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David And Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits And The Art Of Battling Giants
Malcolm Gladwell (Allen Lane)
★★★★✩

David and Goliath. Great story. That David. Beat the odds. didn't he. with his sling and stuff against the big bruiser Goliath. Every loser wins, as TV's Nick Berry once said.

That's not how it was.

Doink! You what?

If you were there, 3,000 years ago, the giant Ray Winstone head would be giving you odds-on that the fleet-footed David would fell the lumbering Goliath.

So the surefire winner won and the underdog lost...

OK, bad example. But this book is about received wisdom. Malcolm Gladwell shows that obstacles are strengths. He takes something like the US civil rights movement or the Blitz and applies statistical, strategic and psychological analysis to personal stories to challenge what we think about mismatches, about how adversity creates winners.

OK. Give me some examples.

You think having dyslexia is a disadvantage?

Most certainly.

No. High proportions of successful people, like Richard Branson, have dyslexia. This perceived weakness builds strength in other places, such as determination or guile or listening skills.

This is fun. Give me another.

You think losing a parent would be a disaster for a child.

Why, of course. No, don't tell me...

Yes, in one way, horrible, but once a child has faced the worst and survived, he's more likely to embrace challenge. An amazing proportion of US presidents lost their parents early on, including Barack Obama.

My brain hurts. Next you'll be saying that the ghost in the fairground is actually Mr Jenkins in a rubber mask.

No, that's Scooby Doo. This book demonstrates that a lot of what is beneficial and important arises from suffering and adversity.

Can I have a go?

A go? Er, OK.

You know when you stub your toe it hurts.

Yes.

Actually it doesn't. Ooooh. Spooky.

Not spooky.

And when you take a live toaster into the bath, it's supposed to electrocute you.

Hang on...

Wrong! It just makes you stronger. Ooooh.

No, not oooooh. You're just saying the opposite.

Isn't that what Gladwell does?

Well, yes, but we call this "counterintuitive" which is contrariness with A-levels. Besides, he's been doing this for years in the New Yorker and in books like The Tipping Point.

So you'll be telling people not to buy this book.

No, that's reverse psychology.

No it's not.

And that's contradiction. Anything else?

Yes, what's that? Is it the giant Ray Winstone head?

No, that's me. It's glandular. I have endured much childhood disadvantage as a result of my handicap.

You'll be CEO of Apple by teatime.



Difficult Men: From Sopranos And The Wire To Mad Men And Breaking Bad
Brett Martin (Faber & Faber)
★★★★★

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It is often said that if Charles Dickens were alive today he would be writing for the mass market soaps. Yet a new story-form has emerged in recent decades that would be more in keeping with his sweep and tastes.

The long-form US drama was born from a number of technological and culture breakthroughs and heralded a new golden age of TV.

Series such as Wired, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad had a few factors in common - resolute auteurs, artistic freedom provided by their cable TV backers (HBO etc).

They took risks in form and subject matter and became the benchmark that even ratings-chasing networks suddenly aspired to.

In Brett Martin's superlative and well-sourced study, the other factor in their success was the subject matter, caught in the title of the book. Difficult Men - Tony Soprano, Walter White, Andy Sipowicz - captured the struggle of constrained masculinity as well as echoed the larger-than-life personas of their creators who scrapped and struggled to put their alter-egos on screen.

For anyone fascinated by popular culture or keen for an insider's view of their favourite box-set, this is essential reading.



Two Girls, One On Each Knee
Alan Connor (Particular Books)
★★★✩✩

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To mark the 100th anniversary of the newspaper staple, crossword fan Alan Connor has written a broad sweep of the history of the puzzle and its myriad fads, byways and unwritten rules.

The cryptic, at the heart of this tale, is a constant source of irritation and amazement (much like this poorly-structured book).

The puzzles adopt a language of their own that appears indecipherable to the outsider all evolving from the first simple "Word-Cross" puzzle.

However, those that learn the secrets behind the clues with its archaic forms, anagrams, charades, abbreviations and reversals join a delightful elite club of pseudo-eccentrics.

Connor relishes the wit and ingenuity of the setters as well as delightfully fogeyish nature of the addicts and brings it altogether with enough hints and tips to give a newcomer traction on this most curious landscape.

Giles Broadbent

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