Friday, 27 November 2015

A Tale of Two Cities: Book Review

Charles Dickens and I have a complicated relationship. I was forced to read Great Expectations at school, and vividly recall struggling through the passages about that old woman and her old wedding dress. About a decade later, when my anglophilia took me to London, I picked up the Pickwick Papers to read on the bus and laughed so hard that fellow passengers turned around to glare at me. Most recently, I suffered through half of David Copperfield before I convinced myself that I really couldn't care less about that sweet, dear, rosy-cheeked little sod. Dickens has either sorely disappointed me or left me in absolute awe, depending on the novel, and it's hard to believe how I could consider one author such a profound failure in some cases and such a genius in others.

He's a poetic genius in this case, and A Tale of Two Cities is my favourite Dickens novel. Dark, brooding and gloomy, with passages of heartbreaking lyricism, this is a tale set during the French Revolution of unrequited love, class struggle and revenge. It's not perfect. The characters, unlike in some other Dickens novels, fall a bit flat and aren't fully developed. The revolutionaries are not unreasonable in rising up against the grave injustices they've suffered, but they're portrayed later on as a bloodthirsty mob. I'd rather call them heroes, and I found Dickens' reluctance to do likewise annoying.

But despite those few faults, this is mighty fine writing, especially in those chapters that don't move the plot but recount the historical setting or set the tone in regal, epic passages that could be prose poems. The scene of the storming of the Bastille has such rhythm and force that you feel like you're riding a wave as you read that pushes you forward along with the crowd to free the prisoners - like that scene in Dead Souls describing the troika sweep across the Russian plains.

A beautiful and tear-inducing ending. The brilliant writing throughout makes this one of the few classics I'd love to read again and again.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Dead White Guys: Book Review

When I was in my early twenties, I wouldn't even pick up a paperback if it said, "New York Times Bestseller" on the cover. I always had a respect, love and admiration for the classics, and believed in looking towards the trusted and time-tested masters of whatever field I studied. Though my reading is now, thankfully, a lot more eclectic, my blood pressure still rose when I read how most English majors these days can get their degree without ever reading Shakespeare.

When I first came across Dead White Guys, a book that defends the classic Western canon, my little heart warmed. While I believe women and minorities have been underrepresented in the canon, I also believe we can swing too far in the other direction until we get graduates who've read Djuna Barnes and Richard Wright, but not Shakespeare.

The book begins with a beautiful premise: a father in 2015 writes a book to his little daughter Violet, to be read in the future when she turns 18. The book deals with 26 great works of the Western canon, from Plato's Apology to Marx's Manifesto of the Communist Party, and makes a convincing case for their relevancy and timelessness. The classics still apply to our lives. They still grapple with the same problems we do.

In the flotsam and jetsam of our modern iPhone world, this book is also a father's earnest effort to prepare his daughter for life's challenges, armed with the classics that have given him comfort. Most touchingly, the father offers bits of his personal life (which often include his thoughts on raising Violet) with a candor that will likely make Violet see him as a real human being and not just a "dad" when she grows up and reads this. 

There's something charming about an American in a competitive, corporate career picking up a 54-volume set of The Great Books of the Western World one night, when he's preparing the nursery for Violet and when the future of his job isn't certain.

And the first few chapters, dealing with the ancient Greek books, are charming. Especially when the question of happiness in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is discussed, and when the father notes that he learned to be happy from watching his innocent, in-the-moment daughter dancing at a sandwich shop without a care.

Then it all goes downhill, and the book gets way too US-centric. In several points, it's literally telling Violet how great it is to be a patriotic, Jesus-loving American in the greatest country in the world. Religion aside, the nationalism made me wonder whether I was at a rodeo, or whether I was reading about books I thought were supposed to teach us about our common humanity.

In a chapter about Machiavelli's The Prince, I came to a passage about Hiroshima and Nagasaki that I reread a few times in disbelief, each time with growing disgust:

"These acts were far more 'cruel' than anything Machiavelli could've imagined. But the goal of these bombings was not necessarily to destroy Japanese capacity; it was to break the will of the Japanese people.

Were there alternatives? Maybe everyone could've sat down and discussed things? Not so much. And what were the moral qualities of the slaveholding South, or Imperial Japan? Were these morally virtuous cultures? After the application of a great amount of cruelty, the Union was preserved and Japan surrendered. What happened to the conquered states in these examples? Eventually, over time, they became prosperous, free, and virtuous."

