Crashed – How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World

A decade on, there is a case for a reassessment of the financial crash of 2008 which first became evident in the US, together with its aftermath on a global scale. Apart from the risk of producing a work that is simultaneously both overly superficial by reason of being so wide-ranging, and too confusing when it comes to referring to complex investment procedures, there is the question of whether a book is directed narrowly as academics or intended to enlighten reasonably well-informed general readers. There are many examples of books which manage to straddle both stools, page turners backed up with impressive bibliographies. I have the impression that this is what “Crashed” is meant to be, but for me it does not succeed in this.

One problem here is that the book requires such a good grasp of economics, financial speculation and politics that anyone possessing it would be unlikely to need to read it in the first place. Adam Tooze makes a promising start, explaining mortgage-backed securities (dodgy if based on loans issued to buyers who may not be able to repay them) or the “repo” system” – a risky form of speculation involving paying for a purchase of securities by reselling them. However, in describing how the crisis developed not only in the States but also the UK and the Eurozone, the author gets on a roll of journalese and no longer troubles to explain obscure acronyms and jargon of the trade. If one is only grasping the gist of the argument, of which one was already aware, is there any point in continuing?

There are also too many distracting digressions such as at the outset in Chapter 1, where the author goes on about the “The Hamilton Project” commenced on Obama’s watch, without clearly stating what it was.

The book contains a number of interesting insights on, for instance, the role of China in financing rampant speculation with its bloated trade surplus, or on the economic and political role of Germany , but I found that digging these out of the verbiage was hard work.

I recommend finding more systematic and focused studies of this fascinating subject, before perhaps returning to this book, which is perhaps better dipped into for reference , or read with the selection of specific chapters of interest, forearmed, of course, with a proper understanding of the working of government bonds, exchange and interest rates and so on.

“Educated” by Tara Westover – the price of “a change of self”

Educated: The international bestselling memoir

The youngest of seven children, Tara Westover was brought up after a bizarre fashion in rural Idaho by a father whose dominant and possibly bi-polar personality fed an extreme form of Mormonism. Using his children as cheap labour, Gene Westover (most family names used are pseudonyms) ran a scrapyard with scant regard for health and safety. He regarded the succession of gruesome injuries which ensued as God-given opportunities to prove the efficacy of the herbal remedies his submissive wife spent much of her time concocting. Hospitals were dangerous places run by “gentiles” to be avoided at all costs, antibiotics and analgesics likely to cause permanent harm. He was obsessed with storing up food and fuel for the long awaited Days of Abomination, the period of chaos which would precede the Second Coming of Christ, which he was convinced would be triggered by Y2K, the expected January 1st 2000 millennium computer failure. His other great obsession was to avoid corrupting state education, insisting that his children be home-schooled, but in such an unorganised way that they were left with no qualifications and woefully ignorant.

As soon as they were old enough, his offspring left home, either to drive trucks and do manual work, which generally meant they drifted back eventually, or as the only means of obtaining an education. Perhaps because she was a girl for whom “book-learning” was considered a particular waste of time since her “destiny” was to become a good wife and mother, Tara found it particularly hard to break free and get into college. Yet through ability and determination combined with the luck of catching the eye of a tutor at the Mormon college who could see her potential, she won a place on a study programme at Cambridge and gained a PhD by her late twenties.

This memoir often seems disjointed, even incoherent and inconsistent when dealing with the more dramatic events. The author admits to the problem of remembering exactly what happened when, say, a brother’s clothing caught fire in the scrapyard, or of dealing with differing recollections of the same incident. This may be what led to her interest in “historiography”, of the varied ways in which historians interpret the past. However, there’s no denying that I was left with the impression that much of the drama had gained in the telling. Apart from the frequent ability to avoid death or paralysis after falling from a great height or gaining third degree burns, there are a litany of inconsistencies.

Admittedly, his psychosis may serve as an excuse, but if Tara’s father forcibly pulled Tara’s sleeves down for the sake of modesty when she was working in the yard on a hot day, why did he let her put on make up to go out repeatedly with a local boy after work? I could understand “Dad’s” somewhat ungodly pride in her singing abilities, but would he have let her mother dye her hair red for her lead part in “Annie”? Would Tara’s parents have paid for her to have orthodontic treatment when they had not done so for her brother Shawn, and had such a horror of medical treatment? When she eventually reached King’s College Cambridge, lacking in confidence and nervous of drawing attention to herself, would she really have either sought or been permitted to stride up the sloping tiles to walk along the ridge during a tour of the roof?

