Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Just Finished Reading

The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong

I first came across Karen Armstrong when I read her inspirational A Short History Of Myth. Well known as an author of books on religion (she herself was a Christian, albeit with controversial views), she has addressed most of the main religions in a series of influential works.

In The Great Transformation she looks at the change from polytheistic, often nature-inspired religions in regions such as Mesopotamia, the Middle East and China to religions that we might recognise today: the Abrahamic religions, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism etc. She also looks at how Greece changed during this period (which for her runs from about 1600BC to around 300BC). Other scholars have named this the Axial Age, a convention she adopts.

The book is essentially a history of four regions – Greece, China, the Levant and India. Armstrong goes into a lot of detail here, naming historical figures and developing their lives in times of violence, change and social distress. It is these conditions, she contends, that made certain individuals think about the nature of life: suffering, collectivity and individualism, redemption. She focuses on Buddha, Confucius, Jeremiah and Socrates in this work, but also investigates Lao Tzu, Plato and Aristotle, and various other kings and misfits along the way.

I would have liked a little less history and a little more analysis. The fabulous and inspirational final chapter, for all its brilliance, seems tacked onto the end of dry history. I would have preferred much more of this and fewer ancient tales. But the book is still excellent, and well worth reading for those interested in the human condition. Of course, Armstrong, a believer, is essentially relating the history of imaginary stories told by people to themselves and one another, but it is vitally important that all atheists and humanists uncover the reasons for such stories. Therefore her work has merit.

In a way, this book is a history of the change from one method of explaining things people didn’t understand to another. In an ironic conclusion, she observes that after the sixteenth century our leaders changed from those mentioned above to Einstein, Freud and Newton. I do agree with her criticisms of the global change from mythos to logos (one of the subjects of my as yet unpublished Woodland Revolution), but Armstrong lacks the insight to take another step back from mere faith into understanding. Though she grasps the importance of understanding suffering and pain, she believes the experience of the transcendent is a real experience, not an imaginary one. In this regard, her book fails. Yet it is a success too. Humanity can always learn from reality, if it wants to. We could make the effort to learn from where we have gone wrong. One of the sad lessons of this book is that such education takes a lot of effort, and most people, religious or atheist, can’t be bothered with that.

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Revolution In The Head by Ian Macdonald

This book is revered by many and often described as the best book on the Beatles’ music. Having read it and enjoyed it, I do think that is rather an exaggeration, for all its comprehensive excellence.

The book opens with short essays on the ‘sixties, most of which are interesting, before heading off into a song-by-song analysis of what the Beatles created in their extraordinary eight year restructuring of pop music. Make no mistake – this is the greatest band of all time. But this is not the greatest book on their music.

While Ian Macdonald is no slouch when it comes to scholarly research – all the great stories are here, along with a slew of less well known insights – he repeats many of the standard Beatles clichés: Lennon was the really brilliant one because he was ‘dark’; McCartney was the ‘lighter,’ sentimental one who couldn’t write lyrics; Harrison was saturnine and judgemental; Starr helped. To be fair, in places he redeems himself: Starr helped create rock drumming; Harrison wrote some good stuff later on; McCartney’s gift for melody is evident; Lennon was a bit of a bastard. But no amount of back-pedalling should allow this author to get away with his claim that everything McCartney wrote after 1970 was trite rubbish. That’s just stupid. As with Mozart, people like McCartney come along every few hundred years.

I think this book is best when considering the formative years and the jagged, disintegrating later years. Its author never got a handle on what a seismic shift the period 1965 – 1967 was, at least not in the way other cultural commentators have. He recognises the essential contributions of George Martin and Geoff Emerick, for instance, but, as many others have, considers that extraordinary period far too much in the light of LSD.

This is definitely a book for Beatles fans, and I’m glad I bought and read it, but I think it is revered too much. In many respects it is a coffee-table book, to be picked up after listening to the music. It’s a book to be enjoyed, not idolised.


Bedlam by Catharine Arnold

This is very good general history of the Bethlehem Mental Hospital, telling the tale of the place itself alongside a more general history of how Britain has treated mental illness.

The book covers centuries of history, is well researched and referenced, and reads well. Recommended, though rather horrible in places.

