Wednesday 20 May 2009 8:00 pm

Dumb luck and accidents can make you rich

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By Alan Beattie
Viking, £20

FOR THE past two centuries, Argentina has had almost identical economic potential to the USA: plentiful natural resources, a large population and fantastic trade links. But while the US is the richest country on earth, in 2001 Argentina went bust. Why?

The World Trade Editor of the Financial Times tries to answer this and other questions about why some countries get rich and others don’t, in a fascinating and wide-ranging study that spans time and space in an engaging, clear and sparky way.

One of the book’s strengths is that Beattie is not afraid to challenge orthodoxies. Islamic countries are often less rich than Western ones not because they are Islamic, but because of accidents of “geography and history”. Corruption does not always impoverish a country, and sometimes can be beneficial. The history of the East India Company and the Hanseatic League in the Baltic Sea and the PC merchant Dell show that trade routes can open up for many reasons, and trade is not always best when it is free.

There is wit and depth of knowledge here: when Beattie writes about international organisations, the Roman Empire gets as much time as the World Trade Organisation. Beattie’s thesis is that wealth-creation is complex. Politics, history, geography and pure luck all play a part, and governments sometimes help and sometimes hinder wealth creation. This is a fascinating read and should give food for thought for those of all political and economic dispositions. A brilliant read.

Jeremy Hazlehurst

By Kazuo Ishiguro
FABER, £14.99

WITH HIS latest book, a collection of five interlinked short stories, Ishiguro has added another composition of subtle brushstrokes to his body of work. The man who brought us Remains of the Day is a master of letting less speak more, but with this assortment of vignettes he has excelled himself, and not necessarily to the best effect. Even fans of the softly-softly approach might find themselves wondering quite what’s in it for the reader here.

Music has always been close to Ishiguro’s heart, and oddly enough for somebody famed for his still, subtle writing, he once nurtured dreams of being a rock star (his demo tapes were all rejected as “hideous” by producers). It was only after the publication of his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, that he gave up his musical ambitions.

So there is a deeply personal resonance about Nocturnes, whose stories all revolve around musicians: an English language teacher with a passion for Broadway songs; a young man who hides away in the Malvern Hills to write love songs and a guitarist who strums away in Venetian piazzas. None of them have strong personalities. For the most part they just drift and ponder.

The stories are discrete but similar in their doleful contemplations about dreams, age and lives well-spent and wasted. Some will find a truly musical quality here. Others will just drift off to sleep as one does to music playing quietly in the background.

Zoe Strimpel

By Helen Cross

HELEN CROSS made her mark with the compulsive coming-of-age novel My Summer of Love, about a pair of naughty, bored teenage girls from different ends of the class spectrum whose friendship morphs into an erotic fascination. It was made into one of the best films a teenage girl could hope to stumble upon.

Spilt Milk is another compulsive read, which – although it veers close to being a caricature-heavy rom-com – is a thought-provoking, edgy look at a multi-cultural, multi-personality love affair.

Attractive Amir, an Asian man in his mid-20s, lives in a Yorkshire town where he works hard and tries to live according to family duty. But his job at the town’s department store brings him into contact with Jackie, a blonde, boozy, forty-something single mother colleague. She epitomises everything his family – with endless presentations of possible brides – does not want for him.

They are an endearing, poignant and deeply unlikely match – Jackie finds Amir’s teetotalism and moral rigidity highly amusing, though she is forgiving and warm. For his part, her lingering smile and wild spirit drives him wild with love. Meanwhile, Jackie’s disgruntled daughter Elle – who dresses like a tomboy to distance herself as far as possible from her mother – faces her own struggles, and Amir’s mother deteriorates from Alzheimer’s. There’s lots going on here, and it’s a lively, touching and thoroughly believable microcosm of multicultural Britain.

Zoe Strimpel