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Rough Diamond (London, UK)

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Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Capital in the Twenty-First Century
by Thomas Piketty
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £25.39

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Please don't be put off by anyone who tells you this is a hard slog, or the economic equivalent of 'A Brief History of Time'., 16 July 2014
'Capital' couldn't be more approachable. Piketty's argument is simple, and he lays it out in layman's terms, without recourse to technical theorising or to frightening maths. The toughest formula you'll meet here is r > g, which states the crux of Piketty's theory: when r, the rate of return on capital, is greater than g, the economic growth rate, people who get an income from capital (ie the folks who are already rich, and can live off the dividends they get from their capital investments) will get rich quicker than the people whose income growth is dependent on economic growth (ie the folks like you and me who aren't rich, who have no income from capital, and who get index-linked pay rises if they're lucky).

The considerable length of the book comes from the mountain of evidence Piketty has assembled to analyse the way in which this dynamic has played out over the course the past two or three centuries. Luckily, the analysis is punctuated with plenty of graphics, which make the thrust of the argument very easy to grasp, and with many wry bursts of Piketty's gallic wit. The exposition of the data is admirable - a real model of clarity. As the book builds, so does Piketty's confidence in his view that r > g is a standard condition of capitalism, which will continue be the basis of the economic landscape during the 21st century, and which will thus continue act as a motor of further divergence between the rich and the non-rich. Unchecked (ie unless there are catastrophic wars that destroy capital at the same rate as the wars of the 20th century, or else some form of legislative intervention), r > g will inevitably end up producing levels of inequality that will be politically unsustainable without forceful repression of the poor.

The most controversial part of the book is the conclusion. If we are to check capital's natural tendency to self-replicate, and if we are to stop the inequality gap from widening even further, then rich folks simply must pay more tax, not just on their declared income, but also on their capital - otherwise their wealth will carry on accelerating by sheer dint of simple arithmetic. However, an effective capital tax will require much greater financial transparency and interbank co-operation than currently exists. That, sadly, would mean more government, and more financial regulation - but the alternative could be way worse. Piketty is convinced that 'trickle-down' economics do not work, and that unregulated capitalism will inevitably see the Haves disappear into the stratosphere at the expense of the Have Nots. Politically, economically and morally, that's not a sustainable position - ask any 18th century French aristocrat.

If anyone tells you this book is hard work, or boring, or turgid, or confusing, they're (i) wrong and (ii) possibly trying to prevent you from reading a book that may permanently change the way you look at the world. 'Capital' is probably the most important economics book published this year, is certainly the most lucid and entertaining, and deserves to shift the western intellectual landscape in the same way that Milton Friedman's work did a generation or two ago. If you're in any way interested in how the future of the western political and economic system might play out, I couldn't recommend it more strongly.

The Entertainer - The Very Best of Scott Joplin
The Entertainer - The Very Best of Scott Joplin
Price: £10.92

5.0 out of 5 stars Peerless, 10 Jun. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Back in the olden days of long-playing records (remember them?), Joshua Rifkin's recordings of Scott Joplin's piano rags for Nonesuch Records were among my very favourite albums. Rifkin to my mind still remains the peerless interpreter of Joplin. Forget about rinky-dink ragtime: Rifkin paces his performances with exquisite poise, bringing out the latent melacholy in these wonderful pieces, to an extent that almost recalls Chopin.

To be clear, despite the dismal cover art, these are the original Rifkin recordings from the early 1970s. Although it's not a fully comprehensive re-issue of the two original albums (shame!), the very best tracks are here, including Elite Syncopations, Euphonic Sounds, Country Club and the heartbreaking 'Solace', which in my book is worth the price of the disc on its own.

Docked one star for the shabby packaging and the omission of some minor tracks - otherwise this would have been a six-star review!

David Bowie Album By Album
David Bowie Album By Album
by Paolo Hewitt
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.49

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Simply beautiful, 10 Jun. 2014
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This was clearly a labour of love. Paolo Hewitt's text is the fruit of a lifetime of careful, attentive listening to Bowie, but the real pleasure of this book is the graphic content. Extraordinarily, it unearths a trove of unusual, but brilliant, images from across Bowie's career, that avoid most of the obvious visual cliches while still being stunningly impactful in their own right. It's also impressive that the coverage goes right up to the present, with a good and thoughtful section on 'The Next Day'. All in all, I'd say this is probably an even better and more satisfying compendium than the V&A's (very good) 'David Bowie Is' catalogue.

