Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Just Finished Reading

Ice, Mud and Blood by Chris Turney

Subtitled Lessons From Climates Past, this excellent book summarises everything known in 2007 about the lessons we are learning regarding climate change and the mechanisms which bring it.

Turney is both a professional climate scientist and a good author, his chapters concise and clear, his conclusions definite when they need to be or given with caveats where that is more appropriate. Chapters cover the role of carbon dioxide, water vapour and methane in the atmosphere, Snowball Earths, the PETM (massive global heating 55 million years ago), variations in the Earth’s orbit, atmospheric positive feedback mechanisms, ice, icebergs, and much, much more. I particularly liked the emphasis on climate proxies, that is, evidence which implies climate information rather than giving it directly. Turney is diligent in his presentation and use of these indicators – good to read in an author of science. Excellent prose and overall clear-headedness improve the mix even more.

Written with skill and insight, this is a highly readable and enjoyable work. Recommended for non-scientists and scientists alike.

Tamed by Alice Roberts

Great television presenter, not bad author, it turns out. This excellent, compelling, fascinating book takes nine species of animals and plants and describes how they were domesticated. The chapters on maize, horses and apples are particularly good. The chapter on chickens is good because it focuses on the question of genetics, and how the science is helping us to disentangle complex history. The final chapter on human beings is less successful however. But on the basis of the first nine: terrific stuff!

The Science Of Storytelling by Will Storr

I don’t read many ‘How To Write’ books, but The Science Of Storytelling by Will Storr was recommended by a couple of author friends and looked pretty good from the reviews. It is however much better than pretty good: it’s exceptional.

Why? In a word – clarity. Not only is this a fantastically clear, insightful and succinct look at how and why we tell tales, it’s a clear, insightful and succinct look at human beings. In some respects it transcends its subject to become a primer on aspects of the human condition.

The book has a single thesis: that telling stories is about people, about character, about our visible and concealed flaws, about our irrationality around those flaws, and about what authors can do with all this. Split into four sections it covers scenario (including theory of mind) and the importance of change, our flawed characters and why they’re endlessly compelling, asking the dramatic question which not only kick-starts a novel but sustains it, and plot/endings/meaning. A concluding section details the author’s own technique of the Sacred Flaw, which he uses in his writing classes.

At this stage of a review I usually add a few quibbles or point out some things I didn’t like, but in this case I have nothing to add. Compelling, lucid, engaging and fascinating, it is above all true. I recognise the truth of the human condition in this book, and much of it matches my own notions, for instance a point about emotion being about value – here summarised in a single sentence! The book is comparatively short, yet contains terrific insight, which, with skill and grace, the author lays out for his readers.

I was reminded when I read this book of another short work containing wisdom and clear insight, Karen Armstrong’s A Short History Of Myth. Storr’s book is a kind of partner work: where he looks at storytelling and the individual, Armstrong looks at storytelling and cultures. Reading the two together is a real lesson in life.

Unreservedly recommended.

The Art Of Being by Erich Fromm

When I checked into Goodreads and marked Erich Fromm’s posthumous book The Art Of Being as current reading, I was surprised to find that I’d given it only three stars. But, reading it again, I think that was about right. Published thirteen years after Fromm’s death in 1980, the book is essentially chapters Fromm wrote for his final work, To Have Or To Be? but which he withdrew just before publishing, worrying that the chapters might give people the wrong idea about the paths they needed to take to achieve self-realisation.

I must point out that I am still very much a Frommer. He remains a central foundation of my own thinking and work on the evolution of consciousness and the analysis of the human condition.

This book though, for all its interest and worth, is not a great advert for the man. Too much reads as him at the end of his life criticising in irascible mood the fads and fantasies of Western culture, while his continuing insistence on Freud’s relevance to modern thinking on psychology comes across as anachronistic at best. Freud did humanity a tremendous service in discovering that the contents of our conscious minds are only a tiny proportion of what we hold, but his juggling of theories, re-writing of old work and so on leaves the reader of 2020 somewhat baffled.

Then there’s Marx. I like and admire Marx’s analysis of the human condition, for all that I think a lot of it is incorrect, but Fromm still insisted in the late 1970s that Marx was right to claim in his lifetime that historical conditions were suitable for a humane revolution originating in the working classes. The problem, Fromm said, was that people made him, Lenin, Stalin et al into idols.

