June reading round-up

Woman reading a book
(National Media Museum, photographer unknown)

In this month of #bookaday running into Independent Booksellers Week I certainly haven’t read a book a day or even some of a book every day, but I have visited my favourite independent bookshop: Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath. Despite the towering TBR I couldn’t leave empty-handed, so Tim and I picked two books each to treat ourselves!

I’ve been busy at work and enjoying the glimpse of summer we had until the last few days, so it wasn’t my greatest or my worst month reading-wise, but to spice things up I did review a great musical at Bristol Old Vic and Germaine Greer’s talk at Bristol Festival of Ideas. I love living somewhere with events like those pretty much every night. If only I had the time, money and energy to go to them all!

Books read

Tales from the Secret Annexe by Anne Frank (review)

Captain America: Castaway in Dimension Z – volumes 1 and 2 by Rick Remender and John Romita Jr (review)

In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall (review)

Sex Criminals, Volume 1: One Weird Trick by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky (review)

The Needle’s Eye by Margaret Drabble

Short stories read

“Father’s last escape” by Bruno Schulz (New Yorker Fiction podcast)

“St George” by Gail Godwin (Selected Shorts podcast)

“The trickle-down effect” by Annie Proulx (Selected Shorts podcast)

“Now that you’ve died” by Patrick Ness (Guardian Books podcast)

“The lone pilgrim” by Laurie Colwin (Selected Shorts podcast)

“The night bookmobile” by Audrey Niffenegger (Selected Shorts podcast)

“Home” by Jess Pineda (Empower: Fight Like a Girl! anthology)

“Stolen child” by Jennifer Quintenz (Empower: Fight Like a Girl! anthology)

“Still waters” by Lisa Randolph (Empower: Fight Like a Girl! anthology)

“Martyoshka” by Kay Reindl (Empower: Fight Like a Girl! anthology)

“Bat Girl” by Kira Snyder (Empower: Fight Like a Girl! anthology)

“Crystal Brook” by Jeane Wong (Empower: Fight Like a Girl! anthology)


Happy summer everyone!

Sunday Salon: 2014 – the halfway point

The Sunday Salon

I thought rather than waiting until December to see how I’ve performed against my goals, I’d check now and see if I need to make any adjustments! First, let’s look at the reading plans I made back at the end of last year.

1. Read more science fiction
I’ve read four SF books in the last six months, plus you could argue that some of the comics I’ve read count toward this goal. Not an amazing showing but I think it just about counts. (Oh, and I’ve just remembered that a big chunk of the short stories I’ve read are science fiction, so that makes me feel better!)

2. Read popular science 
After a slow start, my 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge is going great guns (as my Dad would say). I’ve so far read six books and I have my next read (Silent Spring by Rachel Carson) lined up on my bedside table. Now I just have to keep it up!

3. Re-read
Oh dear, this one isn’t going well at all. I have re-read one book so far and even that was strictly a revised edition with added material. The ever-growing TBR makes it hard to justify re-reading and yet, if I don’t, what’s the point in keeping read books at all?

More generally, how’s my reading looking? So far this year I’ve read 33 books, which is less than half of last year, so I’m definitely reading slower (or spending less of my time reading). Of those, 20 were written by women, which is a massive improvement on previous years. However, only 3 were written in a language other than English, which is shameful, especially considering I subscribe to And Other Stories and have several of their books languishing in the TBR. Must do better.

Overall, it looks like my efforts to include popular science have been achieved at the expense of translated fiction, but I’m going to really try during the rest of the year to read both. This may be over-ambitious, but it’s important to have aims, right?

Did you make any reading plans for 2014? Have you checked to see how you’re doing?

I accepted loneliness as a way of life

In the Shadow of Man

In the Shadow of Man
by Jane Goodall

While famous in the world of science, Goodall is perhaps lesser known to the rest of the world than her American counterpart Dian Fossey thanks to Hollywood and Sigourney Weaver, but Goodall is apparently the better writer. I certainly enjoyed this example of her writing, with a few reservations.

This is the second of Goodall’s 26 books to date, most of which are about the chimpanzee study that occupied her for more than 40 years. As such, it’s very much the beginning of her story and I’m aware, both from the 1988 foreword added to this book and further details online that much has changed since, both in Goodall’s life and in our knowledge of chimpanzees, and therefore my review is at a disadvantage by being based only on the book I have just read.

