Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Story of a Marriage. Book Review

The Story of a Marriage. Book ReviewThe Story of a Marriage is about a bisexual love-triangle set in 1950s San Francisco. Pearlie and Holland, high school sweethearts who rekindle their relationship after World War Two, have settled into a fairiy typical nuclear family scenario. Their son suffers from Polio and they are poor, with Hofland's twin aunts helping out with the bills. All seems normal, if in a rut, when Buzz, an old wartime friend of Holland's shows up on their doorstep. Buzz's arrival seems to inject life back into the household. After spending a few months insinuating himself as the family's best friend, he reveals to Pearlie why he has really come: to take back his lover, now her husband, which he wants her help to arrange. In exchange, he will settle most of his wealth on her, enabling her to provide more for her child.

Andrew Sean Greer is a true literary novelist well versed in his craft. Where this novel succeeds is as a showcase for his considerable skill. The story unfolds in layers, like a flower of overlapping petals slowly opening petal by petal. Greer is totally in control of what he wants you to know. The story moves forward, then backwards in time, revealing bits of information specifically designed to reverse the reader's perspective on a character, after being deliberately sent in the wrong direction. Perhaps this strategy is to create in the reader an experience similar to the shock Pearlie must have felt when she discovered her husband was far different from the man she thought she knew.

Greer can drop in a seemingly innocent detail that later becomes a major plot point. He creates suspense by foreshadowing with themes of neighborhood gossip and tales of dangerous affairs snaking through the story. He delights with a beautiful turn of phrase and adds touches like making Countee Cullen the husband's favorite poet—a wink of the eye to readers who know that Cullen was bisexual and a married man. We feel that we are being drawn towards the heart of a fascinating story, blooming with possibilities and brimming with drama. Unfortunately, it never fully delivers.

The Story of a Marriage is not only set in the 50s but seems as though it was written then as well. For a story about a bisexual love triangle—it is surprisingly devoid of sex. But the biggest mistake the author makes is avoiding the most interesting character in the novel: HoUahd, the bisexual husband torn between the woman he left his boyfriend to marry and the lover he is considering leaving his wife for.

Pearlie is the story's narrator, and although we are privy to her thoughts, it's unclear as to why she goes along with interloper Buzz's plan, without even speaking to her husband. All her conversations about the possibility of Holland leaving her are with Buzz. Through those dialogues we know that Buzz is passionate about getting Holland back, but we don't know how Holland feels. We don't know why Holland never wrote to Pearlie after he left for war, why he left Buzz to marry her two months after meeting her again or why he is now considering leaving his wife to return to his lover. When he left Buzz and married Pearlie, was he trying to marry the gay away.' Or did he love Pearlie more.' When Buzz tracked him down four years later, why did he consider leaving, even though he now had a wife and child.' Why did he want to stay.' Was he more in love with one than the other.' Pearlie and Holland's motivations are obliquely hinted at but never defined, since they never discuss their marriage.

Why Greer made tiie choice to leave out the most interesting perspective on the story is a mystery. Instead of mining the thoughts and feelings of the character at the fulcrum of the drama, or mining drama from the conversations that Holland could have had with his wife and his lover, all the conversations about the impending decision are between Pearlie and Buzz, with the drama confined solely to finding out the answer to the question, "will he stay or will he go.'" Although we eventually find out his decision, we are never privy to his reasons or his feelings about what he gave up. Not surprisingly, the possibility of them staying together as a threesome was never explored, even though all three seemed to be having the most fun when they were together.

It is also odd that there is no indication that most of the characters are black until it is suddenly dropped in, 48 pages into the story. After that, issues of race are addressed, but it seemed like it was deliberately held back for shock value, rather than to make a political or social point.

The Story of a Marriage is a masterfully well-crafted.' but ultimately, unsatisfying story.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Strategies and Games: Theory and Practice. Book Review

Strategies and Games: Theory and Practice. Book ReviewA good textbook should be comprehensive and readable; it should also be intuitive, but with enough rigor to adequately explain its points. These conditions are met by Professor Dutta's new game theory text.

The author covers all the major topics of game theory. He divides the book into five parts. The first section, the introduction, shows readers where game theory can be usefully employed, and also introduces the basic terminology of game theory. The second section discusses strategic form games. In this section the author examines the core of game theory. Readers learn about dominant and dominated strategies, iterated elimination of dominated strategies, Nash equilibrium, and mixed strategies. Along the way, the author has detailed chapters on the tragedy of the commons, Cournot duopoly, and zero-sum games. Section three examines extensive form games. Here the reader learns of backward induction, subgame perfect equilibrium, finitely and infinitely repeated games, and dynamic games. Applications of theory include OPEC, the NASDAQ market and the research and development game. In the fourth section the topic is games of asymmetric information, and here the author analyses moral hazard, games with incomplete information, and mechanism design. The final section reviews background material necessary to understand the book's contents, including utility and expected utility theory, calculus and probability.

Although the book does an excellent job of covering the basics of game theory, it stays too close to both theory and economics. None of the surprising results of experimental economics (for example, how subjects in experiments actually play the prisoner's dilemma or public goods games) on game theory are presented. Although including much of this information would have greatly lengthened the book, some discussion of this research would improve the book. Another minor quibble concerns the almost exclusive use of economics examples. This book is so well written that anyone with a basic understanding of economics and calculus can grasp it. As a result, students from other disciplines (for example, political science, anthropology, psychology, and evolutionary biology) may be interested in reading this book. Unfortunately, there are very few non-economic examples. While this is good for economists, it may alienate others who would benefit from this book.

The author manages to immediately interest the reader in his topic with an excellent introduction. He also provides three excellent background chapters on calculus, probability, and utility and expected utility theory. While none of these chapters go into great depth, they give any reader with a basic knowledge of calculus and introductory microeconomics a wonderful, quick review of these topics. In fact, Dutta's explanations are very intuitive and help the reader remember these concepts.

Concepts are explained clearly, using verbal arguments, figures, and mathematical arguments. The author combines these three forms of explanation effectively. He uses enough mathematics to make his point, but never overwhelms the reader. In addition, his interpretations of the mathematical results increase the reader's understanding. The figures and graphs are easy to understand, and also help illustrate the points made in the text.

The book is well organised. Chapters are short and to the point. When a particular example threatens to overwhelm a chapter, Professor Dutta wisely creates a chapter for that example. As a result, for many sections the pattern of the book is: theory, example, theory, example.

These example or application chapters are excellent explanations of real economic situations. The author does a wonderful job describing the situation, describing the intuition behind applying the particular theoretical model to that situation, and then working through the model and its implications. These chapters are great examples of how game theory should be used to analyse real world situations.

At the end of each chapter there is an extensive list of questions to help the reader further understand the issues covered. Although these questions are useful, if the author had provided the answers to some of the questions, the book would be better.

Professor Dutta has produced an excellent textbook for upper level undergraduate and beginning graduate students. His book is clear, concise, and provides many illustrative and enlightening examples. Any teacher planning to teach a course in game theory would be well advised to examine this book.