City of Arches by Vivian Child

A slightly odd one, this, or at least slightly unexpected. I keep various lists of possible books for the Read The World challenge, and City of Arches was on one of them as a book from St Vincent and the Grenadines. But while I must have known what sort of book it was when I made a note of the title, by the time I ordered it I was under the impression it was a childhood memoir. Perhaps because of the subtitle, Memories of an Island Capital.

In fact it’s more like one of those local history books written by enthusiastic amateur historians. It’s based on a collection of newspaper articles about notable local buildings and their history. So I now know a lot more about the typical architecture of St Vincent: arched arcades and hooded sash windows are the most notable features, but also balconies and decorative fretwork and so on.

If it was only about architecture it might be pretty hard going, but there’s enough of the history and human interest stuff to make it an enjoyable read — especially since it’s only 150 pages of large type with lots of illustrations. A typical entry is something like this:

This attractive house was built around 1926 in typical Kingstown style by Mrs. Jennings (née Rosalind Constantine) from Calliaqua, while her husband was absent, working with the railways in Nigeria.

The builber was Jim Campbell. At that time it stood on its own extensive grounds with fruit trees, and pastures with cattle, sheep and fowl. The only house nearby was the estate house on top of the little hill where Mr John Hazell lived for many years.

The house is of plastered stone construction, although the upper storey has has a wooden gallery partly closed in on the front an supported by arches below. The inside wall of the gallery is painted a beautiful shade of blue.

Enclosed on two sides by the upstairs gallery the spacious living room walls are decorated with a hand painted, coloured design of blurred crossing diagonals, and old and unusual feature. Note the practical and graceful outside stone staircase, a feature often seen in the older suburban and rural homes.

Mr Jennings retired in 1932 and the couple lived out their lives in this comfortable home, disturbed only when rioters in the 1930s hid the goods they had stolen from the stores of Kingstown among the bushes near their home.

The house is now the residence of Mrs. Carol Saunders, Mrs. Jennings foster child. Her husband, Mr James Saunders was a clerk in a business and they had three sons.

It’s a rather wonderful mixture of architectural description, completely mundane biography and just a few intriguing details that hint at the real emotional lives of the inhabitants: a husband away in Nigeria, rioters, a foster child. Since I have no connection to St Vincent and no particular interest in its architectural heritage, I found myself reading it like some kind of austere modernist novel: lots of fragmentary narratives that never quite resolve into anything more than the sum of its parts.

» The photo of Back Street West is © Karl Eklund. It’s not the most flattering picture you’ll ever see of St. Vincent, but it does demonstrate the colonial style of architecture with arched arcades and hooded sash windows.

Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano

Gomorrah: Italy’s Other Mafia is a journalistic account of organised crime in Naples; the title is a pun on Camorra, the name of the Neapolitan mafia. It’s an eye-opening, depressing book. The prose is occasionally a little purple for my taste, which I suspect is partly the translation. And I feel a bit petty criticising the prose style since Saviano risked his life to write it; he now lives under 24 hour police protection. I can only hope his bravery does some good, although the book makes the problem seem intractable.

I realised it would feature unpleasant people doing unpleasant things — I’m not a complete idiot, I saw Goodfellas — but I thought that the movies might tend to exaggerate it, since violence is so cinematic. But actually the brutality is genuinely shocking: there are page after page of murders and beatings.

As a young doctor in the 1980s my father had worked on an ambulance crew. Four hundred deaths a year. In areas with up to five murders a day. They’d pull up in the ambulance, the wounded on the ground, but if the police hadn’t arrived, they couldn’t load him onto the stretcher. Because if word got around, the killers would come back and track down the ambulance, stop it, climb in, and finish off the job. It had happened lots of times, so the doctors and nurses knew to stand by, to wait till the killers came back to complete the operation.

Also shocking is the sheer scale of their involvement not just in clearly illegal activities like drugs, people trafficking and gun running, but in superficially legitimate businesses: fashion, construction, waste disposal. I guess it makes sense; a willingness to ignore the law can be a great competitive advantage. It’s easier to make money from imported consumer goods if you don’t pay any import duties or taxes; from clothing if it’s made in an illegal sweatshop; from waste disposal if you don’t even try to dispose of toxic waste safely.

