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Review of reviews:?Books

What the critics said about the best new books: The Good Rat: A True Story and Predictably Irrational

 Book of the weekThe Good Rat: A True Story by Jimmy Breslin (Ecco, $25)

It was a dispiriting sight: Two corrupt ex-cops being escorted into a New York courtroom, one “fat and sad-eyed,” the other gray and listless. Newspaper legend Jimmy Breslin didn’t want to hear their story, much less write about it. But he sat and listened. In time, a 72-year-old drug peddler and fence walked in as a witness for the prosecution. Burt Kaplan, a Jewish garmento who moonlighted for the Lucchese crime family, had cut a deal to win his freedom. Immediately, says Breslin, the plainspoken squealer stole the show. Not only could Kaplan detail how those two sorry cops became gangland hit men. The story of his own criminal career also captured the long decline of the once-fearsome mob.

Breslin has never been much impressed by Mafia lore, said Sam Shapiro in the Char­lotte, N.C., Observer. If you’ve read his 1970 best-seller The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight or enough of his columns, “you’re familiar with the contempt and acidic humor that drips from his sentences.” The Mafiosi he writes about are never glamorous. They’re “grammar school dropouts who kill each other and purport to live by codes from the hills of Sicily.” In this, his “dirge for the mob,” they’ve become stiff-limbed gray-hairs brought low by age and the erosion of the code of silence that once meant something to their confederates. “The book is Breslin at his best,” said Sam Roberts in The New York Times. “It ingeniously synthesizes Burton Kaplan’s bizarre biography, his testimony,” and many of Breslin’s own gang-related memories. “Every page reveals his talent for putting a twinkle in your mind’s eye.”

Breslin’s narrative style “is hardly linear,” said Rebecca Jones in the Denver Rocky Mountain News. Readers who aren’t used to “stream-of-Breslin-consciousness” can expect some head-scratching moments. But that’s fitting, said David L. Ulin in the Los Angeles Times. Breslin likes complexity. Just as his perfect hero is a “good rat,” every “classic Breslin moment” combines comedy and tragedy, cold judgment and endearing humility. “I keep hearing people talking about the end of the Mafia,” he writes, “but I don’t even know what that means.”

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely (HarperCollins, $26)

Some years ago, behavioral economist Dan Ariely decided that the overheated market for Duke University basketball tickets might offer an interesting study in human behavior. Every fall, Duke students hoping to buy tickets for the upcoming hoops season camp out for an entire weekend just to get their names in a school-run lottery. They form teams to spread the burden of being stuck in line. As soon as the lottery is held, however, the losers suddenly don’t value the tickets as highly as the winners do. Sure, the have-nots still want to attend the games. But when Ariely discreetly surveyed them about what they’d pay for a ticket, losers offered about $175 on average. The typical winner, by contrast, wouldn’t part with a ticket for less than $2,400.

Ariely, who today is a professor at MIT, doesn’t intend to ridicule our unreliable capacity to set value, said Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker. His new book is an entertaining “taxonomy of financial folly.” But it’s the author’s hope that revealing “the underlying logic of our illogic” will help readers make better decisions about their time and money. Ariely’s “lively and interesting” anecdotes cruelly expose why we’ll pay $100 in a boutique for a scarf that wouldn’t get $10 on the street, said Emily Bobrow in The New York Observer. But he follows with solutions for those who’ve learned to recognize the pitfalls. That makes Predictably Irrational more than just another of the “clever, readable” books that behavioral economists have been writing in the wake of the 2005 hit Freakonomics. Ariely’s contribution is “a self-help book swaddled in empirical data.”

Ariely isn’t afraid to take up “weighty issues,” including the effects of abstinence-only sex education, said Kate Ward in Entertainment Weekly. Unfortunately, he never offers an “overarching theory that can explain why we think the way we do,” said Rosa Cao in the MIT student newspaper The Tech. Readers have to be satisfied with flashes of insight. At one such moment, Ariely explores how each of us can be sheep-like in our tendency to follow the example of our own past behaviors. In another, he shows why sometimes there’s no shame in making economically irrational decisions. Most of us would rather help move a sofa for no payment, for instance, than move it for a low wage.

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