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Paul Bowes (Wales, United Kingdom)

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A Country Is Not a Company (Harvard Business Review Classics)
A Country Is Not a Company (Harvard Business Review Classics)
by Paul Krugman
Edition: Paperback

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pithy explanation of why businessmen don't necessarily make good advisors to national politicians, 13 Aug 2011
This is a brief essay - 5,000 words, formatted for easy reading - by the Nobel-winning economist. It originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review in 1996, but the passage of time has not dated it.

In brief, Krugman's argument is that expertise in business does not translate into expertise in the government of a national - or, by implicit extension, a global - economy. His argument hinges on characterising businesses as open systems and economies as closed systems, and the body of knowledge necessary to understand the latter as significantly more technical and complex than the skills required to prosper in the former.

Krugman's argument is persuasive. This little book - postcard sized, and 55 pages rather than the advertised 64, of which only 50 constitute the article itself - should be required reading for British politicians hypnotised by the rhetoric of charismatic businessmen - and perhaps for businessmen overconfident that mastery of a successful company will give them automatic insight into matters of national finance and economic strategy.

It has to be said that I found the book poor value for money even at the discounted price - it took me less than forty minutes to read. Compare, for example, Penguin's publication of Tyler Cowan's The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History,Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better:A Penguin eSpecial from Dutton - similar quality, three times the length yet barely half the price.

My four star rating is therefore a compromise between five stars for content and three for presentation.

The Third Policeman (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)
The Third Policeman (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)
by Flann O'Brien
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Flann O'Brien's - temporarily - lost masterpiece, 13 Aug 2011
'The Third Policeman' was Flann O'Brien's second novel, written in 1939-40 but rejected for publication by an unsympathetic publisher. It was published in 1967, the year after O'Brien's death.

The novel offers the story of a deeply unsympathetic and unworldly man - an enthusiast of the idiot savant philosopher De Selby - who becomes embroiled in a scheme to kill a local worthy for the contents of a mysterious black box. This ill-gotten fortune will, he hopes, permit him to publish a learned commentary on De Selby's works.

It's a difficult book to discuss beyond this point: partly because the details and surprises of what follows are essential to O'Brien's purpose; partly because as a whole the book closely resembles so little else. In spirit, it belongs to the interwar years. Essentially a tragedy, haunted by a gathering foreboding, it is leavened by a manic absurd humour that is as much unsettling as amusing, and so one thinks of Céline and Waugh. There are echoes of older writers, particularly other idiosyncratic souls: Thomas Love Peacock, Sterne, even Voltaire in his fabulator's guise.

On the other hand, one can understand why O'Brien was so popular with younger readers in the 'Sixties and 'Seventies: he looks forward to the similarly ambivalent tragicomedy of the American black humorists, and like them mixes realism with fabulism. Given the period, it's reasonable to suggest that 'The Third Policeman' is also a kind of native Irish surrealism, with the same tendency as its European counterparts to mix the frightening, the erotic and the absurd. There are many anticipations of the procedures of later postmodernism; even David Foster Wallace might have learned something from O'Brien's footnotes. Perhaps the closest comparison is with Beckett's 'Murphy'. It's a measure of O'Brien's achievement here that he isn't diminished by the comparison.

Some readers may find the narrative's violent and - only apparently - unmotivated swings between scenes of naturalistic violence, oneiric fantasy, shaggy-dog humour, stage-Irishry and cod-academic pedantry exasperating. It's worth persisting. As the shape of the whole emerges, it becomes clear that this is rather more than just a funny book by a 'comic writer'. In spite of the greater success of his début novel, 'At Swim-Two-Birds', it's arguable that O'Brien never wrote anything better than this.

In Watermelon Sugar
In Watermelon Sugar
by The Estate of Richard Brautigan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars One of the best novels from the '60s counterculture, 27 July 2011
This review is from: In Watermelon Sugar (Paperback)
'In Watermelon Sugar' may be Richard Brautigan's best book. It's certainly one of the most completely characteristic: even at the time of its publication critics were struggling for terms of comparison. Its reputation may have suffered because Brautigan's immense early popularity aroused suspicions about his quality; it may be that its short length is confused with slightness. Nonetheless, whatever the reservations one may have about his other work, 'In Watermelon Sugar' needs no apologies.

Written in a deliberately artless, almost affectless style and in very short chapters, the novel - a novella or long short story, really - seems to invite fast, uncommitted reading. The reader who is prepared to slow down and ponder the implications of Brautigan's simple sentences will find the effort repaid.

