Friday, 25 February 2011

THE SELFISH GENE by Richard Dawkins (30th Anniversary Edition)


This book made a big splash when it was first published in the 1970s, and it is now in its 3rd edition.

Essentially, the book argues that evolution does not work on a family, group, or species level, but on the level of the gene.

Humanitarian feeling, by this measure, is not occasioned by a desire on the part of humans for humanity to survive, and it is certainly not (perish the thought) occasioned by some higher, non-biological feeling we might have (what! something non-biological, never!).

Dawkins takes us back to the primordial soup in which loose bits and pieces slowly formed molecules. The molecules which survived, were the molecules which were successful. They formed sacs to keep themselves safe, or learnt how to push chemicals away, or whatever. And slowly they developed into full organisms. However, the driver is still those early small organisms, which are now recognisable as DNA. So, for example, the DNA for two legs survived because giving a creatre two legs made that creature more likely to survive and thus produce DNA. We are, in Dawkins view, just robots created by our DNA to carry our DNA around and keep it safe.

I actually find this quite a believable theory. Though, why should we care what I think? I don't know squat about biology.

He includes a very interesting section on how the basic rule of most religions - do as you would be done by - might have been shaped by evolution. More here if you're interested.

Dawkins can't bear religious fundamentalism, which is I find hilarious, because he is such a biological fundamentalist. He is so insistent on the whole nothing-beyond-biology argument, it gets a bit embarrassing. I think insisting loudly that there is not a god is just as silly as insisting loudly that there is one. You can really only weigh in on that one when you're dead.



It does explain family feeling in an interesting way: in essence, his argument is that we protect members of our family because they share so much of our DNA. But where I struggled a bit was: we share like 99%of our genes with chimps. Surely therefore we should be conditioned to work for their survival too? But this is clearly not the case.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

BILLY BROWN I’LL TELL YOUR MOTHER by Bill Brown

This is an autobiographical tale of growing up in the years immediately after the second World War.

Some aspects of it are quite interesting: the aspirational nature of council housing (that really bends the mind, today); the sense of community; the fun to be had in bombed out houses. It's also an engaging and pleasant read, and you find yourself caring for the characters, and believing in their world.

In general however I have to confess I found it a tiny bit cheesy. Apparently, immediately after the war, no one ever had any complex or contradictory feelings, and no arguments were ever serious.

I suspect that it is perhaps read and loved by people who remember that time, and in particular perhaps by those who like to tut tut about today.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

FEAR OF FLYING by Erica Jong


This book tells the story of Isadora Wing, who while at a conference with her second husband, the psychologist Bennett, falls madly in love with another psychologist, Adrian. She is confused about her feelings for Bennett, but certainly knows that she is bored and unfulfilled sexually, so she decides to run away with Adrian.

She and Adrian drive around Europe drunkenly and pointlessly, and the novel begins to move back in time. We learn about Isadora's past relationships, with special emphasis on all the sex she was or wasn't having. Eventually left on her own in Paris, Isadora has a sort of crisis of confidence regarding her inability to be by her self. She decides in the end to go to London to find Bennett, but the suggestion is very much that the most important peace that she has made is with herself, more than with any man.

Apparently this book was a massive bestseller when it first appeared in 1973 (it has since sold 12.5 million copies in 27 languages), and spoke in particular to women, who rejoiced in its sexual frankness and open discussion of female freedom.

Frankly, this response puzzles me a bit. I was kind of like: what? She doesn't want to get married. She wants to have a career. She likes to have sex. I don't really see the big deal.

But I guess that shows that we have come a long way since 1973, and that a lot of women before me had to fight a very long hard road, for me to be able to read this book, and find it simply puzzling.

It reminded me quite a lot of Doris Lessing's THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK, another book about a woman's valiant struggle, that now seems to me unimpressive. It's also similar to THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK in it's interest in psychiatry, in recounting dreams in detail (NB Authors: this is always boring), and in banging on in great detail about periods, as if no one's ever written about them before. Which, maybe nobody had.

With all the sex stuff it also reminded me of the other old friend of this blog, Henry Miller's TROPIC OF CANCER, but let's not hold that against it.

Anyway, I admired the book. It's impressively honest, the style is informal and fun, and the story compelling. It's also rich with quotable quotes:

"Women are their own worst enemies. And guilt is the main weapon of self-torture . . . Show me a woman who doesn't feel guilty and I'll show you a man."

“Because that was how I so often felt about men. Their minds were helplessly befuddled, but their bodies were so nice. Their ideas were intolerable, but their penises were silky.”

“ . . . in some fashionable sell-out profession like advertising . . .”

"All natural disasters are comforting because they reaffirm our impotence, in which, otherwise, we might stop believing. At times it is strangely sedative to know the extent of your own powerlessness."