Despite these reservations, this is an intriguing insight into how abuse of power and emotional blackmail may distort family relationships, leading to self-delusion and doublethink which the the changes in perception brought about by education cannot eradicate without a lengthy struggle. Breaking free comes at the price of a painful and guilt-ridden rift with close family members and poignant exile from familiar haunts, in this case the backdrop of the wild solitude of  “Buck’s Peak”.

“The disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Raymond Brunet – brilliant “translation” by Graeme Macrae Burnet

The sudden disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, the surly waitress at the real-life Restaurant de la Cloche in the “unremarkable” town of Saint-Louis on the French-Swiss border triggers the chain of events in what proves to be a psychological drama involving the two main protagonists in opposite camps, yet oddly similar in some ways.

The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau by [Burnet, Graeme Macrae]

Manfred Baumann, an outsider by reason of his Swiss father’s surname and his own awkward personality, manages a bank in the town. Bound by routine, obsessively tidy, unable to form social relationships despite living in Saint-Louis for years and doomed to rub people up the wrong way without meaning to do so, Manfred would also make a good detective in his close observation of his surroundings, his eye for detail and speculation on people’s behaviour – as often as not misconstruing their motives (perhaps not so useful for a sleuth!). What past events make him so secretive and prone to persist in a needless lie, which may in fact make him the subject of suspicion? Why are his emotions so repressed, and do they have a tendency to burst out in acts of violence?

The detective deployed to investigate Adèle’s disappearance is Gorski, a man of unusual persistence, who works on the basis of evidence, scorning the reliance on “hunches” of work colleagues, also haunted by his failure to solve the murder of a girl some twenty years earlier, for which a man he believes to be innocent was found guilty, later dying in prison. Found wanting by his snobbish middle-class wife, Gorski might have felt more at home if he had followed his father’s wishes and taken over the family pawn shop.

It would seem better known in France where it was apparently made into a film by Chabrol, Brunet’s novel has been brought to English readers in a superb translation (in that in never seems like one) by Graeme Macrae Burnet who made his name with the unusual murder story “His Bloody Project”, and could well have written this novel himself. I was fascinated by his “afterword” which reveals the intriguing similarities between the original author Raymond Brunet and his creation Manfred Baumann. An only child like him, attached to his mother but losing his father at an early age, Brunet too was “chronically shy”, never known to have a girlfriend nor to be gay, regarded as “aloof and superior” at work, and was a frequent patron of the Restaurant de la Cloche, until the discovery of his negative portrayal of the place together with its regular customers made it uncomfortable for him to go there. In fact, Brunet identified so closely with Baumann that he was devastated by Chabrol’s portrayal of him as “somewhat comic and pathetic”.

In short, an unexpectedly good read.

The Sisters Brothers – Fool’s gold

The Sisters Brothers

Based on the Man Booker shortlisted novel of the same name, this is a western with a difference, in fact more of a tragicomedy set in the US frontier lands during the 1850s Gold Rush. The central characters are a pair of inaptly named brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, widely feared in their role of successful hired assassins for the sinister Oregon-based “Commodore”. Events take a different turn from usual when the pair are sent not just to dispose of a chemist called Hermann Warm, but somehow to extract from him a formula for obtaining gold.

Charlie is the duo’s “lead man”, claiming to be the brains of the outfit and perhaps quicker on the draw, but he seems half crazy at times, addicted to the liquor which perhaps serves to blot out past acts of violence, one in particular. Eli is a milder and more reflective character, motivated mainly by the need to protect his brother, although repeatedly courting mortal risk seems an odd way of doing it. Like the book, the film creates a sense of unease when one begins to connect with a pair of ruthless killers because of their amusing escapades in the midst of the carnage, affection and support for each other beneath all the bickering, and the fact that their opponents are often if anything more rotten than they are. We learn that the brothers suffered as children at the hands of a viciously brutal father, but is that a sufficient excuse?

The brothers are roughnecks, astonished by the sight of a flushing toilet, while Charlie mocks Eli for his decision to start using tooth powder, but they are surprisingly articulate at times, and literate in their ability to read the flowery letters and journal of Morris, the detective employed by the Commodore to tail Warm. Clearly better educated and on the face of it more decent and honourable men, Morris and Warm provide an interesting contrast to the brothers, yet they too can be forced by circumstance into violent acts. Perhaps the film could have made more of the psychological interplay between these four men.

Well directed with good actors and some beautiful mountain scenery, the well-paced plot is let down by an implausible climax. So far, it has been more popular with critics than the public, perhaps because it “falls between two stools”, being neither simply a high octane action thriller, nor a thought-provoking “art film”.

