Book Review:  The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion (Penguin – 2014)

This is our book club’s latest selection and chosen as something a bit less challenging than the Man Booker winner we read last month.

Graeme Simsion’s book tells of a chapter in the life of Professor Don Tillman, geneticist.  Don is highly intelligent, incredibly organised, efficient, productive and totally devoid of social skills.  Having said that, he is not uncaring or unfeeling.  Don has only two friends, Gene the womanising head of his department and Gene’s wife Claudia.  Don consoles himself with the thought that he has four friends if he included Gene and Claudia’s children, one of whom is called Eugenie.  ‘Gene’, ‘Eugenie’?  Do you think some point is being made here?

Don’s failure to read social situations and people’s emotions, even if they are very overt, are highly comical.  Criticism, sarcasm and even offers of casual sex are wasted on him.  

Tired of being alone, Don sets up ‘The Wife Project’ and develops an ingenious questionnaire, which he combines with more regular dating methods to find his ideal life partner.  Don helpfully tells one poor lady that his method has been refined so that he can eliminate most non-suitable candidates in less than 40 seconds.  

Don meets Rosie, a friend of Gene’s.  According to Don’s questionnaire, Rosie is unsuitable as a candidate to be his wife in many, many ways.  Despite this, Don finds he enjoys being with her and decides that he will continue to see Rosie for intellectual stimulation until Miss Right comes along.

Anyone familiar with Mr Logic in adult-humour comic ‘Viz’ may view Don as his kindred spirit, albeit in a less openly annoying way.

Don’s relationship with Rosie, and his offer to help her find her real father is a funny and often quite touching read.  A fast read and very enjoyable. 

Book Review:  Patient by Ben Watt (Penguin -1997)

Many of you will know Ben Watt as a musician, DJ and one half of the band Everything But The Girl.  However, this  is not a typical pop/rock star autobiography.  Sub-titled ‘the true story of a rare illness’, it is Ben Watt’s story of suffering a debilitating, life-threatening illness, which initially seemed to defy an accurate diagnosis and his subsequent road to recovery.  

Despite being about a very distressing period in his life, Ben Watt’s prose is lyrical, engaging and often funny.  You are drawn into his experience and can empathise with what he is going through.  He captures, very vividly, the sensations of experiencing crippling pain and the fear and bewilderment it brings.  

Most of us will not have experienced a long stay in hospital but Ben Watt captures the highs and lows brilliantly.  You feel the dislocation and alienation of being in an environment where you are no longer in control of your life and where your everyday experiences can largely be determined by whoever is providing care at that particular time.  Ben’s family visit and stay with him regularly, providing him with some much needed comfort and familiarity in the drifting seas of NHS care but you feel their helplessness and need for answers too.

At one stage in his stay, Ben’s can only signal what he wants by signalling whilst his family point to letters on a board.  Trying to anticipate his meaning in this necessarily long-winded process, his partner Tracey Thorn misinterprets in quite humorous ways.  Ben’s father struggles to get to grips with the situation and obviously feels very uncomfortable in being in the hospital.   It is difficult to criticize his father, instead we feel some sympathy that his inability to fix the situation and his discomfort at being inside a hospital is making him feel helpless.

This book is so well-written and engrossing that I would recommend it strongly to anyone.  

As an aside, Tracey Thorn’s own book ‘Bedsit Disco Queen’, about her life in the music industry is also an excellent read.  I am not a particular fan of Everything But The Girl but they write good books.

   

Book Review: Civilization – Niall Ferguson (Penguin – 2012)

This book by historian Niall Ferguson is subtitled ‘The Six Killer Apps of Western Power’ because, well, you’ve got to make an effort to appeal to the ‘yoof’.   

Ferguson argues in favour of studying the broad narrative sweep of history and trying to empathise with those who lived in the past whose life expectancy, in many cases, was around 40.

In this book Ferguason compares the West and the Rest, where the West is “more than just a geographical expression” more a “set of norms, behavious and institutions with borders that are blurred in the extreme.”

