Monday, 21 July 2003

Dr. Thorne and Bringing down the house

Listening to:

Dvořák, piano concerto in G minor, op. 33.

Just read:

Anthony Trollope, Dr. Thorne.

This is the third of the six Barsetshire novels. I’d read the first two already (The warden, and Barchester Towers), and imagined that this might be some sort of sequel. It isn’t at all, sharing just the setting (a fictional English county), and occasionally referring to characters from the previous novels as scene-setting (for example, the bishop and his wife).

The story is pretty understated, and is superficially similar to that in Gaskell’s Wives and daughters: a middle-aged doctor is ward to a beautiful young woman who eventually marries a young heir to the local squire. There are lots of other differences though. In Trollope’s case, the squire’s family is financially embarrassed, and the woman has to first come into an unexpected fortune in order to be acceptable.

The plot is very predictable. Just a few chapters into the novel, it is very obvious where the money is going to come from, and there are no real twists and turns in the plot. Instead, you have to enjoy the straightforward journey. There are things to enjoy, particularly in the earlier parts of the story. Trollope is gently scathing about a number of his characters’ pretensions, and some of them get their come-uppance in more-or-less gentle ways.

I enjoyed it, but Wives and daughters is better.

Ben Mezrich, Bringing down the house: the inside story of six MIT students who took Vegas for millions.

This is a very readable account of the way a group of MIT students managed to make millions of dollars by card-counting blackjack in various American casinos. Because the deck isn’t constantly reshuffled between deals in blackjack, the odds of getting good or bad cards changes as the packs used are depleted. If you track what’s gone, you can know when it is to your advantage to bet high, or bet low. This isn’t cheating, but the casinos take a very dim view of it and tend to bar people they discover doing it. (Why they don’t just automatically shuffle the packs between deals I don’t know.)

Mezrich presents what is essentially a rise-and-fall story in a gushing journalistic fashion that is initially somewhat grating. I think I got used to it as the story became more engrossing. It really is an extended piece of journalism, as it is the narrative history of a small group of characters. Unfortunately, there’s an admission that names have been changed, and that real people and events have been merged in the text inside the title page, so it’s not good journalism.

It’s a good story though.

To read next:

Iain Banks, The Business.

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