Sunday, July 28, 2013

Review: Thinking, Fast and Slow

Thinking, Fast and Slow
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was pointed to this book after I'd torn apart another piece of self-improvement rubbish. Unlike those self-improvement gurus, Kahnemann has a Nobel Prize to his credit so he deserves some respect, and this book is a summary of his life in psychology. So while there's little here for the hopeless business manager - though some of that does come through in the second half - it's a fascinating summary of a life's work that began as a Jewish child in wartime Paris, when he was picked up and hugged by a homesick SS man and walked home wondering how the human mind can harbour such contradictions.

Central to the book is the discovery of what Kahnemann calls Systems 1&2, which are respectively the thinking fast and slow thought processes of the title. Kahnemann takes us through the ways in which easy thought processes can mislead us, while covering the ways in which we delude ourselves or are open to suggestion, giving an insight how the likes of Derren Brown make a living.

Why do stockbrokers perform no better than monkeys throwing darts? Why do people perform better after their bosses have shouted at them? (It's not why the bosses think.) Why do students who have been exposed to words like 'grey' and 'wrinkled' walk slowly? Why do people exposed to images of money behave selfishly?

At times it's hard going, but Kahnemann is trying to summarise the most recent developments in a notoriously difficult science. For the careful - and slow - reader, this is a wonderful book.

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Friday, July 19, 2013

Review: Autobahn

Autobahn by Neil LaBute

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Understated and subtle, Neil LaBute's Autobahn shoves a series of characters into the confined space of the front seat of a car where the intensity of relationships is inescapable. These duologues tear into the basis of relationships in a quietly comic yet disturbing way. In a sense, it's classic LaBute.

I especially loved the trashy, almost deranged girlfriend whose needy, wheedling attitude manipulates her increasingly uncomfortable college boyfriend into not dumping her ("I'll find work. They have WalMarts all over").

This is comedy of the unsaid, in which the car becomes a prison where characters are forced to have conversations they would rather not have: a mother silently listens as she drives her daughter home from rehab, while the daughter cheerfully announces her intention to get straight back onto drugs; what looks like a father-daughter road trip is revealed as something far more sinister; a man's apology spirals downwards disastrously against the brick wall of his partner's silence.

These are disturbing yet funny vignettes.

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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Review: Ulysses

Ulysses by James Joyce

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Joyce: genius or charlatan? Ulysses: greatest "novel of the 20th Century" (Anthony Burgess) or literary fraud?

You can back up any of these statements, but there is no question that Ulysses is one of the hardest books to read in the English language. At times it defies comprehension, and at times Joyce deliberately makes it more difficult than it needs to be. For instance, the last 60 pages, where Molly Bloom is finally heard giving her side of her husband's story, is rendered in a single, unpunctuated sentence. I can't think of a single justification for that, except to create a barrier between author and reader. This is Joyce getting self-conscious about his own genius.

But Joyce is a genius. It's impossible to write a book like Ulysses without genius. Joyce challenges our idea of narrative, meaning and the purpose of story-telling. The day-long odyssey of Bloom and Daedalus is a celebration of the heroism of the mundane, in an era when the admiration of traditional heroism had led the world into the cataclysm of World War I. Joyce's idea was taken up by a generation of authors, so even if Ulysses isn't a good novel, it's unquestionably a great one.

Oh, but it's hard work. It took Joyce seven years to write Ulysses, and anyone who truly wishes to understand it should take six months and possibly a year to read it. There are passages that defy comprehension, and Joyce challenges the reader to stay with him. Most of us can't. Some of the prose is poetically beautiful and points towards the modernist poetry of especially TS Eliot. In reading it, I felt I learned more about literature than I did about the human condition, and I can't say I enjoyed the experience, but I felt better for understanding it and even a bit sad for realising that I'll never reach those intellectual heights.

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Sunday, July 7, 2013

Review: A Private Little War

A Private Little War
A Private Little War by Jason Sheehan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An infuriating ending knocks one star off what was a grimly humorous steampunk homage to Catch-22, although other readers might feel that the ending is actually an affirmation of humanity that elevates the book to classic status. They're wrong of course, because I'm always right.

The story centres on an illegal war on a distant planet, with a human corporation intervening in a centuries-old conflict in order to grab land rights. The problems of supply and maintenance mean that the pilots are flying souped-up WWI aircraft, but that's fine because the technology level of the 'indigs' is medieval. But the pilots and ground crew are just starting to realise that something is wrong and that victory isn't just taking too long, it isn't going to happen at all. Quite possibly, they are all going to die on this wet, filthy, miserable planet. Appropriately, they are slowly going mad.

Sheehan does the grim humour well, just as Heller did in Catch-22, although he can't match Heller's dark, absurdist philosophy. Each character gets a sympathetic portrayal, even psychotic commander Ted, who, unlike Colonel Cathcart in Catch-22, is stressed to breaking point rather than blinded by his own pompous stupidity.

It's a well-written, well plotted book - I particularly liked the hisses and consonants of the indigs' language described as like "a wet cat being beaten with an abacus" - although it does meander a bit in the middle. It's just a shame about the ending.

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Review: 1966 And All That

1966 And All That
1966 And All That by Craig Brown

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

'1966 And All That' is a homage to the 1930 classic 1066 and All That, which ends with history coming to a full stop in 1918 with America as Top Nation. Brown takes it through the next nine decades with the same sort of absurdist humour, mixing characters (e.g. King George and his son Lloyd) and garbling events in a work of semi-surrealist nonsense.

I can't exactly say why, but I didn't enjoy it as much as the earlier work or as much as I enjoyed the radio version that was broadcast on Radio 4. It's the sort of humour that needs to be taken in small doses, and the nonsensical word-play seems to work better on radio than on the page.

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Review: Speaking in Tongues

Speaking in Tongues
Speaking in Tongues by Andrew Bovell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I didn’t know what to expect from Speaking In Tongues, which is not surprising, given author Andrew Bovell’s comment, “I hate theatre when it is exactly what you are expecting it to be.”

The production I saw promised “a number of separate but interlinked stories … nine parallel lives connected by four infidelities, one missing person and a mysterious stiletto … encounters, confessionals and interrogations that gradually reveal the darker side of human nature.” Oh goody, grab the popcorn.

The play opens with two married couples appearing in separate hotel bedrooms – but the husbands are with the wrong wives. Their conversations interweave and overlap as each tries to come to terms with the guilt of what they may or may not be about to do. This scene is beautifully written and very, very hard to perform as the characters have to say some lines simultaneously in different conversations, with the doubled-up voices giving extra power to such lines as “I just wanted to feel something” and “I wanted to know if I was still attractive.”

The first half follows these four characters as their stories move together and apart in a choreographed dance of dialogue, revealing their frustration, disillusionment, bitterness and guilt.

In the second half, new characters take up the stories alluded to in the first half, and the threads of their stories fray and tangle delightfully. Leon the policeman is the only survivor from the first half: the dark sun around which the other worlds blindly orbit. His subtle emotional dishonesty influences the lives of those around him without their knowledge.

This is a brilliantly written play, which fulfils Bovell’s promise of something unexpected, but it isn’t pretentious or difficult to watch. It has tension, mystery and pathos, but it can also be very funny, with the humour of people who talk without communicating and try to control their own worlds but are blind to the other people and events that shape their lives.

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