Old School

First, a brief questionnaire to assess your eligibility for this book:

1. Do you have a wickedly dry and deadpan sense of humour?

2. Do you appreciate gentle, even whimsical satire?

3. Are you fond of British novels from the 1930s?

If the answer to two or more of the above questions is yes, then congratulations, you may proceed to the review!

Because seriously, this is a novel that will only work with the right sense of humour. If you like to take your fiction at face value, if you enjoy melodrama and gutsy emotions, then you will be left bewildered and somewhat out of sorts. If, like me, you have a deep fondness for slightly daft, old-fashioned comedy set in grand educational insitutions, you will love it.

penelopeThe eponymous heroine of Rebecca Harrington’s debut novel is a freshman embarking on her Harvard career. She leaves behind her (as far behind as she can force her to go) a mother who is full of good advice about meeting people, being normal and eschewing her favourite topics, like confessing she used a car seat until fourth grade. For Penelope is an original, an awkward young woman who does not fit neatly into the ideology of the young, though she wishes fervently that she could. Penelope is committed to the path of least resistance, and it’s wishful thinking that leads her to believe it will eventually join up with the superhighway of life. She’s a nice person! She means no harm, ever! And yet she is disappointed to discover that ready agreement with everything that is said to her does not win her friends and influence people.

The people around her, however, are not exactly easy to win over. Her room mates are Emma, a rocket-fuelled over-achiever with a starry social life and a medal in emotional manipulation, and Lan, a genius misogenist who only likes her illegally-kept cat, Raymond (Penelope is allergic). Upstairs lives Ted, an eager to please young man with a disconcerting fringe that makes him look (not in a good way) like a Roman centurion. It’s clear that Ted does like Penelope, but that Penelope instinctually senses they are too alike as uncertain misfits ever to risk being a couple. Penelope’s desires all tend towards the enigmatic Gustav, a student whose worldliness and impeccable pedigree impress her as much as his three-piece suits and his complete indifference to his studies. This makes him stand out in a community where exams are the principle topic of conversation: ‘Homework was like a North Star that everything turned to.’

If you’ve ever been to a sightly hysterical institute of learning, and failed to make friends or fit in, then there is much that will be utterly familiar about this novel. Harrington gently pokes fun at the obsessive-compulsive traits of dedicated students and their grandiose ambitions and opinions, whilst at the same time tapping in to the insecurities of teenagers the world over – the flailing about in search of an identity that constitutes socialising at that age. Harvard is mercilessly satirised, with the constant refrain rising from its ranks that here’s where you’ll have ‘the best conversations of your life’, which are of course never in evidence, and its lacklustre traditions, like the Harvard-Yale football game: ‘The crowd was generally old and clad in fur coats. There were current students at the game too, but they seemed to be a constantly fluctuating, less vocal maroon number, like a small, sad, consumptive sister to the robust alumni of yore.’

Not a lot happens. Penelope scrapes through her classes, fails to make lasting friends, gets involved in a hilariously turgid drama production and does not find true love. But it ain’t what she does, it’s the say that she does it. The narrative is littered with wonderful observations, like Penelope’s experience of the ‘feeling in her stomach that occurs when you realise that your time enjoying composure is rapidly coming to a close’, or the description of the football stadium that was ‘a late Victorian replica of the Coliseum that was both imposing and wholly devoid of irony.’ And I would have loved the book for one of the best lines I’ve read in a long time, when Penelope turns an ardent Gustav away from her door: ‘Suddenly Penelope could not remember why exactly she had said good-bye to him at the door. It had something to do with fear, but she hoped it would be mistaken for strategy.’

I thought this was a delight, a charming romp with an ascerbic edge and a taste for the absurd, and if that sounds a bit heterogeneous, well you’re right. Penelope does bring together the old and the new, the funny and the dreadful, the ditzy and the sharp. And if that’s your sense of humour, sit back and enjoy.

And if you enjoyed this book, you might want to consider a couple of other possibilities from Shiny New Books:

The Following Girls by Louise Levene, a brilliant novel set in a girls’ school in the 70s

The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson, in which a womanising professor is given a beating heart transplant with strange consequences. (I’ll be reviewing this myself in a few days time.)

The Lost Diary

Last week we renovated our study, and this involved moving the desk out for a while. We took the drawers out first and realised they were crammed full of stuff, just stuff, cards, notebooks, packs of paper, letters, folders… Definitely time for a clear out. It was nostalgic enough trawling through all the cards we’d been sent when our son was born (I couldn’t bear to throw them away), and brochures from the lycée where I lived and taught in France. And then we came upon the most extraordinary thing: a diary from 1993, the year we were married, and we had kept it alternately between the months of March and May. We neither of us had any recollection whatsoever of writing it.