Martin Amis, on it's release, called it “horrible and embarrassing.” That's also very much in it's favour.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Technorati Claim Admin

For some reason, I have to post this on my blog to establish its existence with Technorati. Search me as to why, but here it is:

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Monday, 14 February 2011

HARPERS January 2011


A lovely article about Ralph Waldo Emerson in my favourite magazine this month. Here's a quote of his to put in your pipe:
Days . . "come and go like muffled & vague figures, sent from a distant friendly party; but they say nohting, & if we do not use the gifts they bring, they carry them as silently away . . . I find no good lives. I would live well. I seem to be free to do so, yet I think with very little respect of my way of living; it is weak, partial, not full & not progressive. But I do not see any that suits me better. . . We are all dying of miscellany"

Or,even worse:

"After thirty a man wakes up sad every morning"

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

WHY IT STILL SUCKS TO BE A GIRL by George Eliot

Occasionally one comes across people (ie. morons) who think that feminism's work is done, or that being a feminist is in some way an old fashioned notion.

These morons need to look at this: VIDA'S THE COUNT. Don't bother with the text at the top, just look at the pie charts, and feel your mind boggle. It's a comparison of the numbers of books reviewed in major magazines broken down by gender. For example, The Times Literary Supplement, in its wisdom, found 1075 male writers worthy of review, and just 378 female. Take that ladies.

Here's another:

Meghan O'Rourke at Slade has an interesting take on all this, particularly as regards unconscious bias. She points out, in an interesting parallel, that once blind auditions were instituted for major orchestras, the recruitment of women went up - well, let's see if you can guess how much:
a) Not at all
b) Only a teensy tiny bit
c) TENFOLD.

Yeah. Damn skippy.

See also the Franzenfreude debate, where there was much discussion around whether Jonathan Franzen FREEDOM would have been so celebrated, given its domestic setting, were it written by a woman.

What we have learnt from this is that when I become a famous author, I am so going to go by the name S.M NORMAN.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell


I was obsessed with this movie as a teenager: I used to watch it over and over again. I found this copy of the book in my parents’ bookcase: a charming old hardback, printed 1951, with thin pages and small type, and none of these frills like author bios or blank pages at the beginning or end. Awesome. I was about to go on very long flight, and I knew it would be my friend. AND OH GOD. Was it. This book is the ultimate page turner.

For those of you who have been living under a rock since you were born, here is the plot:

Scarlett O’Hara is a beautiful southern belle, chased by all the boys, except the one she really wants: Ashley Wilkes, a dreamy gentleman to whom she is completely unsuited. The Civil War ensues, and in a suitably panaromic and dramatic fashion throws something of a spanner into all sorts of plans, including the romantic; and Scarlett does not have time to chase beaux, what with nursing dying Confederates, fighting her way through the siege of Atlanta, and eventually running her family’s ransacked plantation on her own, picking cotton, fighting carpetbaggers and so forth.

She has always been a practical, opportunistic woman, but after the War becomes even more so, convinced that money and security are more important than any conception of honour or history. Throughout all this epic drama she has been assisted by the dashing Rhett Butler, who she eventually marries. It is painfully apparent to us (especially those of us who were obsessed in their adolescence) that of COURSE Rhett loves her and of COURSE they are perfect for each other; but she is too obsessed with Ashely to see it. Eventually she realises in the second to last chapter the error of her ways, and that of course Rhett is the man for her! Hurray! But WATCH OUT MARGARET MITCHELL IS ONLY MESSING WITH YOUR MIND because the book ends with Rhett leaving her, saying it is too late, and he is too tired to start again.

In short, I did not go to bed till like 2am last night.

So on the plus side: what an page turner, what an epic! Also, what a feminist! I seriously cannot believe it was published in 1936. Scarlett is so unapologetic about not being feminine, and Mitchell is so unapologetic for her. She is a businesswoman, and a battler. She is completely uninterested in her children (brilliantly, "Death and taxes and childbirth! There's never any convenient time for any of them."), in a way that I think even a contemporary author would hesitate with. I was not surprised at all to learn that Mitchell’s mother was a suffragist.

On the negative side: it is in some ways really, really racist. “The darkies are so stupid,” is a sample. There’s several lines like that that stop the page turning, and no two ways about it, it’s not nice. On the other hand, there are lots of fully realized, and within this author’s world view, very positive presentations of individual black people. One is ‘Mammy,’ O’Hara’s nursemaid, which is clearly a stereotyped role.

In the movie the part was played by Hattie McDaniel, who won the first Oscar ever given to an African-American for the part (look here for her stylish acceptance speech; try not to compare with Halle Berry). She was criticized for playing a stereotype, and replied, pithily, “I’d rather play a maid for $700 a week than be one for $7”. She was the daughter of freed slaves, so presumably she had a fairly intimate perspective on the matter.

