Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Just Finished Reading

Women & Power by Mary Beard

Women & Power, a manifesto, updated.

Based on two lectures given a few years ago, this short book uses classical history to discuss the way women are kept from power, and from the wider public world. As a fan of this excellent author, thinker and tv presenter, I was keen to read Beard’s thoughts on the subject. Those thoughts are succinct, accurate and very relevant. Every man should read it, as one of the blurb quotes remarks. I was particularly taken by Beard’s conclusion that, for all that MeToo is a great thing, what we really need is a change in power structures. Merely acquiring more women MPs isn’t enough, especially if, as she observes, power has moved to some other venue. Readable, relevant, important, timely – this book is all these things.

Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake

In Merlin Sheldrake’s wonderful and very readable account of the world of fungi, the reader encounters a kingdom of organisms neither plant nor animal (in fact they are slightly more closely related to animals, though the last common ancestor is unimaginably ancient). Entangled Life is a survey of what we know about fungi at the moment; and that, it transpires, is not a lot.

Fungi have been comparatively overlooked until recently. As Sheldrake wryly observes, universities have departments for animal life and plant life, but not fungal life – a kingdom arguably more important than either, at least when it comes to the fantastically complex systems they initiate, control and inhabit. Plants in particular cannot survive without fungi, more than ninety percent of them relying on mycorrhizal networks for basic minerals and other nutrients found in soil. These nutrients fungi provide, in return for sugars created by photosynthesis. It is a commonplace symbiosis.

The books deals with a number of aspects of fungi, all compelling and fascinating. In particular the chapters covering how fungi utilise the food they live in (Sheldrake defines them thus) are marvellous – a true scientist at work, and a man of letters also. Equally interesting are the chapters covering our relationship with fungi – yeasts for instance – and the metaphors we use to describe them. There simply isn’t a dull paragraph in this book. Some personal details are included, but never to the detriment of the book as a whole.

Highly recommended to all interested in the natural world of our incredible planet.

Our Future Earth by Curt Stager

This book is a look at the future of the world over the next hundred thousand years or so, a concept guaranteed to interest me. Well written, full of insight, and scrupulously fair and accurate when it comes to how science is done, it’s a delight to read from beginning to end. The chapters cover ice, the tropics, rain and snow, and much on planetary orbit and how that affects climate. There’s a chapter on the last 34 million years of the ice age world, and one on the 55 million year old PETM (thermal maximum) including its considerable and worrying relevance to what we’re doing to the planet at the moment. Highly recommended to all those who care about the world now and who are interested in the deep future.

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.