The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle by Michael Booth – Michael Booth

“Denmark was the happiest place in the world. The happiest? This dark, wet, dull, flat little country made up of one peninsula, Jutland, and a handful of islands to its east with its handful of stoic, sensible people and the highest taxes in the world? The United States was twenty-third on the list. But a man at a university had said it, so it must be true.”

Scandinavia is often referred to as some sort of paradise, where all is well and everyone is happy. Michael Booth, a Brit living in Denmark, tries to understand whether that reputation is deserved, and if so why. To spoil the ending, he believes we have much to learn from those countries, including their priorities, how they handle their wealth, and how they balance work and play while educating themselves and supporting each other. He also has serious concerns, about increasing fissures around race and social equality, alcoholism, a vast public service that is funded with an ever increasing share of total income, and – particularly in Denmark – a debt to income ratio that is double that of Spain and quadruple that of Italy.

The strength of the book, though, is in his witty, clever, and curmudgeonly perspective on it all. Booth is a funny and entertaining writer, and it makes the whole book work, part travel guide and part documentary. If you want a serious analysis of why Finland’s education system is one of the best in the world, why the suicides rates in Scandinavia are so high, or why Sweden is the 8th largest arms exporter in the world, this isn’t the book for you. If you are planning on visiting the countries, though, or better yet moving there, The Almost Nearly Perfect People can teach you to avoid sitting next to the host at a party in Sweden unless you want to make a speech; give you advice on how to socialize with the remarkably taciturn Finns; and above all, make you laugh.

Disclosure: I read this as a Advance Reader Copy. You can get it on Amazon: Almost Nearly Perfect People.

Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“His examination revealed that he had no fever, no pain anywhere, and that his only concrete feeling was an urgent desire to die. All that was needed was shrewd questioning, first of the patient and then of his mother, to conclude once again that the symptoms of love were the same as those of cholera.”

I’ve been in something of a Marquez mood recently – perhaps it’s the season. In any case, this one follows on a review of Strange Pilgrims last week.

Choler, one of the Greco-Roman humours, was believed to cause irritation or temper: hence the English word choleric, or the French colerique. The principle of the humours underlay much of medieval medicine, and argued that imbalances between basic bodily fluids led to illness and odd behaviour. Choler was linked to fire, and the temperament of ruling. It also represented passion. Today, of course, the phrase is more commonly linked to the disease cholera, one of the leading causes of infant mortality until the introduction of Oral Rehydration Therapy, a simple mix of water, sugar, and salt that helps prevent dehydration.

Love in the Time of Cholera raises both the idea of passion and of disease in its study of love in an unnamed port city near the Caribbean. Many interpretations of the book are possible: Marquez, apparently, is known to have warned readers to be careful not to fall into his trap. For me, though, it is a reflection on love, particularly flawed love. Many types of love are suggested in the story, but all of them suffer from flaws, no matter how well written or sympathetic the character. One couple matches the societal ideal of love, while struggling to be happy themselves: another man is a philanderer and to some extent sociopath, but believes eternally in the idea of true love.

As usual, meditations on death and stunning visual imagery are par for the course: Marquez is always phenomenal in that respect. A particular strength of LitToC (I couldn’t resist!) is the scope for interpretation by the reader: to my eye, it gives more room for ambiguity of sentiment than some of Marquez’s other work, though not as much as some of the extremes in that area, such as Don Quixote. An excellent read.

The Economist Best Books 2014

Something like a quarter of all book sales are made in the month before Christmas each year – it’s a popular gift! I thought, therefore, it might useful to take a look at some 2014 book lists.

The Economist released their list in the most recent edition – I’ve included the summaries of some but not all. One in particular stands out to me: Pinker’s The Sense of Style - highly recommended, and you can read my review at the link!

For a focus on non-fiction in particular, you could also look at Tyler Cowen’s recommendations.

Politics and current affairs

The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited. By Louisa Lim. Oxford University Press; 248 pages; $24.95 and £16.99. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
Twenty-five years after the bloodshed in Beijing, new details keep emerging. This reconstruction, by a correspondent for America’s National Public Radio, is as important for Western readers as it is for the new Chinese generation that has grown up since 1989 and knows little of what happened.

The Tyranny of Silence: How One Cartoon Ignited a Global Debate on the Future of Free Speech. By Flemming Rose. Cato Institute; 240 pages; $24.95. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
The culture editor of the Danish newspaper that published cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad in 2005 offers a personal account of the ensuing controversy and what it means for democracy.

Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy. By Francis Fukuyama. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 658 pages; $35. Profile; £25. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
A superstar academic, who in 1992 tried to persuade people that they had got to the end of history, returns admitting that things are more complicated than he imagined. China has adopted a mixture of state capitalism and authoritarianism, and democratisation has failed in Russia and most of the Middle East. What is needed are high-quality political institutions; not an easy thing to build.

The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall.

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China.

Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923.

The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia.

Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation.

China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa.

Biography and memoir

Kaiser Wilhelm II: A Concise Life. By John Röhl. Cambridge University Press; 240 pages; $24.99 and £16.99. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
Scholarship and authority shine through this short version of John Röhl’s 4,000-page, multi-volume life of Kaiser Wilhelm, an emotionally needy, bombastic, choleric and hypersensitive man quite ill-suited to run the most powerful country in Europe.

 Napoleon: A Life. By Andrew Roberts. Viking; 976 pages; $45. Allen Lane; £30. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
A British historian makes full use of the treasure trove of Napoleon’s 33,000-odd letters and concludes that the French emperor was a tactical military genius who made some serious strategic mistakes and was far from being a brilliant statesman.

H is for Hawk. By Helen Macdonald. Jonathan Cape; 300 pages; £14.99. To be published in America by Grove Atlantic in March 2015. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
A bird’s-eye view of love and loss, this meditation on nature, raptors, grief and the strange life of T.H. White—English author of “The Goshawk”—was the discovery of the season. Winner of the 2014 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction.

E.E. Cummings: A Life. By Susan Cheever. Pantheon; 213 pages; $26.95. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
Inward-looking and now unfashionable, E.E. Cummings is a tricky poet to understand. With boundless new detail gathered through meticulous research, Susan Cheever succeeds where most other biographers have failed.

Faisal I of Iraq.

Little Failure: A Memoir.

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery.

History

The English and Their History. By Robert Tombs. Allen Lane; 1,012 pages; £35. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
A British academic shows how being a historian of France helped him recognise that his fellow Englishmen and women have embraced pluralism and immigration for at least 1,300 years, he concludes, and they should not give it up as it is a characteristic strength.

Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648. By Mark Greengrass. Viking; 752 pages; $45. Allen Lane; £30. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
A magisterial account of the birth of modern Europe, from the Reformation, which broke the dominance of the Roman Catholic church, to the Peace of Westphalia, which entrenched the idea of the nation-state.

The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. By Kevin Birmingham. Penguin Press; 417 pages; $29.95. Head of Zeus; £20. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
A gripping account of how a banned masterpiece, James Joyc’s “Ulysses”, was published in instalments in small literary magazines and then in private, limited print runs by dedicated patrons (most of them women) who had to smuggle copies into America and Britain.

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David.

Why Homer Matters.

The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land.

Economics and business

Capital in the Twenty-First Century. 

The Forgotten Depression, 1921: The Crash that Cured Itself.

Science and technology

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. By Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt; 302 pages; $28. Bloomsbury; £20. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
Five previous extinctions wiped out plant and animal life on a huge scale; now a sixth is upon us. Is life resilient enough to withstand mankind?

The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet. By Nina Teicholz. Simon & Schuster; 479 pages; $27.99. Scribe; £14.99. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
A historical study of how fat came to be demonised, especially in America, by a mix of academics, government officials and food companies, and how the few sceptics who dared take on the fat orthodoxy have been much disparaged for their pains. Detailed in its research and eloquent in its argument, this is the year’s most surprising diet book.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. By Atul Gawande. Metropolitan Books; 282 pages; $26. Profile; £15.99. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
A thoughtful American doctor, who gave the 2014 Reith lectures, recounts how many of his patients spend their final hours hooked up to machines, under fluorescent lights, surrounded by strangers. Far better to think through the implications and plan for the end you really want.

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology.

Culture, society and travel

Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family. By June Carbone and Naomi Cahn. Oxford University Press; 272 pages; $29.95 and £18.99. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
Asking why fewer people marry, two American legal academics show how, over the decades, economic inequality has undermined the rationality of marriage for many and weakened the family.

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. By Steven Pinker. Viking; 359 pages; $27.95. Allen Lane; £20. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
With gentle good humour, the Harvard psycholinguist explains that a good piece of writing is like the perfect soufflé appearing in a spotless kitchen at the end of a cooking show: “The messy work has been done beforehand and behind the scenes.” A good read for all ages.

Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools. By Joel Klein. Harper; 320 pages; $27.99. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
The former chancellor of New York’s department of education knows at first hand how much a child’s education is linked to his or her success in life. He has much to say about his nine-year campaign to improve the city’s school system and how it could become a blueprint for reform of America’s education system.

Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism and Road Revolt in Saudi Arabia.

The Reef, A Passionate History: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change.

Germany: Memories of a Nation.

Fiction

The Narrow Road to the Deep North. By Richard Flanagan. Knopf; 352 pages; $26.95. Chatto & Windus; £16.99. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
A journey of loss and discovery set among the prisoners of war who were sent to build the “Death Railway” between Thailand and Burma during the second world war. Winner of the 2014 Man Booker prize for fiction and replete with scenes that stay with the reader long after the final page, this is the book that Richard Flanagan was born to write.

Lila. By Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 272 pages; $26. Virago; £16.99. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
The third of Marilynne Robinson’s novels to be set in Gilead, Iowa, and featuring John Ames, a Congregationalist preacher, turns to the story of Ames’s late-in-life wife. A former prostitute and cleaner, Lila, in her new incarnation, learns about grace, joy and love, lessons that are imparted with no trace of soppiness. By one of the finest writers in America.

Decoded. By Mai Jia. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 315 pages; $26. Allen Lane; £18.99. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
At last, a fine Chinese novel that holds its own as a work that book-lovers with no special knowledge of China will relish. By a former member of the intelligence services, “Decoded” stands out for its pace and for the sheer novelty of the tale it tells.

Arctic Summer.

Orfeo.

No Man’s Land: Fiction from a World at War.

Thirty Girls: A Novel.

Family Life: A Novel.

Fourth of July Creek.

Uncertain Glory.

Strange Pilgrims – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“He sat on a wooden bench under the yellow leaves in the deserted park, contemplating the dusty swans with both his hands resting on the silver handle of his cane, and thinking about death.”

Strange Pilgrims is a lightning tour of Europe, from wind-swept towns in Portugal and Spain to snow-clad Geneva and Paris. The central theme is of Latin Americans adrift in Europe, and many of the stories also involve death, either directly or as a motif. The focus is on what it is to be in a strange land, perhaps reflecting some of Marquez’s time as a virtual exile from Columbia. Might be valuable reading for UKIP or the Fronte Nationale, if they were looking to understand immigrants a bit better.

The name, somewhat obscurely, comes from the fact that it has taken Marquez years to write the stories (originally drafted in the 70s, they were published in 92): they have been pilgrims from the wastebasket to his desk and back multiple times, before finally emerging in their final – or at least current – form.

As is usual with Marquez, his stories are visually stimulating, creating whole pictures in your mind leavened with moments of humour. Several stories also feature magic realism, for which he is best known. Some are terrifying (one in particular, “I only came to use the phone”), and others are touching or inspiring. The line above opens the first of the 12 stories, a particularly good one about a former president trapped in Geneva by medical problems he cannot afford to have treated, nothing left but his dignity. In another, a newly-married couple travels to Europe only to find themselves trapped apart by a language and custom they do not understand, to a tragic end. All are worthwhile, and all bear Marquez’s classic stamp of humour mixed with stunning imagery and emotion.

Dangling Man – Saul Bellow

“Trouble, like physical pain, makes us actively aware that we are living, and when there is little in the life we lead to hold and draw and stir us, we seek and cherish it, preferring embarrassment or pain to indifference.”

Saul Bellow is a Canadian-born Pulizter Prize and Nobel Prize for Literature winner. In the words of the Nobel Committee, his writing possesses a “subtle analysis of our culture, of entertaining adventure, drastic and tragic episodes in quick succession interspersed with philosophic conversation, all developed by a commentator with a witty tongue and penetrating insight into the outer and inner complications that drive us to act, or prevent us from acting.” Dangling Man was his first book.

Dangling Man is a study of a man who cannot find his place in the world, who finds freedom a burden from which he cannot escape. He finds himself growing violent, angry, anything to escape the isolation and monotony of days he cannot seem to fill: he joins the army in order to achieve some blessed regimentation, to eliminate the need for individuality and reflection.

The book is hardly a cheerful one: I would go so far as to call it depressing, painting a picture of the human spirit I do not relish. It’s beautifully written, but as happens with some novels, more interesting after you’ve read it than enjoyable as you do. In a modern world that places an enormous weight on freedom, the idea that freedom might be undesirable presents a dilemma not easily solved. Bellow doesn’t answer the question, but then he doesn’t try to: he paints a vivid portrait of a man trapped in the four walls of his room, not because he cannot leave, but because he doesn’t why he should.

