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Life After Life
Life After Life
by Kate Atkinson
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

4.0 out of 5 stars always interesting and challenging, not always emotionally engaging, 16 April 2014
This review is from: Life After Life (Paperback)
Certainly a remarkable book, which comprises many short narratives each telling us how the central character's life might have developed, and 'leading' to one in which she gets her life 'right' and prevents the Holocaust (as is clear from the first couple of pages of the novel). It was, for me, a sort of mix between Groundhog Day, the different and 'open' narratives at the end of The French Lieutenant's Woman and the meditations on the role of chance in life that figure in the novels of Paul Auster.

A challenging and always interesting reading experience, then. But by the same token, I did not find it reached out to me emotionally in the same way as a single straightforward narrative of these times (First World War, Asiatic Flu, Second World War, Six Days War) or a single narrative of the life of Ursula (had the narrative in which she survives all the potential events that could have ended her life early or ruined it in some way been the only one) might have done.

Still clearly an experience not to be missed.


Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly
Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly
by John Kay
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

3.0 out of 5 stars 21 elegant and erudite essays - but they didn't change my view of how the world works, 16 April 2014
Kay's thesis is that obliquity is an important concept. We achieve some of our goals obliquely (e.g. happiness). We reason obliquely (businesses don't derive their medium and low level actions from a high level goal of 'maximising profit' and if they do, they are generally in trouble). So it's best to shape the world, or our world, as we go, accepting that there are many incommensurable values out there, and not trying to replay cities or forests or whatever it may be from first principles because the likelihood is that we will be missing something important if we go about things that way. This is illustrated by a very wide range of examples, drawn occasionally from personal experience (using the Tube to get from Paddington to Hyde Park when walking would be quicker) but generally from a wide and well digested range of reading.

I was a little disappointed by the experience in reading this, despite the elegance of the writing and the extent of the reading list Kay has mastered. I felt it did not add a great deal to my knowledge of how the world works. It always seemed to be on the verge of this, but only tipped over into being really useful in his defence of 'muddling through' as a way of taking decisions (at least for me!)

Kay starts the book by saying he used to sell economic models and then realised that his clients used them to justify decisions, not to take them. And indeed that he used them in the same way himself. One book he may not have read, but that might offer a strong explanation of this is Jonathan Haidt's book The Right Mind. Haidt suggests that we are all the time with our conscious minds acting like a lawyer, looking for the best justification of what we have done. But that there is another whole system in the human being that actually takes the decisions….Kay sort of hints at this idea - but does not develop it. Haidt does. That is probably because Kay is not an experimental psychologist...


Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics
Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics
by Michael Ignatieff
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 18.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars strongly recommended for anyone interested in politics..., 9 April 2014
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The best books of political theory are written by people who have lost in politics - or never got started, despite trying - Michael Ignatieff writes as he records how he tried to cheer himself up after losing a general election in Canada as leader of the Liberal Party, and losing half his seats.

This book is his own contribution to the subject written in retirement from the fray. It succeeds in both telling a riveting story (for those of us who know almost nothing about Canadian politics, anyway) and offering interesting reflections at every stage along the way - on the role of luck (who knew how soon he'd be contesting a seat and then for leadership of his party when he first returned to Canada) on the nature of political discourse (and the importance of 'standing'), and the nature of politics (not much practised in Parliament, but very much elsewhere in the political system as everyday compromises are worked out) and the relation to the voter (in his view, they are judging who they can trust and who will be 'in it for them'). Also he explains why he lost - reading between the lines a little, it would seem that he misjudged his opportunities in 2009 making both tactical and strategic errors, and also misjudged his Conservative opponent (who behaved in ways Ignatieff would not think of behaving - and maybe that's why he lost). He also of course probably misjudged the electorate at large.

Despite it all, Ignatieff remains a believer in democratic politics - and also makes a strong case for the political life, even as practised in contemporary Canada. This may not, in fact be all that different from politics as practised in the past - I've been reading The American Civil War collection in the Library of America series, and it's clear that there were serious efforts to deny 'standing' to Abraham Lincoln's running mate very akin to the 'birther' attempts to deny 'standing' to Barack Obama. We are luck that war as a continuation of politics is not on the cards today (at least so far) as it was in 19th century USA.

Strongly recommended for anyone interested in politics.


The Slow Fix: Lasting Solutions in a Fast-Moving World
The Slow Fix: Lasting Solutions in a Fast-Moving World
by Carl Honore
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Not for me..., 6 April 2014
I would very much like to believe that a 'slow fix' is often the answer both to personal problems and to social policy and workplace conundrums.

This book reads fluently but did not convince me. There is no discussion of the relative merits of quick and slow fixes. Rather it gives a series of examples of quick fixes arranged by theme. Some are well known. Many are not - at least to me. There is rarely any discussion of those responsible for slow fixes found the time to operate or WHY slowness was good. For example one theme is owning up to mistakes and learning from them...but we all like to think we are taking good decisions almost all the time and to blame others when things go wrong: the interesting question is how to overcome this, I think.

One example in the last chapter is Japan bombing Pearl Harbour. A quick fix and a would be silver bullet. A mistake in the event. But was there a slow fix available to Japan to achieve its military goals? I really don't know - but this is the territory I could wish the book to have explored...


I Capture The Castle (Vintage Classics)
I Capture The Castle (Vintage Classics)
by Dodie Smith
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

4.0 out of 5 stars very enjoyable, 3 April 2014
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'Consciously naive' is a description one of the characters uses of the narrator of this novel, but 'unconsciously naive' and 'completely charming' would be closer to the mark. The first part of the novel, dealing with two sisters in a run-down caster in East Anglia, their schoolboy brother, their rather with writer's block and their stepmother who is an artist's model, who can of course only work as an artist's model in London, is delightful, as American visitors arrive who own the freehold of the castle which is on a very long-term lease. The second part, which deals with unrequited love, the attractions of religion, and modernist literature among other things, I enjoyed a little less - but I still enjoyed it a good deal. So I would strongly recommend this to others.