Now when Marguerite Duras did something similar, publishing a diary she said she had found in the back of a wardrobe that she had no memory of writing, everyone coughed *publicitystunt* behind their hands. But this turns out to be unfair. I can honestly say it is possible to write a diary and forget all about it.

Naturally, we fell upon our former selves with avid curiosity. We had just become engaged and were hunting for a house to buy. I was working at Waterstones, the booksellers, whilst applying for an M.Phil and Mr Litlove had just begun shift work as a factory manager in Leicester. We were constantly in transit between our rented accommodation, our parents’ homes and the house we wanted. We were unbelievably young and untested, naïve and romantic in a way that we laughed at in our older, knowing incarnations, because it was so terribly poignant. Hope, it seems, gives you the strength to be vulnerable.

We sat over our lunch, reading bits out to each other.

‘Listen to this,’ I said to Mr Litlove. ‘”Sleep late, having strange dreams. Have my first, ‘Litlove my wife being annoying and nothing going right’ sort of dream. Is this preparing me for married life, or is it just to balance the wonderful times we are having together at the moment?”’

Mr Litlove instantly started crying out ‘Wake me up! Wake me up! I’m in the dream again!’

‘Ha, ha,’ I said, coldly. ‘How about this bit: “Didn’t get much done this afternoon. Think Litlove will be good for me in this respect.”’ I looked up at him. ‘What? What was that expression for?’

I moved onto a part of the diary I’d written, marvelling at an era when my handwriting was still legible. I’d been really nervous about the wedding, which in hindsight had been a deep anxiety about marriage and motherhood (which I presumed would be my fate) and all it entailed. I read: “The only solution is to keep busily organising as this can only reduce my worries. Mr L. thinks I’m being super-efficient when really I’m only trying to stay calm.”’

‘Nothing changes,’ commented Mr. Litlove

And in a weird way nothing had changed. Mr Litlove noted that I complained about feeling tired a lot even when I was 24. And he found several entries in which he’d looked forward to making furniture for our house. That really surprised us; it felt like the woodworking of the last few years had been a recent desire, sprung from nowhere. But then at the same time, everything had changed. We were not that couple anymore; we knew now what our future had been. There had been amazing experiences – I’d had my career at the university, we’d watched our son grow up, we were still together and in love after all that had happened. But we’d had to go through some excruciating times, too; the dark years dominated by my chronic fatigue, bitter disappointment with each other, financial worries, the unimaginable strain of early parenthood.

Adam Phillips wrote that ‘falling in love is the (sometimes necessary) prelude to a better but diminished – better because diminished – thing; a more realistic appreciation of oneself and the other person’. Never had those words struck me as more true: what reading the diary told me was how little we had known back then, about each other and about life. Now armed with hard-won knowledge, I was disillusioned in a good way. The happiness of back then had been so intense and so fragile; neither of us could believe in it. And rightly so – ordinary contentment is a smaller, harder thing, boiled down to its toughest consistency. It has no glister, but its dullness is reliably real. I wouldn’t swap it for the ecstasies of youth if you paid me.

We return to the diary every now and then, still fascinated by its alien oddness, the only proper sign of the past. It holds such poignancy for us. The last entry in it from Mr Litlove ends: ‘I feel very lucky to be me and here and now.’ And we shiver for him, almost forgetting the surprising truth, that he survived the hubris of good luck.

 

 

The Cuckoo’s Calling

CuckooCallingI really felt for J. K. Rowling when she was outed as the author of this, the first in a new crime series under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. She could have lived off the Harry Potter novels for the rest of her life, but her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, showed that she was keen to keep writing. The assumption of a pseudonym showed that she wanted some objective assessment of her work. As professional critics have made clear time and again, their response to her writing is profoundly influenced by their emotions about her wealth and fame. For the most part, whenever she publishes something new the knives are out, because there’s a quota for how much good press a person gets, and it’s a pretty small one.

And it is hard to read anything by J. K. Rowling without Harry Potter’s shadow looming over the story. My son grew up with Harry Potter; I read the first five novels out loud to him, which made me inspect Rowling’s prose far closer than was probably good for either of us. I think she is a fantastic storyteller, and The Prisoner of Azkaban should rightly take a place in the pantheon of great classic childrens’ books. After that, I felt she was sorely in need of a courageous editor to cut out the padding and the occasional infelicities in her prose. I had no interest in The Casual Vacancy, because I felt it would always be Rowling’s own reaction to having written Harry Potter – it’s no coincidence that the book is so relentlessly grim. But I was intrigued to see what she could do with crime fiction. Plotting was always one of her strongest points.

