Sunday, July 22, 2018

Mike McCormack - Solar Bones (Canongate, 2016) **

In the span of one hour, engineer Marcus Conway reflects on his life, his work, his family, the joys and the tensions, presented as one long 'monologue intérieur' without punctuation, as one endless sentence. Conway's life is disintegrating, his wife left him, his son lives in Austrialia with an uncertain future, his daughter is close yet he does not understand her, and then he gets hit professionally too.

Reading the story with its good cadence and rhythm quickly turns it into a mesmerising experience, but of course a novel is too long to read in one session, so you have to break it up and get into it again, and unfortunately, the story itself and the main character did not really resonate with me, and as the narrative progresses, I did seem to care less and less about Conway's predicament.

Paolo Cognetti - The Eight Mountains (Harvill Secker, 2018) ***

Like Henry David Thoreau in "Walden", Italian documentary maker Paolo Cognetti decided to leave his city life and move to the mountains in the north of Italy. The story in "The Eight Mountains" is partly autobiographic, and it describes the friendship of Pietro, a young Milanese boy who goes on holidays every year to the same place in the mountains, with Bruno, the only boy in the remote and half-deserted village. Even if they only meet once a year, their friendship becomes solid, not based on words or common interests, but at some deeper understanding of life. Their worlds could not be more different, including the relationships with their parents, although both boys, as can be expected do not understand the whims and strange character traits of their parents, for Pietro primarily his father, for Bruno his mother.

Efforts for both worlds to meet in a more structural way, and outside of the holidays, fail, as if there is a border that cannot or should not be crossed. Pietro's universe becomes the world, including frequent stays in Nepal, whereas Bruno never actually lives his village. The mutual understanding of both boys and later as young men, is maintained despite the changes in their lives, both personal and professional.

Cognetti writes in a very accessible and balanced way, well integrating memories and reflections in the action, yet he's most convincing when describing nature and the ambiguity of relationships. It's a story about leaving the rat race, and about getting a deeper understanding about the beauty and harshness of nature. It is a little mellow at moments, but somehow that only emphasises the authenticity of the writing.

Hans Rosling - Factfulness (Flatiron, 2018) ****

If you don't know Swedish epidemiologist Hans Rosling, it's high time you find out about him on the internet, via his Gapminder Foundation, or through this book, which was published posthumously. 

Rosling is an incredible educator and big picture thinker, who managed to show the state of the world through very interesting visualisations of the evolution of poverty and wealth, of diseases and of demographic changes. 

"Factfulness" describes in a comprehensive way all his teaching, youtube presentations and TED Talks. 

This book should be mandatory reading in all schools across the world. It will bring both humility and hope for everybody. He demonstrates that most countries in the world are currently having the same living standards as the richest countries somewhere in the middle of last century. He shows how things improve for many people across the world, and how our categorisation of the world in "developed" and "developing" countries is completely outdated. 

One of the best things about his lectures, is that Rosling always submitted his audiences to a quiz before his presentation, only to show how most of us have completely wrong assumptions about the state of the world. And these audiences included politicians, journalists, WHO and IMF collaborators, who in general and with great majority gave the wrong answers. 

And that includes both you and me. So you'd better read this book too!

Steven Pinker - Enlightenment Now (Allen Lane, 2018) ****

We know Pinker, we love Pinker. "Enlightenment Now" is subtitled "The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress", and that's exactly what the book does. The good thing is that Pinker gives a very high level overview of the progress that's been made in the last centuries, thanks to the insights of the enlightenment philosophers, scientists and politicians who radically put evidence and democracy at the heart of society. This led to better science, better understanding, but also better justice and well-being to many.

This book is a kind of sequel to "The Better Angels of our Nature", in which he describes how society has become less violent over the millennia.

He tackles the big picture topics of wealth, equality, happiness, peace, safety, terrorism, democracy, equal rights, the environment, ... and he is right: based on all evidence, things are getting better, despite the growth of the population.

His appeal to reason and democracy are a deep cry from an entire intellectual community who sees populism on the rise across the world, with 'fake news' and 'alternative facts' increasingly dominating our news and social media.