“Le Blé en Herbe” by Colette – growing pains

        

Almost a century after this was written, it seems like the charming, bitter-sweet tale of Phil and Vinca, two adolescents who have been close friends and playmates since infancy. On their summer holiday in the shared house rented by their parents every summer on the Normandy coast,  there is ample opportunity for the inevitable unsettling change in their relationship mixed with the general tensions and confusion of moving from childhood to becoming an adult. The appearance on the scene of the sensual, predatory thirty-something Mme Dalleray serves to bring matters to a head.

The story is perhaps unusual for a female author in adopting for the most part the viewpoint of Phil. Insofar as I  can judge, it provides a convincing portrayal of a sixteen-year-old boy – obsessed with the female body, worrying about his future studies, frustrated by the unimaginably long time he must endure before he can reach twenty-five and be considered fully a man. We know less about Vinca’s inner thoughts. Mostly still a tomboy, she can switch rapidly to wearing a pretty dress and flirting demurely with a male visitor who admires her. Capable of strong emotional outbursts, she seems generally more self-controlled, and mature in her reasoning but also more passive than Phil, playing mother to her little sister,  prepared to stay at home and help her own ailing mother until she gets married. In this attitude, she is the natural product of the 1920s when the book was written.

Apart from the fact that it is quite well-constructed, what sets this story apart is the vivid evocation  of the shoreline and changing weather along the Normandy coast. Colette’s style is quite poetical, so difficult to translate well, but the meaning is striking and clear. The same goes for the minute description of complex chains of thought and  shifts in emotions. There are also moments of humour mixed with irony, as when Phil brings Mme Dalleray  the gift of a bunch of thistles, of a blue the colour of Vinca’s eyes. I was amused by the way Phil and Vinca viewed their parents as aimiable, unreal “shadows” (les Ombres),  to be pitied for never having been in love, and in Phil’s case finding it hard even to focus on what his father was saying.

Perhaps because the scenario is dated, the examination of Vinca-and-Phil’s love sometimes becomes overblown and cloying, verging on Mills and Boon. There is an element of chauvinism as in Phil’s sense of his right to sexual adventures,  while expecting Vinca to be “pure”, together with a kind of reverse sexism in the idea that women, whilst appearing to be dominated, may in fact manipulate men, or take the lead in the case of an older woman initiating a boy.

When first published as a novel in 1923, and later distributed as a film in 1950s America, where it was temporarily banned, this  was widely considered shocking, “immoral and obscene” because it broke taboos in dealing not only with the awakening of physical attraction between adolescents,  but also with sexual acts, although in such oblique and lyrical language that it is unlikely to cause modern readers any offence.  There is the further twist that the plot was “inspired” by Colette’s own affair with her sixteen-year-old step-son, which reduces one’s respect for her as both a person and an author, although it may contribute to the book’s ring of authenticity.

“A Certain Idea of France” – a biography of Charles de Gaulle by Julian Jackson- Using his wits to survive “like Tintin”.

This engrossing biography should delay the inevitable forgetting of what made De Gaulle so famous, with a clear socio-political summary of the past century to set the France of today in context. I enjoyed the frequent use of vivid quotations to show the reactions of De Gaulle’s contemporaries to this eccentric, complex man whose flaws both undermined and contributed to his often controversial achievements.

Deeply influenced by his conservative, nationalistic, intellectual Catholic upbringing, it is unsurprising that De Gaulle found the rapid French surrender at the outset of World War Two and subsequent collaboration intolerably dishonourable. His broadcasts to France from exile in London via the BBC, notably the famous call to arms in June 1940, had the same kind of morale-boosting impact as Churchill’s speeches. By the time De Gaulle was able to walk down the Champs-Elysées of a liberated Paris, an estimated “two million souls” gathered to greet him, yet few had any idea what he looked like in that pre-television age.

To gain recognition as the leader of the Free French and ensure that France should have some role both in the liberation and the subsequent negotiations required vast self-belief amounting to arrogance, combined with unrelenting persistence. Speaking of himself as “De Gaulle”, even “France”, a kind of latter-day male Joan of Arc, he threw chairs during tantrums with world leaders, machinated to get rid of rivals, tried Churchill’s patience to the limit, and aroused the implacable hostility of the American President Roosevelt. Forever “biting the hand that fed him”, he showed scant gratitude to the Allies or the Resistance groups on whom he was at times utterly dependent.
Perhaps he was simply applying the reading which had convinced him of a leader’s need to “cultivate mystery and keep his distance” with “a large dose of egoism, of pride, or hardness and ruse …Leadership is solitary exercise of the will”. Although he was a showman in his oratory, delivering carefully honed speeches from memory in several languages and, with his undeniable courage, loved to disappear into large adulatory crowds, private meetings with De Gaulle were often disappointing. There is a pattern in descriptions of him pontificating at length, looking through people rather than at them, sometimes unexpectedly proving later to have noted and even been influenced by remarks they had managed to make.

