Black swans, blondes and other shaggy dog stories

<strong>WHAT THE DOG SAW</strong><br />BY MALCOLM GLADWELL<br />Penguin, &pound;12.99<br /><br />WHETHER Malcolm Gladwell &ndash; the author of Blink, the Tipping Point and Outliers &ndash; is really the &ldquo;the world&rsquo;s most influential thinker&rdquo;, as the blurb on the back attests, is open for debate. What is certain, however, is that he is formidably fashionable, and on the strength of this collection of pieces published in The New Yorker, interesting, thought-provoking and very readable. <br /><br />He also covers a lot of ground. Among the subjects in this book are the secret meanings of going blonde, the secret history of the Pill, and homelessness. <br /><br />I was particularly taken with the chapter The Talent Myth about Enron and its disastrous management practices. Apparently they, with the collusion of a management consultant, gave talented people carte blanche to do what they wanted, poach staff from other departments and set up insane projects. Looking at other organisations, such as the US Army and various American airlines, Gladwell concludes that in successful companies, the system is the star.<br /><br />A chapter on Nassim Taleb, hedge fund guru and author of The Black Swan, is interesting and clearly explains his strategy &ndash; don&rsquo;t look for short-term gains, but basically short the market and wait for a disaster to happen; one is always around the corner. <br /><br />The only problem is that some of this stuff feels a bit old &ndash; the oldest is from 1999 &ndash; but in general this is a worthwhile book with enough energy to power a small city. <br /><br />Jeremy Hazlehurst<br /><br /><strong>THE BOOK OF TOMORROW<br /></strong>BY CECELIA AHEARN<br />Harper Collins, &pound;14.99<br /><br />Cecelia Ahearn is the daughter of Bertie, the former Irish Taoiseach, who has just released his autobiography. The two Ahearns are unlikely to be chasing the same readers, however: the younger one specialises in magical chick lit, and this is her seventh book. It&rsquo;s safe to say that Bertie&rsquo;s carries less risk of brain-ache induced by an overdose of sickly sweet narrative.<br /><br />But if you&rsquo;re one of the millions of women that helped make Ahearn&rsquo;s PS I Love You an international bestseller, then you might well enjoy this equally sugary tale of fantasy, with just the right amount of strife before a happy ending.<br /><br />When spoiled brat Tamara Goodwin&rsquo;s father dies, her life is turned upside-down as she and her deeply depressed mother inherit his secret debt. Forced out of their Dublin mansion with its own private beach, they retreat to the countryside and are taken in by relatives who live in the gatehouse of Kilsaney, a mysterious ruined castle. <br /><br />Naturally, Tamara is bored, miserable and longing for Dublin. So when a travelling library passes though Kilsaney, she pops along. Her gaze rests on a strange leather-bound book locked with a gold clasp and padlock. It is &ndash; you guessed it &ndash; the &ldquo;book of tomorrow&rdquo;: a diary that magically tells the story of her own life. For Tamara, who has begun to have some eye-opening experiences &ndash; including encountering a bee-keeping nun, a reclusive artist, a handsome librarian and a kissable boy &ndash; the book is a guiding light towards emotional enlightenment. <br /><br />This is the story of how a spoilt girl who thought she had everything becomes a wiser, and ultimately happier and nicer person when she loses her possessions. It&rsquo;s got a religious twang &ndash; only in relinquishing worldly wealth can happiness be attained. But worry not, Ahearn makes sure you won&rsquo;t have to reflect too painfully on anything &ndash; least of all your own morality. <br /><br />Zoe Strimpel<br /><br /><strong>NOTWITHSTANDING</strong><br />BY LOUIS DE BERNIERES<br />Harvill Secker, &pound;12.99<br /><br />De Bernieres has produced a collection of short stories that can only be described as deeply patriotic &ndash; a nostalgic paean to &ldquo;the England that the English used to love, when England was still loved by the English.&rdquo;<br /><br />Whether or not such a land ever existed &ndash; especially as it does in a writer&rsquo;s nostalgic prose &ndash; is another story. But hey, does it matter? A nice ride down memory lane is never a bad thing.<br /><br />As readers of Captain Corelli&rsquo;s Mandolin will know, de Bernieres is a master storyteller &ndash; sure, he&rsquo;s had some flops in years since that bestseller, but he&rsquo;s no fool and knows better than to succumb to pure sentimentality. Notwithstanding is therefore quirky rather than soppy and sharply observed rather than simply sentimental. <br /><br />It is populated by characters who say &ldquo;drat&rdquo;, who eat baked beans, bangers and mash for lunch and whose first knowledge of sex comes from reading Lady Chatterley&rsquo;s Lover in secret (in one story, a boy&rsquo;s parents keep the book hidden in a brown paper bag). This is the kind of village where a lady dresses as a man in plus fours and spends her time shooting squirrels. A retired general gives up wearing clothes and walks about naked in the town centre, while a spiritualist lives in a cottage with her sister and the ghost of her husband. Someone else sees nothing odd about confiding in a spider.<br /><br />Despite their oddball, seemingly disconnected foibles, motives and shenanigans, characters re-emerge in each others&rsquo; stories, popping up when least expected, and in doing so lend an unusual continuity to the collection. The final impression of this book is just that &ndash; an impression, a sense of bemusement and amusement, of having lightly tripped along a forgotten path of countryside quirkiness. It&rsquo;s a touch on the twee side, a bit innocent &ndash; I suspect modern readers might be a bit jaded to appreciate tales like these. Or perhaps they&rsquo;re just what we need.<br /><br />ZS