Goodall knew as a young woman that she wanted to study animals, so she worked hard as a waitress to raise the money when an opportunity arose for her to visit Kenya. In Africa she got herself a job so that she could stay until she had wrangled herself an invite to meet the great naturalist Louis Leakey. He saw her passion and gave her the job of studying chimpanzees at Gombe Stream in Tanzania. He told her from the start it was a solitary and long-term project – a previous study of two months had been woefully inadequate – and Goodall gamely rose to the challenge.

“I accepted loneliness as a way of life…I became immensely aware of trees; just to feel the roughness of a gnarled trunk or the cold smoothness of a young bark with my hand filled me with a strange knowledge of the roots under the ground and the pulsing sap within…I loved to sit in a forest when it was raining, and to hear the pattering of the drops on the leaves and feel utterly enclosed in a dim twilight world of greens and browns and dampness.”

This is a memoir as well as a scientific book, but most of all it is the story of the specific group of chimps that Goodall got to know over many years (this book covers the first decade). You can watch her early progress as a scientist, as the first part of the book describes her gradually learning to do the job through trial and error, while the latter half is effectively her actual study results. These chapters are split fairly scientifically into subjects such as hierarchy, feeding, parenthood and death, but Goodall always uses specific examples to illustrate her general observations. She is a storyteller and she has a fascinating, sometimes moving story to tell. I even shed tears at one point.

The book is a little dated, in multiple ways. Goodall’s tone is often preachy when it comes to human behaviour, sometimes to a cringeworthy degree. Though tied into this are the clear beginnings of her activism in animal protection, which obviously I am wholeheartedly behind. The fact that she so often compares human behaviour with that of the chimps feels old-fashioned and unnecessary (but admittedly, that is the entire basis of the book’s title). But most of all the scientific study itself feels dated. Then again, even within the first 10 years Goodall learned from her early mistakes – for instance, their initially high level of artificial feeding of the chimps was heavily cut back over time.

“Would Mike have become the top-ranking male if my kerosene cans and I had not invaded the Gombe Stream? We shall never know, but I suspect he would have in the end. Mike has a strong ‘desire’ for dominance, a characteristic very marked in some individuals and almost entirely lacking in others.”

I know that some people have accused Goodall of anthropomorphism because she named the chimps (and some of the local baboon population) that she studied, but I disagree with that criticism. Naming an animal is not the same as describing it in human terms, and the latter is something that Goodall never does; in fact, she is careful to specify that is not what she means when she describes something that could be construed as close to a human response. She was the first to observe many key aspects of chimp behaviour, including tool-making and meat-eating. I really felt I learned a lot about chimpanzees from this book and would be interested to find out how much more we know now, after more than 50 years of close study, in Tanzania and, later, elsewhere. (The Gombe Stream base started taking on students quite early on in Goodall’s career and is still going now.)

“I cannot conceive of chimpanzees developing emotions, one for the other, comparable in any way to the tenderness, the protectiveness, tolerance and spiritual exhilaration that are the hallmarks of human love in its deepest sense. Chimpanzees usually show a lack of consideration…which in some ways may represent the deepest gulf between them and us.”

For all its 1970s moralising, this book is never prudish about the facts of life. Goodall describes simply and factually everything about the chimps, including their sex lives, their toilet habits and how they deal with death. She maintains the same matter-of-fact tone about her own life, which is slightly disconcerting when she is telling the story of her romance with and marriage to Hugo van Lawick, a National Geographic photographer who was selected to go to Gombe Stream by Louis Leakey, who had a hunch that Hugo and Jane would hit it off. Hugo managed to get his assignment in Tanzania extended and started helping out with the chimp study so that soon he and Jane were working closely together, which they continued to do throughout their marriage. There are many of Hugo’s photos in the book, a nice touch that helps bring the story to life.

I think now I really should read books by Louis Leakey’s other famous protégées, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas, though I might need to take a break in-between so I don’t overload on great apes!

Published 1971 by Houghton Mifflin/Collins.

Source: Borrowed from a friend.

Challenges: This counts toward the 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge.

