Monday, 26 April 2010

That Clinking Clanking Sound - Liar's Poker by Michael Lewis

I'm a leftie. A European leftie, which in US terms probably translates as 'commie scum'. On the polotical compass site I come out left and south of Gandhi, comrade. So I'm pretty much implacably opposed to the philosophy that's ruled economic policy in the US and the UK since 1979. Free market philosophy? Utter bollocks, that's like leaving a garden and hoping the lawn will mow itself, and the flowers will self-trim nicely. It doesn't happen, the strongest and most cunning plants (yeah, there's triffids in this analogy...) will overwhelm the lesser ones, sucking all the goodness from the soil and leaving you with an ugly, tangled mess that might take years to sort. Me personally, I blame the philosophy and those who implemented it, you can feel free to blame who you want, but it did crash rather spectacularly in 2008. And if you want an insight into the culture which birthed the ugliest of economic messes, you can simply go back to this 21 year old book. It's frightening that a book detailing the failings of Wall Street, detailing the background to the last great economic crash, demonstrates how little really changed in nearly 20 years. And it does it in a simple way that most books about economics seem incapable of, either by inclination or inability to see outside a limited worldview.

Of course, that may just be the autobiographical nature of the book, but then it's a rarity in that it's an autobiography tinged with self-awareness and humility. Autobiography requires something of an ego, but I'd imagine those qualities are fairly unique when it comes to books about Wall Street. Lewis demonstrates how easy it is to get sucked into the Wall Street mentality when young, and how hard it is to get out of it. It's not so much swimming with sharks as trying not to get eaten in a sea full of them.

Liar's Poker shares Moneyball's great strength, being able to convey what may be complex subjects to relative laymen in clear terms without ever talking down to the reader. More than that, he brings what could be dry, dull subjects to life and renders them fascinating.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man - And Another Thing by Eoin Colfer

If there's one book that falls into the cliche of life changing for me, it's The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. I'm fairly sure I picked it up after seeing a repeat of the TV series in the early 80s, although given the judiciously employed swearing and sex and drinking references I'm not sure my parents quite realised what they were letting an eight year old loose on. You can learn plenty from Douglas Adams about the precise use of swearing for maximum impact, actually you can learn a lot about rhythm and use of language. But it wasn't just the language that I found educational, rather it was the worldview. Not the determinedly scientific rationalist viewpoint (there's a lovely description somewhere which paraphrases as 'Nietzche with jokes') but rather the absurdism, that everything looks utterly ridiculous with time and the right viewpoint, and that in reality no-one really knows what they're doing. It's a blessing and a curse that I can't take too much seriously after being Adamsed.

Nothing dates so fast as the future though, and Hitchhikers is no exception. It was originally written at the end of the 70s, where technology was still racing and no-one was quite sure how fast it could develop. The eponymous conceit looked centuries off when it was written, now iPhones, Blackberries and other assorted mobiles have the internet in your pocket, giving a resource as wide ranging and reliable as the Guide. I've actually got the Don't Panic logo from the TV series as my phone wallpaper in tribute. And all those digital watch jokes look positively prehistoric. It's also very wordy for such a short book, the style dating in the way of Wodehouse - still elegant, still funny but oh so redolent of the time it was written. And there's the case of diminishing returns, with Adams becoming seemingly less interested in jokes as he grew older - Mostly Harmless and even So Long, and Thanks for All The Fish being only faintly ridiculous as opposed to outright genius. But there was always the style, the wonderful, exasperated way with words to carry you through. Which is why I was wary of anyone attempting to follow in Adams' keystrokes. To follow Adams you'd need to not only follow that unique way with words, but also his mindset and sense of humour. That's a job for which the phrase 'tough gig' was invented.

I admit to a liking for Eoin Colfer. Although he's only written children's books to this point, his work that I've read shows a reasonably similar sense of humour, even if it's been applied mainly to fantasy. And the talk I saw him give at the Hay Festival a couple of years back confirmed he's both funny and razor sharp. If I had a choice it would probably have been 'leave the whole H2G2 universe alone', but if Adams' estate had to succumb to the sequelmania running riot in pop culture (yep, Clint Mansell and co were right, pop is eating itself), then Colfer wasn't a dispiriting choice. Unusual perhaps, but that's often a better choice than obvious.

To his credit Colfer doesn't try to be Douglas Adams. Instead, what we get is the literary equivalent of a good cover version - a different spin on familiar themes. Arthur is recognisably Arthur, Ford doesn't get much to do but is very Ford and Zaphod only has half the heads he usually has but is otherwise as hoopy a frood as ever. I wasn't quite sure about Trillian though, who seemed to lack a little spark, nor about lifting Wowbagger, a beautifully conceived one joke character, to one of the leads. Might as well have lifted my favourite H2G2 character Agrajag to top billing. They're fabulous one joke characters, but the focus of the story incinerates what made the character so great in the first place. That said, when Colfer restricts the references to the point where they simply flavour the story they work well (the aforementioned Agrajag being a case in point). One criticism on that score though, I'm not sure of his linguistic use of frood, I'd always thought it was a noun, but then being picky about the grammar of made up words is a touch picky. But this is always the familiar universe, full of bureaucracy, incompetence and accidental brilliance.

Colfer does stay in his comfort zone in that fantasy elements are far more prominent than they ever were in Adams' Hitchhiker books. The use of the Norse Gods is far more in keeping with the Dirk Gently novels - I was half expecting him to pop up in a cameo role. Despite being closer to fantasy than any of the previous entries in the series, the approach he takes to religion is well in keeping with the absurdist approach of the rest of the series, with gods whoring themselves out for worshippers. And Colfer happily lets his Irish roots show with the last surviving outpost of humanity essentially being an Irish outpost.

The nature of the book's summed up by the nature of the conflict on the colony, Nano. Even though the colony's pure Colfer, the nature of the conflict we see there's perfect Adams, the rebels seemingly descendants of the Golgafrinchan B Ark. It's Adams as lensed through Colfer, tribute without becoming pastiche. As such, it never feels quite right compared to the previous books in the series, but it's far from the travesty it could have been - it certainly wouldn't be a candidate for lists such as those in Pulp's Bad Cover Version. But is does leave the lingering question - are these sequels necessary, or just pandering to the nostalgia to those of us of a certain age?