Book Reviews 2018 - #11, #12 and #13
The opportunity afforded by my sister’s chickens (who need looking after in her absence) coincides with the ridiculous Essex heat: the only way is reading.
Three books hurl themselves forward from the tsundoku: “In Extremis” by Tim Parks; “The Word for World is Forest” by Ursula K le Guin; and “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker. The blurbs (in no particular order) read as follows:
“Passionate, urgent… it had a powerful effect on me” The Observer
“x writes with painstaking intelligence… [the] writing is remarkable for its sinewy grace” Time
“Fierce and questioning… Gripping” Independent on Sunday
Two of the books are outstanding; one is so terrible I gave up. Two of these blurblets are thus true; and one is a hideous lie.
Let’s find out which is which.
The first book I read is “Why We Sleep”. (The author Matthew Walker has recently done the promo tour and the RSA has turned his talk into one of those easy-access animations for people who can’t be bothered to read.) Walker is a proper bona fide scientist who has spent twenty-plus post-doctorate years researching sleep. He spends 300-odd pages explaining what sleep is, how it works and why we do it. (He also explains why every other animal does it.) He does the evolutionary bit, the cognitive science bit and the sociological bit. He tells us about REM and non-REM sleep, and why they matter; he talks about insomnia, teenagers and napping; he offers dozens and dozens of examples (the huge majority derived from proper experimental evidence) to illustrate just how important sleep is, including the fact that vehicular accidents caused by lack of sleep kill more people in the US than accidents caused by alcohol. He even tells us how many hours of sleep deprivation equate to the legal alcohol limit (answer: not very many).
At the beginning of chapter six he puts it in the form of a fictitious advert for a new drug:
Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory and makes you more creative. It makes you look more attractive, it keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and flu. It lowers your risks of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed and less anxious. Are you interested?”
(In case you’re worried about the hyperbole, he adds: “The evidence supporting these claims has been documented in more than 17,000 well-scrutinized scientific reports to date. As for the prescription cost, well, there isn’t one. It’s free.”) (All of which is rather similar to something I’ve pointed out before about walking.)
I was sent in the direction of this book by my inestimable friend Dr Robin Stott (a man whose advice I always take seriously) and the wonderful Professor Michael Pollan (who I don’t know personally but whose work I have been admiring for many years). To their recommendation I humbly add my own: this is a simply astonishing book. It is absolutely packed with fascinating stuff; it is well written; and it implies changes at personal, institutional and societal level that are transformative. I have the feeling that anybody reading this book will learn at least one thing that will change their life.
To which end, I have already decided that everyone for whom I buy Christmas gifts will be receiving a copy this year.
I probably won’t do the same thing for the third book I read, “The Word for World is Forest”. This is absolutely not because it isn’t a good book: quite the contrary. “The Word for World is Forest” is powerful, haunting, beautiful literature. It tells the story of a clash on a distant planet between an aggressive group of colonising humans, intent on ruthlessly exploiting the planet’s natural resources, and a native group of peaceful humanoids that have lived for millennia in perfect balance with the planet’s ecology. (If this reminds you of the plot of Avatar, it reminds me too: but (at least according to Wikipedia) James Cameron does not cite le Guin as a source.) (Hmm. Cameron claims – again, pace Wikipedia, that he was influenced by “every single science fiction book” he’d read. “Forest” was written in 1972, when Cameron would have been 17 years old. Hmm.)
Anyway, as you’d expect from le Guin, the baddies are bad, but ambiguous, and capable of learning; and the goodies are good, but also learn. In fact, they learn how to be bad. The book isn’t very long, but I was continuously and completely engrossed, so much so that I felt a bit sick a couple of times because I was so worried about what was going to happen. (My disbelief was very thoroughly suspended, clearly.)
The allegorical intent is fairly obvious; and fairly obvious, too, is the link to the then-developing environmental consciousness. As we swelter in the hemisphere-wide evidence of climate change, the relevance of the allegory (and the ugly nature of the lead human) is tough to bear, but vital.
Perhaps I should, in fact, give everyone a copy for Christmas.
I definitely won’t be giving a copy of “In Extremis” to anybody. It’s not often I abandon a book (though I note I last year abandoned a film) but this was just rubbish. A few pages into the first chapter I was a little taken aback. The book was – according to the blurb – supposed to be funny. The lead character is speaking at a conference about anal massage. Is this the bit that is supposed to be funny, I wondered? The lead character is a pathetic middle-aged man who is worrying about his Mother (spelt with a capital M), his ex-wife and his young mistress. Is this the bit that’s supposed to be funny?
Maybe it’s a cunning post-modern thing, I thought, one of those stories where the set up is deliberately bad so that when the clever and interesting and funny stuff happens you realise that it was all a meta-joke.
But no. Chapter 2 continues in the same execrable vein, as does chapter 3. The man introspects while hapless nonsense befalls him. I look up to the sky and think: I don’t want to waste any more of my life on this tosh. I open the book at random, somewhere in the middle, just to see if anything changes, and it doesn’t: the same awful bloke thinking the same mealy bollocks while the same hapless nothing occurs (he was fretting about a meal in a pub), all of it written with a sort of smug English indolence.
It made me briefly sad. This Tim Parks is clearly quite successful (at least if the number of things he’s written is anything to go by) and the dust jacket is riddled with praise from reputable sources. The publisher even went as far as writing “In Extremis is Tim Parks’s masterwork: a darkly hilarious and deadly serious novel about infidelity, mortality and the frailties of the human body.” Worst of all, Parks translated some Roberto Calasso, an act - indeed, an achievement – that had put him into a very particular bracket of high esteem, from my point of view.
Translate from Italian he may be able to do; write fiction worth reading though? – no, he can’t, if this is anything to go by.
Fortunately, this was the second of the triad, so my compensation was immediate. Le Guin whisked me away to a far time and place, utterly close to home, and fed me soul food. She even referenced the Walker book on sleep with which I’d begun. Walker devotes an entire section of his book to dreams: what they are, what they do, how they work and so on. He, naturally enough, makes extensive reference to the scientific techniques that enable him and other researchers to see what’s going on inside a head when someone is dreaming. The importance of dreaming to our personal and collective well-being is, he explains, enormous.
On the planet Athshe (which is also the word for ‘forest’) a human scientist (a goodie) is trying to understand the minds of the native humanoids, who dream during the day, as well as at night. With EEG scans he first “sees with comprehension the extraordinary impulse-patterns of a brain entering a dreamstate neither sleeping nor awake; a condition which related to Terran dreaming as the Parthenon to a mud hut.”
Given the further meta-loops to the Vedics (who as regular readers will know spent a thousand years in pursuit of such states of mind and may well have achieved a Parthenon of the mind) and my own minor obsession with Greece, it seems only appropriate that I should stop and immediately head to bed for some dreamtime of my own.
Oops, nearly forgot.
“Passionate, urgent… it had a powerful effect on me” The Observer, reviewing “Why We Sleep”.
“x writes with painstaking intelligence… [the] writing is remarkable for its sinewy grace” Time, reviewing “The Word for World is Forest”
“Fierce and questioning… Gripping” Independent on Sunday, lying about “In Extremis”.