Book review entries

May 01, 2006

Freakonomics – all it's cracked up to be?

Title:
Rating:
3 out of 5 stars

Er, not quite.

It is a breeze to canter through though – couple of hours will be all you'll need. And it is actually pretty amusing in places. And Levitt is clearly a sharp chap. There is also much to give you pause for thought and a reminder about why conventional wisdom is, well, conventional. So, a few sacred cows get slaughtered and he's a bit controversial, but what does it all add up to – breakthrough iconoclastic visionary stuff or just a bit clever clever?

He covers some great stuff and with some clever juxtapositions which do make you pause:

  • the nature of incentives and why estate agents and sumo wrestlers cheat
  • an explanation of the economic hierarchy of drug dealing – explaining why those at the bottom of the pile just don't make enough money and therefore have to live with their mums (a really insightful bit this I think)
  • a controversial claim that the decline in crime rates in the USA in the late 90s is actually due to the outcome of Roe v Wade in the early 70s, ie legal abortion led to fewer potential criminals being born, rather than any other action by the police or government
  • why what parents do matters less than what they are and why swimming pools are more dangerous than guns (a real highlight this)
  • an entertaining dissection of naming choices of children in California (including a claim that one child was actually named 'Shithead', although it was pronounced differently).

But, all in all, pretty amusing and diverting reading. Recommended, but difficult to see it as more than diversionary scribblings.


April 28, 2006

I should be so lucky…lucky, lucky, lucky

Title:
Rating:
3 out of 5 stars

One of Amis Senior's most popular and well–know works which for some reason I'd never got round to (and studiously avoided the recent TV adaptation to prevent spoiling the read). I did find it rather enjoyable – can't go wrong with a campus novel though in my view. It is a bit dated but actually the sexual mores of the time are one of the more entertaining aspects of the comedy.

There are some lovely characters in here – Professor Welch is horrobly recognisable (fortunately rarer though these days), Bertrand the "artist" is very well done and Michie, the over–enthusiastic student, is entirely credible.

There are also some hilarious scenes including drunken ineptitude (and burning of sheets) in a guest bedroom, a chase via a slow bus and the best one a public lecture by the extremely inebriated hero, Dixon.

So, a nice, easy and entertaining read which is not consistently brilliant but well worth it for the highlight scenes and the description of academia not that long ago.


April 18, 2006

Mumbo–Jumbo wins

Title:
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

Not quite the 'hilarious' read promised by Paxman on the cover but pretty good nevertheless. The best and possibly the hardest thing to deal with about it is just the consistent level of scorn poured on cranks over time and around the world.

He covers/trashes:

  • Reaganomics and Thatcherism (voodoo economics)
  • Management 'gurus' (snake oil sellers)
  • Post-modernism
  • UFO believers
  • Catastrophists
  • Hypocrisy about and misrepresentation of Islam in the west and on the left
  • The new Labour project
  • The nonsense written about Princess Di after her her death
  • The dotcom bubble (more voodoo economics)

Overall – wonderfully scathing – among the best bits are his demolitions of the management gurus ('so called because charlatan is too long a word') and when he is being fairly and rightly critical of those on the left who refuse to accept reality (eg Soviet Union under Stalin).

(See also earlier review of 'Bad Thoughts' to which this is something of a companion.)


April 17, 2006

A slightly odd list of 99 books

Title:
Rating:
3 out of 5 stars

Wouldn't actually recommend that you read this but it does offer an interesting antidote to the now rather common lists of top 100s (and pre-dates them by years). Having said that, some of the choices are really rather strange (eg Len Deighton!) and perhaps even perverse (would anyone of sound mind really equate 'Goldfinger' with 'Heart of the Matter', say?).

Still, an amusing diversion – you also think that it must have taken an enormous exercise of the will for Burgess to avoid including one of his own in the list (any one of them could occupy the no 100 slot is probably what we are meant to think?).


