What language will the future speak?

Parasites Like Us

Parasites Like Us
by Adam Johnson

I found this book slow to start but by the end it had a real effect on me – by which I mean I couldn’t stop thinking about it to the extent that I had nightmares! But it is the story of an apocalyptic adventure, so that’s probably a good sign. I think. It’s also a comedy – a very dark one.

The story is narrated by Hank Hannah, an anthropologist at a small university in South Dakota, moderately successful, mostly unhappy and alternately obsessed with and completely disinterested in his own work. We learn on page one that two major events are coming – he’s going to prison and some kind of major apocalyptic event is going to wipe out most humans (along with pigs and birds, apparently). However, most of the novel is about Hank’s life leading up to those events.

“The cold was a force, a pressure you felt against your eyes, and along the frosted buildings the prison lights shone sodium and shrill, casting stiff, cement-coloured halos off the corrugated roofs. The rising moon had its say too – upon open expanses, in the branches of trees, its tincture recast the night in hues of indigo, iodine and tulle.”

Hank’s area of special interest is the Clovis – people who inhabited the Americas from 11,000 to 9000 years ago. He wrote a book contending that the Clovis were responsible for mass extinctions because they over-hunted and is now half-heartedly raking through reams of data to back this up. But one of his graduate students – Eggers – is so fascinated by the subject that he has decided to live for a year as a Clovis, using only Paleolithic technology (which seems to involve being smelly and a lot of illegal hunting). Hank’s other graduate student – Trudy – has her own contentious theory about the lack of Clovis art, and is also the subject of Hank’s inappropriate crush.

There is quite a lot of scientific exposition in this book, but I couldn’t quite figure out Johnson’s attitude toward science. None of the scientists is entirely likeable and they are pretty devil-may-care with the scientific method. With the book’s overtones of dark humour, I did wonder if Johnson was mocking the scientific establishment as a whole, or just certain aspects of it, or certain types of people within it. However, the choice of Hank’s study subject was clearly carefully chosen to have parallels with the current-day story and indeed has made me curious enough to look up the Clovis. (Incidentally, the title can be read two ways – human beings as the parasites, or that parasites like to live off humans, which may give you an idea of the intellectual humour at work here.)

“To speak of the dead is to conjure them, and it would be a crime to beckon them from their graves, to prance them around in some conga line of history before vanquishing them back to the cold, as if their lives were no more than footnotes in the tale of another.”

Hank himself was also difficult to get a handle on. He has an overinflated ego and is generally selfish, but he’s also a very smart, poetic and thoughtful man who is grieving for his stepmother. He has many unattractive traits but in the end I did sort of root for him. Because he narrates the story, and because there’s lots of stuff about hunting and survival, this feels at time quite a masculine book. But it’s saved from being too masculine or at all sexist by the character of Trudy. She’s an athletic, no-nonsense, mixed-heritage woman who rejects Hank’s advances while remaining his friend. She also shows real enthusiasm for the science, certainly more so than Hank. In fact, if anything, I might argue that the women in this book are a little too perfect, but then as it’s a first-person narrative they’re all seen via Hank and he is just the type to idolise women.

“Ten thousand years from now, when people exhumed her bones, what would they know of her life, her spirit?…Would they know of her love of plants, that she longed to see Egypt…Should I have put medicine bottles and a bedpan in her grave, so the future would understand her final struggle? Should I have chiseled out her story, start to finish, in granite, and what language will the future speak?”

Once the root of the Apocalypse becomes clear, the narrative really gets going. There are sections that, as an animal lover, I found toughgoing, but on reflection I think it’s only right that those parts were a bit grim and if anything this proves that Johnson is an animal lover.

However, what really won me over to this book was this line:

“I needed to implore of her, If you leave me, what will evoke you? I should have demanded, Tell me what movie I should watch, what tune I should sing, what book should be open on my chest when I wish to fall asleep and dream of you. Tell me, dear colleagues of tomorrow, tell me that in the future these are questions no-one’s afraid to ask.”

This book was not initially published in the UK, but after Johnson’s second novel The Orphan Master’s Son won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, a UK publisher picked up both this and Johnson’s collection of short stories, Emporium, which I already have waiting on my TBR. It certainly goes to prove that winning prizes does some good for authors, if it gets good-but-neglected books out there into people’s hands.

First published in the USA by Viking Penguin in 2003.
First published in the UK by Transworld in 2014.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

We love breasts, yet we can’t quite take them seriously

Breasts

Breasts: a Natural and Unnatural History
by Florence Williams

Continuing with the popular-science self-education, I picked up this book because descriptions made Williams sound a lot like Mary Roach, whose book I enjoyed. And this was much in the same vein, even with some of the same reservations.

