[See also previous and subsequent posts in this series.]
BASKET CASE — CARL HIAASEN
Can’t remember too much about this one: I seem to remember it involves the decline of journalism and the transformation of newspapers into advert mills, but that’s just the backdrop. The actual plot has slipped away since I read it. I do remember that I enjoyed it, though, so make of that what you will.
SKINNY DIP — CARL HIAASEN
Hiaasen again, this time with the story of a woman whose husband pushes her over the edge while on a cruise, giving himself plenty of alibis so no-one will suspect him of her murder, only to have the plans go awry when she turns up alive and recovered from her ordeal in the open ocean. As usual, there’s a cast of auxiliary characters, with varying degrees of wackiness, and an undertone of ecological consciousness.
STAR WARS — GEORGE LUCAS
I bought this not so much with the intention of reading it, but just for the nostalgia of owning it, with its distinctive cover resonating back to my earliest Star Wars experiences in 1977, and it’s super-familiar set of colour screencaps in the middle of the book.
The actual reading was a bit of a slog, to be honest: I know all the plot beats so well that there was essentially no surprise. The exceptions were the few places where backstory that had been cut from the film remained in the text — for example, Luke’s friendship with Biggs on Tattooine. The outstanding example of this is in the preface, where the galactic emperor is portrayed very differently from the version we would come to know:
Aided and abetted by restless, power-hungry individuals within the government, and the massive organs of commerce, the ambitious Senator Palpatine caused himself to be elected President of the Republic. He promised to reunite the disaffected among the people and to restore the remembered glory of the Republic. Once secure in office he declared himself Emperor, shutting himself away from the populace. Soon he was controlled by the very assistants and boot-lickers he had appointed to high office, and the cries of the people for justice did not reach his ears.”
It’s interesting to see an early version of something we’ve come to know inside out.
BLINK — MALCOLM GLADWELL
Having read The Tipping Point and Blink, I am still not completely sure what to make of Gladwell. Each individual chapter of either book is fascinating; but in both cases they build to … well, nothing really. Blink is couched as though it’s building a big, over-arching case, but it really isn’t. It’s just a sequence of chapters, each of them about some random interesting thing that caught Gladwell’s eye, and which he writes engagingly about. And these chapters are shoehorned into service as supporting evidence for a hypothesis that they mostly don’t support or really even have any bearing on.
I’m left with the impression that Gladwell wants us to think his work is more important than it is: that he is synthesising big ideas, when in fact he is merely a very good journalist — which of course is nothing to sniff at. The book reads like a collection of magazine articles. It’s still very well worth reading, but I fear it will be all too easy for careless readers to come away from it feeling as though they’ve learned something profound, when they really haven’t.
A BOOK FOR HER — BRIDGET CHRISTIE
Christie would no doubt hate to be introduced as such, but she is Stewart Lee‘s wife, and honestly that is what first interested me in her work. But that work stands on its own merits — I wouldn’t have driven up to Birmingham to see her live otherwise — and she presents a unique brand of explicitly feminist stand-up. It works very well live, but perhaps doesn’t come across quite so strongly in book form, where the nuances of her delivery are lost. Christie’s stock in trade is delivery that is simultaneously indignant at male privilege and self-mocking. When that second note is absent — and it’s hard to reproduce in the written word — the result can become somewhat hectoring.
It’s still well worth reading: I both laughed and learned, and you can’t ask much more than that from a book. But if you have choose between reading A Book for Her or seeing Christie live, go for the live performance.
AFRICAN ADVENTURE — WILLARD PRICE
Willard Price wrote about a dozen of his wildlife Adventure books, which I absolutely loved as a kid and re-read over and over, borrowing the same books repeatedly from our town library. I remember that my little brother Gerard found the first one for me: knowing I was crazy about King Kong, he picked up Gorilla Adventure for me one week; and then I was hooked.
Mostly written in the 50s and 60s, all the books follow a similar pattern. Brothers Hal and Roger Hunt are on expeditions to catch animals for their father’s business, which sells them on to zoos and circuses. As they’re going about their business, an ill-intentioned interloper appears — a smuggler, a pirate, or similar — who tries to gain the boys’ trust, usually successfully. Betrayal ensues, but the boys find a way to win out, and the animals are shipped off home to Long Island. Along the way, the books are sprinkled with natural history information, often disguised as lectures that the older Hal gives his younger brother.
It would be easy to pick holes in these books. Some of their colonial attitudes have not worn well (“Joro was easily as good as any white man”), some of the natural history “facts” are myths, and the stories really are a bit cookie-cutter. But I can forgive them all of that because they are just fine, exciting adventures and they are full of fascinating animals. Price himself wrote:
My aim in writing the Adventure series for young people was to lead them to read by making reading exciting and full of adventure. At the same time I want to inspire an interest in wild animals and their behavior.
For me, at least, he succeeded wildly.
African Adventure is probably among the better in the series: there are plenty of fascinating animals to be had (leopards, hippos, baboons), an amusing comedy-relief character (“Colonel” Biggs, who portrays himself as a safari expert but lacks both knowledge and courage) and a more than usually deadly threat (the Leopard Society, which was more or less real.) Lots of fun.
THINKING, FAST AND SLOW — DANIEL KAHNEMAN
This is the book that rendered Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink trivial for me. Kahneman’s book is long and not particularly easy, so I started it some time before Blink and finished it some time after — and against this backdrop, the relatively facile nature of Gladwell’s book was all too apparent. Thinking, Fast and Slow is essentially a summary and synthesis of all the work Kahneman did with his research partner Amos Tversky over multiple decades, culminating in the 2002 Nobel Prize for Economics. It is hefty — but absolutely fascinating.
Kahneman’s field is Behavioural Economics. The starting assumption of classic economics is that individuals are selfish and rational. Because this assumption is untrue, classic economics can make wildly incorrect predictions. Kahneman and Tversky set out to investigate the ways in which individuals behave irrationally, in the hope that a better understanding of this would enable better economic models of populations. They did this with numerous elegant experiments in which they offered participants various choices and noted how the outcomes deviated from what an economist would consider “rational”. For example, if I offer you a coin-toss where you win £10 on heads and lose £9 on tails, you would be rational to accept it because the expected value of the bet is that you win 50p. But many people will choose not to take the bet.
Kahneman’s experiments uncover some very strange tendencies. Here is an experiment in the same spirit as Kahneman’s (though I don’t recall whether he did exactly this). Members of Group A are given £10, then offered the 50/50 win-£10-or-lose-£9 gamble — and most declined the gamble and kept their £10. Members of group A are offered a choice between being given £10 or getting either £1 or £20 on the toss of a coin — and most chose the gamble. Now clearly both groups are being offered exactly the same thing; but they way the offer is framed makes a huge difference to people’s risk tolerance.
Thinking, Fast and Slow is full of this kind of surprising result, all of it discussed with wit and erudition. I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone who is interesting in what makes people tick, or how societies function.
HOW TO LIE WITH STATISTICS — DARELL HUFF
An old classic (written in 1954) on recognising when statistics are being presented in a misleading way, such as when a correlation is presented as a causation. No surprises here, but it’s worth a quick read just to be reminded of the various common tactics.
(While I’m on the subject, I must link to Spurious Correlations — a wonderful site that is both amusing and instructive.)
C. S. LEWIS: A LIFE INSPIRED — CHRISTOPHER GORDON
A redundant re-tread of the life of C. S. Lewis, based heavily on Lewis’s own partial biography Surprised By Joy. You’d do better to re-read that, instead, or one of the better recognised biographies such as George Sayer’s Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis.