Wednesday, March 07, 2007

More book reviews - decisions and secrets

Blink - Malcom Gladwell
S is for Silence - Sue Grafton

The premise of Blink is that human beings are good at making instantaneous and generally quite accurate decisions based on very little information. In some cases, apparently, when we have more information, the accuracy of our decisions does not increase along with the rise in information available. Gladwell introduces a number of examples - marriage guidance counsellors who can tell from tiny snippets of film whether a couple's marriage will survive, tasters who can instantly tell whether re-used ingredients have been used, doctors who use a simple algorithm to determine whether a patient presenting symptoms of heart attack is at real risk - and writes very entertainingly.

However, he has a tendency to repetition, as though the book was based on a series of lectures, and some inclusions, while interesting, don't exactly agree with the conclusions he draws. The highly accurate "snap decision", however, seems to be only possible if the person presented with the data and is making the decision is an expert; but Gladwell maintains that even untrained people could make a good guess based on tiny snippets of information.

It's an interesting book (similar in style to the misnamed Freakonomics, which is more about statistics than economics), and would be good for discussions after reading it, but Gladwell doesn't seem to make any real point in his book.

The second book is completely different, being the latest in Sue Grafton's "Alphabet" crime series (A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc.). It's something of a departure for her, for although her heroine private eye, Kinsey Millhone, has investigated "cold" cases before (such as the excellent Q is for Quarry), the books have always been written in the first person and from Kinsey's own point of view. S is for Silence includes sections written from others' point of view, and in a past time which Kinsey could not possibly have known about. It's a device that works well in this book, fleshing out some of the incidents that give life to the characters seen only in their youth or from others' recollections.

Kinsey is one of the best-written private investigators around. She doesn't usually muscle in on police cases, and her jobs are realistic. She's an independent woman, ageing naturally through the series (she's thirty-seven in this book, set mostly in 1987), sometimes prickly, sometimes critical, but always humane and likeable.

I'd recommend almost any of Sue Grafton's books (though I haven't read the first few) - they are interesting, well-written, and not repetitious. It's not necessary to have read the others to enjoy the latest (though, like any series character, it's better if you've made the journey from A already), and it's refreshing to read a series which is not sadistic serial-killer fare (Reichs, Cornwell) and whose central character is a tough, practical and realistic woman.

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Charles and Eddie

I was browsing iTunes today (mainly to pick up the latest podcast of The Now Show which is back on Radio 4), and I tried to find Charles and Eddie's fantastic 1992 hit, "Would I Lie to You?" Nothing. About nine different versions of the Eurythmics' song of the same name, but not the one I was looking for. So here's a YouTube posting of their video - forget the images though, it's a very hokey video, and listen to the tune...

I was also looking for Fiona Apple's cover of the Beatles' "Across the universe", which was on the soundtrack to "Pleasantville", but that doesn't appear to be on iTunes, either, despite the presence of Apple's albums and several versions of the song by other people ...

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Anton Bruckner Choir concert - tomorrow

Tomorrow marks my first concert with Anton Bruckner Choir. So I won't feel able to review it, later. Still, we're singing a mixture of music old - Taverner's Western Wind Mass, and Leroy Kyrie; Robert White's Christe, qui lux es et dies - and more modern - Herbert Howells' Take him earth for cherishing, Let God arise, Here is the little door, Salve regina, Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (Collegium Regale), and Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks.

I feel it's a good juxtaposition of 16th and 20th century music, and the variety in Howells' works is interesting, from the aching longing of Like as the hart, the strident, Stanford-like Let God arise, to the moving and beautiful Take him, earth for cherishing, which was written for President Kennedy's memorial service, but was inspired by his son's early death.

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Book review - The Shadow of the Sun

This is a book about Africa, in all its variety and puzzling contradictions. For a European, Ryszard Kapuscinski manages to get into the African mindset very easily, and he writes with great compassion and understanding.

The book is a series of vignettes, stretching over time from the late 1950s, in African countries alive with hope at the beginning of independence, to the 1990s. Kapuscinski first went to Africa in 1957, and was eager to try getting a real sense of what it was to be African, and not merely experience the surface of the continent. He made the point, early on in his career as a journalist, that his country (Poland) was always oppressed, and that Poles knew something of the domination of other countries, but to Africans he was a white man, a symbol of colonialism, something superior. As the book progresses, in roughly chronological order, the sense of the white man as superior is something that gradually became lost (telling recounted in the chapter Madame Diuf is Coming Home).

Along the way are terrifying brushes with coups, disease, thirst and ambush, as well as evocative and beautiful descriptions of places that Kapuscinski clearly came to love. People come to life, also places, in prose wonderfully translated into English by Klara Glowczewska. His travels take place mostly in sub-Saharan Africa pre- and post-independence, and countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanganyika and Zanzibar. He makes no overt political points, and is always admirably clear-sighted, both about Europeans who colonised and now visit Africa, and about Africans themselves. It's easy to see, from his writing, that there have been several repeating trends through many African countries, from starry-eyed independence to dictatorship and disillusionment, but he gently points out that this is partly the result of the European powers carving up many different tribes, nations and kingdoms into only a few countries, leading to racial or tribal tensions within a single country, as well as the mindset of Africans themselves.

I doubt whether anyone not an African can really understand what it means to be African, but Kapuscinski takes us very far down that road.

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