As with so many books, this one will also be preaching to the converted. Its main advantage is that it give the converted a very strong overview of facts to support their arguments. Nothing new here, just very well presented and documented.

If I had his skills and knowledge, this is the book I would write.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb - Skin In The Game (Allen Lane, 2018) **

Ha! I couldn't keep thinking throughout the book that mathematician and stock broker Nassim Nicholas Taleb was contractually bound by his publisher to write a book yet had no idea what to write about. "Skin In The Game" is about people making choices that influence other people's lives without having 'skin in the game', and therefore are also not impacted by the choices they make. By itself this seems like a good angle to comment on today's society, but the book never delivers on its promise. Rather, it is a long and repititive tirade about how clever he is, and how dumb the rest of the world, especially the Intelligent Yet Idiots (IYI), which include people such as Stephen Pinker and Noble Prize winners for economy Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. He complains that his papers against the rhetoric of Thomas Pikkety on capitalism never got the attention they deserved.

Taleb's fascination with his own self is so omnipresent in the book that you start wondering which childhood trauma lies at the basis of it. He has to show off that he speaks and reads in several languages, that he is as comfortable in quoting Aristotle, the bible and quantum physics, that he understands all aspects of religion, history, philosophy, economy, psychology and finance better than anyone else. Taleb is able to judge everybody in every discipline of thought because clearly he is the cleverest of them all.

You find quotes like this on almost every page: "For it looks like you need a lot of intelligence to figure probabilistic things out when you don't have skin in the game. But for an overeducated nonpracticioner, these things are hard to figure out. Unless one is a genius, that is, has the clarity of mind to see through the mud, or has sufficiently profound command of probability theory to cut through the nonsense".

In contrast to "The Black Swan", which I can highly recommend, this book is more a collection of musings and unrelated ideas and accusations with no immediate use in daily life, and yes, his starting point is interesting and true, but not really elaborated upon in a systematic way.

That being said, many of his ideas are thought-provoking and give a different angle to many assumptions that are at least worth considering. Personally, I can agree with many of his ideas, including about Krugman and Stiglitz, but please, do something about your self-obsession.

Jim Crace - The Melody (Picador, 2018) **

The retired singer and widower Alfred Busi is attacked by a further undefined creature in his home. This brings him into contact with his deceased wife's sister and his son, a real estate agent, and the neighbours whose villa will be sold soon. Busi has become a lonely and sad figure, still performing as a singer, but now for smaller crowds of elderly people, and even if was once immediately recognised and famous, he is now reduced to a life on the edge, somewhat outside the bustle of society, outside of where the action is.

Jim Crace's stylistic lyricism is as good as ever, and most sentences are a real pleasure to read, the story itself is somewhat lacking in real tension. The theme is about solitude and of no longer being center-stage, about justice, both personal and political, about greed and compassion. Even if it is sad, it somehow lacks tension, or the captivating and compelling literary and memorable universes he created in "Quarantine" or "Harvest".

If you don't know Crace, I would recommend to start with these two novels.

Richard Flanagan - First Person (Chatto & Windus, 2017) ***

Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan can be highly recommended for his "Gould's Book Of Fish", and "The Narrow Road To The Deep North".

In "First Person" he tells the story of a young writer who sells his soul to a publishing company by willing to act as the ghost writer of a biography by a white collar criminal who is waiting for his trial. He is desparate for money, and accepts the deal to deliver the book in six weeks. Unfortunately, Siegfried Heidl, the book's subject, appears to be a very unpleasant, whimsical, erratic and uncooperative person ... and a liar. He creates quite some fog about his own history, leads the young writer in wrong directions, and with time pressing, the story becomes increasingly elusive.

Heidl is a con man, who fraudulently extracted $700 million from banks, and he keeps explaining to Kif Kehlmann, the ghost writer, how truth is nothing else than a story well told.

The story is extremely irritating. As it is to Kehlmann who does not make any progress. It is enervating, irritating, frustrating, discomforting, disheartening, ... Even if minor changes happen in the narrative, the core events are repetitive: meetings between Heidl and Kif where nothing is actually said, apart from clichés about truth and story-telling. And of course because of a lack of material, both protagonists' lives become to fuse on paper. Kif has no other choice than to fill in the blanks, creating a grey zone full of moral and personal confusion. Whose story is this in the end?