Violet, don't listen to your father here. It's best to be loved and respected, and I hope your generation will no longer live by the maxims of medieval texts.

There's more chest-pumping national pride in the chapter about The Declaration of Independence:

"And as an American, Violet, you are one of 400 million Supermen in the world. Like Superman, you have accidentally grown up in a unique environment that grants you immense powers and privileges. Consider what you get just for showing up: ... 3. Access to clean water, public education, and a social safety net ... 11. Social mobility, or at least the freedom to move between classes"

Violet, when you grow up (and if you can afford it,) travel and see as much of the world as you can. There is nothing special about your country. It's no better or worse than any other and it's dangerous to think that you're exceptional because of your birthplace. Your standard of living isn't better than Switzerland's, Canada's, the Scandinavian countries, etc. Don't be arrogant.

I later googled "Western canon" and found the author had skipped books like Don Quixote and all of Nietzsche to talk about America's wars and the executive and legislative branches of government. This may have been written for an American girl, but if it was more universal maybe it would have a wider and more timeless appeal instead of being, at times, a dated monologue on US politics. 

The last chapter on Marx and Engels' Manifesto of the Communist Party asks, in a world where children work in sweatshops and labour union organizers are tortured in underground prisons: Does Capitalism Work?

The author lacks a full understanding of both communism and capitalism, like many who grew up during the Cold War. Naively, he thinks that equality will take away people's individualism (Don't let zee Ruzians steal your Freedom, Mr. Bond.) When Marx speaks of equality, he means living standards, not people becoming identical robots with no special talents or abilities. Equality would actually increase individualism. How many Einsteins and Martin Luther Kings existed but passed away without a whisper because they were too worried about their stomachs to write, paint, compose, think?

How many great individuals died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki?  

This last chapter is a perfect example of the main fault of this entire book. It supposes to be a book from a father to a daughter asking her to read the classics, which tell her to think for herself and question all authority. But in the end, the author's own biases shine through, and the book is less of an exploration of classic literature, independent thought and debate than a praise of what the author believes and holds dear.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Rethinking Prestige Branding: Book Review

It was once enough for brands to advertise that they offer the best quality over the competition, or that their products are tasty, long-lasting or durable. But those kinds of vintage ads are just funny now. Today's super brands are not only selling their products. They are creating legends around their beginnings (like with Chanel,) weaving themselves into history (Hermes and Rolex,) and marketing their products in a quasi non-materialist way (Patagonia) that appeals to people's longing for a simple but luxurious life. People still want exclusive and expensive things, but they no longer want to be very obvious about it. They prefer to buy products whose creators have passion, a rebellious spirit or a mission where they can't sleep unless they find the best blue dye in India for their organic cotton. 

Rethinking Prestige Branding: Secrets of the Ueber-Brands outlines seven principles of the larger than life brands that have created insatiable desire among their followers (Apple) and spun fantastical mysteries and intrigues around themselves.  There are also seven case studies that bring these concepts to life, illustrating - often comically - the art of much adoing about whatever they're selling.

But the book gets off to a rocky start. A brief aside on how we're in an age of "Enlightened Capitalism" where our worldview is being reborn as it was during the Renaissance had me giggling. The fact a company donates a portion of sales to charity means they know it's good for business. If the company really wanted to be altruistically charitable, after all, then why even tell us they're donating? An early chapter on the development of branding begins with, "Did it all start in the caves of our earliest ancestors and their sign language?" A bit cheesy; it felt like a Power Point presentation at some marketing convention at a three-star hotel.

But later the authors hit their stride, the writing smooths out and a subtle sarcasm emerges. I love reading observations of social trends, and this book nails down some phenomena that I vaguely noticed but couldn't exactly describe. It's also a handy tool for marketing departments large and small who want to learn from the best and employ the ueber brand strategies in their own businesses. Even if you're just selling handmade bracelets online. Should you mention that you've always been into arts & crafts, or should you rather tell your life story and how creating art with your hands helped you overcome obstacles? Whether you're BMW or an Etsy seller, one of the principles is to have a good story. Or, better yet, to be part of history. Nobody blinked when the Metropolitan Museum of New York hosted an exhibit of designs by late fashion star Alexander McQueen. The line between art and consumer products is increasingly blurred.

The book outlines shifts in mentalities and the changing nature of prestige. It was once gold, shiny and expensive, but now it has shifted to a BoBo (Bourgeois Bohemian) culture where people want the hippy freedoms and spiritual lifestyles without sacrificing the comforts of their corporate paycheck.

