Friday, 22 February 2013

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

The sequel to 'Wolf Hall' and a bit of a publishing sensation in the UK in last couple of years. All things Tudor have become of much wider interest as a result.

It is a little less good than Wolf Hall because, perhaps, the novelty of feeling so close to the mind of Thomas Cromwell has worn off. There is also a lot more court politics to cram in and, because you know what is going to happen (Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII's second wife, is going to get her head chopped off), there is a feeling that certain scenes have to be got out of the way in order to meet the narrative zenith, if that is what it should be called.

But that is a cavil, really. The characters are vivid and the technicalities of getting stuff done in that era are very well described. And Cromwell has become a brilliant character in his own right. A film must be in train somewhere - who will play Cromwell?

Thursday, 14 February 2013

What Money Can't Buy - the moral limits of markets by Michael Sandel

I was given this book after hearing Professor Sandel doing a series on BBC Radio where he led philosophical discussions on morally difficult issues. He does the same thing in this book.

It is a good read and his argument is made clearly and crisply. Perhaps there are a few too many examples to support the same point. For example, he cites the actions of baseball clubs, healthcare providers and a few others to illustrate how the commercialisation of any good changes the way it is perceived and valued.

He is of course right that markets have become the default method for organising the supply and demand of all goods, including public goods. Market theory goes largely unchallenged. But when a good is priced and then distributed according to ability to pay, the way people value it changes. Altruism and public spiritedness (how old fashioned those concepts sound in the marketised world we live in) are pushed aside.

He also emphasises how the selling for money of some things, like names of stadiums or railway stations, or advertising space on police cars, demeans the very thing that  makes it valuable in the first place. He argues that there is no 'right' answer to all this, only that we think about each case before rushing to sell public goods to the highest financial bidder.

He or a clone of him should sit on every public authority and government board.

Maigret and the Burglar's Wife by Georges Simenon

My second Maigret novel. I have never easily been able to read books purely for diversion. I have always felt a certain requirement, even a duty, to read books somehow improving and of literary quality. Simenon is a fine writer, so no worries on that score with this book or, I suspect, other Maigret novels. But they are short detective novels, following a form.

In this one, Maigret is told of a body in odd circumstances and he pursues the lead, despite the absence of a body, to catch a murderer.

I like the evocation of 1950s France and the characters are believable if only sketched. Diverting, which is what you want for something to read on a train or a plane,

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Quite a long book, this one. A bit slow at times but ultimately satisfying. A large part of the book is about various alternative realities and how people pass between them. It is not always clear that what is being narrated is supposed actually to be happening. But that doesn't matter, since the story is seen very much through the single consciousness of the protagonist, Toru Okada.

I really liked the evocation of Japan that comes with the book. I was lucky enough to live there for a couple of years so perhaps it resonated more with me than it would with someone who had never been there.

The translation is excellent and very consistent, though I can't say how faithfully the style of the author has been transmitted. In this English version, however, it is understated and humble, making some of the dramatic events described all the more shocking.

A hypnotic, slow-burning read.