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Sunday, 30 June 2019

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Noah Harari (2011)

Rating: Excellent

About six months ago I had a friend over for dinner and he brought along a friend of his I'd never met before, who noticed my copy of Sapiens on one of my book piles and proceeded to enthuse about it; he also mentioned that reading it made him decide to become a vegetarian, which was something I found puzzling at the time. Now I've read Sapiens I can fully understand its power to create life changing decisions. Sapiens takes a cold hard look at humanity as a species, not just our origins but just how we've arrived at this point in our history. Sapiens is not a blow by blow historical account of humanity, rather Harari examines particular significant turning points in our history and the manner in which we have shaped our shared destinies for better or worse. Harari divides the book into four parts: 'The Cognitive Revolution', 'The Agricultural Revolution', 'The Unification of Humankind' and 'The Scientific Revolution', which gives you a very good idea of the main focus of his arguments. 

We are, in many ways, a remarkable species, however throughout Sapiens our flaws are repeatedly revealed, something that stands out the further you progress through the book and the reality is there's no escaping it. Just one of a long intersecting line of hominins descended from apes, Homo Sapiens embarked on a journey of adaptation that is characterized by repeated destruction of the natural world and of each other. The agricultural revolution, Harari argues, did much more harm than good and trapped humanity in a cycle of disease, deprivation and misery and led to untold suffering of all the animals we rely on for sustenance (the source of my new acquaintance's vegetarianism). This is just one example of the double edge sword of humanity's progress through history.

Early in the book Harari notes that the word Sapiens means 'wise' and Homo means 'man' - so we are men who are wise, something that my own world view (I've always been an atheist and now have embraced nihilism, which is very freeing to say the least) has a hard time reconciling. Perhaps the most compelling argument made by Harari is the way in which humanity has the ability to organise ourselves by using 'fictions' that create realities that are not rooted in the objective world around us, such as money, nationalism and religion. These fictions have united us as a species and have helped foster much of our evolutionary success, however they have also led to great suffering and decision-making that has led to calamities that have left us with a future that is cloudy at best. 

A fine example of the negative power of these fictions is the recent Australian election. Australia's Liberal party is one of the most morally reprehensible governments in modern history, yet they easily won the election and increased their parliamentary majority. In Scott Morrison we have a Pentecostal Christian (don't get me started) who a few years ago brandished a lump of coal in parliament to illustrate his belief that coal is nothing to be afraid of (yes, he is a climate change denier/criminal). The principal fictions at play here are capitalism, combined with an ideological belief that humanity's impact on the world is negligible and in any case absolutely necessary in order to maintain the status quo. The election was dubbed by many commentators as the climate election, yet despite having seen the leader of our country brandish a lump of coal in parliament Australians chose to ignore the most urgent problem of our times vote for him anyway (I know it was more complex than that, however climate change is the main deal here). Clearly the fictional systems we are enmeshed in sway our thinking in such a way that we can happily choose to ignore the objective fact of climate change.

A certain Homo Sapien with some 'harmless' coal

Although Sapiens is not a flawless book; Harari often labours his points with lengthy extrapolations that sometimes cause the book to get bogged down, it is an important book. It is pleasing that Sapiens has remained a best seller for years and it is partly down to the fact that Harari has achieved the right balance between intelligent writing and producing a text that can be readily read by the general population. Sapiens should be part of the high school curriculum, although no doubt that would start a fresh bout of culture wars with the right arguing that Harari is too left wing and therefore dangerous to our treasured cultural fictions.

Monday, 17 June 2019

Asymmetry - Lisa Halliday (2018)

Rating: Excellent

There's a scene right at the end of David Bowie's twenty minute video Jazzin' for Blue Jean (1984) where Bowie's rock star character, Screaming Lord Byron, leaves with Bowie's every-man character's female interest (Bowie plays both characters). Every-man Bowie engages in a tirade against the retreating rock star and then breaks character and talks to the director (Julian Temple) and production crew about how the scene should be re-shot. Bowie and Temple then argue about the merits of being 'clever clever'. Asymmetry is just like Bowie and Temple's postmodern take on the music video; it is 'clever clever' and perhaps a bit too clever for its own good. It also uses most of the typical postmodern techniques that have become all too familiar and therefore a bit stale. The novel is arranged into three seemingly disparate sections - Folly, Madness and Desert Island Discs, yet they are connected by a series of clues. There are innumerable allusions to writers and novels and the female protagonist in Folly is called Alice and she does indeed descend down the rabbit hole into a relationship with a much older man, a writer called Blazer, whom is based on Philip Roth, whom Halliday had a relationship with when she was in her twenties. I could go on...(but I only write two paragraphs these days...)

