market is random, he assumes that it is, and draws from that the conclusions that the outcomes we see could be generated by chance. In this he is bolstered by his prejudice against unthinking corporate types, MBAs (although he has one), CEOs, and everyone who spends their time in a suit and not reading books. The book is frequently condescending, and seeks, broadly, to show that the rich successes of Wall Street have no inherent skill.

His thesis is that, within the game as it is, there are bound to be winners. If you set up random games of Russian roulette, there would be survivors at the end, who would be the winners. Because of hindsight bias, the survivors would then attribute their success to some skill or technique. This is what happens on trading floors all the time. People take positions, the market moves in their favour, they win, and confidently assert that they were the best at predicting the market move. They're helped in this by the outrageous rewards given for success, which confirm this belief. Of course, those who take such positions that pay off at the extreme ends are most vulnerable to movements in other directions, and they rarely have protection against those movements - the people who do have lowered their exposure, and so aren't the big winners in the first place.

It's all quite evident, and Taleb uses this overview to deride the short-term winners in the market place, and to gloat at those who get caught out, as most of the big players will eventually because, as he claims, they don't understand the real probabilities in the market, believing as they do in their own predictive skills, and so therefore don't adequately protect themselves.

The book is spoiled by these personal prejudices, and by the presence of Taleb throughout, telling the reader just what his habits are, who his friends are, and why his philosophy is the best. It's all far too smug, and not justified by some of the analysis. But it's written in a handily comprehensible way for laymen, and more particularly journalists (who, of course, he derides) to understand, so he becomes the newest guru.

In a fine example of survivor bias, the quote on the front of the book is from Fortune - 'One of the smartest books of all time.' I think not.


13 June 2007

Stefan Zweig - Fantastic Night and other stories

This is why I love having such a large library. It's the discoveries - although Zweig can hardly be called a discovery, having been recommended to me by more than one person, but there's still a delight in reading something new that startles you with its excellence, and leaves you refreshed.

Zweig is a marvellous stylist, but he's more than that. There's a precision to his emotional description that's rare, and sets him among the top writers, in a line from Flaubert and Maupassant through Proust. He has a soft irony, but he's mostly concerned with deep passions, and what it is to be alive.

Each of the stories in this collection is superb. The most notable, to me, is the second, Letter from an unknown woman, which was made into a film by Max Ophuls, which I own and watched recently. Ophuls adapted both Zweig and Maupassant (in Le Plaisir), and his polished style and concern for emotional subtlety made him the most appropriate director for these authors.

Zweig likes to experiment with narrative techniques, trying to find credible ways of having a first person narrator, through which he can achieve a greater intensity in his emotional depth than through a third person view. All five of the stories have first person narration, and four of them primarily concern that narrator. He uses this to explore intense emotions - of sudden passion (Fantastic Night), unrequited love (Letter...) - and also more subtle ones, of nostalgia and yearning (The fowler snared)

The last two stories concern obsessives, a blind print collector and a bibliophile, both brought down by the post-war situation in Austria (which Zweig documented), and both are very poignant and wonderfully told.

I have a few more Zweigs here, and I've just ordered 4 more from amazon, all in impeccable Pushkin Press editions. My pleasure in reading him is similar to when I discovered Hoffmann a couple of years ago.


12 June 2007

Matthew Kneale - When we were Romans

There's a vogue at the moment for memoirs of childhood - Andrew Collins, for example - and also of stories written with child narrators. Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime was a spectacular success in this genre; David Mitchell's Black Swan Green was also popular, although I felt much less convincing and entertaining.

Matthew Kneale, who wrote the well received and best-selling English Passengers, has now tried something more similar to Haddon's book than Mitchell's. The narrator is a young boy, Lawrence, (I didn't get the age, but maybe 8 or 9) who is taken with his younger sister by his mother to Rome in order to escape from her lurking ex-husband. The narrative is written with an approximation to the writing style of a young boy, with an accuracy and consistency I felt Black Swan Green lacked.

