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

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

Harry Potter and the Cursed Sequel

Based on a story by JK Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is the transcript of the celebrated London play. The story takes place 19 years after the battle of Hogwarts or, (in muggle terms), ten years after publication of ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’, the last instalment in this beloved series.

Harry, now married to Ginny, is the father of three children, and works for the Ministry of Magic (couldn’t they have given Harry a slightly cushier job? I mean we muggles would at least have given him a knighthood …).

Ron has taken over Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes’ (he kind of helped to save the world too by the way people, just saying, headmaster of Hogwarts maybe?…). Hermione and Ron are happily married with a daughter, and that is all we care about, right? Wrong. The main focus of this story is on Harry’s difficult relationship with his son Albus. Living in the shadow of his father, Albus Potter is a bitter, alienated teen, with something to prove, and slowly, as the story goes on, well, he doesn’t really prove it. He does however cultivate a great friendship with Draco Malfoy’s wonderfully drawn son, Scorpius. Fun, endearing, and emotionally intelligent, Scorpius saves this play from just being a bit of a cheesy reunion with the Harry Potter cast. There is some good banter between the two such as:

Albus: We’re ready to put our lives at risk.
Scorpius: Are we?

How Draco produced a real brick, and Harry produced a bit of a plank, is something we will gloss over, as we will the fact that Harry, perhaps the greatest wizard of all time, still wears glasses and hasn’t managed to conjure up some twenty/twenty vision for himself after all these years.

The story centres around the death of Cedric Diggory at the Triwizard tournament, back in Harry’s fourth year at Hogwarts. Albus and Scorpius, determined to correct the past, end up rewriting the past with dangerous consequences. There are some traditional, and ever welcome, Rowling plot devices along away- such as poly juice potions, time turners, and appearances at Hogwarts. Like the main Harry Potter novels, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is very character driven and fans will be thrilled by appearances from old characters like Snape, Dumbledore, and even Harry’s parents.

While this did have a bit of a fan fiction feel about it for me, I loved getting the chance to hang out with the Harry Potter crew again. I grew up with Harry, Ron and Hermione, so, like any respectable Harry Potter fan, reading this was not an opportunity to be passed up on. While the plot wasn’t a typically clever, intricate Rowling plot, it certainly kept me engaged until the very end, and I enjoyed a lot of the fun dialogue:

GINNY: I’m scared too. 
RON: Nothing scares me. Apart from. Mum.

Harry-ites will have to bear in mind that ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ is in play format, and was not written by Rowling herself, if they want to have a good time reading this. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was always going to be a bit of cursed sequel as most fans have been gagging for a follow up for the past ten years. The pressure to be as good as the rest of a bestselling series is always huge, not made easier in this situation by the fact that Rowling herself is not the writer. If you are keen to make some allowances and not expect a ‘sequel’, I guarantee you’ll just have a fun time reuniting with the world of Harry Potter again. After all, as Albus Dumbledore said, ‘perfection is beyond the reach of humankind’. Except, I will add, if it has been written by JK Rowling.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child parts 1 and 2.
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand

Mothers’ Day : From Cradle to Stage by Virginia Hanlon Grohl

When Nirvana catapulted drummer Dave Grohl to fame, his Mum, Virginia, was surprised to be the mother of a Rock Star. Then when Dave reinvented himself as frontman of the Foo Fighters, Virginia quit teaching and began to travel the road. She didn’t often meet other mothers at gigs, but always wanted to talk to them about how music shaped their lives.

From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the mothers who rocked and raised rock stars by Virginia Hanlon Grohl. Image supplied by Hachette New Zealand.
From Cradle to Stage by Virginia Hanlon Grohl. Image supplied by Hachette New Zealand.

Eventually Virginia embarked (in her seventies), on a two-year journey to find the “special sorority of mothers of musicians” with whom she could talk about “the trials and joys of raising creative children.” The result is her new book From Cradle to Stage: My son the rock star and the remarkable stories from the mothers who rocked and raised music’s greatest.