Early summer reads in brief

As you might gather from the sparcity of this blog this month, I’ve been busy. I’ve still been reading, but I’m very very behind on writing reviews, so here’s a few shorter thoughts on recent reads.

captain america

Captain America: Castaway in Dimension Z,
books 1 and 2
by Rick Remender and John Romita Jr

This relatively short storyline is a great example of how comics – superhero comics, at that – can be a really good medium through which to explore unusual or difficult ideas. Cap is doing his thing for the Avengers when he is kidnapped by the evil Dr Zola and taken to Dimension Z, and while he soon escapes his captors it seems that Dimension Z will not give him up so easily. Over time he gets caught up in the ongoing war between Zola’s bioengineered army and the phrox, who look monstrous but are willing to give Cap a home. Which all sounds a bit robots fight monsters grr argh, but while this book is distinctly masculine, it’s also very thoughtful. In fact, my main reservation was that Cap was perhaps too brooding and thoughtful. By far the majority of the text is his thoughts and for several pages I wondered whether he was going to speak at all. But overall I enjoyed it and the take on questions surrounding, among other things, war, parenthood, love, loyalty and belonging.

“Adrenaline surging—enough to jolt a dead man to a waltz. Need the help—so long as I don’t pass out. Pain—the shattered left hand screaming at me—it has no business maintaining a grip on a B-52 in a dead drop. Thank the adrenaline…His howl—agony…a reminder of what happens to a million people if you fail—millions of screams.”

Published 2013 by Marvel.

Source: Borrowed from Tim, who bought them at Excelsior! comic shop, Bristol.

Tales from the Secret Annexe
by Anne Frank
translated from Dutch by Susan Massotty

It pains me, after rediscovering the talent of Anne Frank earlier this year, to conclude that this collection of her essays and short stories is so far below the standard of her diary that it should probably never have been published. There are signs of her writing ability, certainly, and I don’t doubt that if she had lived she would have produced a collection after the war that would have shone with greatness. But this isn’t it; these are the writings of a child and it shows. Even her moving essays about hope and charity suffer from youthful naivety. The first part of the collection is especially odd, as it is a series of alternative accounts of events that are also included in Anne’s diary – essentially discarded early drafts. The book isn’t entirely without merit: it’s perfectly readable, provides a little extra depth to the picture of Anne for anyone who has read her diary, and the foreword is actually the best summary I have read of the Frank family’s war-time experience.

“Everyone is born equal; we all come into the world helpless and innocent. We all breathe the same air…Riches, power and fame last for only a few short years. Why do we cling so desperately to these fleeting things? Why can’t those who have more than enough for their own needs give the rest to their fellow human beings?”

Verhaaltjes, en gebeurtenissen uit het Achterhuis published 1982 by Bert Bakker.
This edition published 2010 by Halban.

Source: I bought it at Anne Frank House, Amsterdam.

Sex Criminals volume 1: One Weird Trick
by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

It really tells how much I enjoyed the first volume of Hawkeye by Matt Fraction that I was eager to check out his other current project despite a title that didn’t seem entirely aimed at me. However, it turns out that this is another fun, well written and stylishly presented series. The premise is that librarian Suzie stops time whenever she has an orgasm, an ability she discovered in her teens and has quietly enjoyed since, while getting on with her otherwise normal life. Until she meets Jon, who not only shares her ability, but has ideas about what they could do with it. Her library is closing due to lack of money, they can stop time – it seems like robbing the bank will be an easy solution. But when is life ever easy? Although this comic is undeniably explicit and R-rated, it’s actually much less explicit than some Alan Moore stuff I’ve read and, importantly, far more honest about sex. As Suzie and Jon get to know each other we learn about their teen years, discovering masturbation and other sexual acts, which is a subject that, while not quite taboo, is usually dealt with extremely lightly. This comic combines a good level of honesty and humour with a bit of action adventure thrown in.

Published 2014 by Image Comics.

Source: Borrowed from Tim, who bought it from comiXology.

Germaine Greer on the environment

Germaine Greer

White Beech: the Rainforest Years
@Bristol, 12 June

The packed audience for Germaine Greer’s talk at Bristol Festival of Ideas were mostly women, as you might expect, but for once the topic at hand was not feminism but the environment and conservation. Greer was introducing her new book White Beech: the Rainforest Years by giving some background to what might seem like a surprising episode of her life.

In 2001 Greer bought an abandoned farm in Australia with the sole intention of returning the land to the sub-tropical rainforest it once had been, a small area of which remained. She had very clear ideas about how and why she wanted to do this and had spent some time choosing the right piece of land, but where did this unusual idea come from?

Greer spoke eloquently and passionately about her lifelong love for nature and her growing realisation, as she got older, that she preferred “real” nature to anything artificially managed. She spoke about the difference between the artistic notion of “landscape” and the Aboriginal term “country”, which encompasses not only land and vegetation but also sky above and creatures living there. (I say “creatures” deliberately because as president of the charity Bug Life, Greer tends to be more concerned with insects, crustaceans and the like rather than birds or mammals). While landscaped land can be pretty or picturesque, Greer finds real beauty in wilder nature. She also finds that natural plants in their natural habitat tend to make sense and work together, creating more biodiversity than anything artificial manages.