Ferguson argues, quite convincingly, that the emergence of the West as the  major economic, political and military force is the greatest phenomenon of the last 500 years.  The ‘killer apps’ he identified are competition, science, property rights, medicine, the conumer society and the work ethic.   Ferguson highlights that in 1500 Europe covered around 10% of the world’s land surface and around 16% of its population.  However, by 1913 eleven Western empires contolled nealy 60% of all territory and population and a staggering 79% of global economic output. 

A short book review like this could not hope to convey a full explanation of his ideas or arguments and he is at pains to point out that he is not pushing the idea of ‘The Triumph of the West’ Euro-centrism or anti-Orientalism.  

The book is a mine of incredible facts.  A favourite was about the Chinese Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty who commissioned a complete collection of Chinese learning.  The gargantuan task involved some 2000 scholars and filled over 11,000 volumes.  It was only surpassed in size as the world’s largest encyclopaedia in 2007 by Wikipedia.  

‘Competition’ compares the experience of a number of European states and kingdoms who vied with each other in trade and war against that of China where the Confucian bureaucratic system upheld a harmonious but rigid and cautious system, which effectively stagnated.

‘Science’ leads with the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683.  Whilst quite interesting, the reader may wonder what this has to do with science.  Indeed, a few of the chapters seem absorbed by particular historical events or characters and only seem to touch on the evidence to support the ‘killer apps’ theory.   Perhaps each killer app would take a book in itself  and would somewhat thwart the impact of the bigger idea that he wants to convey.  In this chapter we are introduced to Benjamin Robins, whose work on trajectories and artillery led the ‘ballistics revolution and made fortifications redundant.  Ferguson also notes that the chances of Ottoman scientific progress was snuffed out by religion. 

In ‘Property’ Ferguson examines the rule of law as a means of protecting private owners and compares the positions of North America, where private property was largely protected, with South America where there was a lack of property rights.  In South America the lack of property rights is seen as a mjaor cause of coups, dictatorhsip and meaningless constitutions dreamt up to serve the aims of the drafters.  In this chapter, Ferguson launches and excoriating attach on Hugo Chavez of Venezuela who died after the book was published (although I don’t believe the events were related).

In ‘Medicine’ Ferguson hits the nail on the head when he states “it is a truth almost universally acknowledged in the schools and colleges of the Western world that imperialism is the root cause of nearly every modern problem from conflict in the Middle East to poverty in sub-Saharan Africa…” He goes on to argue that some empires were worse than others and that certain benefits were spread throughout the world not least ability to treat disease and a resulting increase in life-expectancy.  In this chapter there is a lot on the French Revolution and political philosophy.  Again, it is very good, but the reader may question what Robespierre and Locke have to do with medical advances.

In ‘Consumption’, Ferguson notes that the consumer society is a killer app that the rest of the world has generally been keen to buy on the App Store.  In this chapter, Marx if described as an “odious individual’ who lived on handouts from his friend Engels who was running one of his father’s cotton factories.  

Finally in the chapter on “Work” Ferguson highlights the ideas of Max Weber who believed that the Reformation in Europe made it more friendly to capitalism and provided individuals with the ‘Protestant ethic’ that valued thrift and hard work.  Ferguson does highlight the flaws in Max Weber’s ideas but is clearly convinced, and convincing, in his arguments.

With the rise of China as a global power, Ferguson questions whether the half-millennium of Western dominance are coming to an end and argues that the end, if and when it comes, may not involve a slow decline but could happen relatively suddenly and unexpectedly.  In the end, the proven success of the West is the adoption of its six killer apps by other civilizations to develop and eventually outpace it.

This is an enormously interesting, highly readable, history book.  Give it a go.  

Book Review: A Thousand Miles From Nowhere – Graham Coster (Penguin-1996)

Sub-titled ‘Trucking Two Continents’, this is a travel book of sorts but not one that focuses on the culture, architecture, food and customs of foreign countries.  This is a book about long-distance lorry driving, or trucking, where covering the longest distance as quickly as possible is the aim.

In the November 2014 edition of the adult humour magazine Viz, there is a double-page picture entitled ‘What can you spot on the Motorway?’  The reader is invited to study the picture and tick off the things they can spot including ‘A footballer in a black Range Rover doing 130mph on his way to a charity event’ and ‘the start of a coned off section to protect one man using a strimmer 20 miles further up the road’.  One thing to spot is ‘An articulared lorry in the 60th mile of an overtaking manoeuvre past another articulated lorry.’  Funny because of the exaggeration  and because there is some truth in it.

My own attitudes to articulated lorries is coloured by my driving experiences where, quite often, trucks seem to act as a rolling roadblock.  I have rarely though about the benefits trucks bring or how much we all rely on them.  

Part one of the book is called ‘East’ and in it Graham Coster describes his experiences of hitching a ride from the UK to Russia, talking to drivers, listening to Country music and learning the lore of the road.  It’s a very interesting read but, by God, a trucker’s life sounds like absolute purgatory at times.  They can be held up for hours, days even, at border controls, robbed, stung for bribes and freezing their backsides off sleeping in their cabs in Northern Europe.  

The meals that truckers eat are described as gargantuan carbohydrate piles.  I wondered why the meals are so big when they are essentially sitting down all day.

The truckers don’t seem to get time to explore the countries and cities they visit and few seem to have any interest in doing so.  The main interest is to get to their destination, pick up another load before heading home again where the whole things starts again.

I found the thought of living this kind of life depressing, but lots of people like it and for that we should be thankful otherwise the country would grind to a halt.

In part two ‘West’, Coster hitches rides on trucks from the East to West coast of the USA.  Like most things, trucking in the US is bigger, more attractive and more comfortable.  Let’s be honest, American trucks like Kenworths, Peterbilts and Macks have more kudos.  They represent the idealized big-rig reeking of power,muscle and down-to-earth hardwork and honesty.

The journeys are much longer than the ones Coster took in Europe but are much easier to navigate.  Permits may be required for particular states but these are relatively easy to obtain and do not involve the soul-sapping, time chewing controls of Europe.  

The distances driven are just mind-bending; over 500 miles a day is standard and 1000 miles in a day is not uncommon.  I’ve usually had enough of driving after 3 or 4 hours, in which time I could cover 200 miles if I’m lucky.

Coster mentions the trucking moves that have given rise to trucking myths such as Convoy and Smokey and the Bandit.  Reality seems to mirror the fiction in some respects.  Truckers discuss how to avoid the police (Smokey Bears) over their CBs and listen to pathos laden Country tunes.

In the US, Coster conveys some of the meditative state of driving endles miles across vast areas (Texas takes 2 days at least!).

I learnt very little about Europe or the USA from this book but that isn’t the point.  I learnt a lot about truckers. 

Book Review: Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersey-Williams (Penguin Books 2012)

On a periodic basis a general, but not overwhelming, desire to self-improve will coincide with a vague interest in a topic and the act of spotting an interesting looking book. Recently, I experienced just such a perfect alignment and picked up this popular science book on the chemical elements.

It has excerpts of glowing reviews from some pretty heavyweight supporters such as the Sunday Times, Nature, The Observer and, er, Lauren Laverne. All I would say is don’t always believe the reviews, even this one,

The book is organised into sections entitled Power, Fire, Craft, Beauty and Earth to reflect the essential nature of some of the elements. It even has pictures to entice even the most ardent recidivist anti-intellectual troglodyte. I don’t think small black and white pictures are awfully helpful or attractive in paperbacks but I suppose it does allow them to be included near the relevant text rather than in a separate section

For each element on which he writes, Hugh Aldersey-Williams flicks between history, religion, alchemy, experiments, the significance of the element over time and its discoverer. Whilst parts of this are very interesting, some are less so. For example, he obviously loves to carry out experiments as the early chemists or alchemists did and describes them in some detail. I suspect these were more fun to carry out than they are to read. For me it was like reading a lengthy description of how a mechanic had repaired the exhaust on my car; nice to know that it’s been done but not really exciting in the description.

