Book review entries

October 23, 2006

The first campus novel?

Title:
Rating:
2 out of 5 stars

The Groves of Academe – Mary McCarthy

I struggled for ages to track down this book which is, arguably, the first campus novel and was very positively disposed towards it in principle. Liberal arts college in the US, 60s turmoil, lots of politics, undercurrents of sexual intrigue – can’t go wrong, I thought. Unfortunately, whilst it does have some merits, including what feels like an accurate portrayal of a largely second rate faculty torn apart by petty strife, it is really rather dull.

The first part of the book focuses on the main character, Mulcahy, and his attempts through bizarre means to secure an extension to his short term contract whilst he seeks both to create and deny a vaguely mysterious communist background. The second part covers an awful poetry conference at the college and the shenanigans around the poets and their sponsors.

It must all have seemed terribly daring and challenging at the time but, whereas Lodge’s campus novels really do stand the test of time, this one I am afraid does not.


How to run a University?

Title:
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

The University: An Owner’s Manual

Very interesting set of insights from former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard. Some wonderfully pragmatic and blunt tips aimed in particular at those academics who find themselves in senior management positions.

I found it pretty difficult to disagree with the sage advice herein although the references to Oxford were overly generous in terms of its managerial self-sufficiency and the assertions about the need for all senior academic administrative staff to be appointed rather than elected were inadequately defended.

Although the coverage of the student experience is very US-oriented, the sections on academic life and governance are extremely well done.

Overall, the style is relaxed and yet insightful and punchy, born out of many years of toil at the decanal coal face. Well worth a read.


How to run a University?

Title:
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

The University: An Owner’s Manual

Very interesting set of insights from former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard. Some wonderfully pragmatic and blunt tips aimed in particular at those academics who find themselves in senior management positions.

I found it pretty difficult to disagree with the sage advice herein although the references to Oxford were overly generous in terms of its managerial self-sufficiency and the assertions about the need for all senior academic administrative staff to be appointed rather than elected were inadequately defended.

Although the coverage of the student experience is very US-oriented, the sections on academic life and governance are extremely well done.

Overall, the style is relaxed and yet insightful and punchy, born out of many years of toil at the decanal coal face. Well worth a read.


October 09, 2006

Faddish behaviour

Title:
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars

Management Fads in HE – Birnbaum

This is just an outstanding book. Although the focus is on the USA, the messages are eminently translatable to the UK context. Birnbaum carefully analyses and deconstructs the big management fads to have hit US universities including:

  • Management by objectives
  • Zero-based budgeting
  • Strategic planning
  • Benchmarking
  • TQM
  • Business process re-engineering

The reasons behind the popularity of each and the vulnerability of institutions and managers to their charms are also explored at length.

Despite the fact that he demonstrates their failures on all terms, Birnbaum concludes, surprisingly perhaps, that their introduction in a controlled and measured way can have positive benefits in forcing managers to think differently about the way in which they tackle big challenges. The conclusion of the book includes a strong exhortation to a humane and pragmatic approach to management in universities which, whilst not easily seduced by fads such as these, is capable of positive adaptation to changing environments.


September 24, 2006

Stoke of old

Title:
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

Anna of the Five Towns

One of those classics I meant to read when I actually lived in Stoke, but that was 15 years ago. Anna is complex and interesting and taking on her (substantial) inheritance and the attention of an energetic and successful local business man, Henry Mynors, presents her with a range of new challenges. This in addition to dealing with her exceptionally demanding father, running the household on a pound a week, spending all free time on evangelical missions for the local church and mixing it with the sewing circle.

The passages describing the work of the church, the school treat, Anna’s visit to a pot bank and a holiday on the Isle of Man are extrmely well realised. Entertaining, if partly foreshadowed, climax. Well worth a read though, especially if you like trying to work out which of the fictional five towns is based on which real one.


September 16, 2006

simply one of the best books I've read

Title:
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

This really is an outstanding book. The basic plot Swede Levov, high school sports star and inheritor of glove manufacturing empire, lives the American dream but then it all falls apart when his daughter decides to join the anti-Vietnam protests in the most dramatic way.

But really this doesn’t capture it Roth covers the full sweep of the post-war American landscape here in the most extraordinarily powerful way.

Can’t really do it justice here well worth the Pulitzer though!


August 22, 2006

Wormy

Title:
Rating:
3 out of 5 stars

The worms can carry me to heaven - Alan Warner

Although I really did enjoy this book it really does have some pretty major flaws. A number of the propositions just seem quite preposterous, the narrator is generally pretty unpleasant and the writing is a bit sloppy in places (although excellent in others).

Essentially a successful but very middle aged bloke/lothario discovers he is HIV+ and decides therefore to tell the story of his life to a homeless refugee whom he invites to stay in his home (as partial compensation for having to listen).

The tales are interesting but uneven and the whole thing builds to a really quite bizarre conclusion. Still, really rather enjoyable. I found the Spanish setting pretty convincing (but then I only have limited knowledge of the area) and the narrative does trip along nicely.

A bit of a departure for Warner – not set in NW Scotland or Edinburgh but no worse for this. Would say that doesn't quite match the achievements of Morvern Callar or The Sopranos (both of which are highly recommended) but still worth a punt.


August 05, 2006

Eternal joy

Title:
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

The possibility of an island - Michel Houellebecq

I think this is possibly Houellebecq's best to date – pretty bleak in places and future dystopian vision is rather grim. Ditto the customary quasi–porn. But actually it all works rather well. Our hero, a successful but dissatisfied comedian (not terribly funny, it has to be said), ends up contributing to a new global apocalyptic religion and becoming the genetic prototype for future clones.

So, odd, challenging and a bit icky in parts but really rather compelling.


July 21, 2006

Nursery fun and games

Title:
Rating:
3 out of 5 stars

The Fourth Bear - Jasper fforde

OK, it's kind of throwaway and a bit lightweight but on the other hand the two series of Fforde books really are pretty entertaining. The 'Thursday Next' books, which allow Fforde a braoder range of literary allusions, work better I think than the Nursery Crime series of which this is the latest instalment.

Still, it is a welcome addition to the list but if you've not read any of his stuff this would not be the best place to start.

(Note: Stars for entertainment value rather than pure literary merit.)


July 16, 2006

Falling and not laughing

Title:
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars

The Fall by Albert Camus

A short but extremely powerful book. It's one of those I had been meaning to read for years but never quite got round to it. Jean–Baptiste Clamence, the 'judge–penitent', relates his recent reflections on life, existence and humanity to a chance acquaintance in an Amsterdam bar.

The monologue, despite its brevity and superficial directness contains an extraordinary range of ideas, built around a single incident on a Paris riverbank. The writing (and translation) is excellent and engaging and there is real depth here. I think it requires more than just one reading and must do so again soon.

Highly recommended.


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