It's a measure of the book's hidden complexity that it has been received as both a utopia and a dystopia. It's probably fair to say that that paradox reflects the author's deep ambivalence about the style of living emerging in the late '50s and early '60s on the American west coast.

Set at an uncertain distance in the future, 'In Watermelon Sugar' introduces us to iDEATH, a community that fuses aspects of contemporary hippie utopianism with an authentic American surrealism. The unnamed narrator - who actually has no name - relates in a meandering manner some of the history of iDEATH and the odd customs of its inhabitants: the conflict with the 'tigers', a living remnant of the almost vanished older world; his own attempts to write in a world in which books are mainly fuel; his relationship with the women Margaret and Pauline; Margaret's fascination with the Forgotten Works and its treasure trove of enigmatic artefacts; and the tragicomic insurrection of the curmudgeonly inBOIL. Gradually Brautigan constructs out of hints a picture of a world that has grown out of the ruins of our own, and in which a great deal has been sacrificed in the name of calm and content.

Published in 1968, but written in 1964, 'In Watermelon Sugar' was Brautigan's third novel and the last of those written in the '60s that made his reputation. I find it the best of the three: intelligent and sad, and well worth the brief investment of time in reading. This is the book that best explains why Brautigan was once reviewed respectfully alongside such other American fabulists as Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme. Perhaps one day he - or this book, at least - will see a posthumous revaluation.

Everything I Found on the Beach
Everything I Found on the Beach
by Cynan Jones
Edition: Paperback

20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fine contemporary Welsh novel, 24 July 2011
Why do men take desperate chances? In 'Everything I Found on the Beach' Cynan Jones looks at the intertwined lives of men - a Welsh fisherman, a Polish economic migrant, a Liverpool-based drug dealer, an Irish peddler of violence for hire - who for different reasons must make hard, risky choices with imperfect knowledge of the consequences. Set on the western margin of the United Kingdom, the novel considers what happens to a society when the promise of better times in return for hard work is withdrawn, when every exit is blocked, and ordinary men begin to see their softer virtues as liabilities and lack of ambition and daring as a vice.

Cynan Jones made quite an impact with his novella, 'The Long Dry', and the way with language that marked that book - the way in which quite ordinary things suddenly inspire a lyrical flight - is present here. So is the sudden shift of tone that reminds the reader of an underlying darkness. The lyricism put me in mind of Lawrence, the Hemingway of 'Big Two-Hearted River', and more remotely of some of Hardy: the darkness also of Lawrence, and of the other Hemingway, the one who created in 'To Have And Have Not' a character whose final judgement was that a man alone had no chance; and of the Cormac McCarthy of 'No Country For Old Men'. These comparisons are not unflattering to Cynan Jones.

Jones structures his story cunningly, maintaining until the final pages a real uncertainty about the outcome of the thriller-like plot. But the real interest for me was in the portrait of blighted masculinity, men straining to do right against a background of absent fathers, shattered traditional ways and economic blight that makes all choices complex and moral judgements moot.

As it gathers towards its climax, 'Everything I Found On the Beach' offers a view of a Britain that many inhabit but few wish to publicise. On this showing, Cynan Jones has the capacity to become a significant writer.

Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value
Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value
by James F English
Edition: Paperback
Price: £18.23

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best study of its subject, 23 July 2011
It's hard to be unaware of the proliferation of prizes and awards in our culture. Readers often divide between those who think that prizes are legitimate acknowledgements of talent, and those who - like Sir Walter Scott, one of the earliest dissenters - see them as an unwanted and ungentlemanly intrusion of commercialism and an inappropriate 'winner-takes-all' mentality into the arena of art. In 'The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards and the Circulation of Cultural Value', James English examines the by now global award regime and tries to put some flesh on the bare bones of prejudice.

Professor English focuses primarily on the Anglophone world, but ranges widely across cultural fields, taking in literature, film, music, the visual arts, sport and even pornography. For his conceptual framework, he draws heavily but not exclusively on the incisive and increasingly influential work of the French cultural sociologist Pierre Bourdieu - author of 'The Rules of Art', 'Distinction', and others.

