Book reviews

Have managed to get through a few books this week. One was rather a disappointment. It’s by Jane Bussman, called ‘The Worst Date Ever: War Crimes, Hollywood Hearthrobs and Other Abominations”. It’s a true life story about how the author, a celebrity journalist, developed a crush on a UN negotiator whose picture she saw in a magazine and somehow ended up in northern Uganda reporting on the conflict there in a bid to date him. It’s meant to be a comedy – the author has also written for South Park, Brass Eye and The Fast Show – but I thought the humour was crass, relentless and, well, not funny. The bits that made it worth perservering with though are the bits set in northern Uganda, meeting with child soldiers and army generals. Not sure her analysis of the conflict and the aid effort (she grows to despise what she dubs ‘the Useful People’) would stand up to scrutiny, but it’s an interesting insight.

Have also just finished ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’ which I thought at first was one of those annoying ‘7 secrets of the successful whatever’ books, but was actually quite thought-provoking. It’s divided into two sections, Opportunity and Legacy. Opportunity looks at how being born in the right place at the right time in the right circumstances can make the difference between success and relative failure – e.g. looking at how Bill Gates and Steve Jobs managed to hit the computing wave just as it gathered momentum. Legacy looks at how cultural factors play a role – e.g. why men from the southern states of the USA are more likely than their northern countrymen to ‘lose it’ when they’re insulted (because they come from a ‘culture of honour’) – and ‘the ethnic theory of plane crashes’, which is all about cultural willingness to challenge authority or to speak without ambiguity and Hofstede’s Dimensions. If you enjoyed Freakonomics, you’d probably like this.

To me it was particularly interesting to look at the factors that influence educational success, and the differing outcomes for children, all of stunningly high IQ, from different family backgrounds. Children who grew up in an atmosphere of ‘concerned cultivation’ (i.e. where their talents were identified earlier, and measures taken to encourage those talents to flourish) did much better than those who were raised in an atmosphere of ‘natural growth’ (i.e. where the kids were pretty much left to get on with it). And what determines whether a child is raised in the first or second environment? Class, of course.

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