Amherst Magazine

What They Are Reading

We asked Geoffrey Woglom, the Richard S. Volpert ’56 Professor of Economics, what he has been reading lately. Here’s what he told us:

A Clive James column in The New Yorker (“Blood on the Borders: Crime fiction from all over,” April 9, 2007) has inspired most of my recent reading. I have long been a fan of detective novels and of Clive James, so I took his advice to expand my mystery horizons internationally. Consequently, I have come to know Scotland’s Inspector Rebus (A Question of Blood, by Ian Rankin), Sweden’s inspectors Kurt Wallender (The Fifth Woman, by Henning Mankell) and Van Veeteren (Borkmann’s Point, by Hakan Nesser), Italy’s Commissario Guido Brunetti (Death in a Strange Country, by Donna Leon) and Thailand’s Police Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep (Bangkok Tattoo, by John Burdett). James was right: along with the usual twisting narrative in which truth and order in the world eventually triumph, one also gets to enjoy a small taste of exotic locales. I was, however, struck by the similarities in the main characters—brooding, mostly solitary men of a certain age with a complex inner life. I have enjoyed this aspect of mystery novels for many years, at least since I first encountered Sid Halley in a Dick Francis novel. So in spite of the strange locales, what was most compelling for me in these novels was the most familiar, with one exception.

Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the narrator of Bangkok Tattoo, has a complex inner life, but one that was far from familiar to me. The reader gets his commentary on sex (graphic), violence (gratuitous) and Americans (unflattering) from a Buddhist perspective. In particular, the observations on Americans in a post-9/11 world gave me an eerie déjà vu experience. I was transported back to high school in 1962, when I first read and was perplexed by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s The Ugly American. Regardless of your politics, I think you will find Detective Jitpleecheep’s observations insightful and challenging.

I had two breaks from mysteries over the summer: I read Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach and William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden. I have long been a McEwan fan. I know he is supposed to write beautifully, but I am enthralled by the way he captures the emotional content of human foibles and failings. Anyone who has ever played squash will recognize the powerful truths revealed in the squash-match scene in Saturday. The stakes are much higher in On Chesil Beach, and McEwan’s portrayal of the decent but flawed lovers in this short novel brought tears to my eyes.

Yesterday, the UPS man delivered William Easterly’s book, and I immediately turned to it. I have only just begun, but I am far enough along to know the major message. There are two tragedies concerning world poverty: first, the desperate condition in which billions of human beings (the people whom Easterly calls “the Rest”) find themselves; second, the failure of $2.3 trillion of Western aid over five decades to affect the conditions that the Rest continue to face. As citizens of the 21st-century world, we must confront the second tragedy, and I can think of no better place to start than with Easterly’s book.