I completed Asymmetry with feelings of ambivalence, cynicism even; however I had to admit to myself in the end that the novel was quite an achievement. The writing is tightly focused, littered with beautiful imagery and manages to be both playful and profound, in particular during the middle section written from the perspective of Amar, an Iraqi/American citizen held for questioning at Heathrow airport in the early 1990s. Amar's character is nicely rounded, but more significantly he becomes a mouth-piece that enables Halliday to talk about political issues whilst at the same time acknowledging how talking about political issues in literature is fraught with pointlessness and pomposity - now that's clever clever. Halliday manages to pack a lot of thematic juice into what is a refreshingly short novel. She covers relationships, aging, the anxiety of influence, the role of literature in culture and the existential difficulty of finding a meaningful path through life. Asymmetry may annoy you, frustrate you, but in the end it's worth the effort and indicates that just maybe there is life left in postmodernism after all.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Mind Over Ship - David Marusek (2009)

Rating: Admirable

Mind Over Ship is the sequel to Counting Heads (2005), an excellent novel I read before the time of this blog, some eight years or so ago. I bought Mind Over Ship not long after and I now wish that I had read it far sooner due to the fact that it is a direct continuation of the first book and also features many of the same characters. Consequently I struggled to connect with the plot, but I could at least remember most the fascinating details of the future Earth created by Marusek. Many typical science fiction tropes are present, such as AIs, high levels of mechanization, body regeneration, clones, interstellar spacecraft and extreme capitalism; however Marusek's refreshing writing style make these familiar themes into a unique proposition. In Marusek's future world (2135) clones are commodities and his exploration of clone psychology is often both entertaining and disturbing. The novel also teems with countless different kinds of nano-bots that function as everything from annoying swarms of paparazzi 'bees' to spy 'nits' that hide within the folds of the scrotum (yes, the scrotum...).

Despite the novel's obvious charms I did not enjoy it as much as the first book. Although it did take me a while to find my feet memory wise the main problem was that the plot was too diffuse to be compelling, particularly during the middle third when the narrative should really begin to tighten. Mind Over Ship instead read just like a series of things that happened and when there were major plot developments they were lost among the detail. Adding to this problem were the multitude of characters, all with their own particular role to play within the overarching story carried over from the first novel and all jostling for attention. It was difficult to identify with one main protagonist, the closest being the 'Russ' clone - Fred, who was paranoid he was suffering from 'clone fatigue', but his character was ultimately just too prosaic to carry the novel forward to its relatively disappointing endgame. Despite these criticisms if you are curious to read what is ultimately very good science fiction I'd read both books back to back to get the most out of Marusek's immersive world-building.

Monday, 29 April 2019

The Birdman's Wife - Melissa Ashley (2016)

Rating: Admirable

The Birdman's Wife is a novel based on the life of Elizabeth Gould, a talented artist who married the Victorian era English ornithologist John Gould. As with many talented women Elizabeth became eclipsed by her husband, even though she was the exceptional artist and, if the novel is to be believed, he 'merely' caught, killed and then stuffed the birds that she rendered alive again via her beautiful paintings. I knew nothing of either Goulds, but now thanks to Ashley's beautiful prose and detailed narrative, I feel much more intimately knowledgeable regarding this husband and wife team. The novel also illuminates the particular world view of Victorian era naturalists and scientists in general; that the natural world could be, and must be, categorized into endless classifications. Therefore the novel can at times be a distressing exploration of the Victorian propensity to destroy and interfere with the natural world for the sake of their demanding curiosity.

As with many of the book club novels I would never have chosen The Birdman's Wife to read of my own volition and within this context it unfortunately failed to win me over. Although Ashley's prose is particularly beautiful and it is essentially quite well written the endless descriptions of painting techniques and stuffing birds caused me to, at times, to lapse into a state of of delirious boredom. Although Elizabeth and John Gould led fairly interesting lives relative to many who lived in the mid 1800's, they did not lead dramatic lives. There was the tragedy of Elizabeth's babies who died before their time (in the end she had eight children!) and her own early demise due to childbirth, but other than that there is not much in the way of narrative tension. There are some parts in which Elizabeth is upset over her relegation to being merely John's talented wife, however if Ashley's depiction is to be believed she was no trailblazing feminist. Ultimately The Birdman's Wife is the perfect novel for a particular kind of reader and that is absolutely fine, it was just not 'my kind' of novel, one that kept me awake...

