Review articles

Learn from my mistakes.

The Forrests — Emily Perkins

The ForrestsThis novel is Dorothy Forrest’s life story, and her complicated family life too. After reading it I felt that I knew her quite well…

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By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept — Elizabeth Smart

This is an amazing prose poem spanning the author’s love affair with an older married man. The language is raw and rich and really takes you to another place, and usually not a happy one — when she isn’t miserable, she’s obsessively ecstatic. But wow, what a ride:

Under the redwood tree my grave was laid, and I beguiled my true love to lie down. The stream of our kiss put a waterway around the world, where love like a refugee sailed in the last ship. My hair made a shroud, and kept the coyotes at bay while we wrote our cyphers with anatomy. The winds boomed triumph, our spines seemed overburdened, and our bones groaned like old trees, but a smile like a cobweb was fastened across the mouth of the cave of fate.

Fear will be a terrible fox at my vitals under my tunic of behaviour.

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Religion for Atheists — Alain de Botton

Religion for AtheistsMost religions make metaphysical claims that are hard to believe, if they make any sense at all. But even if you don’t believe that the world rests on an elephant standing on turtles, or that omnipotent beings scrutinise our every move, religious traditions have a lot of ideas worth keeping. Religions place great importance on things like community and ritual, acknowledging our needs and our foibles too. This is what de Botton points out in this book.

I have long thought that some sort of secular church might be a good idea: a place to go to every week with a bunch of other people, hear a sermon, chat, and just be part of a varied community. There are such places — pubs, sports events — but they’re not as inclusive as a church would be. Religion for Atheists has a few proposals along these lines. Like his book The News, these suggestions would reorganise society in a way that he thinks would improve our lives. I agree.

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23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism

23 Things They Don't Tell You About CapitalismThe title describes the book: 23 things, some counterintuitive, some perhaps contentious, they you may not have realised about the economic system that the world runs on.

The presentation and organisation of this book is inspired partly by Dr Seuss, which is almost reason enough to buy it. There’s also a rather clever and useful section suggesting how to read the book with particular issues in mind: for example, if you don’t know what capitalism is, or if you think politics is a waste of time.

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The Well of Loneliness — Radclyffe Hall

The Well Of LonelinessThis story is about a tomboyish girl called Stephen. It traces her life from her birth and upbringing in a wealthy and genteel English family in the late 1800s, through the first world war and on to a successful career. She never feels quite comfortable conforming to the model of a well-brought-up young woman, and it takes many years to realise what the reader already knows, that she is (in her own words) an “invert”. Of course, such things were not discussed back then, at a time when the authorities did not even acknowledge lesbianism’s existence, and would have made it illegal if they had. The book was banned (and burned) on publication in 1928 in England.

Initially I couldn’t warm to Stephen because she is so privileged in many ways. She’s rich, physically masterful, intelligent, and has a very supportive and understanding father and other carers. She’s also a brilliant equestrian, fencer and writer. But I realised that this just throws her problems into stark relief — nobody will explain or even acknowledge her feelings of not belonging; hence she does spend a lot of time in the “well of loneliness” of the title. She rails against the unfair fact that she will never be able to acknowledge her partner as such, or even to grieve her properly if she dies, without suffering awful societal consequences. It reminded me of the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, where (spoiler alert) even at Gareth’s funeral, Matthew, his loving partner of many years, could be referred to only as “his closest friend”.

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Why Don’t Students Like School? — Daniel Willingham

Why Don't Students Like School?The reason children don’t like going to school is that it interrupts their education.
Jay Griffith at the RSA

That quote could serve as a summary of this book. It’s a guide for teachers to make their classroom time more effective, so that students will be engaged and will learn useful things in their time in school. Continue reading

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The Undercover Economist — Tim Harford

The Undercover EconomistThe Undercover Economist is full of useful explanations of many orthodox economic concepts. It explains why free markets are so powerful and what economic efficiency means. It also contains the most accessible explanation of the subprime mortgage crisis as I have ever read. But when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. For Mr Harford, like many others, markets are that hammer. He does a decent job of trying to address possible difficulties with market-based solutions, but he ignores some fundamental problems.

Economists call free markets “efficient”. This just means that nobody can be made better off without also making somebody else worse off. For example, 10 billionaires having all the money while a million paupers starve to death could be an efficient system, since we can’t give a crust of bread to a pauper without making a billionaire worse off (by the price of a crust of bread). Obviously, this sort of efficiency doesn’t say anything about whether the economy is at all desirable. Hartford briefly points out that we tend to value things like fairness too.