Bedlam Catherine Arnold

Proust And The Squid by Maryanne Wolf

This book is an overview of how the brain works when reading, but its author – a neuroscientist and expert in linguistics – also takes in child development and dyslexia.
The book is split into three sections, with the best and most interesting first; a history of the development of reading in ancient societies. The next section is also interesting, but (like some other reviewers) I found it a little too technical, and lacking the range and verve of the first section. The same comment applies to the third section, though more so.
This is a good book, but I did struggle in places. Though it presents itself as a work for the general reader, I think its structure and content sometimes acts against it. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, but I did find it rather tiresome in places. That first section though really is fantastic.


I Have Something To Say! by Kathryn Harper

I read this book as research for a novel I’m expecting to write next Easter, in which one of the two main characters is a selective mute. What I didn’t expect was that the book would be relevant to me in a personal way. I usually steer a balanced path when researching such things (for instance, shell shock in Tommy Catkins), so that I have on the one hand a grounding in the subject, but also plenty of freedom to imagine what my character will be like.

Selective mutism is a condition sourced in sensitivity and anxiety. A child with selective mutism is unable because of high levels of anxiety to speak in all but the safest circumstances. So, a selective mute can usually speak at home despite not being able to speak in any public or social circumstance.

Although I’ve never had this condition, as an HSP (highly sensitive person) I immediately grasped the reasons for its appearance. HSP is not the easiest thing to live with, for all its benefits in certain areas, and it is still much misunderstood. For example, I find it difficult to forgive people who have lied to me, especially if that person was somebody I previously respected, or liked. I do not wish to be lied to.

Add anxiety to an HSP and you have a recipe for selective mutism in a child, or even, on occasion, in an adult.

This book is an honest and moving read. Kathryn Harper went through her teenage years and into her twenties suffering because of the consequences of her undiagnosed anxiety. She struggled with alcohol and with relationships. But she pulled through, and when she began to understand that her childhood traumas with selective mutism were rooted in anxiety she made the courageous decision to face herself, so that she could try to move on.

The final sections of the book are a testament to her courage, and to her realisation that she had to stop fitting in with other people’s expectations, and try to be herself. Now she has a new relationship with what she calls the most common word used to describe her: quiet. Quiet is good. Quiet is often better than good. Quiet people should be celebrated, supported, cherished. But all too often we are not. Too often we are mocked or belittled. Kathryn Harper’s quietness was extreme when she was a child, but she has renegotiated her relationship with quietness to her advantage, and to the advantage of people with selective mutism, who will enormously benefit from her remarkable book.


The March Of Unreason by Dick Taverne

In Labour/independent/Lib Dem MP Dick Taverne’s 2006 book he presents a powerful argument in support of the scientific method, reason, and their offshoot democracy. Taverne is a long-time supporter of the importance and public remit of science, and writes with passion, insight and clarity on his subject. His ire is in particular aimed at those he (rightly) calls eco-fundamentalists, whom he exposes as brilliant media operators with a deeply irrational attitude.

I’ve long found this irrational aspect of Green attitudes troubling – and not just the absurd, crystal-wielding part of it. I’ve enjoyed being part of the alternative/underground world for a long time, but, even amongst friends, I’ve always realised that I walked on the outer fringes of the group, with my regular attacks on conspiracy theories, unreasonable arguments (eg those against GM foods), absurd “alternate history”, unethical exploitation of media, entrenched attitudes etc. The inability of many people to use evidence and follow peer-reviewed methods is a huge concern. But in these days of social media and fake news – little more than ten years after the publication of this book – we are sleepwalking into an even worse situation, where not just truth but reality itself is the casualty. Reading this book a few years after it appeared, as traditional media fawns to public opinion and science continues to be downtrodden, is not a pleasant experience, for all the work’s excellence.

We have failed once again to learn the lesson of history. But that of course is part of our current problem. Technology is changing at a pace faster than human beings can psychologically cope with.

In my view, the great majority of what Taverne presents in this book is not only correct but vitally important. I think he does give capitalism and multi-national corporations too easy a time (he still believes in enlightened self-interest), but his main message, that democracy and its benefits come from the evidence based scientific method – itself a child of the Enlightenment – needs to be heard across the world. Unfortunately, at the moment, that seems the least likely message to achieve visibility in our age of digital media, let alone enhanced credence. A highly recommended book.


A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence Krauss

This is one of the best science books I’ve read for ages. I spotted it in a remainder shop in Hay-on-Wye over the summer, which is a bit of a shame, as it didn’t deserve that fate.