There is much here that is fascinating such as the theory that the tomb of the first Chinese Emperor contained a scale replica of his empire complete with miniature rivers flowing with mercury, Agatha Christie’s use of Thallium in a novel that appears to have inspired would be murderers and Lavoisier (who named Oxygen) being sent tor the guillotine in revolutionary France. The book also served to remind me what a thoroughly reprehensible character the chemist Fritz Haber was. His interest in developing the use of gas in the First World War was far more sinister than a purely scientific endeavour. The world would have been a better place without him.

Whilst there are some very interesting parts it is quite hit and miss and a very good section could be followed unreasonably quickly by something that is very tedious and this seems to be the result of the magpie pick and mix approach which throws in anything and everything linked to a particular element. Given the logical clarity and beauty of Mendeleev’s periodic table it was surprising that the book was so seemingly random and jarring. It was a struggle to maintain an interest until the end. IMG_0085.JPG

More Penguin Science Fiction – Edited by Brian Aldiss (Penguin Books 1963)

Another lovely old Penguin paperback. This one has a nice painting by Kandinsky on the cover and a superb, but slightly startling photo of Brian Aldiss on the back cover. Used to more recent photos I was a little surprised to see he looked a little like the Verger from Dad’s Army in the past.

Short story collections are often hit and miss, hopefully more good stories than clunkers. I did wonder at the outset whether the passage of time would affect my appreciation of the stories. I shouldn’t open a book with apprehension but it is difficult not to do so with vintage science fiction.

Brian Aldiss’ introduction to the book is entertaining. He points out that many of the tales deal with the extinction of humanity and that science fiction has domesticated the appalling. He also makes the reader question whether they are real or living some false Matrix existence. “When you hold this book, you are not feeling the paper that came from the Penguin establishment in Harmondsworth, you are feeling the neural response to what your fingers touch. A work of interpretation has been carried out between head and brain. An identical work of interpretation might be carried out if the hand were made of a silicon-based substance or the brain an affair of printed circuits and electronic scanners”. I suppose the lesson from that is, if you don’t like what I write, remember that I may be silicon based life-form.

Brian Aldiss mentions the writers of each story in his introduction. He is quite brief on the first story, The Monkey Wrench by Gordon R Dickson. I too do not have a lot to say other than the twist at the end is entirely predictable and the irritation caused by the pompous, melodramatic characters and the tortuous histrionics they subjected me to in getting to the end was not worth the effort.

The First Man by Howard Fast (writer of Spartacus) is much better. The story begins with a series of letters between a brother and a sister as they search for children displaying the characteristics of genius so they can be nurtured to become übermensch, the next stage of human evolution. The exchange of letter format works well and it’s a pity it wasn’t used throughout. The attempt to inject tension right at the end of the story was not really necessary.

Counterfeit by Alan E Nourse (you’ve got to have a middle initial to write sci-fi) kicks off with “The spaceship plunged through the black starways towards the orbit of the third planet. It’s trip had been long. It was homeward bound”. It does not really recover from this dreadful start and the story about a shape-shifting alien is the stuff of bad B movies. I almost stopped reading at this point in the book.

Tom Godwin’s The Greater Thing reads like a Western. A man and a woman are pursued through a ghost town by a bunch of bad cops. Only, in this town there is a sentient being spawned by a nuclear blast that learns to distinguish between right and wrong. Again, it’s not great but it is readable.

The next story, Build up Logically by Howard Schoenfeld is one of the strongest in the book. It is a clever, funny and strange tale in which the main character is also the writer, determining the events that affect him as a character in the book as he goes along. A time machine is introduced which moves the entire universe through time so everything remains the same. The writer finds himself in the position of being invented by one of his characters. This was a delight to read.

William Tenn’s the Liberation of Earth is. An extremely tongue in cheek, witty tale of several liberationist of Earth by two warring alien races. Tenn’s understated, dry humour is superb. Humankind’s collective ego is destroyed as they are caught between two seemingly benign and heavily armed alien races.

An Alien Agony by Harry Harrison is another good tale in which a human trader on an alien planet inhabited with intelligent but over-trusting aliens, is dismayed by arrival of a religious missionary from home. The result is a stand off between science and religion. The aliens, called Weskers, try to find the truth by attempting to apply logic to the missionary’s claims leading to a grisly result. I suspect most readers will have some sympathy with the Weskers and their questioning of faith.

