I’ve been getting a little obsessed with the New Yorker recently, which is probably only a good thing if you have a chic apartment overlooking Central Park and plenty of free time to spend looking out of your window pondering the fate of the world. It really is a chasteningly urbane, well-written magazine, though, and packs its pages with articles more thoroughly researched than most of the slim volumes I receive for review. I especially enjoyed Todd Oppenheimer’s report on the world of master bladesmith Bob Kramer, in which the author laps the civilised world several times in order to tell the inside story of the world’s leading artisan knife-makers and the mysteries of their craft. It’s a perfect example of how to slide vast amounts of careful research into a reader’s consciousness without once being boring or condescending, and I unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone who has ever cut anything in their life, or plans to in the future.
If you rent a DVD online, adverts for car-hire firms are much more likely to pop up if you browse romantic comedies than thrillers. This, amongst other nuggets, I learned from reading The Numerati by journalist Stephen Baker, an enjoyable new book examining the way in which maths whizzes are now put to work looking for patterns and correlations between different spending patterns. Advances in statistics and computing, when combined with the need of retailers to eke out margins in tightly competitive markets, have seen ever greater reliance on this new class of quant nerds. In Britain, for instance, similar strides have been made between the first introduction of supermarket reward card scheme in the late 1990s—when the companies were overwhelmed with data, and ultimately couldn’t make head or tail of it—and those of today, in which improved analytical capabilities allow Tesco et al to understand our behaviours.
Ultimately, the book claims, their aim may be less to gain new customers than to find a way of excluding those who are adept at spotting bargains. And the DVDs? The stats fiends discovered that romantic comedies, often set in similarly romantic locations, inspire their viewers to go on a weekend breaks, renting cars in the process. Thriller viewers, on the other hand, stay home.
Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter opens with one of the most inviting sentences I’ve ever come across: “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” What follows is uneven, but nonetheless punctuated with moments of brilliance, especially impressive given McCullers was only 23 when the book was first published. Set in a small, poor town in the deep south during the 1930s, it’s an almost gothic tale of frustrated hope—of a restless young girl desperate to grow up, an angry black doctor despairing of the inequality he sees all around him, the cynical town drunk and the quiet cafe owner who watches the world go by. And then there’s John Singer, the lonely, gaunt, deaf-mute to whom all of these people pour their hearts out, convinced he is the only person in the world who understands them.Even though this is the first of her books I have read, I was left with the uncanny impression that I’d come across much more of her work before, but in fact this is probably because her influence is clear in the work of a number of American greats who followed her—among them Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal—(the latter who bestowed a characteristically backhanded compliment: “her work is one of the few satisfying achievements of our second-rate culture.”)
I’ve recently finished Jonathan Coe’s novel What a Carve Up! and I was happy to discover (long after many others) a thoroughly enjoyable work of modern satire. Coe covers the political landscape of the 1980s with obvious ire for the policies and reforms of the Thatcher government. It’s particularly poignant at a time of economic crisis and state-owned media rows. Barely concealed hatred for certain figures of the time personalise the novel further. But it’s the portrait of the central character, author Michael Owen, that makes this such a great read; his world is reflective, sombre, detached and occasionally very funny. Alas, the end did not live up to the earlier chapters but I was not too disappointed—the journey is so often better than the destination.
I’d also recommend Learning and Practicing Econometrics by Griffiths, Hill & Judge. I implore anyone who has the challenge of understanding and manipulating multiple linear regression models to give this book a view. Solid examples are backed up by clear explanations of what one is doing and why they are doing it. There are decent appendices on matrices and matrix algebra and plenty of exam style questions. Enjoy!
On the recommendation of my colleague Mary, I have just finished reading Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. Unlike Mary, I didn’t like it at all. Morrison’s writing is unlike anything I’ve ever read, and the novelty of this is somewhat fresh and appealing. Some of her phrases made me put the book down to ponder over them—no mean feat. But the novelty wore off quickly. This was my first Toni Morrison book and perhaps I didn’t start with the right one. But I’ll admit I found it a difficult read. I found it almost impossible to relate to any of the characters, and she skips so swiftly and lightly through them—an entire host of young plantation females, from Lina, to Sorrow to Florens to Mistress—that I can barely distinguish between them either. Thus it is with great relief that I finished and started Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises. The first two words of the book are “Robert Cohn” followed immediately by a small biographical portrait. I know exactly who he is, where he is and why he is. Thank God for Hemingway.
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