Tasty, bite-sized economics: Fifty things that made the modern economy

A History of the World in 100 Objects was my first foray into books that use something small to describe something big, and I’ve been reading them ever since.

Luckily this has proved to be a popular concept, with topics ranging from Fifty Plants That Changed the Course of History, Swindled: From Poison Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee, to Banana: A Global History. Each book is like a museum exhibition with each chapter a different exhibit, perfect for dipping into and reading aloud interesting facts to your long-suffering friends.

My most recent read was a little out of my comfort zone — Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy, by Tim Harford.

Cover of Fifty things that made the modern economy by Tim Harford

Hearing the words “modern” and economy” generally gives me an expression similar to my cat after he’s eaten a moth, but luckily the content delivers. Harford writes in an incredibly engaging, conversational style. Often I slog through non-fiction books as the information density can be overwhelming even if fascinating, but Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is as readable as a novel. Each section is so short that I found it difficult to stop at the end of one chapter and not just continue on to the next.

Even more mundane-seeming inventions like the plough had far reaching effects on almost every aspect of society, a symptom of a changing life from nomadic to settled, and influencing gender relations as well as our diet (not necessarily for the better). In fact a lot of our steps forward as a species have unintentionally brought us a step back in other ways. We spend a lot less time preparing food due to ready-meals and supermarkets, but our nutrition has suffered as a result. I suppose one good thing is that by constantly creating new problems for ourselves, we’ll never run out of things to do.

Due to the nature of a long list each entry is by necessity relatively brief, but each builds on the previous chapters — Harford points out all the ways in which an invention is reliant on those that came before, or the perfect timing for an invention to take off. Some were invented several times before they caught on, and others it was only a matter of time before it was invented by someone. History is a mess of happy accidents, lucky timing and reinventing the wheel.
If you’re interested in economics, history or want to know why anyone could get excited about double-entry bookkeeping, I’d recommend dipping into Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy.

Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy
by Tim Harford
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781408709115

Celebrate International Women’s Day with Stephen King’s Sleeping Beauties

Stephen and Owen King have gender issues.

Dooling is a place where people live on a knife edge; work hard, drink hard. Women around the world bear the brunt of this in their daily lives. Some have gone to prison for fighting back.

Tiffany lives in a trailer at the edge of a forest. She’s regularly beaten by the man who has enslaved her to drugs.

Superhumanly beautiful, a naked woman comes down from the forest and changes everything.

All over the world women succumb to an enchantment. (Or sickness depending on which books you read.) Falling asleep, they form moth-like cocoons around themselves. The women are not dead, merely sleeping.

Where has their consciousness gone? Wake them and you’ll find out – in a terrible bloody way. They turn into very angry zombies.

Lila is the local Police Chief. She loves her husband. Or does she? Suspicious of his love, resentful over the pool he made her agree to (first world problems, LOL), Lila has a choice to make.

Fighting the curse valiantly, (and not without the aid of some confiscated contraband), Lila eventually closes her eyes and crosses over… to the world beyond the huge tree in the forest; a world without men. The idea appeals to many – inmates like Jeannette, wives like Elaine.

Without their women, the men left behind get depressed, go nuts, drink and burn things. Some prepare for battle.

If Evie, the woman who began this series of events, is killed in the inevitable battle between good and evil, the women stay in the place beyond the Tree forever.

If she lives, they get to choose if they want to stay in what they have come to call “Our Place”, or come back to the world of men. It’s a difficult choice for some. (The honeymoon period only lasts about eight weeks according to S.K.)

There is a suggestion here that the characters are at war with Nature and God. Has Evie come from the Garden of Eden?

“Once I’m dead, the portal between this world and the land of sleep will close. Every woman will eventually nighty-night, every man will eventually die, and this tortured world will breathe an enormous sigh of lasting relief.” Evie, p.362

The tree motif is a great link to the world of faerie. Trees have been doors to other worlds (than this) in many stories. The Kings enchant the normal world with ‘fairy handkerchiefs’ (spider webs in the grass), clouds of moths, a snake, and a tiger…

Always an advocate for women (see Big Driver) this latest offering is well written, topical (the senior King jokes about Trump), and thrilling without being too brutal.

Stephen and Owen have crafted a riveting read with the characterisation that fans love him for. He even throws in a book group or two.

Suggested reading

Sleeping beauties
by Stephen and Owen King
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781473665200

Strange weather: Four great reads in one

Previously, short stories have always been studiously avoided by me and I admit now, I might be guilty of misjudging them. Given that I always feel quite time poor you would think that short stories would rate quite highly with me, but this has never been the case. Until now. Joe Hill’s Strange Weather is an excellent collection of four short stories.

This is what you can look forward to:

Rain – America descends into chaos with sharp glass icicles raining from the sky with lethal results to those unfortunate enough to be caught outside. Of course it doesn’t take long for the vagaries of human nature to emerge and for polar changes to happen in people that used to coexist quietly together.

Strange Weather

Loaded –   Extra marital affairs, mental health issues and guns are never a good combination. America has a rather large gun problem and Loaded quite neatly flips between the pros and cons of easy access to guns while dealing with these issues. Like me; you may find yourself wishing that the good guy had a gun to hand by the end.

Snapshot – The story of a teenager that finds himself being threatened by the owner of a futuristic device that can steal aspects of a person’s memory with the click of a button. He has seen the loss and heartache that it causes to his old housekeeper and finds a way to prevent this from happening to other people.

