30 August, 2007

Recommendations wanted

Can anyone recommend a good basic book about economics? I realised during the stock market wobble a couple of weeks ago how little I know about the way the economy works. The other recommendation I'd like is a good history of nineteenth century France. All suggestions gratefully received.

29 August, 2007

Do you know...

...I don't think there's one single book on this list of the Observer's top ten must-reads of the autumn that I actually want to read. Book review sections in newspapers make me tired.

Catching up

I haven't been keeping up with the books I've read recently so here's a quick catch up post.

Two short books of funny essays by David Sedaris, on the recommendation, ages ago, of my friend P. Me talk pretty one day and Dress your family in corduroy and denim were light, quick reads, but very enjoyable: I like things about large eccentric families and his essays about living in France were very funny and not patronising. [47] [48]

Ahdaf Soueif's Mezzaterra, a collection of essays and journalism mostly about the Middle East, was also enjoyable and interesting: I enjoyed her novels The map of love and In the eye of the sun, and she's very interesting on day-to-day life in Egypt. Her journalism about Palestine was published in the Guardian a few years ago. [49]

Alas poor Darwin, a collection of essays by different people criticising different aspects of evolutionary psychology. This was excellent, examining the problems with the idea that most aspects of human mental behaviour are the products of natural selection, from a variety of different viewpoints: the book was edited by Steven and Hilary Rose, respectively a biologist and a sociologist, and included Stephen Jay Gould on the faults with ultra-Darwinism and Mary Midgley on the problems with Dawkins's selfish gene and the philosophical meanings drawn from this by Daniel Dennett. Very interesting indeed, and a good retort to a lot of the ridiculous stories about evolutionary adaptations that the newspapers print, like this recent Guardian story suggesting that women naturally prefer pink because as 'gatherers' they would have been looking out for red berries. [50]

14 August, 2007

...And the rest of my holiday reading

A weird little book by Amélie Nothomb, Acide sulfurique, which was a satirical novella based on the idea of a reality TV show showing a concentration camp. I liked Nothomb's previous weird little fable Robert des noms propres but this bothered me a lot. Nothomb has a cruel, whimsical imagination, which didn't trouble me so much as did her discourse about honour and dignity in the concentration camp. I can't help feeling that in the concentration camp, an insitution specifically designed to remove all humanity and dignity from people, debates about the morality of, for example, sleeping with a kapo in return for bread are redundant. I also find the juxtaposition of the transcendently beautiful, serene and dignified heroine Pannonique with the ugly kapo Zdena rather unpleasant: why should beauty be at all important? [46]

10 August, 2007

I read Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate on my holidays (incidentally, reading a lengthy novel about Stalingrad and the Holocaust while swanning around the Languedoc did make me think of this cartoon), and I was incredibly impressed. I had already read around half of it but had to start again in order to remember who everyone was.

This was a wonderful, enormous, human book: like War and Peace, it depicts a vast network of people connected by marriage and friendship, all affected by the Holocaust, the war, and Stalin's repression in the Soviet Union. The central character, Viktor Shtrum, is a Jewish physicist, working on nuclear reactions: after being denounced by his colleagues for expressing internationalist views on the importance of science, and when he is expecting imminent arrest and imprisonment, he receives a phone call from Stalin wishing him well with his work. With Stalin's awareness of the importance of nuclear physics Grossman gives us a small reminder of what the next horror of world history will be.

Viktor's mother Anna Semyonovna is a Jew living in the Ukraine who is deported to the death camps. Her letter to her son, written with a clear awareness of her own fate, is one of the most moving and beautiful pieces in the book. I also liked the way Grossman discusses the differences between Stalin and Hitler's repression: it's a monstrous concentration camp Kommandant who equates the two systems, and other reviewers have suggested that this is Grossman's view as well, but I thought the emphasis on Stalin's caprice - in Viktor's case, benevolent caprice - suggested that the oppression in the two countries was more systemic in Fascist Germany but a terrible result of one man's ultimate power in the USSR (although that is too simplistic a way of putting it: who knows whether the Third Reich could have continued after Hitler's death? The Soviet Union's repression didn't end with Stalin's.). [45]

I must now read A writer at war: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945, which is a collection of Grossman's notebooks and articles from when he was a war correspondent. Anthony Beevor used them in his book Berlin: the downfall which I wrote about here, and I though his observations were wonderful. One of the wonderful things aboiuth Life and fate was how real the scenes of battle and the concentration camps were: it seems that Grossman was at the battle of Stalingrad and the liberation of Auschwitz, and also that many of the soldiers and incidents he describes in Life and fate come from real life and are written about in his diaries of the time.

Harry Potter again

I read the last Harry Potter, which I'm not going to go on about because I've already complained about HP at length here. It was workmanlike enough, tied up a few loose ends, and didn't need an editor as much as the previous two books had. [44]

The most interesting thing, though, was that Southwark libraries had loads of copies available on the day of publication - when the fifth book was published, the libraries in Newham where I lived at the time were booked up weeks in advance with requests for copies. Is this because competitive discounting means that people don't need to bother with the libraries any more because a new copy of the book to own will only cost a fiver? Or do people assume that the book is so popular that it won't be available in the library?