I do not think the world was ready for a humane revolution in the early twentieth century, indeed, I doubt it will be ready at the end of the thirtieth century. It’s rather ironic that Fromm, whose brilliance included pointing out the necessity of shedding our narcissism and mental illusions, was incapable of seeing that human narcissism has a very, very long life yet before it fades away from our species. Like many compassionate humane thinkers, he wanted change in his own lifetime. That, alas, was and remains nothing but an illusion.

There is a lot to like in this book – Fromm’s grasp of the importance of Buddhism and meditation for instance – but much to wince at. The truly brilliant works were all published in his lifetime: The Sane Society, The Art Of Loving, The Anatomy Of Human Destructiveness, Psychoanalysis & Buddhism, and To Have Or To Be? This posthumous volume is for those who recognise the continuing value, clarity and brilliance of Fromm’s vision, but who have the insight to grasp its limitations.

The Creation Of Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner

For five thousand years humanity has suffered the many iniquities of patriarchy. Gerda Lerner’s groundbreaking book, published in 1986 to great acclaim, answers that most difficult of questions: why did patriarchy appear?

An established scholar, Lerner begins her story over 5,000 years ago, setting the scene – the problem of patriarchy, a few guidelines as to a possible solution – then in a series of mesmerising chapters outlining the evidence for her case. In her view, patriarchy evolved incrementally over at least five thousand years, as the conditions of living changed from those of hunter-gatherer groups to Neolithic settlements and eventually, around 3,000BC, to patriarchy itself. She looks at the actuality for women, including all the demoted identities: wife, concubine, slave and others. She also looks at the symbolic downfall of the Goddess and the worsening of patriarchy – already an extreme misogynist system – following the arrival of Hebrew monotheism.

For any person interested in why such a terrible institution should have appeared five thousand years ago, with such awful consequences for women – and some for men – this is an essential text. Lauded by many, Lerner puts all her wisdom into this superb book.

The Tree Wakers by Keith Claire

Following a chance conversation on one of Liz Williams’ facebook threads, I picked up a copy of Keith Claire’s children’s novel The Tree Wakers, which turns out to be a strange book indeed. This is a work set in Kew Gardens, a location I had transmuted in Monica Hatherley, so I was intrigued to see what an author of a different generation had done to the place.

Written in 1970, its age shows not through its attitudes or subject matter but through its language, which, for those not used to reading older works, will seem peculiar. Here’s an example:

“Harragong sat in a shimmering whirl of peacock feathers, with her chin on her knees. She was regarding them with tremendous, enthusiastic amusement. The warm brown eyes not only met theirs, but chuckled right through them. Alex felt that even when she sat still, she was moving.”

I’m not criticising this use of language, just noting its oddness…

The narrative follows two siblings, Alex and Brid, as they encounter the time-loop travelling Maborians. The author head-hops throughout the novel so that sometimes you have to read back to see who he is referring to. These two don’t do much until the end of the book – they’re essentially observers of the Maborian dilemma and the Maborian way – until, at the conclusion, they have to use themselves to create a time-bridge back to Maboria (the Kew Maborians are accidental exiles). Images and ideas are all wonderfully original. It’s a startling book, original, and with many charms. The language and writing style are old-fashioned and take a bit of getting used to, but it is worth the effort.

Fugitive Minds by Antonio Melechi

I picked this up second hand in Hay-on-Wye because it looked interesting, and parts of it certainly are… but alas not the whole thing. For all the fascinating cases described in Melechi’s tour of mental maladies and conditions, the book is essentially a list of them (most of the chapters are really short) with no overall thesis or even much by way of the author’s character. Adding shame and love at the end was a step too far. Though written in 2003, the majority of the cases hark back to the nineteenth century, though a few more recent are mentioned. I enjoyed a few chapters of this book, but I finished it wondering what the point was.

Kindred by Rebecca Wragg Sykes

I’ve been fascinated by human evolution for a long time, so Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ new book Kindred was a must-buy for me. Subtitled Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, it’s an up-to-date, wide ranging, in-depth look at everything we know about the Neanderthals as of spring this year.