When a supermodel falls from her apartment window in a lush Mayfair residence, press and police are quick to assume that it’s suicide. Lula Landry appears to be the one of the usual celebrity crowd, spoilt and narcissistic, dating a seriously messed-up actor in an on-again off-again relationship, superficial, flighty and probably neurotic. Her brother, the lawyer John Bristow, refuses to accept the verdict, and calls in private detective, Cormoran Strike, to re-open the enquiry. Strike is an intriguing and endearing gumshoe; a wounded war veteran now running to fat, who has his own relationship issues. He is the son of a famous rock musician (who he never knew) and a super-groupie, hippy mother, who dragged him and his sister around in a peripatetic, shiftless sort of existence. Cormoran is too much of an alpha male to be damaged by all of this, but he is faintly embarrassed by it. The new case represents a vital upturn in his fortunes, as he’s on the verge of bankruptcy. And by sheer chance, fate does him a fine service by landing a temporary secretary on his doorstep who will turn out to be an unexpected asset.

Cormoran gradually finds a number of loose ends in the case that refuse to tie up. What was Lula Landry writing on a piece of blue paper in the back of her chauffered car that people seem so keen to insist was a shopping list (now missing)? What happened when she visited her sick mother that left her in a state of unusual distress? Why did one of the main witnesses insist she heard a man in Lula’s appartment when it’s obvious she could have heard nothing at all from where she was standing? And why did Lula arrange to have lunch with her gold-digging friend, Rochelle, and then only stay with her for fifteen minutes?

This was an immensely readable book, compelling, well organised and peopled with a cast of vividly-drawn, if mostly unpleasant, characters. I really enjoyed it. J. K. Rowling uses the talent she had already shown with HP for cherry-picking some of the most intriguing elements of both crime and contemporary culture and bringing them together in a satisfying way. It was a stroke of genius to give Cormoran a secretary who is secretly longing to become a detective. The relationship between Cormoran and Robin becomes one of the most gripping parts of the book, and there’s no romance in it whatsoever. No, we’re talking Watson to Sherlock Holmes, or perhaps more aptly, Della Street to Perry Mason. But perhaps most of all, we’re talking Hermione Granger to Harry Potter. Cormoran is smart, determined and limited; he needs a female foil with insight and sensitivity to effect some last minute rescues from situations he plunges into without sufficient forethought.

As a huge, hairy ex-military policeman who’s not afraid of a fight, Cormoran has shades of Jack Reacher. And Lula Landry’s relationship with Evan Duffield was strongly reminiscent of Kate Moss and the awful Pete Doherty. The resolution of the case was pure Agatha Christie. But all of this added up for me, at any rate, into a fine murder mystery. It’s not about to win a Nobel prize, but it certainly kept me entertained for a couple of days. It’s not what she does, it’s the way that she does it.

 

It’s Live and Lovely!

SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245Yes, Shiny New Books went live this morning – we were all there (virtually) for a momentous switch-on at 8am. We think it looks amazing, and hope so much that you do, too. I do strongly recommend that if you want to start an online magazine, you do so with Annabel, Harriet and Simon. They are such talented and hard-working people. But now of course it’s over to you. Visit, read lots of reviews, leave your comments and don’t forget to enter the competitions – oh and if you’re a keen reviewer, think about writing for us, too.

Now, I promised you all a tale of disaster, wrought by my own two hands… So for this we have to go back to early February, when we were in the thick of finding our books and sourcing reviews. Whilst we editors have our individual sections for which we have final responsibility, we all help out with reviews across the board. I was thinking about the non-fiction section and wanting to get a bit more variety in there, when Ms Thrifty, my friend in the book shop, happened to mention that her husband was reading and enjoying Why Nations Fail, a big socio-economic title. Now, I had a mental flashback to seeing the book on the new shelves in Heffers, and I thought, hmm, what an interesting bit of variety that would provide. So I asked Ms Thrifty if Mr TH would be so kind as to give us a review. I knew he liked writing and is a very intelligent sort of chap.

Well, Mr TH thought about it and said he would. He’d been given the book for Christmas, so I had a quick look at dates on amazon, saw that it was a February release, and figured that the paperback would soon be out. And onwards we went. The copy deadline neared, Mr TH gave up television watching in the evenings so he could finish the book and write his review in time, we editors did all sorts of editorial things, and then the review arrived. Fantastic! Only Mr TH dropped me a line in an accompanying email saying: I’ve just noticed this came out in 2013. Uh-oh.

I checked the dates and read the whole thing this time. In my excitable haste on the previous occasion, I’d only looked at the month. And indeed, the paperback came out in 2013, and the hardback in 2012. Not so shiny-new, then (heaven only knows what I hallucinated on the shelves of Heffers). Of course this had to happen with the one reviewer who did not have a blog of his own and had written the review specially for us. So, with no further ado, I will give you below the review of:

 

Why Nations Fail

by James A. Robinson & Daron Acemoglu

Reviewed by Edward Leigh (editor of The Reformist)

 

why nations failIt is notable how many books have been published in recent years on the topic of why civilisations flourish or wither. Jared Diamond, Ian Morris, Francis Fukuyama, Niall Ferguson and others have written extensively on the subject, citing a wide range of candidates for drivers and impediments to social development: geography, climate, natural resources, infectious diseases, culture and ideology, rulers and government, war, migration, science and discovery; the list goes on.