The Patagonia brand was one of the most fascinating case studies in this book. An outdoor apparel brand that started with an 18-year-old outdoor enthusiast with little money and big ideals to explore nature without exploiting it, Patagonia became a huge brand without ever obviously pushing its wares. An ad that ran in newspapers on Black Friday in 2011 was an anti-materialist manifesto, telling readers in caps lock and bold letters, "DON'T BUY THIS JACKET" while sending a message that it's better to repair what you've got, recycle, or reuse. Of course, the stunt increased the respect customers had for the brand and ultimately helped sales.

The top ueber brands know how to create a sense of both longing and belonging in their clients by offering layers and layers of access. If you're working for minimum wage, you can save up for a bottle of Chanel No. 5. If you're a famous actress, you get invited to Coco Chanel's former apartment for tea and a private showing. Everyone is included; everyone is left longing for more.

The best brands are also avid storytellers, spinning their tales to mythical and cosmological heights. Estee Lauder's La Mer isn't just a face cream. It's a special recipe (or magical potion) of sea kelp developed by a physicist who wanted to repair his scarred skin after suffering burns in a lab test. The best brands outshine George Clooney (the Nespresso commercials that gently poke fun of the actor,) and are connoisseurs who obsess over "authenticity" (at Freitag, the hipster 200-dollar rain-proof messenger bags made from recycled truck tarp come with details about the vehicle they come from.)  

There are 77 questions at the end of the book that can be used as a practical guide for those seeking to increase their brand's allure (Does it take more than money to "get" your brand - physically and intellectually? Could a measured dose of arrogance boost respect?) This is brilliant if you're using this book as a checklist for your own business, or if you want to get inside the minds of brilliant marketers.  

Saturday, 8 August 2015

The Simple Act of Reading: Book Review

If you've ever looked at your bookshelf and hardly recognized the old, battered novels that just a few years back had you completely engrossed, then you know that disquieting feeling of hardly remembering books that you may still regard as memorable. Or maybe you remember the oddest, irrelevant fragments without understanding why they stuck in your memory.

Earlier this year I got through half of Jane Austen's Emma before I reached a passage that made me pause: Emma looks out of a shop window and surveys the quiet street as the narrator notes that, "A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer." Meaning that a lively intellect hardly needs the stimuli of London to make its reflections. Then it hit me that I'd read this book before, and that I long remembered that passage without knowing where exactly I'd read it. I vaguely remembered some greenery: I must have read Emma for the first time at a park.

When I was younger, I'd devour books in my budding teenage angst in hopes of finding answers, and solutions, in a crazy, unjust and hypocritical world. It upset me then how I'd often forget major episodes or characters in my thick Russian novels or philosophy books. Now that I'm older, I know it's still a crazy, unjust and hypocritical world, but I also know it's enough to read books for their own sake; for the experience and the other worlds they offer. I still forget most of what I read, but I keep reading. More often I remember fragments, moments and images from all those pages I flip through for hours on end.

Australian author Sunil Badami describes perfectly why we keep reading when we ultimately remember so little of what we've read: 

"You might as well ask why we dream, or live at all, given how much we forget of our dreams and lives. Yet just as I cannot imagine being alive without dreams, I couldn't dream of living without reading. One reason we forget books is because, unlike other forms of art, they're so difficult to return to. We can listen to an album over and over until the melody is a part of us, or watch and re-watch a film until we can quote it at will. But all they take is an hour or two each time we watch or listen to them again. A book demands a deeper investment of concentration and time - at the very least a night of sustained attention. Dreams, too, I suppose, and we all know what happens to them in the morning."

Badami says reading is a sort of meditation, part escapism and part self-discovery that isn't any less profound when we forget the books themselves. The experience remains.

"In losing ourselves in the lives of others, we can find ourselves, enabling us to see the world and those around us refracted in a new light - in our own reflection. Where else in the world can e do that? Not even in our dreams."

Badami's is my favourite essay in this collection of Australian writers reflecting on the power of reading. Several other essays left me smiling. Interest in Australian literature or the country, which I know mostly through watching episodes of MasterChef Australia, is not mandatory. These essays are relatable and poignant to any book lover, anywhere. 

There's Luke Davies talking about his childhood reading Tintin comics in Herge and Me, in which he writes to the legendary French author who created the daredevil, red-haired reporter who scoured the world on his adventures. Davies recalls how Herge - or his secretary -  replied to his fan mail, and how he later stumbled upon the correspondence during a much darker period of his life when remembering his childhood hero brought him comfort. 