Tout Maigret, tome II
Tout Maigret, tome II
by Georges Simenon
Edition: Paperback
Price: 19.70

5.0 out of 5 stars excellent, 29 Mar 2014
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This review is from: Tout Maigret, tome II (Paperback)
9 short novels featuring Inspector Maigret, written between July 1931 and March 1932 - 917 pages in this omnibus edition.

The book itself is quite heavy but is otherwise of the normal dimensions of paperback fiction (a welcome surprise) and clearly represents excellent value.

Turning to the novels, what's remarkable is how different they are from each other in setting and atmosphere. They range from a fishing village in Southern France through teenagers in Liege to a cheap pleasure palace and its weekend visitors on the banks of the Seine, to the Place de Vosges where Simenon himself once lived, to a country estate and a fading aristocratic family, to a Flemish family living on the Belgian border with France, onto a town near the English Channel with a lock, and finally to Bergerac and a small town in the south of France.

Simenon reliably summons up a completely different set of people, atmospheres and places, and in each case Maigret gradually gets to grip with the families and familiars of the victims of murder and the general atmosphere of the place - somewhat in the manner of a family therapist! - but with a view to untangling the crime, which is invariably sufficiently engrossing to keep the reader guessing (this reader) but which always makes perfect sense when revealed.

And as others have commented on other volumes in this series, Simenon's French is not too challenging to read.


The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It: (Library of America #212)
The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It: (Library of America #212)
by Brooks Simpson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 19.98

3.0 out of 5 stars collection of historically important writings rather than consistently great journalism or literature, 28 Mar 2014
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This collection of contemporary writings by a very wide range of different hands taught me much that I did not know about the American Civil War. It's all expertly presented and annotated.

But it wasn't quite the equivalent of the Library of America volumes containing journalism about the Second World War or the Vietnam War. Rather, much of the volume is about the preamble to war - what was the justification for Secession by the South (really none) and what prompted it (Abraham Lincoln's election, but as even Southern writers agree, that wasn't a sufficient reason for rebellion). And there is still much of primarily historical rather than literary interest as the war gets underway - various secession declarations and addresses to the Southern and Northern congresses.

What stood out for me was Walt Whitman's account of the aftermath in human terms of the battle of Bull Run; an account of life in Richmond as the blockade of the South starts to impact on the prices of common goods such as coffee and tea; Lincoln's first inaugural address (but not some of his later speeches); Frederick Douglass' pleas for a war on slavery (which this isn't at first - Lincoln has taken great care to make sure that the South starts hostilities at Fort Sumter and it is a war about preserving the Union); and letters from Ulysses Grant saying the only way it should be a war about slavery is if this is the only way to preserve the Union. And then there are the Southern justifications of slavery including one speech explaining that it was the 'corner stone' of the Southern way of life…

So actually there is much of interest here - but also many pieces that after a while I skimmed rather than read with great attention - and overall it was just a bit less gripping as a reading experience than I had hoped.


You Don't Love Me Yet
You Don't Love Me Yet
by Jonathan Lethem
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.99

2.0 out of 5 stars I lost interest..., 20 Mar 2014
This review is from: You Don't Love Me Yet (Paperback)
The travails of a band just starting out and the love life of the bass player promised something rather different from the normal run of fiction. And it started well, with the lead singer's abduction of a kangaroo from a zoo being an early highlight and the meeting between Lucinda the bass player and 'the complainer' who threatens to overturn her life with happiness and drive the band to new heights…But then somehow I found that I seemed to lose interest as I moved into the second half of the text, and instead of seeming quirky it just seemed flat...


Music & Silence
Music & Silence
by Rose Tremain
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars 17th century Denmark re-imagined, 17 Mar 2014
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This review is from: Music & Silence (Paperback)
I came to this after reading Restoration and Merivel and was hoping for more of the same. In many ways this is just what this novel delivered - historical re-imagination, a plethora of interesting events on a large canvas, and one character - in this case the Almost Queen Kristen - actually a little reminiscent of Merivel in terms of human failings (though without his generosity of spirit). And I learned a great deal about Danish history that I did not know. That said, I did not find this quite as engaging as the other two novels - perhaps it is the lack of a single central consciousness in this case or perhaps I just did not sympathise enough with Kristen, Peter Clare, Emilia, and so on....


Stuart: A Life Backwards
Stuart: A Life Backwards
by Alexander Masters
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars impressive and thought provoking study of a 'chaotic' life, 13 Mar 2014
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This is a very impressive book - a thought provoking study of a 'chaotic' life that succeeds in explaining what it's like to lead a chaotic life, and also, for Stuart Shorter, the circumstances that led to his chaotic life. A very unusual undertaking then, and the decision to write the book backwards (though it's interspersed with 'forwards' discussions between the author and Stuart about the book and their ongoing friendship) is inspired - it give you first a sense of what Stuart is like, and then gradually reveals what he has been like, and why, in the past.

The background to the book is given by the prosecution and jailing of the head and deputy head of a homeless shelter in Cambridge for allowing drug dealing on their premises. The author ran the campaign for their release (achieved after 7 months of emprisonment) and Stuart was clearly a start turn as part of the supporting team.

The author comes across as very likeable and broad-minded, seeing both sides of most questions - though perhaps just a little over inclined to sympathise with Stuart about the iniquities of 'the system' that he has fought against all his life. But then actually he did have plenty to fight against - and the 'system' did owe him a much better shot at his life.

I would very strongly recommend this.


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