April 14, 2006

Horribly credible

Title:
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

Really outstanding tale this from the master of the over-extended sentence. Essentially a piece of 'what if?' historical fiction, he speculates about the effect of a Lindbergh presidency in the early years of WWII and the consequences for the rest of the world of US neutrality/tacit support for Hitler. All pretty scary. What makes it particularly frightening and compelling is that the story is told from the perspective of a young boy who assiduously catalogues the gradual and then rapid impact of superficially rational then blatantly anti-semitic new laws imposed by the Lindbergh White House as they affect him and his family. These laws, clearly copied from the early years of the Nazi ascendency in the 1930s, enjoy massive support among the wider populace, thereby justifying ever greater intervention by America's fascist leaders.

It is all quite credible and inevitably makes you begin to think of contempory parallels.


April 07, 2006

Things not getting very much better

Title:
Rating:
Not rated

Although I really loved John O'Farrell's previous stuff and think that his funnies for the Guardian (now sadly discontinued) were excellent, this one is a real disappointment. The hilarious travails of middle class life in London, schools, sports days, kids etc wrapped up in a series of rather hackneyed expositions about urban 4×4s and oneup(wo)manship really just don't cut it.

Unfortunately, just not very funny. Gave up. Moved on. No nuts contained.


April 05, 2006

Long night's journey into…

Title:
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

The light of day - Graham Swift:

Brilliantly written, Swift has a wonderfully sparse but loaded style. Disgraced ex-copper turned PI falls for a client who ends up behind bars and spends some quality time reflecting on how things all went pear-shaped.

There's not a lot actually happens in here (apart from reminiscence about love, death and longing) but it is extremely engaging throughout. It's a bit of time since I read any Swift (Waterland remains top 20) and I did really enjoy it, by and large, despite feeling it was all a little bit empty at the end.


Q: one of the best novels of recent years

Title:
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars
Q - Luther Blissett.
Obviously it's not that Luther Blissett (it is, I think, a quartet of anonymous Italians). But this really is one of the most entertaining and stimulating books I've picked up in the past couple of years. 16th C Europe in all its religious craziness is the setting. A fantastic and yet horribly realistic canvas, enormously rich in compelling detail, somewhat reminiscent of Name of the Rose and also Baudolino (echoes of Eco) but with a tremendous narrative and gripping climax. The scale of it is huge and it is fantastically ambitious. All in all absolutely terrific and strongly recommended.

March 25, 2006

When Saturday comes

Title:
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

Saturday - Ian McEwan: McEwan pulls another one out of pretty much the top drawer here. Saturday, as the title implies, covers one (rather long) day in the life of Henry Perowne, renowned neurosurgeon. It is the day of the big anti-war demo and this offers an interesting back drop to proceedings as Henry deals with the traffic and the attitude of his daughter Daisy, an aspiring poet, towards Iraq. The story focuses on interactions (somewhat, but not entirely, incredible) between Perowne and a thug he happens to encounter and the effects on his family. Baxter (the thug) features in a number of compellingly intense scenarios but too much detail would give things away.

Overall this latest offering is genuinely very good and is brilliantly written but just doesn't quite fully convince – the family arrangements and personal interactions seem odd at times and the no doubt accurate medical detail is overdone and too clever by half.

Well worth a read though.


March 11, 2006

Here and there and back again

Title:
Rating:
3 out of 5 stars

Man is accidental time traveller, catapulted back and forward. Wife isn't. But they first meet when she is young and he is rather older and continue to meet throughout her chronologically normal life until they eventually get it together for real but then, of course, it ain't quite that straightforward.

Nice proposiition, well-worked through and kind of hangs together despite the changes in time, ages and setting (which I gave up trying to track). A very easy and light read and pretty enjoyable really as a fun thriller. There is a love story between the protagonists at the heart of it which gives it its main thread but I'm too hard to comment on that.

So, top Richard and Judy fayre but no worse for that!


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