Sunday, July 16, 2017

25/5/2017 "Bad Science" by Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre is a British physician, academic and writer.  From 2003 to 2011 he wrote a science column, ‘Bad Science’ in The Guardian.  The book was published in 2008.
 
The proposer had the book lying unread on his shelves for some years and in response to the repeated urgings of his daughter, a research scientist in the fields of immunology and cancer, had finally got around to reading it.  Himself a scientist, he found that it brought to light some issues – about medical research in particular – of which he had been previously unaware.

The group’s responses to the book were predominantly positive, but one member of the group (another scientist) had once shared a stage with the author and found him somewhat overly confident and assertive about his opinions – perhaps even untrustworthy.

However, there was little disagreement with the fundamental argument of the book, which identified problems in the ways that the media presented science to a lay audience, and attacked various branches of pseudo-science such as homeopathy, the cosmetics industry and nutritionists.

Our conversation about the book tended to the diffuse and anecdotal rather than the taking of positions and counter-positions.  This blog can only take the form of a rather undifferentiated list of some of the things that cropped up.

The BBC Radio Four programme ‘More or Less’ was praised for its critiques of data used by politicians and others to justify their views.  Like Goldacre, the programme’s approach is to question the exact methodology lying behind tendentious statistics and factoids.

It was pointed out by a doctor among our number that in spite of the comprehensive refutation of the science behind doubts of the MMR vaccine’s safety, the issue has refused to die away.  Non-scientists continue to stir up trouble (vide Donald Trump tweet from March 2014:  “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes – AUTISM. Many such cases!”) (Goldacre quoted another writer’s definitions of lying, truth-telling, and bullshitting, and we agreed that Trump was the perfect incarnation of the bullshitter).

The recent furore over the Volkswagen emission trials was discussed.  The trials results were reported as ‘cheating’ in the media.  It was suggested that if real drivers could drive in the efficient manner of the software running the engines during the trials, then the same results could be obtained.  Were the low emissions reported actually ‘cheating’?

The conventional media are the chief target of Goldacre’s criticisms.  One of our group had discovered the practice of paying for articles in colour supplements and advised against considering any information from such sources as reliable.  Personal experience with The Times on an issue had convinced him that the broadsheets were as culpable as the tabloids in conveying misinformation. 

 However, he admitted that The Guardian had so far not disappointed him, in that although guilty of occasional factual errors, it did not seem to have descended to outright mendaciousness on any issue of which he had knowledge.

We agreed that contemporary social media also offered infinite examples of the abuse and distortion of information. 

Richard Dawkins and George Monbiot were quoted as good writers who, like Goldacre, set out to upset and confound their opponents.  It made for engaging writing when someone had an axe to grind and wrote with a kind of controlled fury.  However, it was pointed out that such writers, including Goldacre, were not above using the wiles of rhetoric in making themselves persuasive.  On the other hand, one of our group defended his capacity for making decisions on the basis of facts and statistics, unswayed by rhetoric.

Our doctor mentioned the medical writings of Richard Asher (1912-1969) as being superior to those of Goldacre.

We discussed various science and history pundits on television.  The importance of public understanding of science was agreed upon, but nevertheless some of these popularising figures were rather irritating.

It was mentioned that the website ‘Bad Science’ was still active and one of Goldacre’s current concerns was the use of statins.

In relation to Goldacre’s examples of challenging the proponents of bad science, the danger was that it could bring those very people into prominence, and thus legitimise their views.  It was felt that this was a particular difficulty for the BBC, with its obligation to provide ‘balanced’ coverage of issues.  The misinformation propagated by the ‘leave’ campaign during the run up to the Brexit referendum might have been a beneficiary of such ‘balance’.

One reader questioned whether there really was a ‘golden age’ of medical discoveries which is now over, as described by Goldacre.  Our scientists and our doctor concurred, but it was suggested that maybe we were now on the verge of a new period of medical advancement with gene therapy. Goldacre, writing in 2008, could not have been expected to go into this subject.

We liked Goldacre’s analysis of the positive effects – sometimes underestimated – of the placebo effect in making people feel better.  One of our scientists recounted his recent period of time in China.  Having a heavy cold, he was taken to a pharmacy in China where people lay on beds with drips attached.  Having talked his way out of this particular treatment, he was later persuaded by a well-meaning colleague to wear a microwave heated jacket for a morning… and subsequently felt much better!

It was pointed out that people often like to see a particular doctor – the placebo effect in operation.  Medicine is an art as well as a science.

Another member of the group suggested that universities seemed to be too keen to release information to the press.  This was in the context of hope-inspiring cancer treatments that later proved disappointing.  Those with experience of such matters identified a common process by which an academic publishes a peer reviewed paper, the public relations department at the university latches onto it and promotes it, and then the press exaggerates its significance.  Where precisely does the fault lie, we wondered, when the public is mislead on the significance of some scientific discovery?  The writing of the peer-reviewed paper was in itself an organisation and ordering of what one of our scientists described as ‘fumbling about in the lab’.  Our human cognitive proclivity for identifying patterns where none may exist could result in misleading conclusions.  Another reader raised the issue of the book’s title in this respect – ‘bad’ science could be inept or misleading (as in the research paper) or morally ‘bad’ (as in the distortions of the press).

The arguments of the book were felt to be applicable to many fields of human activity beyond medicine and science.  For example, people tend to become paternalistic and defensive about ideas that they have originated or to which they have tethered their reputation.

Discussion moved onto the general gullibility of people – for example the readiness of people in the mid twentieth century to have all their teeth removed because of the ‘superiority’ of dentures.
We wondered if the data that would emerge in due course would support the recent introduction of the 20mph speed limit in many parts of Edinburgh on safety grounds.