It’s an eye-catching title, right? I quite enjoyed watching people’s reactions when I was reading this book at the pub, or when we had guests round and it was sat casually on the arm of the sofa. This book also started a fun game where for a week, Tim got to ask me every evening “What have you learned about breasts today?” and I was able to give genuine answers!

“We love breasts, yet we can’t quite take them seriously. We name them affectionately, but with a hint of insult. Breasts embarrass us…For such an enormously popular feature of the human race…it’s remarkable how little we actually know about their basic biology…Not even the experts among us are certain.”

I did learn some good facts, especially in the early chapters. This book starts strong, with a fun-fact-filled overview and then a plunge into what we know about breasts and evolution. Apparently there’s quite the division between scientists about whether breasts (and by that I mean human breasts, because we are the only animal to have breasts throughout adulthood, not just while lactating) evolved because men find them sexually attractive (and primarily mated with the women with breasts) or because it confers multiple advantages for feeding babies and for women’s health in general. Williams clearly leans toward the latter explanation and I was pretty thoroughly persuaded to her side.

“Modern life has…taken a strange and confounding toll on our breasts. For one thing, they are bigger than ever…We are sprouting them at younger and younger ages. We are filling them with saline and silicone and transplanted stem cells to change their shape. Most of us are not using them to nurture infants anymore, but when we do, our breast milk contains industrial additives.”

Williams shows a sense of humour but she doesn’t treat her subject lightly, for the most part. However, she does show her own bias a little too clearly. For instance, in the section on breast implants, she is clearly bemused by the whole idea and a little mocking. But at least some of the increase in implant surgery is down to the rise in breast cancer, which she devotes multiple chapters to later in the book. It seems to me that this subject merited a little more seriousness – perhaps a few more conversations with women about why they had the surgery.

“Double-D breasts on skinny women are not all that common in nature. (Barbie’s proportions are naturally found in one out of one hundred thousand women, according to researchers from the University of South Australia; Ken’s bod, by contrast, is found in one in fifty men.) Big, fake breasts have so thoroughly saturated mainstream entertainment and media that they’ve created a new standard by which boys judge girls and girls judge themselves.”

In fact, this was a bit of a running theme. For such a human subject, Williams failed to humanise the issues but instead tended to get clinical. I appreciated that there was plenty of real science explained very well, but I don’t think this is an entirely medical subject and yet Williams devotes more than half the book to what seem to be her pet topics – breast cancer and breast feeding. Yes, these are clearly important aspects of a book about breasts but I can think of plenty of areas left unexplored or only lightly touched upon. For instance, anthropology – what are the historical and geographical differences in social attitudes to breasts? (I would guess Williams shied away from this kind of discussion because it tends to centre around the sexual aspect of breasts, which she was distancing herself from.)

It’s not an overly clinical book. In fact, it is written engagingly and warmly. Williams happily uses herself and her pre-teen daughter as examples, from getting themselves tested for toxins before and after a sort of plastic detox (lots of chemicals used in lots of household plastics and flame retardants end up in breast milk, but only because our modern bodies are swimming in them) to detailing their family history of ages at child-bearing (which has a complicated relationship to chances of getting breast cancer). This adds a personal flavour while she also gives the stats and other wider details.

“In [macaque] society, daughters learn from hanging around their mothers longer and more often, and thinner milk means they stay close for more frequent feedings. The sons, by contrast, might be ‘tricked’ by the [relatively] fattier milk into feeling sated and therefore not feeding as often. It’s not a bad thing for the sons; they have more time to play and explore, skills they’ll need down the road when they leave the group.”

More than anything, this book owes a debt to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (which I haven’t read and clearly really shoould), which Williams freely acknowledges. She worries about the effects of environmental toxins more than anything else and is fairly persuasive on this topic. She certainly made me glad I don’t live in the US! (Europe has much stronger regulations regarding chemicals, both on general sale and in household uses.) There is a bit of a US-centric angle, with plenty of specific studies from elsewhere but the general statistics are all US and almost always quoted without comparison. (There’s one place where she compares US stats with Canada and it’s a stark difference, which I found fascinating. Why? No suggestion is given, frustratingly.)

I preferred the opening chapters on evolution and puberty more than the later stuff but this was overall an interesting book on a subject we don’t tend to talk about, despite the importance of breasts in our lives. I strongly feel we need, as a society, to get over the sexualised view of women’s bodies and this book has a strong contribution to make to that.

Published 2012 by W W Norton.

Source: Borrowed from the library.

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