Monday, August 31, 2009

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

This famous mystery classic saw the debut of the great detective Hercule Poirot. Asked to investigate the suspicious murder of Mrs. Emily Inglethorp at Styles Court, Poirot, with a little help from Mr. Hastings, solves the case and gets his man.

After reading this great book, I couldn't help wondering what it would be like to read a Poirot mystery without having known David Suchet as Poirot from the PBS series Mystery! How would Poirot look in my minds eye? Well, I couldn't conjure up anything except for Suchet's wonderful portrayal of that famous Belgian detective. Having watched Suchet as Poirot on Mystery! for years did not spoil my enjoyment of this novel, despite my remembering bits and pieces of the very episode about the murder at Styles Court.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is a great mystery novel, with an occasional comedic turn. I highly recommend this to any reader who has even a passing interest in mystery novels.


Blue Angel by Francine Prose

When it comes to embarrassment, I am a little squeamish. I don't like to read a book or watch television when a character is about to do something that will ruin their life in an extremely embarrassing way. So, I found reading Blue Angel by Francine Prose to be an uncomfortable experience.

Ted Swenson is a has-been novelist who makes his living teaching writing at an expensive albeit backwoods private college. When one of his students, Angela Argo, gives him a manuscript that shows real talent, Swenson wants to help her. But things soon go horribly awry. His marriage is destroyed and his tenure lost when Angela accuses him of sexual harassment.

Prose does a magnificent job of communicating both the depths of Swenson's unhealthy obsession and Angela's manipulative character. The events are an interesting contrast to those that take place in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace where the professor is the transgressor. In Blue Angel the lines between culprit and victim are much blurrier.


Monday, August 24, 2009

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

On a rainy night in London just after World War II, Maurice Bendrix, has a drink with Henry Miles. Henry tells Bendrix that he believes his wife, Sarah, is having an affair. Jealousy wracks Bendrix, who had an affair with Sarah some months previous. Despite the end of the affair, Bendrix' jealousy drives him to hire a private investigator to find out if Sarah is indeed having another affair. What follows is a tragic tale of adultery, hatred, and faith.

From the opening paragraphs of this book I knew that it would become one of my favorites. I found the prose to be exquisite. I read the book slowly, enjoying not only the plot, but also savoring each line of text. I loved this book and heartily recommend it to any reader who enjoys literary fiction.


Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

The grisly double murder of an elderly couple on a remote farm baffles the Skane police. Inspector Kurt Wallander doggedly pursues the solution to the mystery while dealing with a divorce, an estranged daughter, and an aging father. If that wasn't enough, when the dying woman's single last word, foreigner, is leaked to the press, escalating violence against refugees in Skane must take priority. But, Wallander doesn't give up on the double murder, despite being forced to solve yet another when a refugee is shot dead.

I was sorely disappointed with this book. I watched a BBC adaptation of the Wallander series starring Kenneth Branagh that was wonderful. But Henning Mankell's first mystery novel left me flat. But, just like Wallander, I won't give up. Hopefully the rest of the series will prove more enjoyable.


Monday, August 17, 2009

Shakespeare Challenge

I wasn't going to join anymore challenges because I am kind of falling behind already. But, I just could not resist the Much Ado about Shakespeare Challenge being hosted by Andrea at The Little Bookworm. I mean, come on, it's Shakespeare!

Here are the rules:

The challenge runs from September 1, 2009 - April 26, 2009 (Shakespeare's Birthday). Read 6 of any Shakespeare's works or any book inspired by a Shakespeare play. You can also watch any movie from or inspired by a Shakespeare play.

And here is my list, which I reserve the right to change at will:

  1. Hamlet by the man himself

  2. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard

  3. King Lear by the man himself

  4. Fool by Christopher Moore

  5. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

  6. Othello by the man himself

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Holy Mavericks by Shayne Lee and Phillip Sinitiere

Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution says that we should treat books like television shows. When a book is not appealing to you, you should "change the channel," throwing out the unappealing book and moving on to a better one. Holy Mavericks for me was like that television show you keep watching expecting it to get better until ends and you realized that it was awful the whole way through.

Holy Mavericks is supposed to be an investigation of five pastors: Joel Osteen, T. D. Jakes, Brian McLaren, Paula White, and Rick Warren, as innovators in the spiritual marketplace. As a non-Christian, I picked this book up at the library because I am intrigued by the subject. I was hoping for a book that would explain what these pastors believe and how they draw so many people to their churches. But the promise to look at the pastors using the tools of economics never materializes. Holy Mavericks is a jargon filled book that gives only shallow profiles of each pastor in question in which the authors miscite psychological ideas or name-drop philosophers in ways that are awkward and distracting. In addition, though published in 2009, the material is dated. The profile of Paula White includes a postscript about events that occurred in 2007.

This is the first book that I feel obligated to recommend not reading. It was awful and disappointing. If you are interested in this subject, I think perhaps the only use you will get from Holy Mavericks is the bibliography.


Thursday, August 06, 2009

Booking Through Thursday

What’s the most serious book you’ve read recently?

The last serious book I read was Fool's Gold by Gillian Tett. It is about the development of the credit derivatives that caused the financial mess in which we currently find ourselves. That crisis being something that is quite serious indeed.

How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard

As a lifelong reader and bibliophile, I find the idea of talking about books I haven't read an anathema. That being said, Pierre Bayard has some very insightful things to say about reading in his book How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read. One important insight is that any act of reading a particular book is also an act of not reading other books. Like the economic idea of opportunity cost, you need to keep this in mind when you choose a book to read. Bayard also writes about how books are not just objective things, but are subjective. When you talk or think about a book, you are actually talking or thinking about your own mentally constructed version of the book. Others will have their own constructed version of the book which may have some overlap with your version of the book. A final insight is that a book has a place among all other books, a context in the collective library. When reading a book, you must consider this context.