Is it recommended? Yes, if you have sufficient peace of mind for a narrative that keeps circling back to square one, if you are willing to go with the author and experience the narrative rather than just read it. No, if you are of the nervous type who want things to move forward, if you dislike being the victim of the author's cheap tricks to be played on you.

Dan Barker - God, The Most Unpleasant Character In All Fiction (Sterling, 2016)

I once made the effort to summarise all the atrocities of the Bible, both Old and New Testament, because if one thing is obvious, it's the high level of selectivity with which clergy cite from the bible, giving the impression of a benevolent and moral god. My manuscript - in Dutch - was rejected because deemed blasphemous, despite only offering passages from the bible.

Anybody who has actually read the bible will confess that god is nothing less than a monster by today's standards, and I think Dan Barker's title is even a soft description of what the bible actually tells us.

In this book, Barker - a former evangelical preacher - enumerates all the atrocities in the bible, ordering the chapters by theme : the jealous and proud god, the unjust god, the unforgiving god, the misogynistic god, the ethnic cleanser, the genocidal, infanticidal, the vindictive, the bloodthirsty, the megalomaniac, ...

Most of us have no idea about this side of the bible, because it remains hidden in sermons and speeches. It also shows the hypocrisy of people who use the bible for reference to take moral positions against for instance gay people, but then not applying the good rules of the same bible to stone a girl to death because she was raped.

This book is not one to read, because it actually only lists passages from the bible according to the characterisations I described above.

It is 300 pages long. It is 300 pages of absolute horror. Not one person in his right mind would follow the moral guidance of its lead character. Unfortunately, too many do, which says a lot about their ignorance, irrationality and lack of intellectual curiosity.

I'm just afraid that only atheists will dare buy this book.

Alice Roberts - The Incredible Unlikeliness Of Being (Heron Books, 2015) ***

A interesting book, one that creates a wonderful parallel between biological evolution and the growth of a child after conception. The idea is of course obvious and simple. Somehow, we all go back to the same ancestors so many millions of years ago, and this ancestry is still clear in the splitting of cells, in the growth of the foetus and the embryo. Roberts show what parts of our bodies we have in common with all other living things and how the function of some of these changed over time.

Alice Roberts is a professor of anatomy and television documentary maker. She is specialised in paleopathology, the study of disease in ancient human remains, receiving the degree in 2008. She worked as Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of Bristol Centre for Comparative and Clinical Anatomy, where her main roles were teaching clinical anatomy, embryology, and physical anthropology, as well as researching osteoarchaeology and paleopathology.

 In a very methodical way, she takes the reader through all the organs of the body, explaining the common origins with other species, the comparative and different use these body parts evolved into over time: heads and brains, skulls and senses, speech and gills, spines and segments, ribs, lungs and heart, guts and yolk sacks, gonads, genitals and gestation, limbs, legs, shoulders and thumbs.

The earliest creatures, interestingly, evolved from simple cells to take in nutrients, process them and discard them: a mouth and an arse is all it needed to get us started. And the result is absolutely fascinating: well told, easy to understand for lay people and with many drawings to illustrate her points.

Colson Whitehead - The Underground Railroad (Fleet, 2017) ***

In "The Underground Railroad", American author Colson Whitehead describes the escape from slavery by Cora through the famous 'underground railroad', the escape route for slaves which linked various houses of volunteers as so many stations on a virtual track to freedom.

The 15-year old Cora escapes the plantation where she lives in Georgia, trying to follow her mother Mabel, who escaped before, deserting her child. This fact is what keeps tormenting the main character, wondering why she did this.

Whitehead is a great story-teller, with vivid scenes and strong characters. Especially the first chapters describing life in the plantation is strong, then gradually the narrative becomes thinner, possibly written faster than the first chapters, and expanding the narrative too much instead of keeping intense and concentrated density. Why the virtual 'underground railroad' becomes a real train underground in the novel remains a mystery to me, especially because it deflates the importance of the real efforts to move above ground from one shelter to the next. It somehow turns the gravity of the real events into something more fantasy-rich and hence lighthearted.

