What I’ve been reading lately, part 37

High Society — Ben Elton

Elton doing what he does best, colliding a cast of somewhat stereotypical characters (the corrupt politician, the drugged-out singing star, the teenage runaway) and working with the sparks that fly — and doing so with rather more craftsmanship than he is often credited with.

This time, the central concept is the use of drugs in contemporary Britain — the contrast between the glamourous world of cocaine-sniffing pop stars and the reality of life on drugs for people on the street. Yes, Elton can get a bit preachy; yes, some of his plot twists are a bit much to swallow; but (and this counts for a lot) he is never ever boring. I’ve never read an Elton novel and not enjoyed it.

Cat Among the Pigeons — Agatha Christie

Just as the Harry Potter books gain an intensity from the liberating constraint of taking place almost entirely in a school, so does Cat Among the Pigeons, for my money among the better of the Christie murder mysteries. The venue this time is Meadowbank, an extremely exclusive private school for girls, which is a roaring success at the time of the story’s opening, but whose popularity starts to decline as the dead bodies mount up. Poirot turns up near the end to explain everything, but arguably the best part of the book is earlier, in which compelling characters feel the rising tension.

Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy — Tim Harford

I’ve mentioned Harford quite a few times on this blog, because his book The Undercover Economist [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk] was such an eye-opener for me when I read it a few years ago. So I was keen to read this book based on his recent radio series of the same name. As expected it was fascinating: some of the 50 things are obvious, like the plough, paper money and barcodes. Others much less so, with hidden implications, such as the way the gramophone hugely widened the wealth gap between the most popular musicians and the rest.

But in the end I found the book a bit unsatisfying because there just wasn’t space in most of the 50 chapters to go into the kind of depth that would give real generalisable insights of the kind that lead to a deeper understanding. It’s clesr that Harford understands each of his subjects much more deeply than he had space to expound. In retrospect, I would much rather have read twenty things, with each chapter two or three times as long, and understood more of the implications of those things.

Lost for Words — John Humphreys

Over the years I have accumulated quite a few books about language, and I had fond memories of this as one of the best. Re-reading it was deeply disappointing: it now reads largely like a catalogue of personal foibles, leavened with some impotent raging against political-correctness-gone-mad, rather than the insightful analysis I had remembered. I won’t be returning to this one, and so it joins the ongoing purge of books from our house.

Sense and Sensibility — Jane Austen

Having recently re-watched two excellent adaptations of Jane Austen’s first published novel (the 1995 film with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, and the 2008 BBC mini-series), I went back and re-read the novel.

What I had forgotten about it is how laugh-out-loud funny it is. At this early stage of her career, Austen is much more straighforwardly mean about her more ridiculous characters, and it’s hard not to enjoy her cattiness: for example, “Lady Middleton was more agreeable than her mother only in being more silent”. And this observation on mothers (again regarding Lady Middleton):

Fortunately for those who pay their court through such foibles, a fond mother, though, in pursuit of praise for her children, the most rapacious of human beings, is likewise the most credulous; her demands are exorbitant; but she will swallow any thing

In fact, let’s give Lady Middleton one more outing:

As it was impossible however now to prevent their coming, Lady Middleton resigned herself to the idea of it, with all the philosophy of a well bred woman, contenting herself with merely giving her husband a gentle reprimand on the subject five or six times every day.

Austen is, I think, a genuinely brilliant writer, offering a rare combination of elegance with ease of reading, and of spiky social observation with heartfelt emotion. And right out of the gate, her first novel showcases all of that.

So You Think You Know All About Football — Jonno Turner

A classic “toilet book“, this. A workmanlike compilation of interesting and surprising facts about (mostly English) football, many of them recycled in the form of quiz questions at the end of each chapter. It passed the time painlessly enough, but there is nothing particularly distinctive or insightful about it.

Wishful Drinking — Carrie Fisher

Fisher has had a fascinating and at times awful life. The bare bones are well known: born to two Hollywood A-listers (Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds), plucked from semi-obscurity at 19 to become one of the three leads in one of the most iconic movies ever (Princess Leia in Star Wars), married to one of the greatest singer-songwriters in history (Paul Simon), messily divorced, alcoholic, drug-addicted, in and out of therapy and rehab, had a friend die while sleeping next to her, underwent electro-convulsive therapy.

She goes into all of this and more in a lamentably short memoir based on her touring one-woman show of the same name. It was fascinating to read — who knew that Graceland and She Moves On were about her? — I just wish there was more of it. Much is skimmed over at a speed that was no doubt appropriate in a two-hour stage-show, but which leaves more questions than answers in a book. Well worth reading, but there was space for much more.

Lethal White — Robert Galbraith

The fourth in J. K .Rowling’s pseudonymous series about the private detective Cormoran Strike and his sidekick Robin Ellaway, and also perhaps the best. It feels to me that Rowling has upped her games as a prose stylist; but, crucially, she has done it without compromising any of the roller-coaster quality of her constantly compelling plotting. I care about the key characters, I am interested in all the supporting cast, and most of all I am fascinated by the web of crimes past and present. I devoured this in long sessions, and I’m keen for more.

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