We were interested in how different health scares took hold in different countries.

We agreed that – in principle – we should trace back the information given in media sources to its origins.  Of course we don’t always have the time and motivation to do this, so we sometimes have to take the pronouncements of trusted sources at face value.

Discussion moved onto the current political campaign for the upcoming general election, and the statements made in the media.  For example, a nurse had been featured on television who used a food bank – presented as a disgraceful situation – but we wondered how food banks monitored the degree of need of their clients.  There was also a difference between the ‘average salary’ of a nurse, and the ‘average earnings’ of a nurse (taking into account overtime payments).

We then got onto the subject of the alleged decline of the Labour Party.

And then onto Economics.

And then onto Education.

And then onto Deep Learning (your correspondent had never heard of this).

By this time the room was in pitch darkness.  Our host groped his way to the light switch and we could all see who we had been talking to.  For this reason, or perhaps because we had now put the world completely to rights, we soon disbanded and made our way out into the gloaming.

20/4/2017 "His Bloody Project" by Graeme Macrae Burnet

There’s been a murder!

There’s been another murder!

There’s been a triple murder!

No, we hadn’t gathered together on an unseasonal April evening to discuss Taggart, the longest running crime drama on UK television, but the Scottish literary sensation shortlisted for the Booker prize of 2016. However, this was not so much a ‘whodunnit’ but rather a ‘whydunnit’ as the perpetrator was known from page one. Was Roddy Macrae guilty as charged or were his actions guided either by mental instability or somehow justified by the social conditions of his time? Told as a collection of unreliable accounts; from Roddy himself, his legal team, expert (or not so expert) medical witnesses, his neighbours in the village, and even the popular press, we were asked to assemble these disparate accounts to form an understanding of the mind of a murderer, of contemporary society, of the role of the media, of mid-19th century thinking on psychology and the vagaries of the Scottish legal system. Phew! Fortunately, your scribe had two bottles of Scottish ale with him to stimulate the ‘grey matter’.

Intent on preparing for the cut and thrust of literary discussion, and distracted in opening an ale, your scribe regained attention to find an animated discussion of hats. He recorded mention of stetsons, deerstalkers, panamas, fedoras, bowlers, a fez, top hats, berets, bobbles, flat caps and so it went on. Apparently hats “maketh the man”. (Shouldn’t that be manners? Ed.) One of our number was once known as ‘Digger’ because he had once worn an Australian hat (with corks?). I opened my copy of the book but couldn’t find the significance of hats in the plot or character development, so I wondered what prompted this debate. We moved ahead.

The proposer explained his book choice. Brought up in Dingwall and a frequent visitor to Applecross, he felt an affinity of place. His great grandfather worked as a ground officer on a large estate in Sutherland, a little bit like the constable. On a positive note he liked the layout of the book as found documents and the clever writing which made the events seem real. The characters came across strongly although some were possibly rather stereotyped. The description of the hard life of the crofters contrasted strongly with the privileged on the estate. With medical background, he enjoyed the seemingly accurate details of the post mortem and the discussion of criminal anthropology, a “science” which has since been discredited. In today’s milieu, he suggested that Roddy’s behaviour could have been seen as autistic. On the negative side, he thought some of the description of the murders overly detailed and macabre, the sexual mutilation sketched over. The beauty of the area wasn’t remarked – of course, we can enjoy the scenery on a fine day but it is a different proposition if one has to scrape a living from the poor land.

He also sketched a few details of GMBs life. Born in 1969 in Kilmarnock, he pursued a conventional middle class development to read English at Glasgow University In 1999 he took a degree in International Security Studies at St Andrews, but the seeds of creative writing had been sown.  Yet, when he won 2013 Scottish Book Trust New Writers award, he did not to take up their offer of mentoring, feeling he should develop his own ideas through His Bloody Project, his second novel. In interviews (e.g. Glasgow Herald) he has cited a debt to Simenon and acknowledges the influence of Kafka, (“There are no regulations. You might as well ask to see the air we breathe… The regulations exist because we all accept that they exist.”). He talks too of the similarities with Hogg (Confessions of a Justified Sinner) and of the influence of an 1835 French Murder (a Frenchman called Pierre Riviere, who brutally murdered his mother, his sister and brother with a pruning hook.

The floor was open to general discussion.

First, we echoed the proposer in praising the depiction of the hard existence in highland crofting communities, at the mercy of the weather, the poor soil, the laird, the church, permanently in rent arrears, the difficulty of creating, let alone profiting from selling excess produce. The local people of Culduie are ridiculed by the landed gentry at the local market and unfairly depicted as a sub-species by both the press and the medical profession. It is amusing, if not atypical, that the villagers of Culduie themselves find someone to look down on in the slovenly, wanton inhabitants of the shoreline village of Aird Dubh. We enjoyed the sparse, simple prose and felt the book gave psychological; and social insight into the mid-19th century highland land and living.

Criticisms started to emerge. First, one member talked of a recent Restoration murder mystery he had read in which a woman was accused of being both a murderer and a witch, “An Instance of the Fingerpost” set in Oxford in the 1660s by Iain Pears and published in 1988. Dealing with a similar theme, the difficulty of ascertaining the truth of an event through contradictory accounts and evidence,  he felt that HBP paled by comparison. He talked of the rather unappealing character of the father. He was disappointed that there was no twist in the tail, that there was no real development of plot ( … unlike Taggart which developed the same plot more than 100 times! Ed.). He found the prose dull and unremarkable. He quoted a review of the book he had found that complained of a miserable book describing miserable people in a miserable setting, leading cribbed and confined lives. While not going that far, he could see the reviewer’s point.  Finally he said he had trouble believing the crofter’s boy could write; this did not ring true. That Roddy can produce such a well written if unreliable document is surprising to many, and this view was reinforced by another member.