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The Homework Myth — Alfie Kohn

The Homework MythAlfie Kohn says that homework is worthless. According to his book, there is no evidence that typical homework is beneficial in any way for junior schoolkids, and minimal evidence that it’s worthwhile for any students at all. In fact, there is evidence that it can be harmful to the kids’ attitudes to learning and stress levels. Homework also has opportunity costs, given that homework takes time that could be used doing something else like physical play, reading or family activities. This book lays out Kohn’s case against homework as currently practised.

Kohn’s website has a wealth of related essays following up the points in the book. For example, he argues that homework does not offer academic benefits.

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The Way the World Works — Nicholson Baker

The Way the World WorksThis is a collection of essays on topics that have caught Baker’s eye. There are reports of his (in)famous efforts to preserve library newspaper collections, as well as thoughts on pacifism and video games, and a fascinating story of his brief immersion in the world of Wikipedia editing. As always, he comes across as intelligent and thoughtful, perhaps excessively so. But he has a nice turn of phrase and a strong social conscience.

This book is a follow-up, of sorts, to his The Size of Thoughts from 15 or so years ago, which I bought because I liked the cover. Baker’s non-fiction is a nice contrast with his very discursive novel Room Temperature, and worlds away from the low-key perversities of Vox and The Fermata.

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Flourish — Martin Seligman

FlourishHuman well-being consists of more than just happiness. In this book, Martin Seligman presents one way of breaking down well-being into its components, so we can try to improve all of them and enable ourselves to flourish. PERMA is the acronym for the five components he identifies:

  • Positive emotion
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Achievement

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The Confidence Trap — David Runciman

The Confidence TrapAn interesting survey of the working of democracies, as illuminated by their responses to the last hundred years of democratic crises. The idea is that the inherent flexibility of democracies is their main strength but also an inescapable weakness:

This is the confidence trap. Democracies are adaptable. Because they are adaptable, they build up long-term problems, comforted by the knowledge that they will adapt to meet them. Debt accumulates; retrenchment is deferred. Democracies are also competitive, which means that politicians will blame each other for their failure to tackle the long-term problems. However, they do it in a way that gives the lie to urgency, because if it were truly urgent, then to they would compromise to fix it. Instead they squabble. They are comforted as they squabble by their knowledge that the system is resilient.

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The Happiness Advantage — Shawn Achor

The Happiness Advantage

Success does not lead to happiness. Rather, happiness leads to success, according to this book. The brains’s neuroplasticity means we can make our thinking more flexible and actually become smarter, and we can help this to happen by taking steps to become happier. For example, in one study, doctors made more accurate diagnoses if they were given a lollipop beforehand. Such trivial mood enhancers make us more effective — that’s The Happiness Advantage, the first of his seven principles.

Achor lists some ways to become happier: Continue reading

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Agnes Grey — Anne Brontë

agnes-greyThis short novel is neat and satisfying. It’s the story of a girl who decides to become a governess; Agnes is positively saintly, but with a quite amusing wryness in her descriptions of the people she meets. She certainly doesn’t make governessing sound like much fun; doubly so since Brontë based the story partly on her own experiences.

Inevitably, there is a romantic interest. He seems quite unpromising when first introduced, though I identified him immediately as The One; it’s that kind of story. Later, when she describes his appearance, the words are an exact — exact! — description of Colin Firth as Mr Darcy.

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — Robert Pirsig

zenA man is on a motorcycle road trip with his son and a couple of friends. As they travel through roads and towns across the USA, he pontificates about life, philosophy, and yes, motorcycle maintenance. He doesn’t say a lot about Zen, actually, but what he does say fits in well with the rest of his ideas. He’s trying to develop a train of thought that he thinks might be able to solve the malaise affecting the affluent West in these decadent times.

As the narrator talks more about his own history, it becomes clearer where his ideas came from and how bound up they are to his personal life. You can tell that there are some troubles below the surface and these build tension throughout the story leading to… well, the end of the story, which was reasonably satisfying.

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The News — Alain de Botton

the-newsA thoughtful analysis of what is wrong with the mass media and how to put it right. It goes far beyond obvious ideas like reducing the bias towards bad news. I could see some of his ideas gaining traction, in the print media at least. It seems less likely on TV — maybe in a public broadcaster. If that happened I might occasionally watch TV.