There are also several plot strands dealing with slaves who were unhappy in freedom, which is interesting, and not a perspective you often hear; and several strands dealing with Northerners who were far more unpleasant to, and dismissive of, individual black people than the former slave owners. Suggesting I suppose the uncomfortable truth that not all slave owners were monsters, and not all slaves totally miserable every minute in slavery: that it's not black and white.

See what I did there?

Monday, 7 February 2011

HAIRDRESSER OF HARARE by Tendai Huchu

This is a really charming little tale of contemporary Zimbabwe.

We've recently discussed in this blog (here) how much Zimbabwean literature is about either a) the war or b) ticking the boxes of international interest. THE HAIRDRESSER OF HARARE triumphantly does neither.

The story focuses on Vimbai, a top hairdresser at Mrs Khumalo's salon. Her life changes when their first ever male hairdresser, Dumi, begins work at the salon, and proves to be serious competition. He is however a pleasant and retiring man, and eventually becomes her lodger. He invites her to a family wedding, and she is surprised by the great wealth of his family (from whom he is mysteriously estranged), and also by the fact that he refers to her as his girlfriend.

She begins to come round to this idea, and he becomes a big part of her life. She does indeed eventually become his girlfriend - in all ways except the pesky physical.

I think you can guess that this well-dressed hairdresser, with little interest in Vimbai, is as G-A-Y as you like. She is horrified, and when she discovers that he has a high profile lover in the government, lets his wife know. Dumi is duly beaten to a pulp by the CIO, and Vimbai is filled with remorse. In at not very believable turn of events, he forgives her, and then somewhat more believably, flees the country.

So, an interesting tale, well told. Lots of very sharp comic writing, with a warm heart behind it. Most impressive though is its lively and unselfconscious evocation of contemporary Harare. The kombis, the sugar queues, the Churchill boys; they are all handled with a lightly comic touch, and given a warm reality. The lack of 'explanation' (for some imagined international audience) is sort of remarkable. THE HAIRDRESSER OF HARARE is not perhaps a perfect book, but it is one with a genuine and unaffected contemporary Zimbabwean voice, and I haven't come across too damn many of those. So many congratulations to Mr Huchu.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

THE LACUNA by Barbara Kingsolver


This book is 636 pages long. Now, bizarrely, by about the 300s I was already bored/irritated; but somehow I have managed to finish it. And it wasn't so bad in the end.

The book is in the form of diary entries and letters. This is a really hard way to try and write a piece of fiction, and while it can succeed (fabulously, as Dodi Smith I CAPTURE THE CASTLE) it can also lack credibility and be so pretentious as to make you want to scream (THE LACUNA).

In this irritating format we follow the story of one Harrison Shepherd, born to a Mexican mother and an American father in Virginia. The book begins when Harrison is twelve and his mother takes him with her on a mad dash with a lover to Mexico.

There are some good bits, evocative and funny, early on, while it it still a young boy's diary, such as:

Sunday is the worst day. Everyone else has family and a place to go. Even the bells from the churches have a conversation, all ringing at once. Our house is like an empty cigarette packet, lying around reminding you what's not in it. The maid, gone to mass. Mr Produce the Cash, to the wife and children. Mother rinses her girdles and step-ins, flings them on the rails of the balcony to dry, and finds herself with nothing left to live for. Sometimes when there isn't anything in the house to eat, she says, “Okay kiddo, it's dincher dinner.” That means sharing her cigarettes so we won't be hungry.

Harrison is not given much of an education and eventually ends up working as a cook and then a typist. Ridiculously, he finds this employement with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo at the time that Trotsky is staying with them. This must be among the least believable presentation of historically famous people it has ever been my misfortune to read. The author clearly went on a tour of the Rivera/Kahlo house in Mexico City, and thinks she is terribly clever to have noticed that the kitchen was small, and difficult for the cooks. Oh, what a sense of the reality of their lives! What a brilliant conjunction of art and the everyday! Why don't I just puke right now.

He then moves to the US, where he becomes a famous author. Also pukily, he manges to be involved tangentially in the internment of Japanese Americans and the Communist witchhunts. He also manages to have incredibly stilted dialogue with this secretary. Fix your eyes in your sockets for this sample:

“Well, people think that. And taking the Fifth means you're guilty.”
“Whatever they may think, it does not. A blank space on a form, the missing page, a void, a hole in your knowledge of someone – it's still some real thing. It exists. You don't get to fill it in with whatever you want, Mrs Brown.”

Do you see what she's doing there, title wise? It's truly incredible how often the author manages to introduce the title of her book in different ways. Was it some kind of weird literary bet?

Overall, I feel mean saying it, but it's a sweet relief with Mr Shepherd dies.

LIFE AND FATE by Vasily Grossman

As the title suggests, LIFE AND FATE is a novel with a wide scope. It's a gigantic account of Stalinist Russia, mostly during the secon...