I can't imagine a David Bowie enthusiast not wanting to own this. I bought a copy as a birthday present for my wife, who likes Bowie as much as I like Dylan (i.e. a LOT), and she's been absolutely thrilled with it.

Museum Without Walls
Museum Without Walls
by Jonathan Meades
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pithy, iconoclastic, polemical, verbose.., 10 Jun. 2014
This review is from: Museum Without Walls (Paperback)
..and, ultimately, the literary equivalent of coriander: pungent, unmistakeable, and completely divisive; you'll either love it or you'll hate it and, even if you love it, and relish it in small quantities, consuming a whole bunch at once can be a fairly nauseating experience.

Museum Without Walls is a huge bunch of Jonathan Meades. 54 pieces of assorted journalism from the past 25 years, interspersed with 6 TV scripts of various vintages. Taken in small doses, it's as bracingly brilliant as any fan of Meades' TV shows would expect. Read it cover to cover, though, and Meades' literary tics start to become tiresome - his stratospheric levels of verbal dexterity (and indignation) can be exhausting for us mortals to keep up with. He's also not above repeating himself, and the same quirky anecdotes and factoids resurface time and again in his prose.

I shouldn't quibble too much, though. For anyone dismayed by the timidity of modern urban planning, disgusted by the moral vacuity of the Blair administration, and exhilarated by the 'poetry in poured concrete' that is brutalist architecture, Meades is a pugnacious, forthright and eloquent ally. He's a unique, sui generis mash-up of Ian Nairn, Francois Rabelais and Luis Buneul and, although he'd probably punch my lights out for saying so, he's a genuine national treasure. Museum Without Walls is as brilliantly flawed as Meades himself, and is a real treat for dedicated Meades-spotters.

Look Who's Back
Look Who's Back
by Timur Vermes
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.50

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Taboo (or not to boo?), 1 May 2014
This review is from: Look Who's Back (Hardcover)
How can you satirise a world that is already satirising itself? Political satire, Tom Lehrer once said, became obsolete in 1973, when Henry Kissinger received the Nobel Peace Prize. More generally, the pervasive influence of postmodernism has effectively whittled the satirist's territory away to nothing. The press and TV now habitually mediate the world for us through the lens of ironic scepticism anyway, leaving satirists with nothing to add. Where on earth can satire go from here?

Timur Vermes provides a sly and subversive answer to this conundrum in 'Look Who's Back'. The only way our irony-saturated world can identify true satire is through a voice that speaks with unswerving passion and absolute sincerity: only if we say the absolute truth about what we think can the world be completely certain that we are joking. Or can it??

This is the paradox that lies at the heart of this clever but only intermittently funny comic novel. In it Adolf Hitler, as I’m sure you already know, somehow returns miraculously to Berlin in 2011, alive, unrepentant about his past, and as eager as ever to bring racial purity and National Socialism in the Fatherland. He is predictably shocked by the miasmic soup of social democracy and soft-hearted tolerance into which his beloved Germany has descended. Raging against the modern world, he quickly becomes an internet phenomenon – because, as is obvious to everyone except Hitler, he is quite clearly a brilliant method-actor with a cutting edge alternative comedy routine.

It’s a beguilingly simple and ingenious idea, which delivers enough belly laughs to make this slightly embarrassing to read in public, but which somehow falls a bit short of genius in the delivery. There are a few really good , sharp, cuttingly funny set-pieces, but there are also some pretty dull stretches that move the plot along to very little comic effect. I don’t think it helps if you’re English – there are clearly plenty of in-jokes in here that might tickle German funny bones but that will fly over most English readers’ heads, including mine. And some of the jokes are just plain duds – including the title.

By far the most engaging character is of course Hitler himself, and it’s when we’re in Adolf’s company that the book really comes alive. Seeing the modern world through Hitler’s eyes is also perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the book – not just because of his unreconstructed Nazi outlook, but more worryingly because in many scenes it’s Hitler who’s the naïve innocent trying and failing to make sense of our hopelessly corrupt and cynical world. Now that really is a feat of satire – not to mention a triumph of the German sense of humour.

