Review articles

Learn from my mistakes.

Wellbeing Economics — Dalziel & Saunders

wp-1463690996770.jpegThis short but thought-provoking book describes a way that New Zealand’s economy could be reorganised to focus on the wellbeing of all its citizens, defined as

The ability to lead the kinds of lives that they value and have reason to value.

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Thorndon — Kirsty Gunn

ThorndonA meditation on belonging, place, family and more. Kirsty Gunn did what Katherine Mansfield never did: she returned from the UK to live for a time in her home town of Wellington, New Zealand. She stayed in a cottage in Thorndon, the suburb where Mansfield grew up, on a scholarship to work on her “Katherine Mansfield project”. This book is the result.

The style of Thorndon feels more like Mansfield than Gunn, in my limited experience of both writers. It feels as if Gunn, a Mansfield scholar, was deeply affected by being steeped in Mansfield’s formative environment. Even more so given that it was also Gunn’s.

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Accidence Will Happen — Oliver Kamm

Accidence Will HappenIn this book, Oliver Kamm attempts to explode a few myths about English usage, and set out sensible guidelines for literate writing. He gives interesting historical background notes and examples for many of his points, so the book is useful and well worth reading. But even though he chides “sticklers” for their insistence on idiosyncratic rules, his own rules and suggestions are themselves quirky and inconsistent. This makes the book a bit frustrating to read. It’s fun if you enjoy arguing with books though.

Kamm is generally very liberal in his views of language: he thinks that language should be allowed to change through usage, and that arbitrary and obsolete rules shouldn’t impede this. He’s right, of course. But he goes both too far and not far enough: he want to throw out some rules that are useful and make the language more usable; yet he wants to keep some obscure rules that make no sense despite his attempts to jusify them. I found myself shaking my head and tsking so much that I was moved to pick up a pen and note my disagreement (and, in some cases, my agreement). Here are some examples.

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Prizes — Janet Frame

Prizes

Life is hell, but at least there are prizes.

This is a wonderful compilation of short stories spanning Frame’s career. There is a lot of variety here: the common thread is that they are mostly set in New Zealand in the second half of last century. There are surreal magical realist pieces, impressionistic slice-of-life pieces, and coming-of-age stories. My favourites are the ones written from a child’s point of view: we all used to be children, but she actually remembers what it was like and expresses it in a way that makes me remember too.

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The Big Music — Kirsty Gunn

The Big MusicAn old man kidnaps his housekeeper’s granddaughter and takes her for a walk in the hills. He needs to write her into a piece of music he is composing. This is the start of this novel, and as it continues we learn more about the history of his family, which has lived for many generations in a remote house in the Scottish highlands. The house and family have become famous in the world of classical bagpipe music, the “big music” of the title.

I have never seen a book put together like this one before. It’s presented as a documentary, with the story built up from fragments of letters, recordings and papers found during the author’s research into the family and house. Supporting the story are many many footnotes, including frequent cross-references to other parts of the story and to the numerous appendices including plans of the house, maps of the area, family history, proceedings of musical societies, academic papers and more. At first I found the footnotes intrusive and fussy, but eventually I realised that this was all an essential part of the book.

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The Garden Party — Katherine Mansfield

The Garden Party

Beautiful short stories from the expat New Zealander, set in Europe and NZ last century. They drew me in so much that while reading it on the bus, I missed my stop. Twice.

The stories are about unremarkable people, but in each one I felt that I could really get under the skin of the characters. The writing isn’t at all flashy, but it’s still somehow very immersive. Even the shorter stories feel quite substantial. This is definitely worth reading and rereading. But preferably not on public transport.

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The Chimes — Anna Smaill

The ChimesWhat would life be like if we communicated with music instead of words? That’s the situation in the dystopian future of The Chimes. People have lost most of their ability to remember in words, so they must rely on objects to prompt their memories, and an intricate musical language to communicate. Simon, a young man, fetches up in London with only a vague idea why he came and what he’s supposed to do there. Things start happening to him, and before long he starts making things happen himself. Eventually he becomes part of a revolutionary struggle.

I loved the first half of the book, as we are shown (not told) the mechanics of this strange new world. The language the characters use ingeniously blends musical terms with normal English. I love the term for musical heresy: “blasphony”. The second half is more plot-driven, so everything gets a bit more concrete. I found out later that his book is considered to be a YA (young adult) novel. I think this just means that there’s only moderate violence, sex and swearing, and a teenaged protagonist. It also means that things are tied up nicely at the end. Luckily it’s not too neat for an old adult like me.

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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

By Grand Central StationThis 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.

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On Looking — Alexandra Horowitz

On Looking

To find new things, take the path you took yesterday.
— John Burroughs

It’s amazing what you can see if you actually look at things you’ve seen a hundred times before. Alexandra Horowitz, like most of us, has wandered city sidewalks many times, but usually without really paying attention to her surroundings. So for this book she went on a series of local walks with various experts, including a town planner, an audio engineer, a blind person, a toddler, and a dog. Each chapter describes the result as she looks at her familiar environment through a different lens.

This reminds me of walking with my own kids when they were very young: a five-minute stroll could easily take an hour. The world is such an interesting place if you actually stop and look. This book will inspire you to do just that.

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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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Soon — Charlotte Grimshaw

SoonTwo very interesting characters inhabit this story: Roza, the Prime Minister’s wife, a creative maverick who still manages to fit in with his circle; and her precocious young son Johnny, who is clever and manipulative and a bit of a nightmare. Throughout the novel, Roza tells Johnny a story featuring a large cast of characters including a nasty dwarf called Soon, and surreal happenings, all based on the other people in the novel. It’s like a terrifyingly twisted Enid Blyton romp, and it’s fun drawing parallels between Roza’s story and the novel.

The rest of Soon is nicely written and compelling, but the plot and the other characters are a bit more formulaic than Roza and Johnny. It’s a story of powerful people behaving badly. The right-wing Prime Minister himself is popular, but is also a cynical, amoral figure; a parallel here to the current New Zealand political scene, and also to another novel within this novel.

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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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