Beginning with an overview that traces the history of the cultural prize into ancient times, English rapidly brings his narrative forward to the nineteenth century, traces the relatively slow growth of the prize regime during that period and then shows how growth became exponential after the foundation of the Nobel Prize. From being objects of scorn or disregard, cultural prizes and the institutions that administer them proliferate and gain in influence until by the end of the twentieth century they form a cultural economy that parallels, shadows, reinforces and conflicts with the commercial economy in which all cultural objects also necessarily take their place.

As English points out, by 2000 the number of prizes for film exceeded handily the number of feature films being made in any one year; the number of literary prizes had grown ten times faster than the number of new titles published annually. This is a phenomenon that is distinctively modern, and worthy of attention in its own right.

English manages the difficult trick of writing lucidly for the intelligent general reader without sacrificing academic rigour. Although there is much fascinating anecdote and historical detail, the real strength of the book lies in his dispassionate examination of the functioning of the prize regime and how it is inextricably woven into the texture of our culture in such a way that not even explicit parody - the Razzie awards, for example - or scandal - in the form of the now almost de rigeur accusations of bias and personal conflict that attend literary awards like the Booker - can derail. English rejects the stereotypical views that make so many journalistic discussions of the subject unproductive, and adduces a wealth of historical evidence and theoretical argument in support of a much more nuanced and persuasive account of the cultural function of the prize.

This is, so far as I am aware, the only substantial modern book-length study of its subject. Its merits have been widely recognised elsewhere: and in an irony that the author no doubt appreciated, it was declared 'New York Magazine Best Academic Book of the Year'. It is better than that: a fine book by any standards. I recommend it to anybody who is interested in how the worlds of commerce and art collide.

Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists
Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists
by Daniel Dorling
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.19

18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A substantial study of the ideology of injustice, 20 July 2011
'Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists' is Daniel Dorling's attempt to take further the contemporary debate on inequality in prosperous societies by moving on from the mere fact of rising inequality to the causes of its continuation in countries that clearly have the means, but apparently not the will, to make their citizens' lives more equal. In essence, his argument comes down to two factors: the operation of intrinsic structural forces of capitalist economics in rich countries; and the triumph since the 1970s of an ideology that explains that economic system as not merely natural, but a necessary consequence of free-market capitalism, which is itself treated as self-evidently the most efficient and moral economic system possible and thus the greatest guarantor of the general good.

In five substantial chapters, Professor Dorling examines the way in which unjust principles have been embedded in contemporary thinking and discourse. These five principles - an obvious and acknowledged parallel to Beveridge's five 'Giant Evils' - are elitism: social exclusion; prejudice; greed; and despair (and its political consequence - apathy). Dorling produces a wealth of argument and well-documented evidence to show how increasingly general acceptance of these inequities underlies and reinforces gross social inequality. The resultant disparity in life chances for individuals is excused by making them appear the necessary, inevitable and even desirable consequence of capitalism's alleviation for most of the very worst aspects of human existence.

So far so good, and it's hard to imagine anyone with an open mind reading this book entirely without profit. However, Dorling's cause is damaged by an uncertainty of tone that seems to be rooted in an underlying uncertainty about the composition of his intended audience. Dispassionate, objective exposure of social evil suddenly gives way to polemic in a way that suggests some brutal and unwilling fusion of the pamphleteering tradition with the academic monograph. The tone veers unpredictably between that of a lecturer addressing students and that of a firebrand addressing a public meeting.

Dorling is an acknowledged expert in his field: he seems however to forget at times that many of his readers will not be so familiar with statistical methodology, and as a result I often found it necessary to pay very close attention to the text in order to understand graphs that the author appears to think self-explanatory. This would matter less if the information conveyed were not so vital to the argument.

The result is that the perfectly rational case that Dorling is making is somewhat damaged by the manner of its presentation. Those who most need to hear what Dorling has to say are those most likely to be frightened off by the entirely justifiable, but impolitic anger. The author also offers hostages to fortune by employing on occasion the kind of rhetoric that will allow the ill-disposed to dismiss him as a polytechnic Marxist. (Dorling is not explicitly a Marxist, but 'Injustice' clearly stands in a long tradition of ideological critique). A book of this kind, if it is to have the intended effect, has to reach further than the ranks of the true believers. For me, admirable in some respects as 'Injustice' is, it falls between two stools.