Which led her to begin educating herself about natural vegetation versus introduced species. She has become pretty knowledgeable on this subject about both the UK and Australia. The UK’s long history of landscaped gardens and parks hasn’t done our native species any favours. There are now more monkey puzzle trees in the UK than in their native Chile but the very British larch tree is struggling.

Greer is nothing if not opinionated and while her passion and her project are both wonderful, there are points on which she seems wilfully naïve. For instance, she is very against captive breeding programmes for endangered animals and says that we should instead declare their habitats protected areas and leave them to regenerate. It would be a wonderful world if that were possible but look at the number of protected reserves around the world that have failed to protect animals from poachers or illegal tree felling or other damaging human activity. Humans are just not that easy to control.

Greer also says that her hope with this project is to start a trend, to encourage others to do as she has. Which is all very well for her to say but most of us don’t have the time or the money for such a huge project, or even a smaller version of it. She employs a staff of botanists on her bit of Australian rainforest and made sure we all knew that she pays them a decent wage (apparently paid work is a bit of a rarity for botanists these days). I’m glad for them but perhaps this section of the talk would be better saved for audiences of the very rich, rather than having multiple questions from the audience about what the average person can do be dismissed out of hand. Not a lot, was the largely disguised answer. This is a rich person’s solution.

However, Greer’s eagerness to do what she considers to be the right thing and her pleasure in the success she has had so far on her own project shone through. She describes the experience as “fun, surprising, joyful, unalloyed, exciting and dramatic”.

London Road: a Musical

Bristol Old Vic Studio, 11 June
Bristol Old Vic Theatre School

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
(Copyright: Graham Burke)

Describing this production too briefly would probably put off most people. It’s a musical based on the real-life murders of five prostitutes in the London Road area of Ipswich in 2006 – that’s fine, if a bit dark. But it’s also verbatim theatre – all the words are taken from interviews that writer Alecky Blythe conducted with residents of London Road and are performed as precise copies of the original voices – the intonation, pauses, repetitions, accents, ums and ahs are all learned by the actors. And then a level of stylisation is added in the form of songs and song-like sections that perhaps most closely resemble poetry.

All of which could have added up to something unwatchable in the wrong hands. But this is more than just watchable, it’s actually pretty good, though the verbatim dialogue does take some getting used to. Key to this is the excellent script. Blythe took what were presumably many many hours of many interviews and cut together a story of a community both haunted and hopeful, with plenty of those small humorous moments that real life serves up. But a good script is nothing without a good cast, and here Bristol Old Vic Theatre School really delivers.

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
(Copyright: Graham Burke)

Once again the Studio Theatre was used to good effect, with the stage area and audience chairs arranged at the start as if for something like a town hall meeting. The cast milled about a tea trolley making cups of instant coffee and settled around a cheap folding table and a noticeboard covered with flyers. As the live orchestra on the balcony started up and hush fell over the small but eclectic audience, we learned that this was a Neighbourhood Watch meeting, that the London Road residents want to wrestle something good out of the horror they have lived through.

The cast all play multiple roles, fleshing out the story to include visiting journalists, police, prostitutes and other townsfolk, but they have clear principal characters who make up the Neighbourhood Watch committee – concerned citizens who obviously had plenty to say to Blythe and were trying to be positive for the future. This positive spin shines through the story, though it’s hard not to wonder what the tone might have been if a different set of people had opened up to Blythe.

With so many changes in character with just a subtle adjustment of costume or props, it’s perhaps little wonder that there was an occasional slip into comic overacting. And I couldn’t help but be irritated to spot that the first photographer depicted carried both a Canon camera and a Nikon, which is really not realistic. But that’s a pernickity detail that my being a bit of a photography geek taught me! More importantly, the “real words” added a certain something to the show – it felt more realistic than the average scripted drama despite all the repetition and singing.

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
(Copyright: Graham Burke)

Though it is very much an ensemble cast, I’d like to give special mention to Bethan Nash who was excellent both in her main role as Julie, organiser of the local “In bloom” gardening competition, but even more excellent in the short scene of an interview with three prostitutes, which ended with Nash appearing near tears despite having said very little. That scene was exceptional and I don’t wonder that it is the one section of Blythe’s original recording that was selected to be played toward the end of the show.

