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Mr. S. D. Halliday "Assistant Professor of Economics" (Northampton, MA, USA)
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True North: A Memoir
True North: A Memoir
by Jill Ker Conway
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Different to 'The Road From Coorain', but equally good, 23 Aug 2009
This review is from: True North: A Memoir (Hardcover)
Having read The Road from Coorain, having thoroughly enjoyed it, and having passed it on to my wife who enjoyed it too, I wanted to unveil the rest of Jill Ker Conway's life, what the United States held for her, who the man was who added his 'Conway' to her 'Ker', and the rest of the unfolding tale of her apotheosis as a female in the male-dominated academia of the 60s and 70s. I was not disappointed (my wife has still to read it).

But, there is a caveat to anyone intending to read this book: The Road from Coorain coheres around the detailed landscape of Australia and how that landscape in its geographic, material, social, familial and academic manifestations sculpted Ker Conway. In True North, Ker Conway cannot write about any one landscape because they change too regularly: from Harvard, to Oxford, Rome, Paris, Toronto, Vancouver, Brisbane, Sydney, and finally Smith College, Massachusetts, there is no one shaping geography. Instead, Ker Conway charts her paths to and through these places to find a location independent of 'place' for her and John Conway. She realises a particular and special route, which she details in the book, and why I recommend the book.

What made the book all the more emotive for me was Ker Conway's descriptions of learning, studying, and reading. It isn't all that often that I get to read about the sensations and joys of studying, of being challenged by interesting and dynamic people, and of finding a partner who engages you in multiple arenas intellectually, yet retaining a strong emotional connection to you. As someone who 'married young', who is probably bound for academia, and whose partner is probably bound for academia too I found these intimate descriptions uplifting and enjoyable, even though honesty requires that she revealed the oddities and dark times as much as she revealed the good, the love-sustaining, and the wonderful.

Furthermore, what intrigued me was Ker Conway's engagement, as a feminist, with notions of things like 'gender studies' which she characterizes as having taken an incorrect, or unsatisfying, path in their progenitors' and propagators' needs to separate from the traditional disciplines of history, sociology, anthropology, etc as if 'gender studies' are independent of the other humanities. Kery Conway, instead, argues - or rather portrays her thinking and feelings about - how feminist and social thinking should be embedded in all the social sciences so that it is something about which all people learn and which they must confront, rather than something apart which people can more easily avoid. I find this strikingly appropriate and would recommend the book for that discussion alone. But it is embedded in a book that makes the argument all the stronger because of the particularities Ker Conway recounts, and I cannot recommend it enough.


The Road From Coorain
The Road From Coorain
by Jill Ker Conway
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.13

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic Memoir, 23 Aug 2009
This review is from: The Road From Coorain (Paperback)
Jill Ker Conway details her childhood and youth in this book, the first of her memoirs. From her childhood growing up on a struggling farm in Australia, to her father's death, to the transformation of her mother from a sylph-like, charming wife and mother to a strange, manipulative woman, to attending university in Sydney to study history, to first love, to traveling to Europe, Ker Conway captures each period with warmth, honesty, and empathy.

Ker Conway first draws you into the nature of her life by detailing the Australian landscape, which must be seen as the mise en scène for what she lives and believes, for how she studies history, and for the ways in which she engages with feminism, femininity, and love. We view the landscape of her family farm invigorated with rainfall, later ravaged by drought, and yet later anchoring Ker Conway to her past, to Australia, to her 'soul', and to her work.

I find this a strange book to review. I so thoroughly enjoyed it, as did my wife. Ker Conway details the perceptions, beliefs, and actions towards women in Australia from the 1950s onwards that I found her narrative far more convincing as a life lived than I have certain feminist tracts. I count myself a feminist, so this was an odd experience. Ker Conway made me see particular characteristics about patriarchal society and Australian, or maybe Anglo-centric, patriarchy particularly that enlivened my feminist sensibilities. Do not let my discussion put you off the book, Ker Conway does not hate men, nor does she manically rant against oppression, but as a social historian she characterizes the society she lives in so well that I could not help but be engaged by the feminist brio underlying the narrative of her life, a brio which evidently energizes and motivates Ker Conway.