The Casalesi have distributed their good throughout the region. Just the real estate assets seized by the Naples DDA in the last few years amount to 750 million euros. The lists are frightening. In the Spartacus trial alone, 199 buildings, 52 pieces of property, 14 companies, 12 automobiles, and 3 boats were confiscated. Over the years, according to a 1996 trial, Schiavone and his trusted men have seen the seizure of assets worth 230 million euros: companies, villas, lands, buildings, and powerful automobiles, including the Jaguar in which Sandokan was found at the time of his first arrest. Confiscations that would have destroyed any company, losses that would have ruined any businessman, economic blows that would have capsized any firm. Anyone but the Casalesi cartel. Every time I read about the seizure of property, every time I see the lists of assets the DDA has confiscated from the bosses, I feel depressed and exhausted; everywhere I turn, everything sems to be theirs. Everything. Land, buffalos, farms, quarries, garages, dairies, hotels, and restaurants. A sort of Camorra omnipotence. I can’t see anything that doesn’t belong to them.

The details of life at street level, and the mechanics of things like the waste disposal trade, are the most interesting parts of it; some of the stuff where he is detailing the feuds between different groups is less gripping, just because it’s difficult trying to keep track of all the different names and the list of murders gets depressingly repetitive. But overall it is fascinating stuff and I certainly recommend it.

» Naples – Roberto Saviano, GOMORRA is © Chiara Marra.

The image is of Saviano’s face on a wall in Naples. According to Google Translate, ‘Ascolta il Richiamo’ means something like ‘heed the call’.

The Culture of Lies by Dubravka Ugrešić

The Culture of Lies by Dubravka Ugrešić is a book of essays written between 1991 and 1996 — that is, during and just after the wars that resulted from the collapse of Yugoslavia.* It is my book from Croatia for the Read The World challenge, although there is a slight awkwardness to that choice. This is from the ‘Glossary’ which Ugrešić includes at the back of the book:

Identity:

A few years ago my homeland was confiscated, and, along with it my passport. In exchange I was given a new homeland, far smaller and less comfortable. They handed me a passport, a ‘symbol’ of my new identity. Thousands of people paid for those new ‘identity symbols’ with their lives, thousands were driven out of their homes, scattered, humiliated, deprived of their rights, imprisoned and impoverished. I possess very expensive identity documents. the fact often fills me with horror. And shame.

croatpassport

My passport has not made me a Croat. On the contrary, I am far less that today than I was before.

I am no one. And everyone. In Croatia I shall be a Serb, in Serbia a Croat, in Bulgaria a Turk, in Turkey a Greek, in Greece a Macedonian, in Macedonia a Bulgarian… Being an ethnic ‘bastard’ or ‘schizophrenic’ is my natural choice, I even consider it a sign of mental and moral health. And I know that I am not alone. Violent, stubborn insitence on national identities has provoked a response: today many young citizens of former Yugoslavia, particularly those scattered throughout the world, stubbornly refuse any ethnic labels.

So, although Ugrešić was born in what is now Croatia, and so her book counts for my purposes as a book from Croatia, I should be careful not to label her as a ‘Croat writer’. But then it was never the intention for this challenge that the books and writers chosen should be taken as representative of those countries — or not in a straightforward way. In the context of this challenge, that dynamic between books and countries is quite interesting, but I think it needs a post of its own.

The essays are fascinating. They communicate a sense of an overwhelming cultural trauma, not just because of the war itself but because of the whiplash speed of the changes as all the ex-Yugoslavs created new identities for themselves. Streets were renamed, history rewritten, the literary canon divvied up.

And it wasn’t simply an assertion of a new positive identity for, for example, Croatia, it was necessarily a rejection not just of Serbia and Bosnia but of Yugoslavia. So the country where all of them had lived their whole lives, and which had been an imperfect but functional state for over 80 years, became a ‘prison of nations’, and anyone who questioned this was suffering from the dangerously subversive ‘Yugo-nostalgia’.

This is from the title essay:

I know of a writer colleague who claimed to a foreign journalist that he was ‘the victim of repression’ under Yugo-communism, that his books were banned, and that he had been in prison. That colleague was never in prison nor was he ‘the victim of repression’ and all his books were regularly published. I do not believe that he was lying. Exposed to media brainwashing, terror by forgetting and collective compulsion, my colleague had simply forgotten his personal history, he carried out an unconscious mental touching-up, and in the general context the spoken lie became an acceptable truth. And after all, the foreign journalist had come to hear just such a story, in his Westerner’s head he already carried such a stereotype: the story of a repressed writer in the former communist regime and a happy end in the new, democratic one.

I know of a Zagreb Japanologist who terrorised the whole Yugoslav cultural scene for years with — Japan! Throughout the whole of former Yugoslavia there sprang up haiku circles, haiku poets, ikebana courses, anthologies of Japanese poetry, twinnings between Osaka and Varaždin, festivals of Yugoslav haiku poets. Thanks to the activity of the aforementioned Japanologist, the inflation of haiku poetry during ‘totalitarianism’ had given us all a ‘pain in the neck’. Today the famous Japanologist claims that under the ‘Tito regime’ he was exposed to repression because of … haiku poetry!

