Sunday, August 3, 2014

Micro-Reviews of Books Read, July 2014

Reviews of books read last month: two short novels, two books on
economics, and a book about the man who recovered the manuscript
that allegedly launched the Renaissance.

1. "Whatever" by Michel Houellebecq

This short novel is set in the 1990s in France. The narrator is a 30
year-old IT worker. He's single, and unhappy with both his job and
life in general. He doesn't have a lot of nice things to say about
his co-workers or his clients, either. Mid-way through the novel he
confesses: "I don't like this world ... The society in which I live
disgusts me; advertising sickens me; computers make me puke."
Unfortunately, he does not seem to provide any alternatives.

Described as "L'Etranger for the info generation", this is a book
you'll either love or hate. I'm afraid I fall into the latter
category. I had hoped it would at least provide a glimpse at what
it's like to work in IT. Alas, no. It could really be about any
clerical/office work, in any era.

2. "Messenger" by Lois Lowry

This is the third book in "The Giver" Quartet, which are all set in
a post-apocalyptic future. This story picks up a few years after
"Gathering Blue", and describes life in the Village where outcasts
from other places have been welcomed and appear to thrive despite
their disabilities. Unfortunately, this idyll is falling apart due
to the greed, vanity and selfishness of some of the villagers. The
central character, Matty, is now a teenager and acts as messenger
between the Village and nearby towns. Until recently the living
Forest allowed him free passage, but that seems to be changing.
When the Villagers decide to close themselves off from everyone
else, Matty decides to get her friend Kira to come to the Village
to be reunited with her father before it's too late.

The series is aimed at younger readers, and that probably made the
plot a bit simple and predictable. But I still found it enjoyable.

3. "The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began" by Stephen Greenblatt

Poggio Bracciolini was an ex-Vatican official who became a successful
book hunter in the 15th century. A colourful character, he served as
an official for seven popes, eventually rising to the post of papal
secretary. Mid-way through his career, power struggles in the papacy
forced him into temporary exile. He embarked on a search for ancient
manuscripts scattered in various remote monastery libraries around
Europe. He is credited with recovering many classical Latin
manuscripts. The author argues that one manuscript in particular,
"De rerum natura" by Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, was the
key to the development of Humanism. Its rediscovery kick-started the
Renaissance, and influenced French rationalism, the American Founding
Fathers, and our modern world.

I mostly enjoyed reading about the book hunters of the early
Renaissance. Poggio comes across as a bit of an Indiana Jones type
of guy. Unfortunately, the author's strong anti-religious sentiment
somewhat distorts his argument. He focuses on the negatives without
giving credit for the positive influence of the Church on art, for
example. Other reviewers question the validity of the author's
thesis, in light of the findings of other historians.

4. "The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to Run - or Ruin -
    an Economy" by Tim Harford

This book looks at economics at the macro or national level. It is
written in a conversational manner, answering questions from a typical
person-in-the-street. It guides the reader through monetary policy
(money and interest rates) and fiscal policy (taxes, spending and
welfare). It examines effect of policies on unemployment, productivity
and growth. These are heavy and complex topics, which the author
manages to explain in an accessible way.

This book should should appeal to anyone with an open mind and an
interest in the various approaches to managing economies. It should
also make readers wary of any politicians who claim to have a simple
solution for a country's economic problems. The author has written
other good books on economics, and recently released a series of
short podcasts, "Pop-Up Ideas":

5. "Think Like a Freak" by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

This is another book about economics, but with a focus on the micro
level: how individuals make decisions in their everyday lives about
things such as money, work, love, crime and education. This book
expands on the themes of the authors' previous books, Freakonomics
and SuperFreakonomics. Key ideas include making sure the right costs
are considered (forget sunk costs but acknowledge opportunity costs),
how to frame incentives, applying game theory, and accepting that
it's okay to say "I don't know" or think like a child.

The authors use entertaining case studies backed up by relevant
research to provide advice on how to "think smarter about almost
everything". Many of the topics have been covered in their
Freakonomics podcast: