Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Whither inflation?

Today's New York Times headline and graph bugged me– nothing new there. The headline inflation number for December is 7.1%, which is calculated comparing prices (CPI) to December a year ago. Given the volatility of monthly inflation rates, smoothing by cumulating over 12 months of changes is not necessarily a bad idea, but it can give a very misleading idea of what inflation is doing right now. For example, if inflation had come to a screeching halt, and between November and December prices had not increased at all, the headline number compared to a year ago would still be about 6.5%, which looks pretty bad compared to the recent past. In fact, inflation for the month of December was still significant and concerning, running at over 5% annually, but it shows some evidence of having peaked. Kevin Drum has a nice graph illustrating this, which I reproduce below (see the blue line for monthly changes). I don't have a strong opinion about what will happen with inflation in the coming months, but the way the Times frames the numbers is alarmist and feeds a gloomy narrative that is not needed or warranted right now. [Addendum: More detail from Menzie Chinn]

Monday, January 10, 2022

First-person narrators – unreliable, delusional, or just plain bad

It seems as if almost all the novels I read these days are narrated in the first person by flawed characters whose motives, morals, perceptions, or grip on reality are seriously subject to question. These narrators are out to manipulate you, the reader, even as they delude themselves. You get to see their world through their eyes, but sometimes you get to see right through them to what they want to conceal or are themselves unwilling to acknowledge. That's an effect that can really only be achieved in literature.

The Good Soldier
Ford Madox Ford

This is considered the archetype in the genre of unreliable narrator novels, and its reputation is deserved, although the characters are pretty consistently unlikeable and unsympathetic– especially its very unreliable narrator, John Dowell. I'm not sure I can recommend it.

Good Behaviour
Molly Keane

Good Behaviour is a dark comedy in the grand tradition of novels about aristocratic families in decline, living off their creditors and the loyalty– or desperation– of the help, whose wages are chronically in arrears. Because the story begins at the end, it's not really a spoiler to say that the novel opens with our narrator Aroon St. Charles having just murdered (maybe!) her mother with (hmm) rabbit quenelles. The rest of the book fills in the back story. Aroon appears to be a blend of deep cynicism and piteous self-deception. I'm not sure the two are compatible, which leads me to believe that Aroon may be having us on about the self-deception. In that case she is even more cynical than I thought. Read it and tell me what you think.

A Pale View of Hills
Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro's first novel is one of his very best, chilling and dreamlike, a ghost story of sorts. I plan to read it again soon and report back.

Bina: A Novel in Warnings
Anakana Schofield

This extraordinary novel– or is it a book-length poem?– deserves its own blog post. And its narrator, Bina, is deserving of better adjectives than "unreliable, delusional, or just plain bad." She's angry, confused and possibly suffering from incipient dementia, virtuous, and utterly delightful... anything but unreliable. More coming soon.

Audie Cornish

Working from home and driving rather little these days, I have not been listening to NPR nearly as much as I was two years ago. I haven't missed it much, largely because the hosts of the news shows I listened to, particularly "All Things Considered," had become nearly insufferable to me: breathless or sing-songy delivery, hearts on their sleeves when the news was bad, fawning in interviews with their personal faves, an annoying habit of repeating back what was just said in an interview, treating the audience as if we were children, or not paying attention: "Vaccination rates are 70% in X-land and only 50% in Y-land..." "Oh, so you're saying vaccination rates are actually higher in X-land?!"

Audie Cornish was always a welcome exception. Smart, professional, no-nonsense reporting. Treating the listeners like grown-ups, letting the story speak for itself. She'll be missed.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Why Is Everyone Going Brunette?

Billie E, sure, you go for it girl, but not every Billy is on board...!


We finished this HBO miniseries, based on a true story, last night. The film-making, with its occasional theatrical contrivances and flights of fancy, didn't always work for me. But on the plus side, you do get to watch possibly the greatest actor of our time, Olivia Colman, doing what she does, and very well. Who else could pull off creating an integrated character from this bundle of delusion, pathos, humor, affection, repression, and fury? David Thewlis, as her husband, is near-perfect as well. 

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Sylvia Townsend Warner Omnibus

Sylvia Townsend Warner was, according to Wikipedia, a "musicologist, novelist and poet," and I suppose she would have agreed with that characterization, although I bet she would have added an Oxford comma to the list. She was also a feminist, a Communist, and a lesbian, perspectives that deeply informed her novels but never threatened to derail them into the formulaic or programmatic. Her books were unknown to me until NYRB released several of them, and I feel lucky to have discovered them. 

The first one that I stumbled upon, The Corner That Held Them (1948), about which I have already blogged at some length, remains my favorite. But Lolly Willowes (1926), her first novel (and the first-ever selection of the Book of the Month Club!), is a close runner-up. Whereas The Corner That Held Them follows a large ensemble cast of characters over a long period of time, Lolly Willowes is largely a character study of its eponymous protagonist. Lolly is wonderful literary creation, a woman trapped by tradition and family duties who in middle age plots her escape to live alone in a small country village. There she picks up a "trade" practiced by many of the local folk– witchcraft– and even meets Satan himself. The novel is gentle and humorous, with a little sting. Highly recommended.

Summer Will Show (1936) follows an aristocratic Englishwoman who– by a couple twists of fate– finds herself in Paris in 1848, falling in love with her husband's mistress, and joining up with the revolutionaries. A very good historical novel, it was presumably ahead of its time in its matter-of-fact depiction of same-sex romance, although history and politics take center stage here. The novel ends with the first few paragraphs of the Communist Manifesto. Triumphant, hopeful, ironic, bitter? From the vantage point of a communist writing in 1936, you can imagine which.

Mr Fortune's Maggot (1927) is in the genre of novels about Brits living among the savages, which range from pro-imperialist adventures to Leninist critiques of colonialism; given Warner's politics this likely counts among the latter, but frankly, I just couldn't get into it. Perhaps I'll try again. 

Friday, December 17, 2021

Get Back

There seem to be two basic reactions to The Beatles: Get Back among critics and viewers alike. One is unbridled enthusiasm; the other is that watching it is a bit like watching paint dry or grass grow for 468 minutes (that's right, nearly 8 hours)– admittedly, with a few good songs thrown in, but songs you already knew by heart, and played over and over and over and over... 

As for me, I loved it. Oh yes, it drags at times, but that comes with the vérité here as much as it would in a Frederick Wiseman documentary. Sure, you just might start to tire of those familiar songs from Let It Be. You might even nod off once or twice. But as an insider's view of the creative process, workmanship, and wistful denouement of the career of the greatest band ever, it feels true, and it looks and sounds fantastic. Read Adam Gopnik for a longer and more enlightening take.

Some aspects I especially loved: 

  • Those boys playing the blues, Brill Building hits, Dylan, skiffle... just how much music was crammed in their heads, and ready at their fingertips?; 
  • How lyrics are fitted to melody, and harmony selected and corrected;
  • The (largely) silent people: Ringo, Yoko, and the amazing Billy Preston;
  • The fashion;
  • The playfulness of Paul and John in "rehearsal"– singing in fake accents, singing through clenched teeth, ad-libbing call and response– somehow all of it helping make the music better, I guess, though god knows how;
  • Paul. 

Give it a try and see which camp you belong to.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021