Moreover, as you are told in the blurb, Ker Conway is an extraordinary woman. She became the first female vice-president of a University in all of Canada, she went on to become the first female president of Smith College in Massachusetts, USA. She documents these triumphs in her later memoirs. But, this background of her life lived on an Australian farm, with the stresses of a mother whose potency languished unchannelled, and the strangeness of a society that so easily excludes - or remonstrates - bright and driven women, gives us access to the travails she overcame, and her unique take on attachment, history, and feminism. I strongly recommend The Road from Coorain.

A point of clarity: do not confuse my discussion of Ker Conway's father's death and her mother's harshness for the anguish and distress recounted in 'pity lit' style memoirs (like, some would say, Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes). Ker Conway describes how imaginative and challenging her mother was when Ker Conway was a child, how, through her mother, Ker Conway was educated and given a critical faculty allowing her to engage with the world as an academic historian. Moreover, Ker Conway also accounts for her own complicity in her mother's devolution, and she describes the revelatory moments well, honestly and empathetically. What remains important are Ker Conway's engagement with landscape, family history (embedded in the history of Australia), and the role of women. I found it to be a truly fantastic memoir, better than many others I have read.


World Without End
World Without End
by Ken Follett
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not as good as Pillars, but still a good read, 23 Aug 2009
This review is from: World Without End (Hardcover)
My wife and I both read The Pillars of the Earth some time ago and picked this up recently. It fits well into my 'ripping yarn' (or should that be 'guilty pleasure') category. Follett tells a tale of a British landscape of political intrigue among barons and bishops, of personal losses and triumphs, of genius and innovation, of the ravages of the Black Death, and of a long-lived love.

While holding to historical accuracy for architecture, landscape, labour, etc the book's protagonists often seem anachronistic: the man and woman treating each other as an ideal(?) modern couple would, mutual respect, division of labour, and understanding the paths that each took to realising eventual love. Did such things occur in England during the bubonic plague and the reign of Edward III? I'm not so sure. Should you expect this if you've read Pillars of the Earth? Certainly.

You don't need to have read Pillars of the Earth to understand the goings on in World Without End. Everything you need to know is fairly well-established in World Without End itself. As others comment, Pillars and World define the category 'historical thriller', rather than just 'historical fiction'. Follett doesn't try to be highbrow, but gets the setting right, throws in sufficient intrigue right at the beginning to get you hooked, and then pulls you on. I think, though, that there was one phase in the book where Follett lost track of the tale a bit and needed to weave the strands together more tightly (towards the beginning of section with the Black Death). Nevertheless, the book was most enjoyable in how it tracked the lives of its characters from youth to late middle-age, their bumps, dips, loves, and frustrations.


Death at La Fenice
Death at La Fenice
by Donna Leon
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Relaxing and Engaging, 23 Aug 2009
This review is from: Death at La Fenice (Paperback)
A fun traipse through Venice, with death, droplets of personal history, and a decent characterization of the city. Leon characterizes a fair number of Italians well, playing on the stereotypes while ensuring that she keeps her main character gruff, stoic, and Venetian enough to count.

Vice-commissario Guido Brunetti investigates the strange death of the musical genius Helmut Wellauer at the famous La Fenice opera house in Venice. In the 'official' blurb, Brunetti's described as 'suave and pithy', I'd say pithy, yes, suave, no. Leon unveils a story showing that method and perseverance should get you to your end, or at least should get Brunetti there. Brunetti shows a deft hand at dealing with his superior, with Italian bureacracy and social mores generally, and with his suspects and interviewees. Leon builds a detective story about stories, rather than about crime scene evidence, sudden inspired insights, or malign criminals failing to cover their tracks. It was a fun, swift read, enjoyable all the more if you've spent sufficient time in Venice to know streets, places, and some of the city's strangeness. Leon doesn't overly romanticize this beautiful city, but sets it down in the mud of the lagoon reminding the reader of the strange smells, the occasional dankness, and the damp as much as she does of its architecture and history.

