Monday, 26 September 2016

Good books - September '16

Economics reading has been a bit thin on the ground recently, so instead let me pass on some third party recommendations. Diane Coyle at The Enlightened Economist got asked to recommend "some general reading for someone about to start a masters in public policy" and came up with this reading list. It's excellent: I've read four of them (Reinventing the Bazaar, Who Gets What and Why, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, and Economics Rules), and they were all very good, so I reckon you can trust the rest of the list as well.

And on the strength of this fine review by Deirdre McCloskey in Prospect magazine, I've pre-ordered my copy of economic historian Joel Mokyr's latest, A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy. Out on November 8, the hardback was only $40.71 (postage included) from The Book Depository in the UK. Mokyr's earlier book, The enlightened economy : Britain and the Industrial Revolution, 1700-1850, is also very good, if you'd like an update on where modern thinking has got to on the genesis and progress of the Industrial Revolution in the UK. If you're an economics student in New Zealand and you're interested (as you should be) in economic history, you're going to have to take this DIY route since, apart from a new course AUT is bringing out, there's virtually nothing offered on the economics syllabi anywhere (as I documented here).

Politics: I enjoyed Michael McManus's Edward Heath: A Singular Life. It's not a conventional biography - it started life as an intended collection of tributes and anecdotes from people who knew Heath but morphed as the material accumulated and McManus decided to make something bigger out of it - but it is still fascinating. Towards the end (p366) McManus summarises Heath as a "decent, shy, sometimes frustrated, often difficult, rarely charming, wantonly brusque, proud public servant who always believed in fairness and who loved his country".

People certainly remember the brusqueness and the rudeness - for a politician, he had a remarkably low EQ, and whatever lay behind his odd personality is still not obvious - and he became an even more awkward cuss when he was rolled by Margaret Thatcher. But they don't remember the better bits. Purely on merit, he got to the top of the socially hidebound Conservative Party, the first leader to be elected rather than anointed behind the scenes by the well-connected bigwigs: charmingly, he got nicknamed 'Grocer' by the toffs for his middle-class background. He had an admirable contempt for political spin and artifice, which was one reason he despised Harold Wilson (with, as history goes by, ever clearer justification). He had a life outside politics (talented musician, internationally competitive sailor). And he believed in attempting to reach agreement by principled negotiation in good faith - a fine ambition, and effective in piloting the UK into the European Community, but doomed to founder domestically in the dire industrial relations of the time.

The hardline union leaders of his day would have done better to meet him half-way, as they belatedly discovered from 1979 onwards, but they did for Heath, and the last of any legacy he might have claimed was swept away with Brexit. There are elements of tragedy to his story: they won't leave you feeling hugely sympathetic to the man - even the author, who worked for him, couldn't get that far - but you'll likely end up with a fairer overall view.

History: I was a Great War buff in any event, and didn't need the centenary of the Somme to have a go at the new books out commemorating it. I've finished Hugh Sebag-Montefiore's Somme: Into the Breach, and it's a good, solid introduction to what is still one of the bywords for wholesale slaughter. It also marked the New Zealand Division's blooding on the Western Front, at Flers in September 1916: you'll see the name on WW1 memorials all over New Zealand. Things would get worse again at Passchendaele in 1917.

By happenstance, Sebag-Montefiore uses the NZ Division as an example of the prevalence of venereal disease, of war crimes (killing prisoners) and of kangaroo court martials: he says they were equally prevalent in other units, but I can't say I was best pleased. Fortunately you'll get a better overall picture of our guys from Glyn Harper's Dark Journey: Passchendaele, the Somme and the New Zealand experience on the Western Front, where equally by happenstance I point you to how our chaps (and the Aussies) stopped the last great German offensive of the war in 1918 when General Gough's Fifth Army was running away. And if you want a classic example of Kiwi understatement, it's hard to beat the comment (reported on p467) of one infantryman, burying some of the dead after the battle for Bapaume in September 1918: "when there was only two of us left of our lot, I began to think: This is not too good".

Everyone should read a few of these front-line focussed books - it's still hard to go past Martin Middlebrook's 1971 classic The First Day on the Somme, or any of Lyn Macdonald's books, such as 1915: The Death of Innocence or They Called it Passchendaele - but at some point you'll inevitably start to think higher level thoughts about overall strategy and the meaning of it all. There are many thousands of choices, but one good entry point is J P Harris's relatively recent (2008) biography, Douglas Haig and the First World War.

Glyn Harper worries that much of the Great War, and New Zealand's part in it, is being forgotten, and only partly because Gallipoli overshadows everything else: "It is a tragedy that the events of Passchendaele are largely unknown to the majority of New Zealanders (p138)...Though the struggle to capture the town of Bapaume is a relatively unknown battle in New Zealand's military history, it does not deserve this obscurity. It was one of the most costly and hard-fought battles undertaken by the New Zealand Division on the Western Front (p490)". In these days of 'peace studies' and content-lite curricula, he's probably right. But with so many good books now available, at least there's ample opportunity for people to give themselves the education they should have received in school.

On a lighter note, the great Robert B Parker, who died in 2010, set the gold standard for the modern American private eye story with his long-running Boston-centred Spenser series, with its classic themes of honour, manhood, loyalty, courage, and resistance to being pushed around. Dip in anywhere if you've never tried them: they're all good. The franchise has carried on, initially I think because there were unfinished books in the hopper and more recently because some experienced writers have been able to turn the handle on the formula. I just finished one of these recent ones, Ace Atkins' Robert B Parker's Kickback, about the evil connections between a lock-'em-up judge and a privatised prison operator. Excellent, and indistinguishable from the original.

Peter Corris is fortunately still with us, with his Sydney-based Aussie private eye, Cliff Hardy. The latest in this wonderful atmospheric series is That Empty Feeling, a flashback to corporate shenanigans in the Sydney of the 1980s. And if you liked that, you'll also like Philip Temple's Jack Irish series, set in Melbourne, and probably the non-Irish books Temple has written, too.

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