Archive for the Books Category

Gallows humour

Posted in Books, Words on July 19, 2010 by Johnnie

“It was now the representation of an object that I shudder to name –and for this, above all, I loathed, and dreaded, and would have rid myself of the monster had I dared –it was now, I say, the image of a hideous–of a ghastly thing –of the GALLOWS!–oh, mournful and terrible engine of Horror and of Crime–of Agony and of Death!”

When I first read Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat, it was tucked away amongst some depressingly bad ghost stories in a collection of supernatural tales bought for me by my grandmother.  She was surprisingly willing to indulge what my mother called my ‘morbid streak’, something I am eternally grateful for.  Not long afterwards, I borrowed Poe’s complete works from the school library (an edition my grandmother made sure to buy me soon afterwards) and so began a lifelong love.

But it was a new love that (literally) hung on a single word: gallows. Continue reading

Snark by David Denby

Posted in Books on October 13, 2009 by Johnnie

Nastiness Is A Thing Called Snark

Sunday Business Post, 11th October 2009

snarkWhat is the lowest form of wit? What has replaced the golden age of satire, spoof, burlesque and ingeniously dark comedy? According to David Denby, it’s something known as ‘snark’ -a phenomenon he ominously calls the ‘‘angry fanfare attending journalism’s decline’’.

Denby is a film critic for the New Yorker by trade, but here he turns his critical faculties to issues of style -specifically, the proliferation of a particular type of abuse, which he describes as ‘‘personal insult, low, teasing, rug-pulling, finger-pointing, snide, obvious and knowing’’.

One of Denby’s chief contentions is that snark -a term borrowed from Lewis Carroll –  has grown in popularity in recent years due to the internet.  He demonstrates how blogs and social networking sites like Twitter have become tools for those who simply wish to draw attention to themselves by being as vile and insulting as possible, often without substance or morality to back up their ‘argument’.  In cases like these, where abuse goes viral or becomes self-replicating, the object of the ‘snarking’ can fall victim to a sustained and widespread campaign of low insults – much of it dished out entirely anonymously. Continue reading

Poe Little Puddy Tat

Posted in Books, Dearly Departed, Grave News on April 23, 2009 by Johnnie

“I had walled the monster up within the tomb!”


I couldn’t help but shudder at the story of Richard Parsons, a funeral director from Ugborough, near Plymouth in Devon, whose builders uncovered a 400-year-old mummified cat in the wall of his cottage’s bathroom.   It immediately evokes the terrifying climactic twist of Edgar Allan Poe’s tale, The Black Cat, in which the narrator’s murderous deed is betrayed by his once-beloved ‘moggy’. Cheerfully, there was no human body within this particular cavity to go with the cat. Continue reading

The Idle Parent by Tom Hodgkinson

Posted in Books on April 1, 2009 by Johnnie

idleparentHow to bring up children without lifting a finger

Sunday Business Post, 29 March 2009

In your darkest moments, raising children can feel like a thankless task. You work your fingers to the bone to feed, clothe and shelter them. You spend the remainder of your waking hours ‘interacting’ with them. Then, by the time you’ve got them to bed, you’re too worn out to do much more than fall asleep yourself. Wake up the next day, and the routine begins all over again.

Well, Tom Hodgkinson is here to put an end to all that, with a book that should become essential reading for all prospective parents. Hodgkinson is the editor of The Idler, a bi-annual publication devoted to the ethos of idle living, and he sees no reason why being a parent should involve any hard work at all.

In his philosophy, we are at the mercy of tyrannical governments and adult-run interest groups who want to fill our children’s lives with tests, targets, lengthy school hours and myriad extracurricular activities – all during (as Hodgkinson puts it) ‘‘years that should be devoted to play and joyful learning”.

The Idle Parent begins with a manifesto to, among other things, ‘‘reject the idea that parenting requires hard work” and a pledge to ‘‘leave our children alone”. To do this, parents need to be selfish: don’t give in to consumerism, don’t waste money on expensive holidays or toys, carry on drinking alcohol without guilt, stop working so hard and, for heaven’s sake, have a lie-in. Continue reading

They Is Us by Tama Janowitz

Posted in Books on March 20, 2009 by Johnnie

theyisusCautionary tale of America’s apocalyptic future

Sunday Business Post, 01 March 2009

America may have elected its new president and laid the foundations of its future on a wave of hope – but, as Tama Janowitz’s fascinating and prophetic new novel warns us, its situation may already be hopeless.

Set at the end of the 21st century, a few years after the US has lost a major war with Palestine and Syria, They Is Us centres on one family’s existence in the polluted remains of what was once New Jersey.

An emotionally vulnerable single mother, Murielle is raising her young teenage girls in the rundown suburb, which now sits at the edge of a huge toxic swamp.

