Our January book picks
The Growth Delusion
by David Pilling (Bloomsbury, ISBN 978 1 408893 708)
This is a rare beast: a book on economics that is well written, accessible and – whisper it – entertaining! David Pilling advances the notion that our means of measuring economic growth is neither accurate nor moral. He points out that the standard yardstick, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is not only wildly arbitrary in what it counts, but also a relatively recent invention – the brainchild of US economist Simon Kuznets in the 1930s as a strategy to tackle the Great Depression. Kuznets himself became dissatisfied with what he saw as a blunt instrument.
He realized that, in measuring growth per se, it fails to distinguish between desirable and undesirable growth, valuing drug use and rising crime equally with the construction of hospitals or schools. Pollution is good for GDP, war is even better. Voluntary work, housework and childcare are unquantified and therefore, in GDP terms, invisible.
As the author says, this wilful inclusion and exclusion of whole swathes of activity makes GDP anything but an accurate picture of society – which is somewhat worrying when you realize how much of public policy is predicated on it.
Pilling argues that we should take heed of other metrics of human endeavour, citing such examples as the Genuine Progress Index, which factors environmental impact into its calculation, or the Human Development Index which gives due weight to wellbeing and the social good. Witty, widely travelled and well-informed, David Pilling is an excellent guide to the pitfalls and shortcomings of GDP and a trenchant exponent of the need to move beyond the ‘cult of growth’.
The White City
by Roma Tearne (Gallic Books, ISBN 978 1 910709 429)
London, the White City, had been so named by the mayor to emphasize its cleanliness (in contrast to the surrounding countryside, riddled with animal-borne disease). But now it is also white because it has been encased in snow and ice for 27 years.
The moniker is a slap in the face to Londoners such as narrator Hera, Muslim by birth but atheist by conviction. She recalls how, three decades ago, a government powerless in the face of an emerging environmental catastrophe turned its attention to an enemy it thought it could defeat: radical Islam. Her brother is arrested and sent overseas to the Guantánamo-like Arena camp, with devastating consequences for her family. Hatred and suspicion are rife, tearing communities apart. Hera (who shares her name with the Greek goddess of women and marriage) falls in love with Raphael, but he has been so scarred by his years spent living under a dictatorship that he cannot reciprocate.
Then the snow arrives and London and its inhabitants, along with the climate, descend into ‘stagnant apathy’ and ‘languid indifference’. Survival is all – religion, nothing. Until 27 years later when the thaw begins and painful memories resurface.
Roma Tearne’s novel is a beautiful tale of love, loss and hopeless longing. It is also a warning: the events leading up to the big freeze described by Hera are uncomfortably close to today’s reality.
The Unmapped Country
by Ann Quin (And Other Stories, ISBN 978 1 911508 144)
Readers familiar with the 2010 film Howl will nod their heads in recognition if I say that Ann Quin’s writing, as showcased in The Unmapped Country, is reminiscent of the urgent, rhythmic recital within that film of Allen Ginsberg’s poem: ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…’ Quin, who suffered devastating periods of mental illness and committed suicide in 1973 at the age of 37, is no longer a household name, despite having been a cult writer in the 1960s. The release of this collection will introduce her writing to a new audience, who will discover that it tackles issues just as relevant today.
Quin’s experimental narrative style, as much as her themes of disorientation and disillusion, places her alongside the Beat writers as a British representative of a counterculture generation dissatisfied with the mundanity and materialism of the modern world and the lack of opportunities afforded it. A common thread in Quin’s stories is the endless waiting for fulfilment, for real life to begin, underscored by the fear of a descent into madness.
If this all sounds horribly grim, a lot of it is. Quin doesn’t mince her words, but her stories are all the more powerful for that. There are moments of humour, particularly in the title story, which is based in a psychiatric ward, but for this restless writer (as Quin called herself) there was no escape from ‘the absurdity of coping with day-to-day living’.
Old Demons, New Deities – 21 short stories from Tibet
edited by Tenzin Dickie (OR Books, ISBN 978 1 682191 002)
Amazingly Old Demons, New Deities is the first anthology of contemporary Tibetan fiction available in English – and it’s a treat worth waiting for. Tenzin Dickie, who is both editor and contributor, describes the book as a kind of ‘coming out’ of the Tibetan short story.
The vivid and haunting tales are written, originally in Tibetan, Chinese and English, by 16 respected Tibetan writers, female and male. Some are living in Tibet, others in Nepal, India, China and the West, and the settings of these richly varied stories reflect this.
Some explore life for Tibetans under Chinese occupation – Tsering Dondrup’s ‘Valley of the Black Foxes’ is a poignant and chilling tale of an unsuspecting peasant family cheated out of their traditional homelands to make way for a ruinous coalmine. Others focus on the refugee experience, the tussle between tradition and modernity and the complex politics of Tibetans in exile. But even when dealing with big themes, the stories in this anthology are wonderfully intimate, personal and compelling as works of the imagination.
There is much to enjoy in the writing. A keen observation and delight in nature and a robust attitude to life and sex, for example. And a dark humour – not least Pema Bhum’s ‘Wink’ which explores, through the eyes of a young father of a toddler with a perilous penchant for playing with Mao memorabilia, the rollercoaster of life under a capricious communist dictatorship. Echoes of Albanian maestro, Ismail Kadare, may be heard.