We have always been at war with Eastasia.

The essays approach this central subject from various directions — the metaphor of cleanness and cleansing, the relationship between eastern and western Europe, the kitschiness of nationalist aesthetics, pop music — and they are all well-written, thought provoking and rather quotable. But instead of typing out long extracts I’ll just suggest you read it yourself.

Oddly enough, while reading it my mind kept wandering to the possibility of Scottish independence (which, for those who don’t know, is likely to be subject to a referendum sometime soon). In some ways it’s a ridiculous comparison; however the referendum turns out, I’m quite sure it won’t result in civil war and genocide. But there’s something depressing about the idea that after 300 years of the Scots and English managing to live together,† not always harmoniously but not disastrously either, we should have reached a point where we can’t bear to share a national border. And the shift from an intentionally inclusive (if ill-defined) identity like British to narrower, more exclusive, more ethnically specific identities like English or Scottish seems more likely to make us, if anything, more inward-looking and more parochial. But hopefully I’m wrong.

*or at least the first, main phase of those wars; there was the whole Kosovo thing after that.

†yes, I know, the Welsh and [northern] Irish live here too. But somehow I don’t think there are many Scots lobbying for independence because they want to get rid of the Welsh.

The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

Full title: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. I don’t need any persuading about the fact of evolution, but Dawkins is always worth reading on the subject. And Amazon had it at 50% off, so as much as I dislike hardbacks I thought I’d give it a go.

Since I’ve read so many books on evolution, not least the half dozen by Dawkins, what I’m really looking for in a book like this is interesting new examples I haven’t encountered before, and there are certainly some of those, like the wingless fly that lives in termite mounds; generally, though, a lot of it is fairly familiar: Tiktaalik, the evolution of the whale, the guppy experiment, Lenski’s E. coli, eyeless cave-dwelling animals and so on. There are good reasons why these examples are popular, of course, and if you don’t read as much about evolution as I do, they may well be unfamiliar to you. It’s certainly a different repertoire than it would have been ten or fifteen years ago. And Dawkins writes engagingly and clearly, even in the chapter about embryology, a subject I usually find a complete head-fuck. So I certainly enjoyed reading it.

The review in New Scientist complains about his occasional side-swipes at religion. The book doesn’t actually talk about religion as often as that review might suggest, but when it does touch on it, it’s about as unflattering as you would expect. It’s easy to understand why creationism is such a red rag to a biologist: his analogy is of a teacher of Latin and Roman history who is constantly confronted by people who insist that the Roman Empire never happened and that the myth of ‘Rome’ is a conspiracy. His abrasive manner when he talks about religion doesn’t bother me, although I can see there’s an argument that it is bad tactics in the battle for hearts and minds.

At least in this book he confines his comments to creationism rather than religion more generally; and I for one am not going to tell him he should be respectful towards young Earth creationism. Because 40% of the US population (and 22% of the UK) believe the world is less than 10,000 years old, when you are rude about creationists, you are being rude about an awful lot of people, and I’m sure they are largely nice, well-meaning and valuable members of society; but come on! Believing that the world is less than 10,000 years old is like believing that the Earth is flat, or that leprechauns bury pots of gold at the ends of rainbows. Or indeed that if you dilute poison over and over again until it is just water, it magically gains healing powers. These ideas are worthy of mockery.

So, I enjoyed it; I’d rather read Dawkins on evolution than Dawkins on religion any day of the week, mainly because evolution is a much more interesting subject. I’m not sure it’s an instant classic, but it’s well worth reading.

» The photo is © Troy Li and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Across Arctic America by Knud Rasmussen

Across Arctic America: Narrative of the Fifth Thule Expedition is Rasmussen’s account of his 1921 expedition from Greenland to Siberia by dog sled. Or to be exact, his 1921-24 expedition, because this was an epic three year trip. They went a long way — 20,000 miles — but they certainly could have done it faster if it was one of those expeditions done for their own sake. Rather, this was a scholarly expedition; for the first year there were a large group of specialists in different disciplines based in Eastern Canada. Then Rasmussen set off with just two companions, Greenland Eskimos* called Miteq and Anarulunguaq, to continue his anthrolopogical investigations across the whole continent.

puppies

I went to quite a lot of trouble to get this book, but when I received it my heart sank a bit, because it’s fucking huge, the kind of book you could club seals with. I imagined I would be trawling through dry, old-fashioned prose for weeks. Actually it’s an anti-Tardis book, smaller on the inside; it’s a reprint edition, and they’ve obviously enlarged the original print considerably and then surrounded it with lots of white space. It makes for quite a short 400 pages. And the narrative romps along at a very respectable pace; the scientific report of the Fifth Thule Expedition filled ten volumes (not all written by Rasmussen), and his popular account of the trip in Danish was two volumes, which he edited down considerably in translating it into a one-volume English version. So it’s not carrying any excess weight.