Death and La Fenice is Leon's first book with Brunetti as the detective-protagonist. She has written a series of detective novels based in Venice with Brunetti as her main character, and supposedly certain characters he meets in this novel crop up later. Were I feeling like something bite-sized and quick, I'd definitely pick up one of the later ones in an airport shop or train station. This one was left with us by a travelling relative, and I agree it's suitably engaging travel/holiday reading.

In its category of detective fiction, it's a cut above most of those I've read. Hence the 4 stars.


The Shadow Of The Wind
The Shadow Of The Wind
by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

3 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good ideas, but over-rated, 23 Aug 2009
This review is from: The Shadow Of The Wind (Paperback)
I became bored reading this. I put it down just over half way through. I found it over-written, stylised in a manner not to my tastes, and ultimately executed and plotted in such a way that the ideas were stifled. I think that the author was trying to make too obvious a point about living in Fascist Spain (darkness, shadows, terror, secret love), and that its embodiment in the power of the evil, demented and covetous Fumero was laughable. The self-doubting hero-detective protagonist was also just a bit too cookie-cutter.

Some of the ideas in the book are fantastic - who couldn't like the idea of the cemetery of books? - but then I felt like I was reading a book that wanted to be a movie, and not really a book. This was strange because the book is 'meant' to be a book about books (which was why I was given it as a gift in the first place, I love books about books, such as Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris and Lewis Buzbee's The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop). Because I became enchanted by some of the ideas I tried to champion onward - not such a good idea. I can see why this book might work as an introduction to magical realism, or maybe as a kind of faux magical realism, but it doesn't make the transition to mature ideas, mature writing, or mature execution that characterize that genre - Rushdie's Midnight's Children and Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude come to mind, or maybe even Esquivel's popular Like Water for Chocolate.

I have seen some reviewers try to compare Zafon to a hybrid of Borges, Marquez and Eco, but if Zafon was trying to be this Hybrid, then he was rather a Shadow of the Hybrid, reaching neither the gentleness with tone, nor the verve with language that these authors attain. All of which said, I think this book comes down strongly to personal preference. If you like long, flowery descriptions of things, in addition to a plot that slowly unfolds (unfolds is apt, one fold, next fold, then the next fold, like a large, sheet, packed away for months being ever so deliberately unfolded) then you'll probably enjoy this novel. It's understandable why people compare it to The Da Vinci Code, another novel that unfolds 'mysteriously'. If you're not into that, then rather steer clear. I didn't think Shadow of the Wind was bad, it just wasn't anything better than average.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 26, 2009 5:08 PM GMT


The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life
The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life
by Prof Richard Dawkins
Edition: Audio CD

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Broad with great examples, 15 July 2009
Abridged and Read by Richard Dawkins and Lalla Ward, this (audio)book constitutes a good addition to the literature on popular biology, genetics, and 'big history' streams of anthropology and archaeology that have become prevalent. To some extent the book contains more accessible and briefer considerations of work in The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable. The crucial point though is that the narrative form that Dawkins uses is imminently accessible and, consequently, the book should reach a broader audience than those books have reached.

Dawkins considers many problems in the book and his discussions clarified my understanding of many issues. He grapples with the problem of classification, one of the first hints at which is the 'whale-hippo' problem, i.e. the problem that whales are the closest relatives of hippos, closer than other four-legged ruminants or ungulates. How then does classification occur? How do we separate species? Dawkins argues that we need to consider evolutionary paths, and the distribution of animals along these paths to consider adequately what a species means. Another compelling argument he poses in favour of 'distribution' is supported by the existence of 'ring species' like the Herring Gull and the Black-backed gull or Ensatina Salamanders in California - read the book for a wonderful discussion of this topic.