“Granting” Algerian independence has been cited as one of De Gaulle’s main achievements, but Julian Jackson points out that it was in fact “wrested from him” after France had come close to mainland civil war, and he showed a callous disregard for the suffering of pieds noirs and Harkis who “lost out” in the process.

It was a shock to realise that De Gaulle’s return to power as President in 1958 was undemocratic, a coup “legalised” because “France’s elites had lost confidence in the existing regime to resolve the Algerian crisis”. This gave him “full powers to govern by decree for six months with the suspension of parliament during that period”. His subsequent manipulation of the constitution under the new Fifth Republic to get himself elected directly by the public, thus cementing his personal power, was also questionable – he was recreating the role of a monarch within the republican system which had aimed to destroy it. His delight in “upsetting the applecart” was evident to the end, as in his rash speech, climaxing in the infamous slogan “Vive le Québec libre!”on a visit to Canada.

De Gaulle often seems like a throwback to a previous age, with his frugal personal lifestyle, rejection of the telephone even when holding high office. and his musing on the damaging effect on society of mass production. Yet he encouraged others to pursue the technology, including nuclear warheads, which would “make France great” and was fortunate, probably owing some of his popularity to, the fact that his “reign” coincided with the “Trente Glorieuses” – the three decades of post-war relative economic prosperity and cultural achievement in France.

Although forced to resign ultimately as an old man who had become out of touch, as indicated by the riots of 1968, De Gaulle often proved quite insightful: he foresaw the collapse of Soviet communism, the folly of the American involvement in the Vietnam War which could not be won, ironically even prophesied for the Common Market that “if England enters into the Community, it will collapse because England will divide us”.

Clearly intended to be a major academic work, this requires a significant investment of time. At more than 800 pages, including notes and bibliography, it is too thick and cumbersome to read comfortably in paper format. I found the Kindle version more convenient, with the downside of it being much harder to flick back quickly to check on a point. The sheer number of names of politicians or acronyms of organisations and parties often becomes too much to absorb. Yet it definitely extended my knowledge and understanding considerably – probably one of the best books I have made the effort to read.

“Transcription” by Kate Atkinson – No need for a bodyguard of lies when truth has vanished.

There are plenty of stories of naïve young women caught up in World War Two who prove plucky and shrewd when parachuted into occupied France to work in espionage or join the Resistance. This novel focuses on a more mundane form of spying, and at times almost seems like a parody of the genre.

Obliged by her widowed mother’s terminal illness and death to give up her school scholarship and prospect of trying for Oxford, Juliet Armstrong finds life taking an unexpected turn when she is recruited by MI5 in 1940, initially as a typist transcribing bugged conversations between Fifth Column Nazi sympathisers and “Gordon Toby”, the work colleague masquerading as a Gestapo agent.

Pehaps intentionally, the recorded conversations are monumentally boring and trivial – little threat to national security – but when Juliet is recruited to spy on one of the female members of an ultra-right wing club, matters take an unexpected sinister turn. As the plot switches continually between 1940 and 1950, when Juliet is working on childrens’ programmes at the BBC, the tale becomes less of a spy thriller, and more a case of paying the price for past actions.

At times the story is quite funny, even a page-turner creating the sense that the plot is going somewhere interesting and unpredictable. Therefore I tried to suppress my irritation (over the excessive use of asides in brackets!), together with a sense of unease over the underlying jokey, flippant attitude to war, which seems an aspect of Juliet’s personality. She is actually quite an unappealing character: instinctive lying without blinking, often for no apparent reason; getting a “buzz” from taking the occasional fool-hardy risk; proving ruthless and calculating under pressure; perhaps the ideal spy in her lack of emotion or commitment to anyone or anything. She is kind to dogs, or people who have suffered inadvertently through her actions, but does not seem deeply moved by anything.

This impression may be the unintended consequence of shortcomings in the writing. I agree with other reviewers who have found the characters wooden and underdeveloped, the few really dramatic incidents implausibly contrived, and the long-anticipated climax so disconnected from what has gone before that it seems as if pages have been left out in a printing error. It is presumably intended to be a clever and surprising twist, but it seems like lazy writing, even insulting, to foist it on the reader in this way.

Whereas most writers apologise for any factual mistakes in a novel, Kate Atkinson defiantly admits “I got a lot of it wrong on purpose” – permissible in the case of MI5’s refusal to “spill the beans” on the transcription process. The portrayal of BBC School Broadcasting in the early 1950s seems accurate as I recall, and it does not bother me if the rest is not. What I find harder to accept is an established writer taking the soft option of a plot with gaping holes.