For all my praise, this is an odd show that probably won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you’re willing or even eager to experience something a bit different, I would encourage you to try it.

Disclaimer: Tickets were kindly supplied to me by the theatre in return for an honest review.

Scratch a geologist and, under their skin, you’ll find a romantic

Snowball Earth

Snowball Earth: the Story of the Great Global Catastrophe That Spawned Life as we Know it
by Gabrielle Walker

I picked up this book because Walker came highly recommended, not because of the subject matter. In fact, the one aspect of the book I had been interested in (the biology angle) was squeezed largely into one chapter. It turns out that this is a book about geology, which I have very little knowledge of or interest in, yet I found it hugely readable and genuinely enjoyable.

I will attempt to explain the premise briefly. The Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. The first lifeforms – single-celled slime, often called the “primordial ooze” – emerged about 3.7 billion years ago. The first multi-cellular creatures – the ancestors that led to complex beings such as us humans – didn’t show up until 600 million years ago. Scientists had long been puzzled as why it took so long for evolution to really get started and whether there had been some kind of trigger. In the late 20th century geologists finally found what looks like the answer – the Snowball Earth.

“Stretch your arms out wide to encompass all the time on Earth. Let’s say that time runs from left to right, so Earth was born at the tip of the middle finger on your left hand. Slime arose just before your left elbow and ruled for the remaining length of your left arm, across to the right, past your right shoulder, your right elbow, on down your forearm, and eventually ceded somewhere around your right wrist. For sheer Earth-gripping longevity nothing else comes close. The dinosaurs reigned for barely a finger’s length. And a judicious swipe of a nail file on the middle finger of your right hand would wipe out the whole of human history.”

But what is the Snowball Earth? The idea is that sometime around 650 million years ago the Earth froze completely over, even at the equator, for a few million years. There’s a lot of geological evidence pointing to this having happened, possibly multiple times in quick (geologically speaking) succession, and it is the theory that best answers a lot of questions raised by odd rock formations and other geological anomalies. However, it’s also a controversial idea that has taken a lot of time and accumulated evidence to reach the state of semi-approval it currently has.

It really is to Walker’s credit that she has made a book about looking at rocks so very appealing to me. I think this is partly because she puts the emphasis firmly on the people and personalities involved. This book is as much about Paul Hoffman, a professor of geology at Harvard, as it is about anything else. Walker depicts him as quite the character, difficult and brilliant, with long-standing rivalries and a long string of we-used-to-be-friends, but her picture is still a warm one.

“There’s something about holding a geological hammer that makes you want to hit rocks. Weigh one in your hand, and you’ll find yourself itching to whack something with it. Still, to carve a hand sample into just the right shape for your pocket requires considerable skill. Paul is very, very good at it. If his geology career went awry, he could make a living as an ornamental rock chipper.”

The way Walker describes the piecing together of the Snowball Earth theory is very enlightening as regards the scientific process, elucidating where ideas come from and how they develop, sometimes painfully slowly. She lets the story unfold as it really did – in fits and starts – with only the occasional backpedal to clarify. This can be frustrating at times when suddenly a new character comes into play and has to be introduced but it also cannily introduces suspense: How is this new person connected to everything else? And how will they affect Paul’s story?

“Relationships among geologists are intense. By its nature, geology involves travelling with your colleagues to remote places…living on top of one another and away from other people for weeks on end…Their personalities become magnified. They bond or they break.”

Walker’s explanations of the actual science are largely excellent, though she does occasionally simplify a little too far – who doesn’t know at the basic level what DNA is? But I came away from this book really feeling that I understood it all and curious about what further developments have been made in this area since the book was published 11 years ago.

There are some beautiful descriptions both of the remote locations the geologists travel to to find the right rock formations and of geology itself. Walker paints a romantic view of geology, showing love for the subject and affection for all the people involved in the tale. Perhaps it’s this warmth that drew me in. I’m certainly intrigued to read more of her works and see if she can make other unlikely subjects come alive for me in the same way.

“Scratch a geologist and, under their skin, almost invariably, you’ll find a romantic. They will often be gruff about the landscape they work in. They are usually matter of fact about the rocks and how they interconnect. But try asking why they’ve chosen to spend their lives working on this particular place or on that particular terrain, and that’s when the stories start to slip out.”

Published 2003 by Bloomsbury.

Source: Borrowed from the library.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2014 Popular Science Reading Challenge.