By Slavoj Zizek - Zizek's Jokes: (Did You Hear the One About Hegel and Negation?)
By Slavoj Zizek - Zizek's Jokes: (Did You Hear the One About Hegel and Negation?)
by Slavoj Zizek
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars No laughing matter?, 5 April 2014
Anyone familiar with Zizek's books, films and teaching knows that jokes and joking are central to his practice - and usually the smuttier and the more politically incorrect the joke the better. This trait stems from something much deeper than an 'enfant terrible' desire to shock. Zizek understands that the things that make jokes funny - that is, the paradoxes, reversals, blind spots and petty humiliations of our lives - are the very stuff of the human condition; the very stuff, in fact, that his two great gurus, Lacan and Hegel, once sought to codify into brain-shreddingly abstract theory.

And this is where Zizek's twin gift for analogy and for breezy Yugoslav coarseness comes into play. How better to make tangible an idea as elusively abstract as, say, Hegelian double-negation, than by using a string of corny, smutty, soviet-era jokes to illustrate exactly how it works? This, clearly, is the concept behind 'Zizek's Jokes', which comes closer than any previous book to fulfilling Wittgenstein's prediction that one day a serious work of philosophy could be written consisting entirely of jokes.

Hardcore Zizek-spotters will be familiar with much of this material already. Almost all the quips and anecdotes in this fairly slim volume have been extracted from previously-published work. I have to say that, stripped of their original context as small islands of crude levity in a vast churning sea of dense theory, they actually lose some of their power to jolt the reader awake with a sudden flash of guilty understanding. And you certainly wouldn't buy this book for the jokes themselves, very few of which are all that funny, and many of which are grossly misogynistic and/or anti-semitic.

For all that, this still a likeable curio. The quality of the printing and the binding is absolutely superb, and this would make a wonderful gift for any philosophy postgrad with a quirky sense of humour - something of a niche market, admittedly. It also makes the serious point that serous philosophy doesn't always have to be serious, and that through jokes we can sometimes see clearly into the heart of the discipline's most obscure concepts. Certainly for Zizek, it's clear from this book that jokes are no laughing matter.

The House of Rumour
The House of Rumour
Price: £4.31

3.0 out of 5 stars Winning the war, losing the plot, 31 Mar. 2014
We've all experienced 'Sliding Doors' moments: those points in time when events could go in one of two ways but, whatever the outcome, we know for sure our lives will change. Sci-fi writers call moments like this a Jonbar Hinge, and the great Jonbar Hinge of World War II was early 1941, with the US and Japan not yet drawn into the conflict, Germany not yet fighting on the eastern front, and nuclear and rocket technology a still just a gleam in the scientists' eyes.

The House Of Rumour takes this pivotal moment as its starting point, and assembles an unlikely cast of characters all jostling to influence its outcome by fair means or foul, including Rudolf Hess, Alastair Crowley, Ian Fleming, Werner Von Braun and L. Ron Hubbard. The extent to which these diverse individuals were actually involved in a single conspiracy is the business of The House Of Rumour - in other words, the black arts of intelligence, misinformation and psychological warfare. It soon becomes clear that nothing, to coin a cliche, is as it seems.

Jake Arnott's novel approaches its core material from a kaleidoscope of vantage points, some contemporaneous to 1941, others in the far future of the 1960s, the1980s or even the 21st century. This actually gives the book a frustrating structure, which shuttles forward and backward in time, and which hands the narrative baton to a sequence of characters, such that the book feels at times more like a series of closely linked short stories than an actual novel with a plot and a sense of narrative direction and momentum. Minus one star for that.

Minus another star for lacking any real emotional core. The scattershot plotting and the unwieldy cast of characters together deprive the book of any focal protagonists. There's simply too much going on, across too many overlapping time frames, for any one of the individual characters really to blossom, and this makes it hard for the reader to care that much about any of them.

Having said all that, this is still an enjoyable, brain-tickling read. Even if it's short of plot and character, those two mainstays of popular fiction, its Big Themes are handled entertainingly. The real heroes of this book are its ideas, of which there are many, and which are cleverly marshalled through the twists and turns of the narrative 'structure'. Lovers of Borges novels, Charlie Kaufman movies and Umberto Eco's 'Foucault's Pendulum' will feel right at home.