Be that as it may, the story is captivating, and any story that can describe the horrors of what people lived through in times of slavery is worth telling,

Jon McGregor - Reservoir 13 (4th Estate, 2017) **

As much as I enjoyed "If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things", "Reservoir 13" left me totally uninterested.

It's the story of a village in England where a girl went missing. She was never found, and life continues. People do what people do. Some leave, some stay. The original story remains in a kind of undercurrent flow in the lives of all the characters presented here. The problem is: none of them is interesting, and neither are their lives. You expect the story about the missing Rebecca to be resolved, and you can admire McGregor's twist to move away from the cliché thriller or police novel, but at the same time it takes away the sense of anticipation and tension.

McGregor uses a quite distant, almost reporting style to describe what's happening in the village, using a lot of passive sentences to put the reader in a kind of voyeur position, almost intruding in the intimacy of other people's lives. It's clearly not their story. They are observed, analysed, described. But despite all the good writing, and the interesting approach, there is no interest in what's happening at all. At least not for me. I was never drawn into the story, which is a quite essential thing for a novel.

Nice try. Next time better.

Roy Jacobsen - The Unseen (MacLehose, 2016) ***½

The literary trick to use an isolated place to represent the word, as a microcosm symbolising the larger place we live in, is of course not new, but here, Norwegian author Roy Jacobsen brings it to a new level. A small family lives on an island - actually not more than a rock a few miles long - carrying their name. The novel tells the story from the perspective of Ingrid, the girl in the family, who eventually tries to keep this little universe intact, to keep its family together despite all the hardships of a brutal life in a pittiless nature. The island is called Barrøy like the family's name, and giving up the island seems like a betrayal to the entire family's ancestry, a betrayal of the hardships they endured to bring the island to its current state.

Jacobsen makes the allegory a story about the hunger for freedom and emancipation, the ties and loyalty to family tradition, and the sacrifice of personal ambitions and the need of siblings. His prose is simple, and his narrative pragmatic. The story is not about the big words in the previous sentences, but about the daily struggle of a small family that rather defies the relentless violence of nature than submits to the changing rules of a new society that advances to their stronghold. They work the land, they row to the mainland, they fish, they work with their animals, they build extensions to their house, and the boat house ... and despite all the efforts, there is no progress, quite to the contrary.

Jacobsen depicts simple life, with everyday challenges of a family with all strong or special characters. Despite their differences, they care for each other, because that's the only glue that keeps them together. The family he creates is beautiful, and you cannot but feel sympathy for their daily struggles. Jacobsen's writing style is equally strong, lyrical and economic at the same time, pragmatic and meditative.

A highly enjoyable read.

Colm Tóibín - House Of Names (Viking, 2017) ****½

Irish author Colm Tóibín lives in a class of his own. With "Brooklyn", "Nora Webster" and "The Testament of Mary", he tells stories from a strong female perspective, in a velvety style and compassionate tone. His characters are subtle, nuanced, and real in the depth of their emotions and their relationship to other people. In those novels, there is no real evil, no real malevolence, yet he manages to create tension in his narrative, leaving the reader no choice but to keep reading.

In "House of Names", he brings us back to ancient times, to the legend of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. After Agamemnon has his daugher Iphigenia killed as a sacrifice to the gods in order to obtain military victory, their house is doomed. Clytemnestra seeks revenge, and allies herself with Agamemnon's enemy.

Tóibín does not tell us the story as we know it from the ancient Greek authors Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and Homer, but he uses it as a springboard to tell his own story about love, loneliness and betrayal. As in his other novels, the main characters are only minor figures in a much broader context, that remains vague and uncertain. The ongoing wars are never truly explained, and neither are their causes clear. The characters move around each other, with different perspectives on good and bad, each caught in a web they never created, yet which they made more complex by their actions. And then at an even deeper level, the characters are prisoners of their own feelings, their own uncertainties and unspoken fears.

