I'm back and before we plunge into politics and stuff I thought I'd let you know what I read on my week away:
Open, Andre Agassi: Super. Most sports autobiographies, from the very small sample I've tried, are achingly dull exercises in self-justification. This is a hundred times more interesting. Agassi is a perceptive and apparently candid analyst of his own wayward psyche and he makes a very entertaining companion. His account of his bizarre childhood, forced to play a sport he hated by his crazed brute of a father, is unforgettable. He is great on the game itself and provides colourful, sometimes bitchy portraits of his peers (he hated Connors. But then, everyone hated Connors). The whole thing is superbly composed and written (rather than accepting a hack ghostwriter from his publisher, Agassi was smart enough to pick a real writer as his collaborator). The opening section, describing the physical and mental agony of a match at his last grand slam, the US Open in 2006, is a little masterpiece. And I haven't even mentioned the Brooke Shields years, the Streisand relationship, the pursuit of Steffi Graf...
Bad News, Edward St Aubyn. This is the second in a quintet of novels about a posh, wealthy, highly intelligent and intensely self-loathing man called Patrick Melrose. I read Mother's Milk, the fourth in the series, earlier this year and enjoyed it tremendously. St Aubyn is a blackly funny writer and though I hardly ever laugh out loud at novels, that was an exception. He's also a great stylist - his pages are strewn with glittering jewels of sentences. But I was disappointed by Bad News. The opening chapter attempts to get laughs out of a stereotype so desperately banal - the vulgar travelling American - that the rest of the book was playing catch-up as far as I was concerned, and never made it. Much of it is brilliantly written but it clearly took him a while to work up to the depth allied to high style he achieved in Mother's Milk.
Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman. Brilliant. I'm amazed and heartened it has become a best-seller. Amazed because it's fairly dense stuff, including sections of statistical analysis that are quite hard to digest sober let alone when sitting by the pool, one gin and tonic down. Heartened because it shows there's a market for serious non-fiction. And I mean serious - Kahneman is a Nobel prize-winning psychologist (although he won his prize for economics). His influence across the social sciences, business and government has been massive and continues to spread, and this book represents the sum of his life's work. In it, Kahneman meticulously builds a portrait of human thinking as flawed and error-prone, but flawed and error-prone in a systematic and predictable way. Most pop psychology books of the last ten years are contained in this one. Kahneman doesn't descend to pop science clichés, but he does write well for the general reader and the book is informed by the joy he has taken in his work and that of others in his field. It's also full of love for Amos Tversky, with whom he made his most important breakthroughs. There's something complete and profoundly satisfying about Thinking, Fast and Slow. Unlike nearly every other book for which the claim is made, this one will change the way you think.
The Man With The Blue Scarf, Martin Gayford. Very enjoyable. This is a memoir of sitting for a portrait by Lucian Freud. Gayford is an art critic and a longtime friend of Freud's. One day he proposed sitting for him and, rather to his surprise, Freud said yes. The sitting took place over a year or so and this book is based on Gayford's diary of it (the sitting took place a few years before Freud died). It's interesting to get a first-hand perspective on how Freud worked, and Gayford's description of his own fascination and impatience with the process is amusing. But the best of the book is Freud's conversation. He had a very original mind and he was a great talker and he has interesting stuff to say on everything from food to books to clothes to - of course - art. Freud was also a famously acute observer of people and he knew or had met everyone, from his grandfather Sigmund to Pablo Picasso to Francis Bacon, Hugh Gaitskell, Greta Garbo, Kate Moss, and East End gangsters. Sharp little verbal portraits and pungent anecdotes are scattered generously through the pages. It's a beautifully produced book, full of lovely pictures, a nice thing to hold - don't get it on Kindle.
I also re-read three long short stories: Metamorphosis, by Kafka, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Tolstoy, and The Dead, by Joyce. There is basically nothing to say about these except do read and re-read.