Ibibio Sound Machine
Ibibio Sound Machine
Price: £6.99

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Birth of a Star?, 25 Mar. 2014
This review is from: Ibibio Sound Machine (Audio CD)
There's a lot to like about Ibibio Sound Machine's self-titled debut album. For a start, the eight-piece band is just great: tight, funky seventies grooves jostle with Highlife guitar licks and deep synthy electronica in a soulful gumbo that feels instantly familiar and yet also new and fresh. If they're this good in the confines of the studio, I imagine they could be simply unstoppable live. There's also real diversity in the songwriting, from the brilliantly upbeat 'The Talking Fish' to the earthy slinkiness of 'Got to Move, Got to Get Out' - and I love how West African folk music keeps bubbling up through the mix, perhaps most charmingly of all in the last track, which takes 'Amazing Grace' out to rural Nigeria and gives it an African makeover that will have you smiling from ear to ear.

But what makes this album brilliant rather than merely very good is the sheer quality of Eno Williams' vocals. You can tell from the album's cover photo she's a young lady who means business, and on this album she sings with all the elegance, force, severity and self-possession of a Nigerian Grace Jones. She's a superb focal point for a rock-solid band, and on this showing she could one day become a major solo star in her own right. For now, though, all we can do is revel in the steamy African soul-funk fusion of the mighty Ibibio Sound Machine. Buy with confidence!

Under The Covers Vol. 3
Under The Covers Vol. 3
Price: £8.08

4.0 out of 5 stars Sid & Susie pop under the covers - again, 14 Mar. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Under The Covers Vol. 3 (Audio CD)
Here’s another love letter to pop music from 'Sid and Susie', this time raiding the Eighties for their latest trove of gems.

It’s great fun but, along with Vol 2, it somehow lacks some of the joy, energy and invention of their Sixties collection; likewise the production falls slightly short of the lush succulence of Vol 1. That said, this is still a very enjoyable collection. Like its predecessors, it's a discerningly chosen set of songs, with each number lovingly retooled and beautifully performed. There's a real British slant to the running order this time around, with The Smiths, The Beat, The Pretenders, Echo & the Bunnymen, Elvis Costello, Tracey Ullmann and XTC all present and correct. In every case, the American accents and West Coast harmonies work surprisingly well on these quintessentially British tracks.

Not quite a rave review, but this is still a pleasant, foot-tapping slice of nouveau-nostalgia which any fan of Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs will enjoy.

Wake In Fright (Text Classics)
Wake In Fright (Text Classics)
by Kenneth Cook
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.29

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The dark night of the Australian soul, 14 Mar. 2014
Wake in Fright is one of the great existential horror stories. It tells the tale of John Grant, a metropolitan Sydneysider working in a dead-end teaching job in an obscure and remote outback settlement. He longs for the city, the cool ocean, and the thin strip of civilisation between the Pacific and the hard, implacable wasteland in which he is marooned. The Christmas holidays offer him the chance of six weeks of sweet respite, but en route to the airstrip and home he must spend the night in the local hub of Bundanyabba - 'The Yabba' to its gnarled, laconic locals. Here, a chance encounter in a bar draws him into the hard-drinking, hard-gambling world of the Yabba by night, where he finds himself woefully out of his depth. He wakes up utterly broke, with an evil hangover, and with no way to buy his flight back to Sydney. He is a defenceless innocent, stranded, and completely at the mercy of the Yabba.

The next few days take Grant through successive circles of hell down into the dark, indifferent heart of the Australian outback. In this central section of the book, Kenneth Cook's prose takes on a hallucinatory energy. Grant stumbles through his nightmare in a haze of alcoholic confusion, with his rare moments of vivid clarity only heightening his disorientation and distress. Unable to escape from the Yabba, soon the only way out for Grant seems to be the rifle and the single bullet he's holding in his hand...

This is a powerful, taut and disturbing read. Deeply pessimistic about human nature, its central message seems to be that, beneath our veneer of civilisation, we're all only a couple of wrong turns away from brutal savagery and despair. Kenneth Cook tells his tale brilliantly, in a series of memorable set-pieces as dry and tough as the harsh Australian landscape he so compellingly evokes. Not for the fainthearted, but strongly recommended.

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