In another essay, author Carrie Tiffany describes binge reading Thomas Hardy novels to escape the heat while working as a park ranger in central Australia, and how her environment would sometimes strangely echo the rural English landscapes of Hardy's melancholy worlds. Years later while visiting England, she learned that Hardy's Wessex existed only in his imagination and wasn't a real place on any map.

For anybody that measures and remembers periods of their lives in the books they read, this collection is a charming, at times nostalgic and at other times bittersweet, look at the simple but magical act of reading.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Circling the Sun: Book Review

Paula McLain's latest novel, narrating the life and times of pioneering aviator and horse racer Beryl Markham, is labeled as historical fiction that transports readers "to colonial Kenya in the 1920s." With that kind of a sales pitch, you'd expect at least a halfway realistic portrait of the manners and social conditions of the times, with more than one token black character thrown in. It is, after all, a novel set in Africa, based on a historical figure.

Yet, Circling the Sun is all about white colonialists and their self-enclosed world on their plantations in the East African Protectorate, where the natives are hardly more than an exotic backdrop for the adventures and love affairs of a British floozy. As somebody who considers Proust a page-turner, I cannot fault a book for portraying a select social circle and ignoring unsavory realities. However, if you want to put on your rosy glasses and paint nostalgic pictures of worlds that never existed, there are better places than white settlements in colonial Africa.

Those were the times, after all, where Africans were banned from direct political participation. In 1942, six years after the closing date of this novel, a resistance was launched by several tribes against colonial rule that in the 1950s and 60s saw some 90,000 people executed, tortured or maimed by the British (according to Al Jazeera, not the novel.)

If Circling the Sun had at least touched on such issues, it would have gained much in realism and could be called a historical novel instead of glorified chick-lit or self-indulgent, shallow outpourings of nostalgia. The book could have, at the very least, stepped out of Markham's mind for a sentence to give a larger context.

Knowing how the novel romanticized a painful chapter in Kenyan history made this an uncomfortable read that felt about as real as a Harlequin novel. The first part of the book offered a heartwarming tale of an innocent childhood spent in the wilderness; of an unruly British girl, or tomboy, playing with a boy from a nearby tribe before social conventions force them apart. The flowy writing and atmospheric setting reminded me of coming-of-age stories set in the wild, in the tradition of The Jungle Book or Anna of Green Gables.

I wanted to carry on. I thought the girl would grow up, and we'd get something more than a children's tale. We'd get the reflections of a grown woman living in complicated times, observing social tensions and race relations. A woman who defied conventions and lived on her own terms. Who flew across the Atlantic and mounted wild horses.

But Markham only grows more annoying and selfish with age. She refuses to stop riding when she becomes pregnant, and this is held up as an example of an uncompromising lifestyle. She falls in love with a man after he throws some Whitman quotes her way, then hops into bed with another she doesn't care much about before he flees the country to escape scandal. She keeps talking about being financially independent, but keeps using men for money. Ahead of her time? Not when it comes to birth control.

I don't mind reading about narcissists, cheaters or idiots and their ridiculous life choices. They're types that are central in many of my favorite novels. But what's infuriating is when a selfish fool is held up as a role model for women, and when a tedious account of her affairs and intrigues is called a story that "transports you" to Kenya.

I skimmed the last third of this book, frustrated that such a self-indulgent character was being passed off as progressive. The writing, which flowed richly at the start, degenerated into passages similar to those Hollywood quasi-intellectual quotes of the "if you build it they will come" variety. Tired dialogue, with cliche reflections on the nature of women's independence.

After meeting Karen Blixen, aka Isak Dinesen (author of Out of Africa,) Markham starts comparing herself to Blixen and theorizing about which woman can snag the rustic, Whitman-quoting adventurer who's now her "soulmate." Years later, when the two say goodbye, Markham has her Field of Dreams moment and reflects on the novel that Blixen would soon write about her years in Africa:

"And from those pages, I would be absent."

... And that's all the more reason to read Dinesen.

(I don't know whether Markham was really this tiresome in the flesh, or whether Circling the Sun just portrays her as such. Perhaps those interested in her eventful life would do better to read her memoir, West with the Night, which won Hemingway's praise, instead of this rosy-coloured "oh my Africa!" colonialist romance.)

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Armadale: Now Reading

"Good-by, forever!'

 I looked out to the sea. A soft, steady breeze was blowing, and the rippled surface of the water was sparkling in the quiet moonlight. I looked again, and there passed slowly, between me and the track of the moon, a long black vessel with tall, shadowy, ghostlike sails, gliding smooth and noiseless through the water, like a snake.