Recommended nonetheless, especially for readers who may be unfamiliar with the results of research in human geography, sociology and economic history over the last decade or so. My three-star rating is a compromise between four stars for content and two for presentation.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 3, 2012 3:15 PM BST

Oblivion: Stories
Oblivion: Stories
by David Foster Wallace
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good place to begin with Wallace, 13 July 2011
This review is from: Oblivion: Stories (Paperback)
Readers come to David Foster Wallace by any of a number different routes. During his life he published novels, short stories, a book on mathematics and collections of journalistic articles. Since his death in 2008, another collection, his unpublished thesis and an unfinished novel have emerged. Of all this varied production, the articles seem - rather worryingly - to be becoming more celebrated than the fiction. In addition, the long novel 'Infinite Jest' has erased much of his other writing in the public mind by virtue of its fabled length, ambition and difficulty, which has made it a novel arguably more talked about than read.

I have always felt that Wallace's best writing is in his short stories. The limits of the shorter form curb his single greatest weakness, which was his inability or unwillingness to rein in his tendency to digression. They make the concentration of his gaze and density of his prose at the level of the sentence and paragraph appear appropriate to the demands of the form rather than the accidental product of a failure to control larger structures - which is certainly a criticism that can be levelled at the novels.

I first read 'Oblivion' in 2005, and on rereading I find it to be both characteristic of Wallace and somewhat easier to approach than the early collections, and therefore a good place to start for the reader completely new to the author. In fact, it's the opening story, 'Mister Squishy', that presents the greatest test of endurance for the uninitiated, and I would actually recommend beginning with the shorter - and very funny - 'Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature' for the reader dipping a toe. But everything here - stories varying from a couple of pages to almost novella length - repays persistence.

Wallace has garnered a reputation for intimidating intelligence, formal difficulty and a certain doggedness in microscopic examination of the minutiae of common social habits and seemingly trivial phenomena. But what emerges here is a composite portrait of a mind preoccupied with the sheer difficulty of living in our times. Wallace is very modern: his stories concern themselves with the texture of day-to-day living in a way that makes few concessions to the reader's - or the traditional novelist's - sense of what might be important. His characters are often mid-level businessmen and bureaucrats whose personalities are difficult to separate from their employment. That employment is likely to be connected with the media, or marketing: Wallace was a connoisseur of the mediated environment and the novel kinds of people that that environment produces. Much of his writing here is droll social comedy.

Wallace was quite capable of seeing - and conveying - the humour in, say, a thirty-year-old's desperation in the face of his soul-destroying job. But if there is a common thread linking these stories it is an existential anxiety that constantly threatens to erupt from behind the façade of normal, uneventful life. Authors are always being accused of writing disguised autobiography, but there is much in these stories that resonates with what we know of the author's life, even though this is more a question of mood than detail. There is a deep seriousness here, and a persistent sense of dread, a question of a great deal being at stake in the answers to Wallace's questions, that should defuse any temptation to dismiss Wallace as a mere virtuoso of empty postmodernist trickery. Those tricks are there, but in 'Oblivion' they are finessed and incorporated rather than blazoned, and the real demands Wallace makes are emotional rather than purely formal.

Readers who are prepared to make the effort of attention that it demands will find this book worth the investment.

How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities
How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities
by John Cassidy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Fine overview of the ongoing crisis of free-market ideology, 8 July 2011
In 'How Markets Fail' John Cassidy (a former Business Editor of the Sunday Times and a business journalist of long standing) considers the crisis of 2007-9 and its roots in the history and theory of economics. Briefly, Cassidy considers that the crisis was brought about by the dominance of free-market fundamentalist ideas that had become a de facto orthodoxy since the 1970s in government, in finance and in the business world alike.

Cassidy divides his book into three roughly equal sections. The first, 'Utopian Economics', exposes the extent to which free-market theories have become an ideology that departs from observed reality - and how they have become imbricated with particular political positions in a way that makes rational analysis and criticism both difficult and unlikely to be influential. The second section, 'Reality-Based Economics', recounts the much less widely advertised history of opposition to free-market simplifications and abstractions and the extent to which that ideology simply ignored the irrational elements of economic behaviour. The third section, 'The Great Crunch' covers the crisis itself, relating the progress of events to the points covered in the first two sections. A concluding chapter - originally written in 2009 - then offers Cassidy's thoughts on what has been learned. This is extended by an Afterword, which appears to have been added to the paperback edition of this book, and brings the story up to the middle of 2010.