The book's strength, as with Haddon's, lies in the imagining of a young boy's thoughts as he describes his circumstances and feelings, and observations of his mother as she breaks down with paranoia. He captures a 9 year old's capriciousness, how he will go from hating to liking an adult on a whim, and how he defines the world by what material gifts he can receive from it - mostly toys. Lawrence's undeveloped emotional life is the most moving aspect of the book, as he struggles to understand his mother and the situation, while asserting his own needs.

I've felt a connection to all 3 books mentioned above - Curious Incident is about a mathematically precocious 15 year old, which I was once; Black Swan Green concerns a boy who is 13 in 1982 (I was 12) and is full of period detail that I recognised. When we were Romans is relevant to me for much deeper reasons, and because of that I read it with an emotional intensity rather than a critical distance. I found the set-up, the sense of threat and paranoia, the fear and rootlessness very believable, and it awoke unwelcome memories of refuges and temporary homes. The mixture of excitement and disorientation, missing your home, and having your affections desperately bought off with presents (in one case a kitten); all were painfully recalled. I can speak strongly for the veracity of the scenario Kneale writes, and for the Lawrence's imagined experience.

I don't normally buy books new in hardback, and if I do I rarely read them before they come out in paperback anyway. In this case I found a proof copy large format pback in Notting Hill Book Exchange for £6 (as opposed to £17 new), and am very glad I did.

Guardian review


10 June 2007

2007 books

What I've read so far this year:

Poor People - Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Weight of Numbers - Simon Ings
Jacques le Fataliste - Denis Diderot
The Last Day of a Condemned Man - Victor Hugo
Captain Pamphile - Alexandre Dumas
Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure - John Cleland
Notes on a Scandal - Zoe Heller
The Accidental - Ali Smith
Suite Francaise - Irene Nemirovsky
Collected Short Stories - Guy de Maupassant
David Golder - Irene Nemirovsky
Notre Dame de Paris - Victor Hugo
Incidences - Daniil Kharms
At the Sign of the Cat and Racket - Honore de Balzac
What I Loved - Siri Hustvedt
Written Lives - Javier Marias
The Swimming-Pool Library - Alan Hollinghurst
Liquidation - Imre Kertesz
A Tomb for Boris Davidovitch - Danilo Kis
The Tenderness of Wolves - Stef Penney
Bouvard and Pecuchet - Gustave Flaubert
The Invention of Morel - Adolfo Bioy Casares
November - Gustave Flaubert
The Rights of the Reader - Daniel Pennac
Restless - William Boyd
Ulysses - James Joyce
Nine Suitcases - Bela Zsolt
Arthur and George - Julian Barnes
Headlong - Michael Frayn
Hopeful Monsters - Nicholas Mosley
Bel-Ami - Guy de Maupassant
Budapest - Chico Buarque
Fiasco - Thomas E Ricks
Black Swan Green - David Mitchell
One Thousand and One Ghosts - Alexandre Dumas
Unless - Carol Shields

That's 36 so far this year. The best of them have been Liquidation, Nine Suitcases, Suite Francaise (a common theme), Fiasco, Bel-Ami and Hopeful Monsters. Most disappointing - Restless.

An intro

I set myself targets - books to read, films to watch. This is mainly to stop myself getting lazy, to impose an informal structure on my cultural life, so that at the end of the year I can consider I've made some progress, if only in reducing the book mountain.

Of course, that's a futile effort - I have about 1800 unread books here, and buy about 200 more per year. My target is 2 books per week, which isn't sufficient to stop the mountain growing. I also have about 100 unwatched films, which is more manageable, and my film target is about 150 per year - one per week in the cinema and two per week on DVD, roughly.

I also set myself projects. Currently I'm reading a lot of 19th Century French literature, and watching German films - Fritz Lang, FW Murnau and others. I alternate the French stuff with modern, and with non-fiction.

I usually write my reviews of what I've watched and seen on the Guardian Unlimited talkboards, where a couple of people read them, I may get an odd comment, then they sit on the thread until deleted. So I thought maybe it would be better to set up a blog to collect my reviews and thoughts. And this is it.

[edit] I've decided, for ease, to separate the books from the films.