Tóibín's style is as usually exquisite. It is rhythmic, well-paced and lyrical.

One example to illustrate:

"An image came to him then of his mother and Aegisthus. He was not sure when it was, but it must have been the morning, a morning when he had come to the room earlier than usual, and his nurse at the doorway had pulled him back but not before he had caught a glimpse of his mother and Aegisthus, and saw them naked and making sounds like animals. The image stayed with him now, became as solid in his mind as the image of his father's face as it brightened when he returned, and the memory of his father's voice and the cheering all around, and the smell of horses and men's sweat and the sense of happiness he felt that his father was home".

... and appreciate how the entire tragedy is captured in young Orestes' mind: the conflicting feelings of betrayal and happiness, the reference to animals and horses in the shifting memories and feelings.

In "House Of Names", Colm Tóibín brings humanity in a Greek tragedy, not only by giving his characters a voice with today's sensitivities and psychological complexity, but also by making humans no longer the puppets of the gods, but the victims of their own doings.

Don't miss it!

Bart Ehrman - The Triumph Of Christianity (Oneworld, 2018) ***

One of the most mysterious things to me is why people believe in the existense of a supernatural being, call it god, who has created and who governs all things. As such, I have been an avid reader of all the books by Bart Ehrman, a former believer and theologian, who has written some of the most insightful books on early christianity.

In "The Triumph Of Christianity", he takes a few centuries further in history, covering the expansion of the early views of a jewish eschatological sect. He explains how the sect grew under the guidance of (saint) Paul, the man who was responsible for expanding the sect among non-jews until the time of Theodiosius in the fourth century, when christianity became the state religion.

The history of christianity is a bloody one, full of intolerance against the christians in the early days, with torture and martyrdom being inherent in the way people looked at other groups. The Romans were usually tolerant towards other religions of conquered nations, as long as they showed respect for their own Roman gods, which was of course inacceptable to the christians. Once christianity became the state religion in the 4th century, they became as intolerant against other religions as what they had experienced themselves. Theodosius at first issued legislative measures that proscribed pagan sacrifices, worship in temples and such other religious rituals, then later also in the privacy of the home.

Even if christianity was still the religion of the minority of the population in the regions ruled by the Romans, the number of christians quickly increased significantly across the entire region, not because  people believed it, but because they had no choice.

Even if not his best book, Ehrman writes well, with the many historical facts not disrupting the narrative. He gives a good insight in the religious and political thinking in those times, also demonstrating that things could have been completely different today if some individuals had not made the choices they made then.

Robert Sapolsky - Behave (Bodley Head, 2017) *****

Truly amazing. In "Behave", Robert Sapolsky, professor in biology and neurology at Stanford University, gives a big picture overview of all the processes that make us do what we do. He uses the simple act of pulling the trigger of a gun, but he could have used any other action. He then analyses all the biological (hormonal, genetic, ...), psyschological, cognitive, genetic and cultural elements that drive that specific simple activity, by moving back in time, starting with the first seconds preceding the act, step by step back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. In fact, Sapolsky tries to go beyond the traditional academic distinction between the sciences of behaviour.

As is often the case by such sweeping overviews of current scientific insights, academics will criticise the lack of true in-depth and up-to-date knowledge of each of the disciplines presented, and especially in their own field of interest, but that is unavoidable in books with the ambition to popularise and create such a broad canvas. The big advantage is that it brings together the incredibly complex processes behind our everyday actions. It shows were our limits are, allowing to become more conscious of why we do what we do, and therefore also to become smarter, and as Sapolsky advocates, also wiser.

Sapolsky's ways of presenting human behaviour in all its complex processes, should be mandatory for all schools in the world. If everybody understood some of the essential drivers of our current behaviour, the way our hormones work, the way our brain functions, the way adolescents brains differ from adult brains, understanding how us-versus-them thinking drives moral choices, how apperent personal moral decisions may have deep emotional roots that can only be overcome by becoming conscious of them ... the world would definitely be a better place.

And that is the great value of a popular science book such as this one. It's insightful, humane, wise and compassionate.

One of the best books of the year.