Monday, 15 April 2019

Japan Story: In Search of a Nation, 1850 to the Present - Christopher Harding (2018)

Rating: Excellent

Late last year while I was reading Mishima on the plane flying from Perth to Melbourne it occurred to me that I should source a book about the history of Japan. The very first night in Melbourne I walked into the fantastic Readings book store in Carton to find Japan Story waiting on the shelves in the well stocked history section. Harding's biographical blurb at the back of the book indicates that he is a cultural historian; which is perhaps why his approach in Japan Story is certainly different to most other history books I've read. Harding uses the lives of particular individuals, from doctors, writers, feminists, revolutionaries and ordinary people to illustrate how each phase of Japan's modern history effected their lives both practically and psychologically. There is still plenty of fairly straight historical reportage, but ultimately Harding's approach is both intriguing and refreshing. Also Harding's writing style reveals a rigorous thinker with a deft touch, something that is not always evident in some historians work.

Harding manages to say considerably more about Japan than just where their aggressive expansionist desires came from that climaxed in the middle of last century; I completed the book feeling like I understood the nation and its peoples considerably more, including the evolution of Japanese family life, feminism, the arts and politics. It was particularly fascinating to read about how Japanese society was effected by and dealt with the multiple forces of modernism in the early twentieth century relative to what I know about how it effected western society. In this way the book is aptly named, as Japan Story does indeed outline a story that is divergent from familiar western histories, which is a valuable thing in our self obsessed nationalistic age.  

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Mishima's Sword: Travel's in Search of a Samurai Legend - Christopher Ross (2006)

Rating: Excellent

After reading Yukio Mishima's novel Runaway Horses (1970) I searched my library's catalogue for books about the author and the sole result was Mishima's Sword. It is a curious book indeed; part travelogue, part philosophical rumination, part biographical and part quest. Mishima's Sword is quite a personal book, with Ross revealing intimate details of his life, many of which he relates back to Mishima and his books, or his own interest in martial arts. Whilst the book is not attempting to be a Mishima biography, Ross does examine details about Mishima's life, in particular those related to his final day, which Ross recounts gradually throughout the book until we get the gory details of his last moments at the end of the book. 

Mishima's Sword could easily have been an exercise in futility, an ineffectual miss-mash of themes and styles, however it is very well written and is formatted in short sections that effectively highlight each thematic thread. Mishima's Sword is not the book that will provide all the answers when it comes to understanding Mishima's work, but it does provide an effective dissection of the nature of obsession. Ross talks about some of his various lifelong obsessions, such as using martial arts as a means to purge an inferiority complex brought about by childhood bullying. Then there are the obsessions that Mishima pursued throughout his life that ultimately contributed to his highly orchestrated ritual suicide. The book's denouement provides philosophical insight into such weighty themes as bathos, cathartic release and death. Mishima's Sword is well worth reading if you are in the mood for something totally different, but you'll also learn some things along the way as well, including becoming a expert in Samurai swords, which may well come in handy one day...

Monday, 18 March 2019

Little - Edward Carey (2018)

Rating: Admirable

Little is a novel about how a woman born Anna Maria Grosholtz came to be the world renowned Madame Tussaud. The novel traces Grosholtz's life from childhood through to her time in Paris leading up to and including the period in which the French Revolution occurred (1789 - 1799). Little is a peculiar, fascinating and mostly enjoyable novel which exudes Gothic charm. Like most historical fiction there are aspects of the narrative that are present in order to provide a compelling plot, rather than reflect what is definitely known. Either way Tussaud was an intriguing character and Carey succeeds in creating an authentic first person voice for her character. The other main protagonists are impressive too, such as the crepuscular like Philippe Curtius, who taught Tussaud the eccentric art of wax modeling.

There is much to like about Little, including Carey's idiosyncratic illustrations that fill the book with visual cues and sometimes macabre imagery. Carey is a skilled writer with a unique style, however I did end up becoming impatient with the narrative and at times just plain sick of reading it. Little was a book club selection and I often take into consideration the state of my enthusiasm for a novel I would not normally choose to read as I near its last third. If it really holds my attention till the end I tend to rate it higher, therefore whilst I'm sure many readers would justifiably consider Little an excellent read, I'm giving it my equivalent of a three star rating. It could just be that, like many contemporary novels, Little is just simply a bit too long, but don't let that put you off, as the novel is well worth your attention if you are an adventurous reader.