The authors of this book make the bold assertion that just one of these candidates is of primary significance: the nature of a nation’s economic and political institutions, in particular whether they are ‘inclusive’ (that is, serving the majority of citizens) or ‘extractive’ (serving an elite).

Now even if this is not the last word on the subject (and it surely won’t be), it is nevertheless a highly instructive lens through which to view history. What is most exhilarating about reading this book is its historical and geographical breadth, encompassing the Spanish conquest of South America, the Glorious Revolution in England, the Meiji Restoration in Japan, and diverse other case studies.

The authors anticipated a sceptical response to their thesis and so begin the book with examples of where geography and culture cannot be the primary factors in determining progress, where two geographically adjacent or culturally homogeneous peoples diverged markedly following a historical inflection point or ‘critical juncture’ (to use the authors’ terminology). Nogales is the name of two cities that have grown up either side of the 1853 US-Mexico border: Nogales, Arizona, ranks far higher in terms of economic and social development than Nogales, Sonora; yet the people share the same ancestry and geography. Similarly, since the division of Korea along the 38th parallel in 1945, the two countries have diverged drastically: according to the UN’s GDP figures, South Korea now ranks 15th in the world; North Korea 119th. The Black Death (around 1350), which decimated the population of Europe, was followed in western Europe by peasant revolts that led to the end of serfdom, better pay and working conditions, and ultimately greater participation in government; whereas in eastern Europe there was a resurgence of serfdom, which held back social progress until the Napoleonic invasions in the 19th century.

The point is this: events that change the course of history, such as wars, plagues and famines, do not in themselves predetermine the outcome. The authors refer to these events as ‘contingencies of history’, which may seem trivialising, but their theory is that the outcome is actually determined by the societal institutions that pre-exist such an event, or that grow up in response to it.

One of the keys to progress is ‘creative destruction’, the displacement of one industry or methodology by another. Arkwright’s water frame could spin 100lb cotton in 300 hours, something that previously took 50,000 hours. The invention inevitably put many workers out of a job, but it also created new jobs that required different skills. One of the cornerstones of the authors’ theory is that political and economic institutions that permit creative destruction thereby permit progress and adaptation; whereas institutions that protect the narrow interests of an elite, be they government cronies, landowners, capitalists or well-organised workers’ unions, may progress for a while, but ultimately regress, often precipitously, as in the case of the Khmer Empire (Cambodia) and the Soviet Union. This may seem self-evidently true, but what is interesting is the authors’ analysis of why some monarchs and governments were able to resist creative destruction, whereas others were not.

The strength of any theory lies in its power to predict and explain, and the authors do a convincing job of proving their theory. Their analysis of post-colonial Africa is especially insightful. The (literally) extractive institutions created by colonial powers were taken over at independence by indigenous rulers. Almost all of them, most notably Congo’s Joseph Mobuto, Sierra Leone’s Siaka Stevens, and Zimbawe’s Robert Mugabe (who even rigged a national lottery so that he won the top prize), felt little inclination to dismantle those institutions, which quickly enriched and corrupted them, their cronies and successors, at terrible cost to their citizens. Only really Botswana stands out as a beacon of social progress in sub-Saharan Africa.

China will be a major test of the authors’ theory. In contrast to most political commentators, the authors believe that China’s rise is not inexorable: the market-based reforms of Deng Xiaoping have created more inclusive economic institutions, but the political institutions remain as extractive as they were under Mao Zedong—just how extractive is well illustrated by this statistic from What’s gone wrong with democracy? (The Economist, 1st March 2014):

“The 50 richest members of the China’s National People’s Congress are collectively worth $94.7 billion—60 times as much as the 50 richest members of America’s Congress.”

At some stage, which may be sooner rather than later, China’s continued development will require creative destruction and greater pluralism, which is something that the Communist Party will resist, possibly to the bitter end.

The book reviewed:

James A. Robinson & Daron Acemoglu, Why Nations Fail (Profile Books: London, 2013). ISBN 978-1846684302, 560pp, paperback.

Other recent books on this subject:

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (Penguin: London, 2011). ISBN 978-0241958681, 590pp, paperback.

Ian Morris, The Measure of Civilisation: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations: The Story of Why the West Rules for Now (Profile Books: London, 2013). ISBN 978-1781250198, 400pp, paperback.

Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (Profile Books: London, 2012). ISBN 978-1846682575, 608pp, paperback.

Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power (Penguin: London, 2012). ISBN 978-0141044583, 432 pp, paperback.