A rebuttal was attempted. Far from being a criticism, the success of the author in depicting such ‘miserable’ lives should be viewed as a success not a failure. Indeed, to the external observer the existence is miserable and certainly stripped to the bare bones when compared to a cosmopolitan existence in Edinburgh or even Inverness. Of course, our own perception of what is important in life may be viewed as arrogant in comparison with a more basic set of values. As regards the authenticity of the accounts, the device of unreliable narrator may be clich├ęd, but is Roddy capable of the narrative? This is an interesting point, despite the influence of the schoolmaster. However, the preface considers the point while maintaining the ‘faction’ that these are found documents – acknowledging that no-one actually saw Roddy write anything, and the possibility that Andrew Sinclair wrote or assisted in large part could not be dismissed. It is not just Roddy that displays unexpected talent. Indeed James Bruce Thomson is also rather taken with the charms of Carmina Murchison, “clearly a woman of some education”, perhaps acquired in Kyle of Lochalsh.

What of plot development and twists? Is the book dull? This raises interesting questions as to what extent an author should embellish the truth to improve such development; indeed, “embellishment” is a common complaint in recent UK TV dramas that relate to recent real events (e.g. ‘The Moorside’, shown in February 2017 to similar critical acclaim) but in these cases the living can contest it. Who complains of embellishment in “Wolf Hall”? Of course in this case, there is no real problem of altering facts as there are no facts. Hence, some of our number felt that the plot should have been strengthened while others felt that the illusion of fact was well maintained by the well written prose. The jury in Inverness may have decided Roddy’s fate, but the book club jury is still split.

Although our medical advisor was well content with the relevant research, our legal consultant was less pleased, citing major flaws in the handling of the defence and trial in particular. First, the exact designation of Andrew Sinclair was called into question. Referred to primarily as an advocate, e.g. in the opening line “I am writing this at the behest of my advocate, Mr Andrew Sinclair”, and hence able to represent his client in a high court in 1869, the letter of appeal for clemency is signed “Mr Andrew Sinclair esq., Solicitor to the Prisoner”. Is this a basic error by the author? There was some discussion of the use of the words advocate and solicitor in the more general sense, but this issue was not satisfactorily explained.

Further, he felt that the lack of preparedness of Andrew Sinclair with regard to his only witness’s testament fell somewhat short of professional standards. In mitigation, it was pointed out that this witness had a somewhat arrogant and opinionated view of lower classes, manifest in his visit to “the well” at Culduie, and might have been difficult to work with. Further, Mr Sinclair was hardly well practiced in cases of this magnitude. Certainly, the lawyer was not prepared, but is this not believable? Talking of alternative strategies, in addition to the issue of insanity, could he have better selected the jury and mounted a defence of mitigation based on social injustice? Whether such social injustice justifies violent action all too pertinent. Alas, the letter of clemency was too little, too late. There was also some discussion of the general preparedness of lawyers in general but to avoid litigation, we won’t record it!

We returned to the allegedly weak ending. Certainly, it lacked the aforementioned twist that is so often present in current crime writing, where obvious suspects are introduced then discarded until some previously unforeseen motive is suddenly introduced to explain the crime. Could there have been a more subtle twist based on his mental state or status as representative of his class? Should there have been a more subtle twist based on his mental state or status as representative of his class? The ‘contemporary’ witness statements, the prisoner’s account, the press cuttings, the medical evidence, all combine to paint an ambiguous picture of the accused. At the end, the verdict seems justified on the basis of the evidence, but the group remained split on whether the author had been too devoted to the “factual” narrative at the expense of suspense and surprise.

Our earliest critic added to his theme. There is no-one to care about in the book. He suggested that we can only empathise with characters that have some aspiration or goal. In real life, people do not always have aspirations. Roddy was seemingly content to live out his life tending to the croft, and had no apparent interest in pursuing a more enticing challenge through education, and had no real interest in going to Glasgow. None of the other characters seemed to seize the opportunity presented. Could this have been the start of a glittering change of career for Andrew Sinclair? This discussion seems to echo the ‘twist’ in that some thought the author was skillfully maintaining the illusion of a factual and accurate account and others thought he had a responsibility to add the extraordinary to the ordinary life to create outstanding literature.

Finally we turned to humour. Again some found it lacking, but others enjoyed the satirical portrayal of the various professions, e.g. the contrasting evidence of Munro and Thomson, and of the several journalists who seemed to like a drink, surely a savage libel on an honourable profession as anyone in Jinglin’ Geordie’s (an Edinburgh hostelry) will assure you on a Friday evening. The exchanges between Sinclair and the various witnesses in particular seemed often amusing. No? Not everyone was convinced. Roddy’s new companion, Archibald Ross is described as one whose appearance “caused a great deal of mirth” but on this at least we all agreed. We felt Ross was rather out of place in the general cast, although he would no doubt enliven the film version with his visual japes.

And so we concluded. A straw poll suggested two members very much in favour, three lukewarm (“I gave it three stars on GoodReads”) and one definitely against. Oh well, first there is a failure to win the Booker prize, then failure to achieve unanimous approbation from the Monthly Book Group. We look forward to the next novel.