As much as I find value in these insights, I did not find Bayard's book to be an enjoyable read. Perhaps is was too philosophical or obscure, but more likely I just don't like the idea of talking about books I have not read.


Fool's Gold by Gillian Tett

In Fool's Gold, Gillian Tett, a reporter for the Financial Times, tells the story of how esoteric credit derivatives were developed and championed by a small group of independent thinkers at J. P. Morgan and how these derivatives came to ran amok among other banks causing the financial crisis from which we currently suffer. She details how a small close-knit group at J. P. Morgan developed and championed credit derivative swaps (CDS). J. P. Morgan was quite careful with these derivatives. It is interesting to note that they looked into the possibility of creating similar instruments backed by residential mortgages, but thought it too risky.

When J. P. Morgan merged with Chase Manhattan, the change in culture led many of the team to leave JP Morgan Chase for other banks or hedge funds. Those that stayed watched as the credit derivatives they invented took off, sometimes baffled by the risks other banks seemed to be taking. Did those banks know more than they did?

Another merger, this time between JPMorgan Chase and Bank One, brings in Jaimie Dimon who was the head of Bank One. He soon took over as JP Morgan Chase. The previous derivatives team had been conservative, but Dimon, with his "fortress balance sheet" idea really drove home the possible dangers of credit derivatives. Other banks, however, continued increased their CDO outputs, leveraging themselves with increasing ratios to do so. Then the bottom fell out. Two hedge funds at Bear Stearns collapsed due to their heavy investment in CDOs. Downgrades by the rating agencies forced many banks to write down their derivative assets, leading to billions in losses. Mortgage lenders like Countrywide failed, then commercial banks like Northern Rock. Bear Stearns blew up, with J.P. Morgan swooping in the buy them for a song. More write downs led Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and AIGs government rescue. The original team watched in horror as all this unfolded, but retained a belief that the instruments themselves were a useful way to manage risk, even if their abuse led to a financial crisis.

If you are at all interested in the how we got into this current financial mess, Tett's book is a good place to start. Earlier this year, I read William Cohan's account of Bear Stearns fall, The House of Cards. I found this a much more readable book.


Monday, August 03, 2009

Rapt by Winifred Gallagher

In Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life the author, Winifred Gallagher, does an excellent job of covering the relevant neurological and psychological knowledge of how attention works. But I was hoping for more "attention" to the "Focused Life" part of the book's subtitle. Still, there is a lot of good stuff in the book.

Gallagher starts by explaining the latest research on how attention works. She notes that attention is regulated in two ways. Top down attention is regulated by your will. The other, bottom up attention, is more reactive. Attention is multiplicitous. You can think of it as a series of "sensory dials" that allow you to "adjust the volume" of sensory information. For example, you can "turn down" visual information while "turning up" aural information, like when you close your eyes in order to listen more closely. Gallagher also stresses that attention generates a mental model of reality, meaning your experience of reality is one step removed from actual reality. She goes on to discuss how emotion influences attention. Our brains are more sensitive to negative stimuli than to positive stimuli, likely due to evolution. This phenomenon is called the negativity bias. On the other hand, there is a positivity offset, the tendency for us to more often remember positive events despite your attending more closely to negative ones. There are also a number of attentional styles along that vary along different axes. First is in what direction attention is focused, outwardly (extroversion) or inwardly (introversion). Second is on what type of events generally receive more attention, positive events or negative events. (This appears to be temperamental and independent of the negativity bias.) Finally, attention can be respondent, rapt attention to sensory experience, or instrumental, goal oriented attention.

After discussing the mechanics of attention, Gallagher goes on to make a number suggestions for improving your life based on knowledge of these mechanics. I was disappointed somewhat by this part of the book. Many of her suggestions are facile. However, there is something to be said having them explicitly suggested. The suggestions that most caught my eye were:

  1. Meditation can improve your ability to control your attention. This is possible due to brain plasticity, the fact that your brain can be physically changed by your experiences and actions.

  2. Pay attention to your family. Gallagher cites statistics that show the woeful inattention with which we treat each other.

  3. To make good decisions, be sure to pay attention to the right things. More specifically, Gallagher cites The Paradox Of Choice by Barry Schwartz and reiterates his suggestion of "satisficing." Satisficing is the difficult art of making a choice that satisfies you without over analysing or searching for the perfect choice.

Ultimately, what I got out of Rapt was the admonishment that controlling your attention can have a positive impact on your life. The Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has a wonderful metaphor. What you pay attention to nourishes the seeds in your mind. If you pay attention to positive things in your environment, you will nourish the beautiful flowers of your mind. However, if you pay attention to negative things around you, you will nourish the rank weeds of your mind.

If you are interested in cognitive science or the mechanics of attention, you might enjoy reading this book. If, however, you are looking for some practical advice, it still might be worth a read, but is more likely better skimmed.


Saturday, August 01, 2009

Rhyming Life & Death

Rhyming Life & Death is a strange stream of consciousness multi-point-of-view novel by Israeli novelist Amos Oz. Nominally it is about eight hours of an unnamed author's life on a summer night in Tel-Aviv. The book jumped out at me from the New Books self at my local library. I picked it up in order to replace a book that fell off of my list for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge. Despite finding it touching in places, I was disappointed with the novel.