 The wind had come fair with the night; and Armadale's yacht had sailed on the trial cruise."

--- Armadale, by Wilkie Collins

Sometimes the literary classics are just as riveting and escapist as the popular beach reads for the summer.

Armadale is a 700-page-plus Victorian classic, but it really is a lot of fun. The suspense, the cliffhangers and all the Gothic melodrama make it a real page-turner. And it’s beautiful, effortless writing too.

What classics do you think make for good beach reads?

Monday, 20 July 2015

Middlemarch: Book Review

There are videos on youtube of Beethoven's 9th where the music plays accompanied by a scrolling bar-graph score: different parts of the orchestra and various instruments are represented by coloured bars that light up when the notes are hit, and the fact the graph scrolls along forward allows you to anticipate where the melody is going and admire its perfect construction. From the regal beginning of the first movement, to the grand finale of the Ode to Joy, the symphony is a perfect and complete whole - a journey where what you experience during the last notes is a finale and culmination of all the melodies (loud and quiet, allegro and slow) that came before.

Middlemarch is the literary equivalent of a Beethoven symphony: a perfectly composed and structured journey through the lives of different characters where the minute details of their daily lives illustrate universal human truths and are build up with immaculate precision over nearly 900 pages to bring the plot to its grand finale. Like with Beethoven, the finale reflects everything that came before and is the culmination of a masterfully-executed plot and hundreds of details and episodes that, like stones in a grand cathedral, are all perfectly placed to hold up the main altar.

The first chapter and the reader's first glimpse into rural England contains a single episode of two sisters debating over how to split up a box of their mother's jewels - a seemingly ordinary, almost banal scene - that perfectly illustrates Eliot's ability to paint entire personalities and flesh-and-blood life with a single brushstroke.

I've read entire novels without much caring what happens to its characters, or without even being able to clearly picture them, but by the second chapter of Middlemarch I'd firmly taken Dorothea's offered hand, ready to go along with her through this brick of a novel and finding myself full of empathy and curiosity about a woman who, in her deep religiosity and her desire to conform to and please her husband, is in many ways someone who logic would say I could never relate to or admire. But I did. Not in a blind awe of her desire to do good, but in admiration of her perseverance and those heartbreaking moments when she realises her shortcomings with honesty.

Friday, 10 July 2015

The Heart Goes Last: Book Review

When Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself transformed into an insect, or when the unnamed narrator of The Committee eats his own arm after a harrowing ordeal with Egyptian bureaucracy, I believe the stories, absolutely. I feel along with the characters - no matter how bizarre the scenarios may be - because they feel human, living in altered worlds that nevertheless hold up a mirror to this one.

The bizarre premise and the weird scenarios in The Heart Goes Last are, as another reviewer calls them, absolute absurdity, and the novel's biggest downfall is that it's never really believable. Reading it feels like watching a ballet from the front row: you can see the dancer's sweat and hear her panting, and you're so aware that it's all artifice that you never lose yourself in the story. The plot in this novel drags laboriously from one bizarre eye-rolling episode into another laughable and ridiculous plot twist.

An American couple, broke and underemployed, is forced to live out of their car after some undefined economic disaster leaves the country a desolate wasteland full of boarded-up strip malls and fearsome roaming gangs. When they're given a chance to join an experimental community (where everyone is given employment and housing,) they quickly sign up for life. The catch is they must alternate between living one month in prison and another month in an enclosed 1950s-style community.

I don't understand how the products they make in this prison/suburban hell are competitive with those made in the developing nations, where everyone's jobs were offshored to in the first place? And how is a month in a tolerable jail any worse than a month in a tightly-guarded suburbia working a brain-numbing job?

I'd be willing to shrug off those riddles and suspend disbelief, but the absurdities keep coming. The prisoners rape chickens when they're left without women (for an entire month.) A man starts stalking a woman after finding her lipstick kiss and brief note to her husband. That same woman later forces the man to re-enact vaguely sadomasochistic scenarios before she suddenly drops the act and sends him out on a mission.

A ridiculous plot told in lackluster prose with characters who feel as real as Kabuki theatre performers. This entire novel feels in bad taste, like a funny B-movie where you see the strings holding up the UFO, mocking the reader's intelligence.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Muse: A Novel: Book Review

"This is a love story. It's about the good old days, when men were men and women were women and books were books, with glued or even sewn bindings, cloth or paper covers with beautiful or not-so-beautiful jackets and a musty, dusty, wonderful smell; when books furnished many a room, and their contents, the magic words, their poetry and prose, were liquor, perfume, sex, and glory to their devotees. These loyal readers were never many but they were always engaged, always audible and visible, alive to the romance of reading. Perhaps they still exist underground somewhere, hidden fanatics of the cult of the printed word."