Friday, April 21, 2017

23/3/17 "MY BRILLIANT FRIEND" by ELENA FERRANTE


My Brilliant Friend” was published in Italy in 2011 as  La amica geniale” and published in English translation in 2012. It is the first of an enormously successful four part series known as the “Neapolitan Novels”, which followed a number of shorter novels in which Ferrante had honed her skills.
Flanked by an intimidating pile of Ferrante books, the proposer fessed up to having borrowed the first two novels from his wife when he ran out of reading material in Australia. Such was the grip of the Neapolitan novels that they bought the last two volumes when they reached Wellington.
He noted that, usually, when introducing books we say something about the author’s background. But ‘Elena Ferrante’ is a pseudonym. Ferrante holds that "books, once they are written, have no need of their authors." She argues that anonymity is a precondition for her work and that keeping her true name out of the spotlight is key to her writing process. “Once I knew that the completed book would make its way in the world without me, once I knew that nothing of the concrete, physical me would ever appear beside the volume—as if the book were a little dog and I were its master—it made me see something new about writing. I felt as though I had released the words from myself.”
Last year an Italian journalist claimed to have identified Anita Raja, a translator who lives in Rome, as Ferrante, based mainly on her recent high earnings and acquisition of real estate. This identification caused a storm of controversy, with many enthusiastic fans taking the view, shared by the proposer, that Ferrante was entitled to her anonymity.

We dwelt briefly on this aspect. We had no reason to question the motives that she (or, less plausibly, he) put forward for anonymity, but anonymity had some obvious other advantages. First, it meant that friends and neighbours were unlikely to take offence if they suspected they were the basis for an unsympathetic character. Secondly, it meant critics would not the classic mistake of trying to interpret the books by reference to her biography. And, thirdly, the mystery could only help to enhance the aura around the books.

Ferrante has said she considers the four books to all be part of a single novel. We examined the close-together dates of publication and concluded that she must have done all, or almost all, of the writing of the four books before the first one was published.

For the proposer this was a fantastic novel, with some major themes, such as the difficulties of bright working class children getting a good education, particularly girls in traditional societies. It was important to remember that the novel was set in the 1940s and 1950s. The theme of one bright girl getting a good formal education and the other not is worked out in the later books. The book was not just set in a temporal, but in a geographic and cultural context. Naples was the important geography, but the cultural was southern Italy, where routine violence, including within marriage, was endemic, and where private rules enforced by the Camorra were more powerful than public justice.

The difficult politics of Italy were brought out well, with the Fascists defeated but still influential and the Communists important. Changes in society were well illustrated as the books move through time to the present.

We then turned to some comments sent in from our correspondent in China. “A story about growing up, beautifully told. Many intertwined themes about the human condition. Tensions of the schooldays (I’d almost forgotten them, how a clever kid survives school). The distinctions between affection, infatuation, lust, love, friendship. Ambition that’s confused by immaturity. Contrast between the academic/spiritual and the materialistic mind-set.  Gender issues: boyishness and girlishness contrasted; how women are shaped by men and by the social structures around them; how women find it hard to be assertive. Why do boys have to fight. The social tensions between families – how people can’t cope with a simple wedding ceremony.

The book made me recall my own adolescence – a dreadful time. But I think the adolescent passions of we Brits may not match those of Italians. 

Some reviews say it’s a story of Italy itself growing up (a young country) and I'm sure there's something in that…..”.

Another enjoyed it, liking the growing up theme and the relationships in the village, but feeling the book was overlong. The book above all was about insights into the female psyche, and this was reflected in the on-line comments. Not having realised until the end that there was an index of characters, the broad cast of characters with similar names was confusing. (This latter comment was echoed by a Kindle reader, who strongly recommended not reading it on a Kindle, so that it was easier to flick back to the character index!).

We debated whether this was a “feminist” novel, with the conclusion that it was not, at least in the sense that there was no feeling of a feminist agenda. The focus might be the female narrator and her female friend, but the weaknesses and failings of both females and males, and the realities of the social structure, were recorded dispassionately.

One example was the scene in which a friend’s father tries to seduce the young Elena. The writer conveys with considerable insight the confusion, and ambivalent mixture of repulsion and pleasure, experienced by Elena, and does so without, at least overtly, being judgemental.

Another reader found the very vivid and powerful detail had sucked him into the book. “I enjoyed it so much I rationed how much I read at a time so as to prolong the pleasure”. It was beautifully written, and for whatever reason he simply found it compelling.

He had visited Naples a year ago – “a spectacular place” - and had enjoyed the vivid recreation of it in the book. Of particular interest was the ghetto, or “barrio” in which they lived (the next book, which he had moved on to with alacrity, extended to other northern cities). Did the behaviour of the families in the barrio reflect just Neapolitan or wider Italian behaviour? For example, women getting beaten by their husbands was widespread in the fifties, probably throughout Europe.

But wasn’t the private justice of the Camorra a more unique feature? Well, plenty of people still came into Accident and Emergency in Glasgow with serious assault wounds and refused to tell the police who had done it. Revenge might be taken privately, often through a gang. And, the more we discussed it, the more we felt that many of the intriguing things in the book could have been found in other poor European cities in the fifties, rather than confined to Naples.

Another reader had also found the book most enjoyable, and in several ways impressive. The book might be mistaken for a very commercial historical saga, but several things lifted it. There were flashes of psychological and sociological insight, and of philosophical reflection, clearly and pithily expressed. There was a compelling exploration of friendship, and how it can change over time and be destructive as well as supportive. And there was the paralleling of the development of the characters against the post-war changes in the city and country.

The two female friends were sharply delineated, as to a lesser degree were their lovers, while the wider cast of characters – at least in this first book - were fuzzier.