As the author observes, following a decade of new discoveries – mostly in the field of genetics – this new decade is shaping up to be a good one for our long lost cousins. The author covers everything Neanderthal – discovery, fossilisation, site mechanics, species assessment and reassessment – before heading off into fields needing more nuance and interpretation: love, death and art. The chapter on death is particularly good. Sykes is a keen observer, stating probabilities where that is necessary, elsewhere unafraid of giving her own personal interpretation. The impression is of an author on top of her material, possessed of humanity, experience and insight.

The book overall is well written, albeit with a tendency for an occasional lapse – poor puns, for instance a particularly jarring dental one. Also the footnotes which litter the first half of the book become irritating quickly. These notes, most of which are incidental if not irrelevant, should have been numbered and relegated to pages at the back of the book. But overall, the style is okay.

I very much liked the author’s reassessment of the terrible masculine lapses of earlier archaeology. Not for her a male, Western view. The end of the book is a highly commendable look at how Neanderthals skills, minds and lives should be assessed from a human vantage, not a male, white, Western one. Non-Western hunter-gatherer individuals have for instance reinterpreted archaeological evidence, and in fact have found new evidence simply by looking at Neanderthal sites with “new” eyes.

An excellent book, highly recommended.

The Extraordinary Voyage Of Pytheas The Greek

The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek by Barry Cunliffe

I picked this book up in Hay-on-Wye over the summer. In recent years I’ve bought quite a few books on remarkable voyages of exploration, and when I worked at Waterstones I had a similar historical phase. There’s something about tales of exploring the little-known planet which fascinates me.

Barry Cunliffe is an author well known to students of archaeology, his field of expertise focusing on north and west European areas. This book takes the reader back 2,400 years to the age when Greece was dominant in the Mediterranean and Rome was yet to rise in any significance. Pytheas was a residence of Marseilles, then a vital Greek trading settlement. The extraordinary voyage refers to a years-long exploration which Pytheas undertook of France, England and Scotland, including various Scottish isles, Iceland, then the north European coast possibly as far as the Baltic sea. Motives offered include the spirit of exploration and the search for sources of tin and amber.

What’s so admirable about this book is that, as it tells an exciting tale of ancient enquiry, it never fails to lose sight of the fact that our knowledge of Pytheas comes via a chain of many sources, some of whom believed Pytheas and some of whom did not. Thus the entire field of classical enquiry is thrown into an appropriately sceptical light. Cunliffe is particularly good when trying within reasonable limits to disentangle guesswork and authoritative source. On the whole though he is a Pytheas believer (unlike the grumpy Strabo, whom he regularly quotes).

Highly recommended to all fascinated by tales of exploration, whether ancient or relatively modern.

It’s All In The Mind by Julie Warren

It’s All In The Mind: the Life & Legacy of Larry Stephens by Julie Warren

As a fan of the highly esteemed Goon Show, I was delighted to see that a biography of Larry Stephens – a name I only knew from the Goons, and whom I’d assumed to be a minor player in the Grafton Arm scene – had been written and published. I bought it with some anticipation. But it turns out that Larry Stephens was far from being a bit part in the Goon Show story.

This biography – published by Unbound after a crowdfunding scheme – and written by Julie Warren, a family relative, is in two parts, the first of which covers Stephens’ childhood and WW2 experiences, the second of which covers his life as a comedy scriptwriter.

The first part is quite interesting: vivid, well researched and well written. But for me the book really comes into its own after the war, when Stephens, a talented pianist, discovers his aptitude for writing comedy. And he was in with the Goon crowd right from the beginning, along with Tony Hancock, Graham Stark and many other notables. In fact, the main message of this book is that Stephens’ contribution to post-war comedy has been greatly undervalued, mostly through lack of representation. Julie Warren’s final line is a paean to that: ‘He deserves to be remembered.’

In my novel Hairy London I exploited my own silly sense of humour, so similar to that of Spike and the Pythons, and until now I’d assumed that Spike was the main “crazy” of that crazy gang. But he was not. Yes, there was a difference in writing style – Spike chaotic but inspired, Stephens’ inspired and ordered – but Stephens’ imagination was almost as feverish as the man who gave us Eccles & co.

This biography is highly recommended to any Goon Show fan, but also to anybody interested in the history of British post-war comedy. Congratulations to the author for her excellent work!