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How Proust Can Change Your Life — Alain de Botton

How Proust Can Change Your LifeThis wry and trenchant book shows how Proust’s book is full of lessons we can apply to our own lives. It could be titled “All I Need to Know About Life I Learned from In Search Of Lost Time.” There are other books claiming that you can learn all you need from kindergarten, or from Little Golden Books, or even your cat. But de Botton’s claim actually seems plausible given the depths of detail Proust put in his book.

I remember a character in Gilbert Adair’s rollicking The Key of the Tower who always carried a volume of Proust, and often whipped it out and read some apposite quotation. This is how people used to use their bibles, as de Botton points out in his recent book Religion for Atheists. I would like to know a book this well. I have never read Proust, but after reading de Botton I really am quite keen to have a go. I give myself 5-10 years.

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The House of Mirth — Edith Wharton

The House of MirthThis is a wonderful book. It immerses you into New York society a hundred or so years ago, a world where every social interaction is governed by intricate codes and strict, yet unwritten, rules. Lily Bart, the protagonist, is a consummate master of these rules, but will her extravagant tastes get the better of her and condemn her to a fate as an impoverished old maid? (Actually, I don’t know the answer yet: I’m only halfway through.)

It all sounds a bit Jane Austen, but Wharton’s prose seems to me to have a bit more steel in it, and her heroine is more morally ambiguous than, say, Elizabeth Bennet. There are many apposite metaphors, and a lot of insightful musing on human nature, apart from the engrossing plot.

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The Last Days of the National Costume — Anne Kennedy

Anne Kennedy’s book starts out as a fussy woman’s internal monologue, before expanding to take in a pivotal series of events in her otherwise quiet life. It also will make me think twice before taking clothing in to be repaired.

The extended power outage in Auckland in 1999 apparently made minor headlines throughout the world. (I wasn’t living there at the time.) This is a story of the little madnesses that went on during that time in the life of Megan Sligo, a part-time clothing repairer. As people bring their clothes to her to be repaired, they tell her about the shameful and wonderful secrets behind the damaged items. She maintains her professionalism until one woman brings her an Irish dancing dress with a torn sleeve. Somehow this draws her into its own story.

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Essays in Love — Alain de Botton

Essays in LoveThis is a love affair narrated in almost excruciating detail by a man who thinks too much, or at least a lot more than most. As he tells the story of going about his life, meeting a woman and becoming a couple, he digresses onto diverse topics, related and unrelated. There is a lot of wisdom and understanding in what he says, and the story seems quite realistic and all too believable. It’s fun to read, in the way that all de Botton’s books are.

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Smart Moves — Carla Hannaford

Smart MovesThis is an eye-opening discussion of the varieties of people’s learning styles and the inadequacies of the traditional three-R’s style of education. Ideas like this have gained a lot of currency since this book was published, which I think is a great thing. Smart Moves puts a scientific basis behind common-sense notions like letting kids run around a bit before class, but really digs deeply into the physiology of the brain. I get the feeling that some of the author’s recommendations are more theoretical than evidence-based, but there’s still a lot of good information and a lot of new ideas to try out. Many of the exercises and techniques are applicable to everyone, not just children.

One of my favourite techniques, though, is one for parents: The Time Game. If your child asks for something, say you’ll do it — in three minutes. Then set a timer and allow the child to watch and wait for the time to count down. This is a great way to develop a time sense (which many children sorely lack) and patience.

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The Bridge of San Luis Rey — Thornton Wilder

boslrThis short book is beautifully written, and packed with quiet humour and understanding. There are so many beautiful, insightful passages, but I will just quote a few. Here’s the Marquesa de Montemayor reading a letter from her daughter:

It was full of wounding remarks rather brilliantly said, perhaps said for the sheer virtuosity of giving pain neatly. Each of its phrases found its way through the eyes of the Marquesa, then, carefully wrapped in understanding and forgiveness it sank into her heart.

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The Ant and the Ferrari — Kerry Spackman

The Ant and the FerrariThis is a readable, impassioned book about the big questions in life. Spackman explains the big bang and evolution in a very accessible way, probably the best such explanations I have ever seen. He explains how science conflicts with religion on these and other topics, but he does so in a much nicer way than the likes of Richard Dawkins or especially Christopher Hitchens. I could imagine that a religious fundamentalist could read this book and actually understand why so many people are convinced that Genesis is all just made up. It’s hard to imagine any such person getting much out of, say, Hitchens’s God Is Not Great other than the impulse to burn it.