The shape of the book was that of a “bildungsroman” or coming of age novel. However, it differed from the classic bildungsroman structure in two ways. First, it is about the coming of age (if reaching sixteen can be accepted as coming of age in a Neapolitan barrio) of two people, not one.

And secondly, it is normal in a Bildungsroman for the protagonist to become gradually reconciled to the values of the society that they have questioned. But this novel ends on a very different note as, in the climactic wedding scene, Elena comes to see the barrio culture as a trap from which neither she, nor her brilliant friend Lila, can ever escape. It is almost a Marxist perception in a novel that has occasionally mentioned Communists, and dislike of them, but not in any way explored their philosophy.

At that moment, I knew what the plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, she [my teacher] had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts…

In broader discussion we noted that the translation – which read very well – used American idiom, and the proposer explained that the days of having one translation in British and one in American idiom had now gone because of the economics of the industry. We wondered, but were unable to resolve, how the original had handled the question of Neapolitan dialect, as the text frequently referred to whether or not the character was choosing to speak in dialect or in Italian. We did note though that the author used little by way of dialogue, which perhaps helped the novel to flow quickly.

We wondered about Romeo and Juliet as an influence with its story of young love in Verona across a boundary of family feud. We were also amused – or perhaps, remembering our teens, not amused at all - by the discussion of the best way to jilt someone as seen by a teenager (p. 251).

We were intrigued by the girls’ intention to write a modern version of ‘Little Women’, itself a coming of age story about three girls. And we were also intrigued by the opening of the novel showing Elena, who has shown writing ambition but not been published, choosing as a much older woman to write the book which we were now reading in published form.

One thought that evolved in discussion – and one of the things about a Book Group discussion is that it should be a dynamic process – was how similar the names were of Elena (known as “Lenu”) and Rafaella (known as “Lila” or “Lina”). And – in another echo within an echo, or reflection in a reflection – Elena is of course also the nom-de-plume of the novelist.

The book was so convincing it would be easy to think that it was autobiographical, but the similarity of the names “Lenu” and “Lina” had us reflecting that it was common for writers to take two sides of their personalities, or of human nature, and create them as different characters (the extreme example being Stevenson’s ‘Jekyll and Hyde’). To say the friends here represent, say, reason versus instinct, might be to oversimplify, for while the rational Lenu is better educated, the intuitive Lina is cleverer than Lenu.

However, something of this kind may be going on. There is certainly a basic opposition in their natures – Lenu being dutiful, educated, and through education capable of analysing situations and manipulating people, whereas Lina is brilliant, spontaneous, and capable of cruelty and violence. Lina has blossomed from ugly to beautiful, whereas Linu’s emerging beauty has been ruined by adolescent acne. And one of the intriguing features of the book is how the two friends interact, and how when one is in the ascendant the other is in the descendant…….

………and so we went on………and on…….. 

As R.L.S. himself wrote in ‘Talk and Talkers’:

There can be no fairer ambition than to excel in talk.…..There are always two to a talk, giving and taking, comparing experience and according conclusions. Talk is fluid, tentative, continually ‘in further search and progress’, while written words remain fixed…….

28/2/17 "THE MANDIBLES" by "LIONEL SHRIVER"

Lionel Shriver is a libertarian southern Democrat, born in 1957, daughter of a Presbyterian minister. Realising herself to be a ‘tomboy’ she felt uncomfortable with her ‘girly’ name, Margaret Ann, and so she changed to Lionel. She has a BA and MFA from Columbia University. She describes herself as an expat, having lived in Nairobi, Bangkok and Belfast, and now mostly in London.  The upside of being an expat, she explains, is that “I live in a larger world, emotionally, politically, and intellectually”.  Rather little can be found of her private life, except that she is a keen cyclist and is married to a jazz drummer. Interesting insights into her character and views can be read in Bomb magazine: http://bombmagazine.org/article/2774/ where she is described as ferociously intelligent, uncompromising, independent, opinionated, driven, scorchingly funny, contrary, passionate.

This is her 12th novel.  The most well-known was her seventh, about a school shooting, called We Need to Talk about Kevin. It was awarded the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction, and became a movie in 2011. She is also a successful journalist, writing for the New York Times and the Guardian. She would legalise all drugs and stay out of foreign wars. She is critical of government, noting that in the USA there are 170,000 pages of Federal Regulations and it costs 6 trillion dollars annually to enforce them. This quote gives a flavor of her work: “In an era of weaponised sensitivity participation in public discourse is growing so perilous, so fraught with the danger of being caught for using the wrong word or failing to uphold the latest orthodoxy in relation to disability, sexual orientation, economic class, race or ethnicity that many are apt to bow out”. And also “to progress is merely to go forward and you can go forward into a pit”.

Turning now to the book itself: the year is 2029. The author tells the story of a family living in the USA, where the economy has collapsed. The national debt has risen to an unsustainable level, and the dollar is all but worthless. The Federal Government sends the army to people’s homes, looking for gold to confiscate, including small items like wedding rings. Some go to extraordinary lengths to hide gold items of great sentimental value, but there are harsh penalties for those who are caught. The financial crisis afflicts the whole western world, and to restore stability the International Monetary Fund, supported by countries including Putin’s Russia and super-rich China, has recently launched a new currency unit, the bancor. The US refuses to use it, and makes the bancor illegal in America – possession constitutes treason. How rapidly America has changed: by 2027 the US President is currently a Latino and the first language is Spanish.