Another problem Dawkins address is the problem of the phrase 'more evolved'. People mistakenly say that humans are 'more evolved' than other creatures, or that some creatures are more 'primitive' than others. First, humans are not 'more' evolved, homo sapiens sapiens have evolved to suit their environment amidst competition with other humans and other animals, with internal competition amongst genes. Primitiveness means, really, the degree of resemblance to an ancestor. We need to ask, then, which ancestor? What do we mean by resemble? Do we mean one bone? An entire physiognomy? Dawkins deals with this incisively by meditating on the anatomy and evolution of duck-billed platypuses and echidnas.

He considers, further, the problem of 'what comes first' with behaviour and evolution, and in so doing quotes a book I thoroughly enjoyed, Matt Ridley's Nature Via Nurture. He proposes that evolution, and co-evolution, can go in either direction: a specific physical variation may occur, which facilitates a specific behaviour, or a specific behaviour may become prevalent, which then facilitates later physical evolution. His entertaining exemplar is the tale of the brine shrimp: here he proposes that vertebrates may have evolved from worms that turned upside down; their behaviour altered, then physical characteristics of vertebracy followed.

Dawkins dedicates the book's penultimate section to two important problems. First, the oft-posed problem by Intelligent Designers of 'irreducible complexity', which Dawkins dismisses (as he does in The God Delusion) by using an argument explicated by Kenneth Miller in Finding Darwin's God. Miller breaks down the argument by IDers of the problem of the flaggellar motor, showing the 'gaps' by assessing TTSS and dismissing the argument of irreducible complexity. Another interesting point is that Miller is religious, and argues that a god would not be so capricious as to break its own divine laws. The second problem is that of another, to Dawkins, ill-posed question - 'What is the origin of life?' Dawkins argues instead that we should try to understand 'What is the origin of heredity?' I agree with this re-posing, mainly as 'life' is a difficult thing to define, whereas heredity is not. For heredity, we require a replicator, such as DNA or RNA. Life seems less amenable to so concise a definition.

I was fascinated by the notion, proposed by Stuart Kauffman, of re-runs of evolutionary history. I first discovered Kauffman when reading about complexity - he cameos in both Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (Penguin Science) and in The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics - and I found his ideas quite intriguing. What would happen if evolution, 'happened again'? If earth began again? What would we observe? The best we can do these days is computer simulations, and that is one area in which Kauffman is involved - the simulation of alternative patterns of evolution with genetic algorithms. Dawkins, in the final section, complements his discussion of Kuaffman re-runs with notes about his ideas of the evolution of evolvability, bottlenecking, and the origins of sexual reproduction, all of which enchanted me, but which he has discussed in previous books. The introduction he provides in The Ancestor's Tale allows the novice to engage with it from scratch, or for the reader who has read much of Dawkins to engage anew.

Overall, I would say that this book is one of Dawkins better book, better certainly than The God Delusion. The book fits into a good pedagogical niche because it covers such a wide array of topics, while supplying the reader with sufficient cues for additional texts to which they can refer if they so choose. Moreover, the narrative structure of 'tales' makes the work even more accessible and, even though it may seem odd at first to peregrinate backwards in time, the outcome is sensible and rewarding. I felt though that I had missed something in the abridged audio book and that I should try to dedicate the time to the (next?) text edition at some point in the near future to capture fully the benefits and beauty of each tale.


Dr. Johnson's Dictionary: The Book That Defined the World: The Extraordinary Story of the Book That Defined the World
Dr. Johnson's Dictionary: The Book That Defined the World: The Extraordinary Story of the Book That Defined the World
by Henry Hitchings
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Light and Informative, 15 July 2009
Though interesting, I did not finish this book quickly. Every so often I read a chapter or two, in between other books, or when I felt like a change from the book I was reading. I did not read it dedicatedly. I have read a fair amount of popular biography and history, but I found that Hitchings did not make enough of a tale of Johnson's life, did not weave a narrative of a life lived oddly, opinionatedly, and moralistically. But, his focus was the dictionary itself and not just its author, so he's excused. The story of the dictionary was a worthy challenge and Hitchings does it justice.