Spackman meditates thoughtfully on the meaning of life before offering a few suggestions on improving our individual lives, and society in general. I really like his ideas — they could plant the seeds for big changes for the better. I could imagine some of them being implemented by enlightened governments in a few decades. The chances of these kinds of policy change may seem remote, but books like this will definitely help. It’s clear and easy to understand, and if enough people read it it could change the world.

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On Numbers and Games — John H Conway

On Numbers and GamesThis amazing book sets out a mathematical framework for describing and constructing numbers, and then generalises this to a way of analysing certain games. You probably need a postgraduate degree in mathematics to really understand all of it. I am not quite that qualified, but I know enough to be awed by what can be done by simply starting with nothing. Literally nothing: Conway starts with just an empty set, and proceeds to show how to spin this out into integers, rational numbers, real numbers, infinite numbers, infinitesimal numbers, and (believe it or not) more.

The whole class of numbers he constructs is called the Surreal numbers, and that’s a fair evocation of the way this book stretches my mind. I can generally understand the steps in the various derivations, but it takes some time and effort to develop the intuition to really understand the later constructions and to see where they are heading. Conway obviously had this intuition: after working on the ideas for some years, he wrote this book in just a week.

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The Ego Trick — Julian Baggini

The Ego Trick by Julian BagginiThis is a pretty good exposition of the “bundle theory” of consciousness. The idea is that “consciousness” does not exist: all there are are discrete conscious experiences, which combine to form the illusion of an integrated cohesive mind. This is the “ego trick” that we all play on ourselves.

These days I feel that this is something like the truth, but I will need to do a lot more thinking and read a lot more books like this one before I am fully comfortable with the idea.

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A Visit from the Goon Squad — Jennifer Egan

a-visit-from-the-goon-squad-cover
This is a fun story of life in, around, and tangentially related to the music industry in the USA, a few years ago before the Internet changed everything. It’s told in a series of (initially) separate narratives of different characters, but as you go through the book the narratives join up as a minor character in one story appears as the protagonist of a later story. It is evocative of the messy complexities of Life — after reading the book I actually started to draw up a schematic of the relationships between the characters. I gave up before long — maybe there’s little to be gained in neatly resolving life’s messy complexities anyway.

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Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim — David Sedaris

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimThese stories are clever and funny. The book makes me think of a grown-up version of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, without the pictures. Actually that probably makes it sound far less good than it really is.

There is a lot of pain, humour and understanding here, and it makes me want to read more. (To be honest, it makes me want to finish this book: I only read half of somebody else’s copy.)

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Roots of Empathy — Mary Gordon

Roots of EmpthyRoots of Empathy is a program that tries to teach schoolchildren empathy. Empathy is a crucially important quality: it can help overcome the problem of the “ethical fade“. And it seems obvious that empathic people are probably just nicer people.

Roots of Empathy works through regular class visits from a newborn baby and parent. Over the year of the Roots of Empathy program, the schoolchildren are able to see the baby grow and develop, and experience first-hand the bond between parent and baby. It seems to be quite successful in instilling worthwhile values, even in children that are hard to reach any other way. This books describes the program and tells its story.

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The Fall Of Light — Sarah Laing

The Fall Of LightI like this book. It has a story to make you happy and sad, pictures to make you wonder, and themes to make you think.

Sarah Laing is a cartoonist as well as a writer — I knew of her work from magazines and from her blog Let Me Be Frank. I read a review of The Fall of Light somewhere and thought it sounded interesting. Sometime later I realised that the cartoonist/blogger was also the novelist, so I went out and bought the book.

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How Children Succeed — Paul Tough

How Children SucceedHow do you rate for the following personal qualities?

  • Grit
  • Self-control
  • Zest
  • Social intelligence
  • Gratitude
  • Optimism
  • Curiosity

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There But For The — Ali Smith

Have you ever been at some awful social gathering and just wanted to get up and walk out? Have you ever been at a stranger’s lovely house and wished you lived there instead of your own hovel?

That’s what happens in the central event of There But For The — a man, Miles, gets up in the middle of an excruciating dinner party, goes upstairs, and barricades himself into the spare bedroom. He stays there for many weeks, eventually becoming a local celebrity.

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