The story follows the fortunes of a Manhattan family, the Mandibles. Great grandfather Douglas Mandible sits on a fortune made long ago but is now a sprightly 97-year-old and has shown no signs of passing the family wealth to children and grandchildren. Now it’s too late: the president ‘resets’ the national debt, treasury bonds become void, and the family fortune is wiped out. The family includes his dementia-impaired wife, and his daughter Enola who lugs around a paper-copy of her latest book. One family member is a therapist, one works in a homeless shelter and one is an economics professor. But the economist loses his job because funds for universities are not what they were and his particular flavour of economics is considered inappropriate for the times. As the economy crashes out of control, crime soars, looting is commonplace, people lose their homes and there is a food and water crisis. Property rights evaporate and fourteen Mandibles end up in one small house. Desperate measures are required to survive: grandson Willing is good at stealing whilst the 17-year old Savanna becomes a successful prostitute. No questions are asked.

Through skillful use of dialogue the author’s views on global economics are articulated. Flows of money and social behaviour are collectively a good example of a complex system that can go wildly out of control. We are reminded “Money is emotional… worth what people feel it’s worth. They accept it in exchange for goods, and services, because they have faith in it. Economics is closer to religion than science.”

The plot itself moves rather slowly. When things seem completely desperate the novel fast-forwards to 2047, and we see that things have reached a new and rather more tolerable quasi-stable state.  Law and order are restored. The currency is now a new dollar linked to the bancor. Citizens are given a cranially-implanted chip that records their financial transactions so that tax can be accurately levied. Not everyone is chipped: there is an outside world, where people are un-chipped and live a simple pastoral life. This appeals to Willing, who tests the widespread belief that crossing the border to join the un-chipped world will trigger an explosion in one’s head.  And there is another border – a fence between US and Mexico to keep out the illegal American immigrants.

What did we make of the tale? We spent much time discussing whether it could actually happen. We decided it could, although we struggled with the economic theory. None of us are economists, but between us we reached an adequate grasp. There seem to be four possible ways in which our society might conceivably collapse: economic Armageddon, spread of a deadly virus, revolution against the government and climate change, or any combination of the four. The book reminds us that we need to take care, our civilisation is much more fragile than most people realise.

Is the book anti-American? Yes, it is. In the book, the US in no longer a supreme power, the American dream has evaporated and there is little hope of a full recovery. Almost all the characters are behaving badly – Shriver has said she likes to craft hard-to-love characters.  No one is a hero although Willing comes close to being the protagonist. In fact the character development is rather weak, as in most science fiction. But this isn’t really science fiction – it is a new genre, rather like a book we read some months ago, Submission by Michel Houellebecq, which dealt with another kind of crisis and was also set in the near future but this time in France.

We agreed that the story is highly topical. It was written well before Trump became the US president and just before the Brexit vote. Both of these turns of events persuade us that our liberal Western democracies have become inherently unstable – practically anything is possible – something which few people are prepared to accept or even discuss. The thought of dystopia inevitably disturbs and undermines our very existence. Yet our nations are increasingly polarised, moving towards what one Mandible describes near the end of the book: “Government becomes a pricey, clumsy, inefficient mechanism for transferring wealth from people who do something to people who don’t, and from the young to the old — which is the wrong direction.”

Some said the book contains humour but others were unconvinced. There are distant cousins called Goog and Bing, named after search engines. Ho ho. Why is the family called Mandible?  Presumably because they are examples of greedy consumers. The ‘joke’ is that they are the ones that will always suffer most in a financial meltdown, and others may laugh at their humiliation. An example of shadenfreude, presumably.  Above all, Shriver likes to shock, and in doing so there isn’t much room for humour.

We agreed it is an interesting book, but the interest comes mostly in thinking about and discussing the shocking issues raised. Yes, we might all have to face an economic Armageddon. Be prepared.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

26/1/17 "THE HOUSE BY THE LAKE" by THOMAS HARDING


To my left stood a row of modern brick houses. To my right stretched an unkempt hedge. And then, there it was, my family’s house. It was smaller than I had remembered…hidden by bushes, vines and trees. Its windows were patched with plywood. The almost flat black roof was cracked and covered with fallen branches. The brick chimneys seemed to be crumbling, close to collapse…” The House by the Lake, p.2

The Monthly Book Group descended in force on Morningside “when frost was spectre-grey”. But it was Thomas Harding, not Thomas Hardy, they had come to discuss.

Outside the grey spectres of Br*xit and Tr*mp haunted the world, while the big news was that Hearts had drawn the Scottish Cup holders Hibs at Easter Road.

[Hmmmm……I like that so much I’ll say it again… “the Scottish Cup holders, Hibs”]

The proposer had been impressed when he had gone to hear Thomas Harding at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Pleasant, engaging and articulate man, riveting story, great photographs. So impressed, indeed, that he had gone to buy the book…. but the queue in the signing tent was long and he had instead gone outside to Waterstones, and bought the book at a discounted rate...

[a discounted rate?!…..run that by me again??]

Thomas Harding, aged 48, was a journalist by background. He had written two previous books, one of which “Hanns and Rudolf” (2013), had been particularly well-received. He was, though, perhaps best known as a maker of documentaries for television.

“The House by the Lake” (2015) told how Harding had returned to his grandmother’s summerhouse by a lake near Berlin. A Jew, she had been forced to leave to escape the Nazis. The house by the lake was now derelict. The book tells the story of his quest to save the house, and his unearthing of the histories of five previous families who lived in it. It shows how the house’s history intersects with that of Germany’s tragic century –  World Wars, genocide, military defeat, occupation.

The proposer found the book fascinating. Harding was able to weave the story together with facts from his own life. His research was very impressive, although, as he acknowledged, he had to invent many of the details in “faction” manner to bring the characters and events to life. He had shown great energy in pursuing his quest. Although he did not shirk from recording the faults and weaknesses of the people he spoke of, including family members, he did so in a restrained and non-judgemental way. He was the objective researcher, not the finger pointer.