The Great Escape – Angus Deaton

“Life is better now that at almost any time in history…Yet millions still experience the horrors of destitution and of premature death…This book tells stories of how things got better, how and why progress happened, and the subsequent interplay of progress and inequality.”

The movie The Great Escape tells the story of Allied POWs seeking to escape German prison camps. Some of them make it, and some don’t. Deaton argues this makes a general point: that inequality is an inevitable result of progress, because not everyone can escape at the same time. The key, however, is to make sure that inequality is only temporary: that everyone, to stretch the metaphor, escapes in the end.

Deaton focuses on health and wealth inequality, covering their historical evolution and the current state of affairs, before turning to how we might reduce inequality and particularly foreign aid. He is an interesting mix of idealist and pragmatist: he believes strongly we have a moral obligation to eliminate poverty and improve health for the less well off, but also rejects foreign aid as a failed method of achieving those goals. Aid, he suggests, tends to flow from a desire to be seen to be doing something, rather than actually making a difference, which is why so much money is spent to so little effect. Instead, he argues that the most important step we can take is to “work on and within [our] own governments, persuading them to stop policies that hurt poor people, and to support international policies that make globalization work for poor people, not against them.” He recommends we invest in things for the developing world, rather than just in the developing world: R&D on malaria and other diseases, improving country capacity in international negotiations, arms control, and other projects.

Deaton has a gift for making complicated concepts clear, and a book that might feel like a dry compendium of statistics works for that reason, though there are times when sections can feel like a litany of graphs and analysis. He is also good at explaining how statistics might mislead or betray our reasoning: the book may be of particular interest to readers without much background in statistics, but want to understand the debates around wealth and inequality.

The book really comes into its own, however, in the final section. Deaton is passionate and eloquent when it comes to aid, something he feels strongly about. For someone well read in the subject, it won’t add a lot to your understanding (though it will serve as a helpful reminder of the basics), but if you’re willing to do a bit of work to actually understand issues rather than just read results, he’s insightful, interesting, and informative. Worth the read.

The Meaning of Things – A.C. Grayling

“The ‘considered life’ is a life enriched by thinking about things that matter — values, aims, society, the characteristic vicissitudes of the human condition, desiderata both personal and public, the enemies of human flourishing, and the meanings of life. It is not necessary to arrive at polished theories on all these subjects, but it is necessary to give them at least a modicum of thought if one’s life is to have some degree of shape and direction.”

Philosophy is to learn how to die, Montaigne tells us. It’s not clear Grayling agrees: as the founder of the New College of the Humanities, a private liberal arts college in London, he very much wants to teach people how to live. The Meaning of Things is a collection of short essays (2-3 pages) to that purpose, meant for a general audience and on topics ranging from loyalty, to faith, to fear, to Christianity.

Grayling is a self-described man of the left, and the essays show a consistent perspective on the world, applied to a wide range of subjects. He argues, for example, that we are today very moral – historically accepted ideas from prostitution to child labour are now forbidden – but that we are not, by and large, civil. “The loss of civility means that social feeling has been replaced by defensiveness, with groups circling their wagons around ‘identity’ concepts of nationality, ethnicity, and religion, protecting themselves by putting up barriers against others.”

His best essays are on subjects such as racism, civility, and leisure. His weakest are those that deal with religion; an aggressive atheist, he does not give his opponents the benefit of the doubt they deserve, and so his essays on the subject sometimes feel like one-sided monologues rather than engagement with an issue or idea.

A subject as vast as fear can hardly be addressed well in two pages. What Grayling does do well is direct the attention to some possible sources for further insight: the essays draw from a wide range of sources, helping them fit into the broader scope of philosophy. Grayling himself also presents some nice insights, and most readers will likely find an essay or two that appeals. A difficult book to sit down and read in a single sitting, but certainly interesting as one to leaf through and browse as the mood strikes. Grayling’s goal, after all, is to prompt reflection, and in that he succeeds.

Murder at the Margin – Marshall Jevons

“She and her husband may simply have interdependent utility functions, like so many married couples. That’s what economists mean by ‘love’.”

One of the challenges of teaching – and learning – economics is that it asks students to think in three different ways: mathematically, in graphs, and in economic intuition. Students who are good at one may struggle with the others, or may learn well when a concept is presented in one format but not when the other two are used, but all three are important. As a result, economists like to dabble in different ways of presenting the three, trying to appeal to different types of students.