This is an insider's descriptive tale and a drama of the publishing industry where two houses compete for one iconic poet, told in rich, lyrical prose with a colorful cast of New York eccentrics, homosexuals and Communists. Another reviewer lamented the book's lack of simple sentences, but that's what I enjoyed most about this quick and engrossing read. The writing weaves layers of allusions, details and anecdotes together to create a realistic, crystal-sharp world full of love affairs, lives, the passage of time and the tragedies that all revolve around books. A solid debut novel of passion-driven intellectuals and self-made men that's entertaining enough to read on the beach and intelligent enough to keep on the bookshelf.

The Happiness Industry: Book Review

"This is what now preoccupies our global elites. Happiness, in its various guises, is no longer some pleasant add-on to the more important business of making money, or some new age concern for those with enough time to sit around baking their own bread. As a measurable, visible, improvable entity, it has now penetrated the citadel of global economic management. If the World Economic Forum is any guide, and it has always tended to be in the past, the future of successful capitalism depends on our ability to combat stress, misery and illness, and put relaxation, happiness and wellness in their place. Techniques, measures and technologies are now available to achieve this, and they are permeating the workplace, the high street, the home and the human body."

We're all surrounded by the yoga mats, gratitude journals, YouTube meditation tutorials and feel-good slogans of the multi-billion dollar "self help" industry, yet I never stopped to consider how so much of it is just the capitalists' ploy to keep the gears in their money-making machines running smoothly. Unhappiness of employees costs the US economy some $500 billion a year in lost productivity, lost tax receipts and health-care costs, meaning our emotions and wellbeing are no longer our business. They're factors in calculations of economic efficiency and must be monitored and regulated. All the while, this conveniently allows us to ignore the wider economic and social problems that are making us miserable in the first place. Hate your job, can't get out of debt? Just appreciate what you've got, relax with Buddhist meditation and learn to seep joy from simple pleasures like evening walks past jasmine bushes.

The Happiness Industry is a sweeping analysis that blends psychology, economics, marketing, business and sociology to examine how happiness has been historically measured, how our well-being is increasingly a factor in company strategies and how it's all only making us more miserable. It's also a sharp and sarcastic critique of capitalism itself and its laughable attempts at appearing compassionate and selfless.

"The mood-tracking technologies, sentiment analysis algorithms and stress-busting meditation techniques are put to work in the service of certain political and economic interests. They are not simply gifted to us for our own Aristotelian flourishing. Positive psychology, which repeats the mantra that happiness is a personal 'choice,' is as a result largely unable to provide the exit from consumerism and egocentricity that its gurus sense many people are seeking.

Positive psychology and associated techniques then play a key role in helping to restore people's energy and drive. The hope is that a fundamental flaw in our currently political economy may be surmounted, without confronting any serious political-economic questions. Psychology is very often how societies avoid looking in the mirror."

The book begins with a few chapters on how difficult it is to pin happiness down, define or measure it, and moves on to the early history of American psychology showing how it lacked a philosophical heritage from the start and was born amid big business to fix the problems afflicting American industry.

Then comes the fun part: a not-so-gentle mocking of various tactics used to improve our workplace productivity, a look at how increased monitoring in the spirit of "offering us a better" something is largely unquestioned and a sarcastic analysis of the feel-good industry. Finally, an examination of today's neverending quest for the simple yet luxurious life in a world where being unhappy for more than two weeks after the death of a loved one qualifies as a medical illness that makes you eligible for happy pills.

"'Just do it.' 'Enjoy more.' Slogans such as these, belonging to Nike and McDonald's respectively, offer the ethical injunctions of the post-1960s neoliberal era. They are the last transcendent moral principles for a society which rejects moral authority. As Slavoj Zizek has argued, enjoyment has become an even greater duty than to obey the rules. Thanks to the influence of the Chicago School over government regulators, the same is true for corporate profitability."

Who does all this benefit? The book suggests that the more we pursue happiness, the more illusive it becomes and what we're ultimately offered is nothing more than a shallow quasi-Zen naval gazing that only distracts from the larger social problems that must be tackled as the root cause of all the misery. A brilliant, thought-provoking read.