The views of the group revealed a varied response. In the red corner:

This is a brilliant piece of very human research into a house and its owners over a period of a century. It says so much about German life with so many insights and a perspective that illuminates the earlier books the Group has read about war time Berlin and the Holocaust....”

Others agreed that following a house rather than a family was an excellent and unusual approach. It was gripping to see the twists and turns of the house’s fate as it descended from rich man’s luxury to doss-house.  And it was remarkable that so many historic events should take place so close to the house.  For example, the notorious Wannsee Conference, where the “Final Solution” was worked out, took place nearby on the shores of the same lake, and the Berlin Wall went through the garden.

The themes appealed to many:

 We attach great sentimental value to houses, not just financial value, because we live in them as families. The story of the Wall was also gripping for me. And the book is a timely reminder when there is a rise across the Western world of nationalism and racism... 

Another felt that this account of the rise of Nazi racist populism makes you aware of just how impossible it is to control events as an individual. You only have an illusion of control as an individual, a thought that terrified him.

“….yes, this section reminded me of Kafka’s ‘The Trial’, where an ordinary person is suddenly arrested by the state without reason and his world is turned upside down...”.

Another fan of the book had lived in the Potsdam area, which made it easy to visualise the whole area covered by the book, and feel it come alive.

However, they were now coming out fighting from the blue corner …

“I started off thinking it would be very interesting, but after page 40 it became less so. The author seemed not to have an opinion on anything. There was no edge. In fact it annoyed me that he was such a nice guy...”

Another had similarly found the earlier characters interesting, but the post-war residents of the house were “deeply boring”. It would have been more interesting to learn instead how Elsie and Bella had lived in Britain, and how they had come to prosper in their new surroundings.

And, in a flurry of jabs, the history was “Readers Digesty” and the book was all a bit ‘Tiggerish”!

Moving in with a left hook to hit the book when it was down…. “It has a dull style, peppered with facts, and, as I read in bed, I found I nodded off pretty quickly. It was good, but could have been shorter and better written…

And a right hook from another…. “Harding does detail very convincingly the turn of the fascist screw on the Jews, but the rest is less detailed, and no character comes alive. He is a journalist, not a novelist”.

A red corner reader who had found the book “almost a page-turner” went over to the blue side with the advice that the author needs to get a life and stop going back into his family’s past. The house had become an obsession, a sort of “reverse request for immortality”.

And more comments that the book was not particularly well written. It didn’t particularly excite one reader, other than the insight into how Jews felt as the seriousness of the Nazi threat began to emerge.  There was no real build-up of characters, and no scope to develop the history of the house. "The book ends up as a fairly superficial social history of 100 years of Germany...”. 

[This fist fight was all getting a bit confusing for your poor scribe. I knew I should never have started on that dry January...]

However, the contest began to subside, as the blue and red sluggers tired. They each started to recognise a degree of substance in the views of the opposite corner, and looked for some common ground.

When I say ‘the whole world knows’, I really mean ‘I think’….”

The style was precise rather than evocative, and Harding was indeed no novelist, but he did not pretend to be. It was not all superficial, as some of the details were quite revelatory - for example the scale of reparations to Jewish people by Germans after the War.

The people in the house after the War might be boring, in the sense of being “low life” or dysfunctional. But wasn’t that part of the tragedy of the house itself, as it fell into disrepair?

Many found the account of life under Communism in East Germany fascinating, and were intrigued by the stories of life at that time, such as that of the drugs for children good at sports, and the incompetent spy.

And although it would indeed have been interesting to learn more about Elsie and Bella in Britain, wasn’t the point of the book to focus on what the house saw?

For the house by the end becomes an observer, a mute and fatalistic observer, of the lives of its residents. And, at least for some, the description of the final decline of the house achieved the sort of resonance absent in much of Harding’s precise writing.

But now they had punched themselves out altogether, and left the book behind.  They were off debating, and of course sorting out, schools education. And after sorting that out they were on to The Donald…..

Thinking that might take a little time, your international roving reporter started on the long journey home, fearful of grey spectres over his shoulder…



























Friday, January 06, 2017

24/11/2016 "RABBIT IS RICH" by JOHN UPDIKE

Fading gently towards the venue for the November meeting, as from a gentle three wood, the scribe arrived a little late on a cold night with frost on the ground. However, the small group that waited in the living room soon generated a heated discussion. It was Thanksgiving, so the choice of an American novel seemed fully justified.

The proposer introduced the author, John Updike, and the book, “Rabbit is Rich”, one of a tetralogy telling the story of Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom from 1960 to 1990 (with a sequel to form a pentology in 2001). Updike was very prolific, having moved from ‘Rabbit’ country in Shillington, Pennsylvania to Harvard, Oxford, the New Yorker and so to a full time, and very distinguished writing career, winning many major literary prizes.  The proposer cited modernism as an important influence on his style, and suggested that his early concentration on poetry was also clear in his writing, as for example in the superb metaphors in ‘Rabbit’. For example, “He can’t take his eyes off this girl….The milky flecked shoulders, the dent of flesh where the halter strap digs. Squeeze her and you’d leave thumbprints, she’s that fresh from the oven” or “[Pop’s] emphysema just got too bad and you’d find him sitting in a small chair all curled over like a hand sheltering a guttering candle flame from the wind.”

The unusual, possibly unique (according to the proposer) device was that every ten years Updike imagined how his characters developed over the last decade. As well as the characters being ten years older, the novelist is ten years older, America is ten years older. This counter-pointing gives the telling of the story of a life, and the story of the development of a nation, unusual depth, richness and complexity.