Murder at the Margin is a murder mystery written by two economics professors. The small, balding, Harvard economist Henry Spearman is on holiday when a murder is committed at his resort, and he is forced to use economic principles and careful observation to solve it. In the words of Alfred Marshall, economics is ‘the study of man in the ordinary business of life.’

I picked it up thinking it might be a useful resource for teaching economic intuition, having had it suggested by a friend. It is not exactly Pulitzer prize quality. It is, however, used frequently in teaching economics, and does a good job explaining economic concepts in clear, effective language. Speaking as an economist myself, it’s also quite funny: it’s from the 70s, so examples and prices are quite dated, and it is both intentionally and unintentionally amusing.

If you’re a student of economics, especially a high school student, I think it has some teaching value. I think most students would benefit more from something like Tim Harford’s Undercover Economist, but for students for whom that is too advanced, or for whom fiction might be more appropriate than non-fiction, it makes a good effort.

David & Goliath – Malcolm Gladwell

“David and Goliath is a book about what happens when ordinary people confront giants…from armies and mighty warriors to disability, misfortune, and oppression.”

The story of David and Goliath is well known, of course: a huge giant challenges any man of the Israeli army to single combat, all soldiers refuse in fear, young shepherd boy accepts and defeats giant with only a sling. The classic underdog story. Gladwell takes another perspective: the biblical tale matches the symptoms of acromegaly, a condition which leads to enormous growth, but also impairs vision. That explains why Goliath needed an attendant to lead him to battle, and why he did not respond to David having a sling: he couldn’t see! What gave the giant his great size, Gladwell argues, was also his greatest weakness.

The point, Gladwell argues, is a general one. We tend to assume that great strength will always win out, but in truth, underdogs can gain considerable strength from their underdog status, while giants can be severely disadvantaged by their size. The battle is much less one-sided than we might believe.

Gladwell applies this idea to issues ranging from dyslexia to class sizes and university choice. As usual, his examples are interesting and fun, which is what makes the book work. It’s less clear to me, though, what his thesis means. One concern is that perhaps adverse conditions just destroy the weak: though the idea of hardship as crucible is popular (and I find it personally appealing), it’s hard to disentangle that theory from the idea that hardship just destroys the weak and identifies the already strong as survivors.

Perhaps more significantly, however, he’s also vague on the concept of hardship. At one point, for example, he suggests that students would be better off going to a worse university, so they can be a big fish in a small pond: after all, the same number of students drop out of science at Harvard as at much lower ranked universities (which, by the way, if fascinating), but the worst students at Harvard are potentially stronger than the best at a weaker university. If one chooses a small pond, however, or equally chooses to hardship when it could have been avoided, is that still the same? It seems to me it is not: knowingly choosing to make things difficult for yourself, though potentially valuable, is likely not the same as being forced to undergo adversity. If adversity strengthens, too, one wonders what choosing a little pond does to your future potential.

All that said, I liked the book more that Outliers, and find his thesis appealing. We probably are too fixed in our conceptions of what is weak and what is strong, and we should realize that there is strength in overcoming and adapting to weakness, not just avoiding it.

Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell

First things first: I trust you are all following the landing of Philae with bated breath. Now, on to book review.

“Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities.”

I’m generally a little hesitant about Malcolm Gladwell. He presents a tasting menu of ideas: not enough to satisfy or in many cases even know what you really think, but enough to arouse curiosity or provoke thought. That can be a good thing, of course, but his reliance on stories and anecdotes – though entertaining – makes me nervous. Because I can’t tell if there is any factual basis to what he’s saying, I end up walking away from a book with some interesting stories, but no real insights to draw on because I can’t tell whether his stories generalize to anything larger. What I read from him I must look up elsewhere.

That said, two of his books that I hadn’t read happened to be in the library, so I thought I’d give them a try. The first, Outliers, focuses on the idea of success. Gladwell argues that we tend to see genius as a unique trait, something that sets the elite apart. That misses the point: success is not achieved in isolation, but rather requires opportunities. No matter how smart or how talented, without opportunities genius cannot bloom.

At the extreme, the thesis is somewhat trivial; if you get hit by a bus, genius won’t mean much. Gladwell has a point, though: we tend to neglect this fact in everyday conversation, ascribing enormous weight to individual action. I wonder, however, if this is just a question of definitions rather than the profound point Gladwell seeks to make. True genius may lie in making the most of the opportunities you are given, and so consist not just of IQ but also hard work, self-discipline, and other virtues – whether that’s saying anything revolutionary, I’m less sure. To take the Stoic line, we cannot control the opportunities we are presented with by the outside world: all we can control is how we respond to them, and that is where genius – and virtue – lies.