The Tunnel under the World by Frederik Pohl feels of its time, even though it is set in the far future. Guy Burckhardt, the main character and his wife Mary feel as if they have been cut from the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. The story, however gets quite strange and has a bizarre Philip K Dick quality to it at times. Guy Burckhardt is not what, or who, he thinks he is and the big reveal at the end was unexpected and brought to mind Scale by Will Self.

Robert Sheckley’s The Store of the Worlds is one of the shortest storeies, but also one of the best. A man called Tompkins has discovered a way to extract a person’s consciousness and inject it into any of the infinite alternate realities that exist. We see a timid man, Mr Wayne, approach cautiously. He wants to undergo the procedure but is scared and worried about the high price and consequential reduction in life expectancy. Mr Wayne’s choices are surprising and at the end we see why he is willing to consider such a high price. This story may make readers reassess their view of their own lives.

Jokester by Isaac Asimov sees him pursue his love of the groan inducing gag
in a story where we find one of the basic human creative activities Isis actually the result of experiments by outside entities. It’s not a brilliant story but, being Asimov, it’s enjoyable.

Pyramid by Robert Abernathy is an ecological disaster story where man, inevitably, is the cause but the scene of the crisis is another planet entirely. I enjoyed this story very much. The main character, Zilli, is a highly intelligent academic from an alien culture that values the ecological balance above all else. Her attempts to use humans to prevent one catastrophe has far reaching effects, which Zilli with her entirely logical and consistent philosophy does not see coming until it is too late. This story still has a lot to say today.

The final story The Forgotten Enemy by Arthur C Clarke is an environmental disaster tale and follows the lone endeavours of Professor Millward (they always seem to be professors or chief scientists in Clarke’s world) as he struggles through a London that appears to have entered the ice age. It’s very much a period piece.

After a poor start I ended up liking this collection. Whilst this book is no longer in print, you should be able to pick it up quite cheaply online, or maybe from a second-hand bookshop like me. Penguin Books won’t make any money out of it but maybe they will if you are tempted by other titles by the writers who contributed to this

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No Bail for the Judge – Henry Cecil (Penguin Books – 1964)

I’m a sucker for old Penguin paperbacks. The logo, the typeface, the orange ness!

Whilst published by Penguin Books in 1964, the book was originally published in 1952. Some books do not age well, but this is a humorous, often gripping and charming story of High Court Judge, Mr Justice Prout, who through a bizarre, darkly comical and frankly unbelievable series of events, finds himself charged with the murder of a prostitute.

Circumstantial evidence (i.e. Justice Prout wakes up lying on top of the dead prostitute holding the hilt of a knife) points to the Judges guilt, indeed having no recollection of events, the Judge assumes that he must have done it. However, his extremely intelligent, enterprising and somewhat cynical daughter Elizabeth refuses to believe it and launches her own private investigation to reveal the truth and hopefully save her father from the gallows.

In this endeavour, Elizabeth employs the services of a gentlemanly master thief, Ambrose Low, after she sees through his extremely cunning and meticulously planned attempt to steal her father’s stamp collection.

Whilst the story involves murder, theft and prostitution it is in no way gritty or realistic. You would be happy to read this story to your grandma. That is not intended as a criticism of the style, which is intelligent and witty. The scenes in the High Court are real page turners and I was not surprised to learn after reading this book that Henry Cecil was a barrister and subsequently a County Court Judge.

The cast of characters, or maybe that should be caricatures, display qualities which define them throughout the book and helps to fix an image of them almost immediately. Colonel Brain is a cheerful but long-winded and often frustrating old soldier. Sydney Trumper is a devious, shady character but not overtly violent.

The efforts of Ambrose Low to find out the truth continue through the trial, despite the vast amounts of cash (well, for 1952 anyway) that Elizabeth gives him. He has to stretch his ingenuity to the limit in the hope of getting a breakthrough.

This is a very easy and witty read and I will be looking out for further Henry Cecil novels in the future. They are still in print which is a testament to a good story.

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