Those assembled discussed the uniqueness of this approach. Certainly there are many book series where the character ages (Sunset Song was mentioned), but not concurrently with the author. One member struggled to recall a film trilogy that used the same device, the actors and director aging with the text but no-one else had a Scooby. (Editor: that would be Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013) with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, Director Richard Linklater, obviously after the Rabbit novels.) Ultimately, it is doesn’t really matter.

The proposer suggested it was the funniest and most up-beat of the novels. It seems to have a higher sexual content than the other Rabbit books, which some may have found offensive or at least tedious. Actually, some thought the ‘instruction manuals’ quite amusing although perhaps too late to put into practice. 

As a potential weakness, the long, beautifully formed descriptive and meditative passages, written as a stream of consciousness, can seem (to some) overblown and can slow down the movement of the story. However, surely they were germane to his wider themes and quite hypnotic. There’s not much plot – they are concerned with very ordinary lives, and the delicate interplay of family relationships. Again, the proposer pointed out that they focussed very much on a small community of interest; the inhabitants of Brewer had no real interest or understanding of the wider world. He suggested, alas, that this was true of a large American constituency, and perhaps a constituency that had elected Donald Trump as president. Like Updike, Trump has been accused of misogyny.

There was general agreement about the quality of the prose, and the enjoyment of the descriptive passages. For example, your scribe was particularly taken with the early description of the ‘Hick’ couple, ‘milky pale’ (her) and ‘roughened and reddened’ (him) with the “fat tired 71 or ‘2 Country Squire wagon soft on its shocks, with one dented fender hammered out semi-smooth but the ruddy rustproofing paint left to do for a finish”. That the milky pale girl was his illegitimate daughter was lost on those who had not read the earlier novels, but several hints were dropped in the text to the true aficionado.

After agreement, some disparities emerged and voices were raised. First, there was the question of context. To what extent were the references to global events, such as Three Mile Island and the Oil Crisis, essential to plot or character development and to what extent window dressing? For example, several references are made to the changes in the car market due to the oil crisis but how does this affect Harry, Nelson and the rest of the Rich characters? It illuminates the concerns of the ordinary American at the time, and as the proposer first said the novelist tracks the concurrent development as the characters, and America, change with each new decade. Acknowledging this, at least one of the few found the lack of plot development disappointing in comparison with other North American authors (McCarthy, Ford, Vidal were mentioned) but the proposer argued strongly that this was the point. Suburban life is indeed dull. Further, one couldn’t really appreciate the character and contextual changes without reading the whole Rabbit thesis. As the attendance was already small, perhaps a request to read all five books would have reduced it further!

Another member supported (to some extent) the suggestion that lack of event was a failing. He cited some eminent criticism that had made this point. Unfortunately, the dozy scribe didn’t record these but post-meeting googling found “does on occasion write well … has nothing to say” (Aldridge), “a minor novelist with a major style” (Bloom) and “you say it best when you say nothing at all” (Schlitz and Overstreet). Maybe Updike himself gave the best response in saying that he “gave the mundane its beautiful due” but some liked novels to give higher meaning to life, even the pessimistic one of the previous month given by David Szalay, another story of ‘Everyman’. He compared Updike unfavourably to Austen but the proposer was adamant about the essential quality of Updike’s writing. Oh, well! This is a blog, not a review as such, and many have commented more eruditely on Updike’s work. Schiff says that ‘few contemporary writers have received more attention than John Updike’ and any quick perusal of the internet will discover more theses on Updike than his own prolific output of novels, short stories and poems. As Wilde said, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” 

Another attendee went on to praise the excellence of the writing about relationships, especially between the father, Harry, and the son, Nelson. There were many such relationships beautifully depicted in the book. He talked of the justified aggression of Harry towards his son; how he found it difficult to be demonstrative, how he couldn’t really get through the generation gap. Nelson doesn’t have to live his father’s life, and yet he follows him into the ‘Lot’? Do we all regress towards our parental mean? Perceptively, he went on to say that although Updike wrote so well about relationships, he did not write so well about individuals. This is an interesting suggestion and caused at least one of us to re-assess the book.

As ever, the discussion wavered from the topic. The subject of weddings was mentioned, and one commented on how the low key nature of the wedding in the novel accorded with his own experience, travelling many thousands of miles to the US of A to find such a low key affair that he thought it was hardly worth the effort! In contrast, another referred to a much more lavish affair. In general, perhaps the marriage of Nelson and Pru is not ‘made in heaven’ but is rather by accident, but as mentioned before we didn’t have the full context in front of us.

Other themes for debate that emerged included the casual racism (not so surprising in Trumped America perhaps), and the lack of likeable characters, although Charlie was named as an exception to the rule. We did not consider the religious background to any great degree, indeed the proposer suggested it did not figure prominently in this novel. However, we did take to ‘Soupy’ Campbell, the religious celebrant with a somewhat relaxed approach to the marriage vows, probably not an obvious candidate for a Free Kirk ministry in the North of Lewis. Unlike the sex scenes, which were probably not meant to be funny, the scenes with ‘Soupy’ were certainly humorous.

So what was the final verdict? This was certainly a book worth reading, and perhaps it did not wholly stand on its own. We would accept the proposer’s view that all four or five should be read but life is finite, so we have to make choices about where to concentrate. Of those present, there was a 50/50 split on whether the other books would be read.

Overall, we all left the meeting wiser and more knowledgeable about one of America’s greatest 20th Century authors, and warmed by the unusual heat of the debate. It was still cold outside, but fortunately we had but a short journey home and so the heat sustained us.