Like herself, many of these moms raised their kids solo, holding down several jobs to keep food on the table. While some mothers were okay with their kids quitting school to commit to music, others weren’t – Verna Griffin, Dr Dre’s Mom, worried that her son would be absorbed into the gang scene. (Dr Dre is 51 now!)

Virginia grew up in the Midwest, but Dave and his sister Lisa grew up in Washington, D.C. – a much more sophisticated environment. As a young mother she shared her music with her children (Dave remembers learning to harmonize along with Carly Simon on the car radio) and as he got older, Dave was sharing hard rock and metal with Virgina.

With a foreword from Dave himself, From Cradle to Stage is a tribute to the mothers who encouraged their kids to be creative and follow that star.

Sprinkled with personal ‘vignettes’ from Viriginia, Dave, Nirvana and the Foos, From the Cradle to the Stage chronicles the lives of eighteen musicians – from the army background of Michael Stipe , the early beginnings of The Beastie Boys, to the tragic end to the lives of  Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain.

I really like her style. A former English teacher, Virginia writes a relaxed, entertaining, and at times moving story. It’s not only about people’s lives and roots,  but contains slices of American history as well. It’s so interesting to read of each artists’ first sparks to creativity. For Dr Dre, it was GrandMaster Flash. Yeah.

This book is for everyone. The musicians cover a range of ages and even your Mum/Mom would enjoy it (Virginia even blanks out the F-words).

The mother of the ‘nicest guy in rock’ knows her stuff – using some pretty sophisticated terms (e.g. Minority Rap, Thug Rap in Dr Dre’s chapter – not Gangster Rap) but the last word goes to Dave:

There is no love like a mother’s love. It is life’s greatest song. We are all indebted to the women who gave us life. For without them, there would be no music.

Listen to Kim Hill interviewing Virginia Hanlon Grohl 22 April  RNZ

From Cradle to Stage: My son the rock star and the remarkable stories from the mothers who rocked and raised music’s greatest
by Virginia Hanlon Grohl
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781473639560

The Little Breton Bistro

CoverI was pretty much chomping at the bit to get my hands on this new novel by Nina George, the author of the international bestselling novel The Little Paris Bookshop. I completely fell in love with her break through novel of love, joy and grief, partly due to its true to life characters which felt as real as people I have known, and partly due to its fabulous theme of ‘the literary apothecary’, a theme that would of course warm the heart of any librarian.

CoverI was not disappointed by George’s second adventure through France The Little Breton Bistro – this time through the story of Marianne Messmann, an endearing sixty year old woman who has endured forty one years in a loveless marriage to Lothar, an inconsiderate and unfaithful sergeant major. When we first meet Marianne, she is on a visit to Paris with her husband. She is determined to finally do something she wants to do, namely, end her life.

Fatefully, Marianne is rescued from her attempt by a homeless man, and, even more fatefully, she is inspired to make a second attempt at suicide in Brittany – due to a painting of its striking seaside which she sees during her convalescence. Marianne’s adventure in Brittany takes her instead on a moving journey to self discovery as her captivating surroundings, and warm, colourful new friends, enable her to rediscover and treasure life again.

This is ultimately a warm and inspiring story despite George’s often stark realization of life’s’ complexities and cruelties. George is a sensitive author with a keen understanding of human frailty and a gift for expressing human emotions. She is also a master of evocative prose and made me feel as though I was present drinking in the sea and observing the Breton people along with Marianne.

Few writers would be able to capture the images and feel of France so well as Nina George. She has made me decide that actually, I have no need to go to these places now that I have read her gorgeous descriptions. Nina George is one of those magical writers who manages to evoke a world for readers to eagerly absorb and ultimately lose themselves in. I loved every moment of my time with Marianne, and, like millions of others, I am eagerly waiting for the next English translation of her novels now that we have finally discovered this beloved German writer for ourselves.

Helen J

The Little Breton Bistro
by Nina George
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9780349142227