Aloft – Imagine going skydiving for the first time. In addition to the terrifying thought of throwing yourself out of a perfectly good plane; you crash into a solid ‘cloud’ that can anticipate your needs and wants to keep you. And your only way off is to jump.

I had to stop myself wanting to know too much about why and how these things happened. That’s not what these stories are about. They are about ordinary people being thrust into extraordinary circumstances that change their lives forever. And they are really well written.

The best part about discovering an author that you really like is finding out that they have written plenty of other books for you to get your teeth into. Joe Hill is the author and co-author of several novels, graphic novels and short stories so why not try some of these other titles by him?

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And what about some short stories by other authors…

Cover of Everything's eventualCover of Match upCover f Legoland

Strange Weather
by Joe Hill
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781473221178

New York = SuperVenice: 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Sometimes it’s tough to step out of your comfort zone. We all have out preferred authors, genres and styles and it is very easy to stay in our little bubble and miss out on gems from the genres we avoid. I am very guilty of this. I generally gravitate to small, personal stories and biographies ignoring the genres of fantasy, mystery and science fiction. Especially science fiction, which often strikes me as dry, impersonal, intimidating (I was rubbish at science) and not a lot of fun.  However, we all know change is good and really, can a genre be all bad? Thinking it is about time I expanded my horizons, I decided to give New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robertson a go and I am pleased to say I was not disappointed.

2140 takes place in New York City after climate change has radically altered the face of the planet. Sea levels have risen 50 feet killing millions in the process. 2140 looks at the lives of people living in the city that has been nicknamed “SuperVenice”. Streets have become canals and people travel in skywalks between high rise buildings or ride the streets on boats or jetskis.

2140 weaves together the lives of the residents of Met Life Tower, to bring to life a city that is both post-apocalyptic and rather utopian. The lives of all these characters eventually tell a story that warns the reader of the dangers of environmental and political inaction. Aside from the obvious references to our response (or lack thereof) to climate change the book draws parallels to the world’s recent financial crisis’s and the problems of unchecked capitalism.

The detail in 2140 is extraordinary with the imagined histories of the future New York, its people and its infrastructure exhaustively and lovingly laid out by an anonymous narrator throughout the book. It’s the kind of obsessive detail and back story that is so often found in sci-fi that I often find hard to take and that some readers might find a bit of a slog to get through. In this case, for me, it all added to the realism and drew me further into the story.

2140 is an engaging and thought-provoking book filled with big ideas and big messages. It’s both a dire warning of what might happen if the world does not act quickly to curb climate change and a hopeful vision of humanity adapting and thriving even after the worst has happened. If you are a sci-fi fan you should absolutely read it, if like me you are generally not a sci-fi reader, give it a go. The story is compelling and the characters relatable, relevant and most of all, human. No science degree required.

New York 2140
by Kim Stanley Robinson
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9780356508764

Simon
New Brighton Library

How to survive the end of the world : Defender by GX Todd

I’ve sometimes wondered what life would be like if all I had left were the boots on my feet…

With recommendations from Lee Child and John Connolly, Defender is British author GX Todd ‘s extraordinary debut novel.

Defender is set in a dystopian future where most humans have succumbed to a disease that makes people crazy – hearing voices that tell them to kill others and then themselves.

In the first book of a four-part Voices series, Defender sets the scene as protagonists Lacey – young, cheeky but calculating and Pilgrim – tough on the outside but with a seriously soft heart – meet for the first time.

In Defender, Todd sets up the relationship of Lacey and Pilgrim, who she only knows as “Boy Scout.” Pilgrim’s character is world weary. He reminds me of Bruce Willis. Perhaps this is because he was The Last Boy Scout but I’m already imagining the movie.

Lacey is desperate to find people. But not so desperate that she doesn’t use her wits. Or the shotgun she’s very competent with.

Not at all stupid, Lacey is a young woman to be reckoned with. Pilgrim would do well to listen to her instincts. She soon finds that the escape and community she had hoped for will not be easily won: not all survivors want community; many want power.

Pilgrim dispatches these human predators with expertise. Pilgrim just keeps moving. Wary, he keeps to himself. He relies on his wits, avoiding others who could slow him down or worse.  He hasn’t counted on picking up two women and a cat in the first few chapters.

He keeps the Voice in his head to himself as well.

Over a glass of lemonade Lacey cleverly tricks Pilgrim into taking her away from the home town she’s been stuck in for seven years.

Some of the content in this book is brutal: it’s a brutal world – yet Todd conveys characters’ suffering with sympathy; the brutality is integral to the plot. Yet there is a layer of female self-awareness in the text. GX Todd writes with feeling without being sentimental. She writes with a mastery of language: her physical, descriptive passages are so well written that they aren’t flowery or wordy, but give the reader a clear perception of events:

(Pilgrim) eased lower into the seat, his eyes heavy-lidded. “Get off the highway at the next off-ramp…and don’t stop for anybody.” He sank down, down into the seat’s foamy embrace, until he was encased on all sides, as if lying in a plush, slumberous coffin.” (p. 130)

Chapters alternate between the points of view of the two main characters, often replaying a scene from each character’s point of view. Until the lines become crossed…

This book brings to mind Stephen King’s The Stand ; a classic post apocalyptic battle of good vs evil. In this story there is also a man collecting people he deems special to master plan…

It Defender also makes me think of Bird Box – another great dystopian story in which most of the world have not only been driven murderously crazy, but also blind…

Dystopia : a community or society that is undesirable or frightening …

Defender
by G. X. Todd
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781472233097