Cassidy is a fluent writer, and the book is aimed at the intelligent general reader with no specialist knowledge. 'How Markets Fail' is free from obvious bias (indeed, most of the obvious villains of the tale do a fine job of condemning themselves out of their own mouths). As a one-volume introduction to the subject it can scarcely be bettered, though the interested reader may feel inclined to supplement his or her knowledge in detail by reading any of a number of other excellent studies that have emerged in the last two years - for example, Nouriel Roubini's 'Crisis Economics', John Quiggin's 'Zombie Economics' and Ha-Joon Chang's '23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism'.

As Cassidy's Conclusion and Afterword make clear, it is far from certain that the necessary lessons from the crisis have been learned at the highest levels of government. But it is now inexcusable for anyone to be ignorant of these matters. Cassidy's book is a public service as well as a fine read.

World War Z
World War Z
by Max Brooks
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A superior example of the zombie thriller, 28 Jun 2011
This review is from: World War Z (Paperback)
What Max Brooks has done in 'World War Z' is to find an original way of telling a story that has become a modern cliché in less talented hands - the zombie apocalypse. The secret is simple: tell it absolutely straight, and as an oral history of a war by the surviving participants, in the style of Mark Baker's excellent nonfiction 'Nam: The Vietnam War in the Words of the Men and Women Who Fought There'.

Brooks is a better writer than one would expect in this genre. He has to mimic the voices and establish credible personalities for many characters from all parts of the world, both sexes, civilian and military, heroic and villainous. He manages this with great skill. To this ability he marries a wealth of credible research-based speculation about how the human community would deal with a real-life outbreak of relentlessly hostile, carnivorous living dead.

It's fair to say that the result is a surprisingly engrossing read: a blend of horror, apocalyptic fantasy, future history and the medical thriller. The fact that each account is given only a few pages keeps the narrative moving and the angle of view changing. Continuity comes in the form of the interviewer who assembles these individual testimonies into a mosaic, the larger picture. Fans will recognise the unavoidable moments of dependence on Romero and others, but Brooks is intelligent enough to steer away towards his own material.

The reader is only asked to accept the initial premise - the possibility of the reanimated dead - on trust: everything else follows logically, and all too plausibly, from Brooks' opening chapter. In fact the scenario that the author depicts might prove to be closer to reality than we would like to acknowledge in an age that fears the emergence of a drug-resistant plague.

Recommended for any fan of the genre, and for any less committed reader who wants to try a superior example.

Rivers of London
Rivers of London
by Ben Aaronovitch
Edition: Hardcover

34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Engaging start to a new urban fantasy series, 27 Jun 2011
This review is from: Rivers of London (Hardcover)
Ben Aaronovitch is a successful screenwriter who has worked mainly in the fantasy and science fiction genres. 'Rivers of London' is the first novel in the series of the same name. It's probably best described as urban fantasy.

The city in question is London, and the fantasy element arises in the intersection of the modern, gritty London we all know and another, more shadowy city in which magic is an alternative form of knowledge and the contemporary streets overlie deep strata of history, legend and myth and hidden circuits of power. Aaronovitch brings these threads together in the story of a young mixed-race constable in the Metropolitan Police who must somehow operate in both worlds to solve mysteries and crimes with a supernatural element.

Aaronovitch's style will be immediately familiar to anyone who has followed British fantasy writing over the last decade. More sophisticated in the writing than J. K. Rowling, 'Rivers of London' still has a rather young-adult feel when compared to the best writers who have taken London as a rich hunting ground - I'm thinking here of Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd in particular. Perhaps more pertinently, I also found it less interesting than the work of China Miéville and Neil Gaiman.

As one might expect from a novelist with Aaronovitch's professional pedigree, there are few of the typical first-novel problems. The book is carefully plotted and maintains interest throughout. Given the nature of the story, which moves fluidly between the late eighteenth century and the present day, there is a lot of research-based detail. This is woven into the texture of the narrative in a reasonably unobtrusive manner, but it's fair to say that it's Aaronovitch's fellow Londoners who are most likely to appreciate it. This London is buzzing, theatrical, multi-ethnic and relentlessly up-to-the-moment, but I felt that Aaronovitch's heart lay more in its past. There is a certain flatness in the depictions of the present-day city, as though a new set of clichés familar from recent television had supplanted the old 'cheeky Cockneys, friendly bobbies' stereotype.

'Rivers of London' is a pleasant, engaging read from a writer who promises better. Fans of modern fantasy will certainly enjoy it. It will be interesting to see how the series develops.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 20, 2013 8:49 AM GMT

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