Fifteen-year-old Tahnee is the family beauty, but her younger sister, Julie, has all the brains and sensitivity, which she puts to good use in her summer job at a nearby biochemical plant. Here, she feeds and tends some of the bizarre mutant results of animal hybrid experiments, and even rescues some discarded or dying specimens, including feathered rabbits and a cross-bred dog which her beloved, but absent, father, Slawa, has trained to talk. Continue reading

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

Posted in Books on March 12, 2009 by Johnnie

glassroomEngaging Tale Of A Chilling Place In Time 

Sunday Business Post, 25th January 2009

Simon Mawer ‘s powerful and elegiac new novel centres on mankind’s simple but vital need for a place to call home.On their honeymoon in Venice in 1929, the cultured, wealthy couple Viktor and Liesel Landauer meet a maverick architect called Rainer von Abt, who has an ambitious vision to build a rectangular house of glass.

Sharing his modernist viewpoint, the Landauers commission von Abt to create the work on their behalf. The finished house, situated in a Czech city called Mesto (or ‘Place’), is the realisation of a series of elaborate design specifications: a rectilinear structure of glass, concrete and steel, featuring a wall of golden onyx which reflects sunlight in the most colourful way.

On seeing von Abt’s rudimentary sketches, Viktor initially describes the building as ‘cold’ – and although von Abt rebuts his theory, coldness, in all its forms, creeps in and permeates the novel’s narrative. Despite the Landauers’ warmth and optimism, their relationship is undercut by unspoken needs and desires. Continue reading

Book Review: The Numerati – How They’ll Get My Number And Yours, by Stephen Baker

Posted in Books on November 20, 2008 by Johnnie

numerati4Sunday Business Post, 16th November 2008

How the digital dungeon has imprisoned us all

We are all Winston Smith. We are the office functionaries in a new, global Ministry of Truth, where our phonecalls, purchases and blog-postings can all become important fodder for statisticians around the world.

These statisticians are known as the ‘Numerati’. Business Week journalist Stephen Baker has been communicating with them on our behalf for this highly-informative, enlightening and downright terrifying book.

Terrifying? Yes, because there is not, it seems, an area of our lives which cannot be measured and evaluated to a marketable end by these Numerati.

We are already familiar with the concept of the loyalty cards dished out by supermarkets, and how these companies subsequently tailor discount vouchers and ‘special offers’ to our specific shopping habits.

This information also gives them a basis for predictive analysis on future stockholding and marketing focus.

Now, apply that to practically everything we do in our daily lives, and you’re only beginning to see how the Numerati will operate in the new data age.

The Numerati aren’t simply prying into our private lives, they’re also watching what we do when we’re at work – and assessing our aptitude and suitability for our job.

Syrian-born mathematician and IBM researcher Samer Takriti is working on a project which will hone the company’s staff into a computer-readable portfolio of skills.

In effect, big companies such as IBM will be able to recruit job-specific staff by reading and scoring an individual’s suitability, adaptability, salary expectations and other minutiae of detail, in much the same way in which gamers buy players on Football Manager.

But the ultimate effect of this focused data will be to make billions of dollars for companies by rerouting tried and tested marketing devices. Conspicuous consumers will be a pushover, but even the most cynical among us will be susceptible to the new model.

If the Numerati have their way, every advert we inadvertently access in our daily lives will already be perfectly tailored to our needs, and work in tandem with our established habits, idiosyncrasies and lifestyle.

We will be tracked by our online activities, our visits to the GP, our shopping habits, and our mobile phones – there are even ways in which our facial expressions and pulse rates will betray signals we didn’t know we were transmitting. The net result will be a potentially sterile, clinical, entirely customised lifestyle.

Political preachings, retail choices, up-to-the minute insurance updates, even the details of potential soul mates, all of these will, in the Numerati’s grand design, be put in the way of each individual – and to that individual alone.

Even the smallest alterations in our behaviour or actions can be interpreted in dozens of specific ways; we could betray any potentially life-threatening illnesses before we even feel the need to visit a doctor, or be targeted as a potential terrorist before we’ve had the opportunity to cause any damage.

As a business writer, Baker is in supportive awe of these brilliant geeks and their technological and analytical advances which, to this reviewer, still seem too frighteningly fantastical to be real. The ‘Big Brother’ elements seem not to faze him and, as a piece of analysis, The Numerati, while brilliantly written and engaging throughout, too often fails to question the morality of this manipulation of our free will.

Still, it’s hard not to be charmed by the chapter entitled Lover, where traditional humanity and emotion come to the fore.

Baker puts the digital matchmaking programme to the test – and fails to be matched with his wife, with whom he is very much in love. It seems that, at least in affairs of the heart, there may be some way to go before we can all live in mathematically-enhanced, blissfully suffocating ignorance.

If you are in business, this book will be a useful, future-proofing tool. If you are a conspiracy theorist who firmly believes the statisticians had your number aeons ago anyway, this book will confirm all your fears.

If you are sceptical that such laborious, clandestine shenanigans are calculated to give you a global rating or value as a human being, The Numerati will serve to make you one of the new illuminati, however you interpret the findings.

And part of the joy of this is that, if you buy it online or use your card to pay for it, they’ll immediately know you’re on to them.