The author is a well known and lauded cosmologist, whose work has explored the more difficult aspects of the Big Bang: How did it happen? How could it have happened? Is our universe the only one? Later on he does ask why our universe might have been created, but he points out that such a question may be meaningless. Above all, his goal is to show how the universe could have appeared from nothing, and how that means a creator is unnecessary.

Written with skill, clarity and economy, this is a superb outline of the state of play in cosmology circa 2012. It simplifies theories without sacrificing their essence or importance – a rare skill in science writing – and while it doesn’t give all the answers, it does elegantly and clearly give reasons why such answers may be impossible for us to know. Highly recommended.


From Bacteria To Bach And Back

From Bacteria To Bach And Back: The Evolution Of Minds, by Daniel Dennett

I wanted to like this. I should have liked it. I didn’t much like it.

I’ve enjoyed this brilliant author’s previous work, not least the groundbreaking Consciousness Explained, but this… this has great substance, yet the writing is terrible. Every paragraph is broken up with digressions, stuff in brackets – even a single question mark in one instance – and more utterly unnecessary stuff that any editor would ordinarily have excised. But Dennett’s editor didn’t. As a result, the book reads mostly like the half-assed ramblings of a doddery old professor.

I’ll say it again – the substance is great. The middle section didn’t seem that important, but the opening and concluding chapters in particular were important and good. Dennett’s thesis is that all explanations which posit a dividing line between mind stuff and brain stuff, as with Decartes’ original concept, are misleading. He thinks the so-called Hard Question only appears if you take such positions. He also agrees with Nicholas Humphrey that the point of conscious, the reason for its existence, is that it makes things matter in human life. When you’re in love with somebody, that person’s highs and lows mean so much to you for exactly the same reason. You therefore make an effort for them, regardless of the circumstances. Similarly, the fact that consciousness is a user-illusion is no contradiction to the fact that we human beings matter to each other. For this insight, I applaud the author.

In a nutshell: good substance, dire writing.


Killers Of The Flower Moon by David Grann

The treatment of the Native American nations by white “Christian” settlers from Europe has always evoked horror in me, partly I think because of the sheer brutality and utter callousness of what was meted out by these “Christians,” and partly because of the scorn and disgust that I feel for so many aspects of American culture. Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee was a gut-wrenching read. David Grann’s extraordinary book is not quite so visceral and terrible as Dee Brown’s classic, but it still packs one hell of a punch.

The work covers the so-called Osage Nation Murders – also known as the Reign Of Terror – which occurred between 1921 and 1925 in Oklahoma. Grann’s technique is to evoke the time through meticulous research, including vast amounts of never-published or otherwise mysterious or ignored documentation. The slow, precise way in which the story of the Reign Of Terror builds into a gripping read, as various layers of the mystery are peeled away, is a great way to reveal the full truth. And, surprise surprise, a greedy white man was at the bottom of it. In 1925 the determined and courageous FBI agent Tom White completed the investigation that caught this man, followed eventually, despite corruption and extraordinary levels of racism against the Osage people, by a successful prosecution.

Except… Grann in his research found out more; facts that were missed by the original FBI investigation. I won’t spoil this last section, but, as with what goes previously, it is pretty jaw-dropping.

For anybody interested in the seemingly endless list of injustices caused by white “Christians” in America, this is a sobering read. What marks Grann’s book out above others though is the brilliant writing and extraordinary effort put in by the author on behalf of the Osage people. An outstanding book.


Restoration Britain by Ian Mortimer

The Time Traveller’s Guide To Restoration Britain by Ian Mortimer

The third in Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guide… books, The Time Traveller’s Guide To Restoration Britain is at least as interesting as his guide to the Middle Ages, which I read and reviewed a while back. Essentially, these books posit a traveller going back in time who might need a guide in order to survive, much as a modern day traveller would take a guide to, say, Crete.

Written in a very accessible style, the book assumes little or no knowledge of the era, beginning with an overview of political events, then heading off into travel, taverns, food, health and medicine, music, plays and painting, and much more. There are plenty of interesting details, lots of humour – all underplayed and well positioned in the text – and an overall desire to seduce the reader with the good and warn them about the bad of Restoration Britain. Inevitably, Samuel Pepys makes many appearances, but there are plenty of other characters whose lives and words help the time traveller.

Highly recommended to history buffs and the general reader.

time trav restoration