The structure is good, the historical content excellent, and the tactic of titling the chapters with specific words in the dictionary apposite. Hitchings provides a substantial amount of historical content without getting stuck in History's dross. For someone interested in the evolution of the English language Dr Johnson's Dictionary provides remarkable insight into the project, contrasted well with the strange and belaboured efforts by the Italians and French, while also showing the uniquely Johnsonian flavours of this landmark vocabulary.

The books weaknesses are dramatically fewer than its strengths, and noting this The Modern Language Association in the US gave Hitchings their prize for best work by an independent scholar in 2005 for the US version of the book. I didn't find the book prizeworthy, but rather worth a morsel of my leisure time here and there, a morsel I could enjoy the immediate taste of, then leave and return for more a bit later.


The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life
The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life
by Ryszard Kapuscinski
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reverent and Respectful, 18 Jun 2009
This book is fantastic. Kapuscinski's essays on his experiences of living in, toiling through, and growing to adore Africa are phenomenal. I intend to put essays from this book on my reading lists for students when I teach courses about African Development one day.

When he writes, Kapuscinski captures what economists take reams to deliver. African development remains dependent on aid in many countries, many societies lack basic resources, and institutions built for extraction and exploitation obstruct their development.

Kapuscinski laments Africa's poor development and wishes that something could have happened to put more of African countries on paths to development. Kapuscinski's writing pulls you into the deep sadness he feels when he reflects on Africa, but the root of that sadness is a strong, powerful love that will draw him back to the continent, and, I hope, one day make him happy about the continent's achievements.


Econometric Analysis of Cross Section and Panel Data
Econometric Analysis of Cross Section and Panel Data
by Jeffrey M Wooldridge
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gold-standard, 18 Jun 2009
Wooldridge, as it is known to Econ grad students, is the gold standard of cross-section and panel data econometric theory and practice. At the core of many grad student courses on Cross section and panel data you become familiar with this text and with Wooldridge's particular way of describing, assessing and answering problems. Do not go near this book unless you have a decent background in statistics or econometrics of some sort, maybe look at Wooldridge's Introductory Econometrics as a starting base, or to brush up, or to get explanations of concepts that are often defined very formally and not at all intuitively in this advanced text.

Greene's Econometric Analysis complements Wooldridge well, and is often the baseline before Wooldridge in many courses. In Greene's 6th Edition there is a new and comprehensive discussion of Panel Data techniques as well as an easier discussion of Asymptotics that can help those who struggle with some of the concepts in Wooldridge.


Angela's Ashes
Angela's Ashes
by Frank McCourt
Edition: Audio CD

4.0 out of 5 stars Better listened to than read, 18 Jun 2009
This review is from: Angela's Ashes (Audio CD)
The voice of an old Irishman, Frank McCourt, tells the story of a young American boy of Irish descent, his journey to Ireland with his beleaguered family, and his eventual return to the United States. Frank McCourt reads Angela's Ashes enchantingly, his voice mellifluous and resonant. He sings the songs of woe, liberty and battle, he chants the poetry, he accents the speech so that each character's 'Och' is unique yet conveys the essential Irishness that the memoir captures so well.

In Angela's Ashes, McCourt triumphs because he writes with the voice of a child, presenting his child-self in such a way that makes the voice credible, that justifies his actions. In the audiobook this is complemented by his reading because his tone, his pitch, and his manner change consistent with how he wrote.

The story wrenches you from laughter to shivers of hunger (you feel persistently hungry reading this book) to a moistening of the eyes. The 'Disease of the Irish' plays a substantial part in this book, how it affects families, how the culture impelled its boys to embrace the bottle of stout, the evening pint. McCourt engages too with the notions of the Irish state, the politics of liberty from the British, and how the class structure of Ireland, with its correlates of Catholicism and Protestantism, abutted working class sensibilities.

The book works because McCourt writes honestly, yet forgivingly of his family and himself. I would strongly recommend Angela's Ashes as a first step into memoir if you have not 'read' much memoir. I would also recommend listening to the audiobook to hear McCourt's voice, to hear his cries, his 'och's, his singing, and his emotion underpinning the narrative. I don't think I would have enjoyed this book as much had I read it rather than listened to it.


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