Rasmussen’s interest was in comparing the Eskimo cultures from his native Greenland and the various Eskimo groups of North America. I didn’t realise that there was such a cultural continuity across the whole region; Rasmussen’s first language was Greenlandic and he was able to talk with Eskimos all the way across Canada, until finally in one part of Alaska he found some with a dialect sufficiently different from his own that he required an interpreter.

Every wizard has a belt, which often plays a great part in his invocations of the spirits. I was fortunate enough to acquire one of these belts from a woman who was herself a witch doctor, named Kinalik. It consisted of an ordinary strap of hide on which were hung or strung the following items: a splinter from the stock of a gun worn in recognition of the fact that her initiation had taken place by means of visions of death; a piece of sinew thread, which had formerly been used to fasten tent poles with, and had on some occasion or other been used for a magic demonstration; a piece of ribbon from a packet of tobacco; a piece of an old cap formerly beginning to her brother — the brother was now dead, and was one of her helping spirits — a piece of white caribou skin, some plaited withies, a model of a canoe, a caribou’s tooth, a mitten and a scrap of sealskin. All these things possessed magnetic power, by virtue of their being given to her by persons who wished her well. Any gift conveys strength. It need not be great or costly in itself; the intrinsic value of the object is nothing, it is the thought which goes with it that gives strength.

Kinalik was still quite a young woman, very intelligent, kind-hearted, clean and good-looking, and spoke frankly, without reserve. Igjugarjuk was her brother-in-law, and had himself been her instructor in magic. Her own initiation had been severe; she was hung up to some tent poles planted in the snow and left there for five days. It was midwinter, with intense cold and frequent blizzards, but she did not feel the cold, for the spirit protected her. When the five days were at an end, she was taken down and carried into the house, and Igjugarjuk was invited to shoot her, in order that she might attain to intimacy with the supernatural by visions of death. The gun was to be loaded with real powder, but a stone was to be used instead of the leaden bullet, in order that she might still retain connection with earth. Igjugarjuk, in the presence of the assembled villagers, fired the shot, and Kinalik fell to the ground unconscious. On the following morning, just as Igjugarjuk was abou to bring her to life again, she awakened from the swoon unaided. Igjugarjuk asserted that he had shot her through the heart, and that the stone had afterwards been removed and was in the possession of her old mother.

The emphasis of the book is very much on the anthropology; there’s relatively little of the Boys’ Own adventure stuff about what it’s like to travel by dog sled across the Arctic — it’s there, but it’s not the point. He spends far more time talking about his interactions with the locals, relaying songs, folk stories and religious beliefs, talking about hunting techniques, building methods and clothing. All of which I found fascinating. He is keenly observant and clearly has a sympathy with the Eskimo. On the other hand, it’s amazing how much more careful we have become about the language we use in the past hundred years; Rasmussen is about as well-informed, sympathetic and enthusiastic an observer as any people could want, and yet by modern standards there are times when his phrasing comes across as mildly patronising and paternalistic.  I don’t say that as a criticism of him, and I don’t imagine that a modern observer would necessarily be any less patronising in their real attitudes; I just think a modern writer would be very self-conscious about that risk and would bend over backwards to avoid any hint of it.

blizzard

If all this anthropological stuff sounds a bit dry, well, I guess if it’s really not the kind of thing that interests you it might be. But Rasmussen writes well and has a sense of humour, as with this exchange, after he has been told a fable about the Fox and the Wolf:

This seemed an odd sort of ending, and I said as much. “What is it supposed to mean exactly?” I asked.

“H’m, well,” answered Netsit, “we don’t really trouble ourselves so much about the meaning of  story, as long as it is amusing. It is only the white men who must always have reasons and meanings in everything. And that is why our elders always say we should treat white men as children who always want their own way. If they don’t get it, they make no end of a fuss.”

I left it at that.

Across Arctic America is my book from Greenland for the Read The World challenge. I found it absolutely fascinating; it offers a glimpse of a people living in quite extraordinarily harsh conditions at a time when many of them were largely untouched by the modern world.

*Yes, I know, ‘Eskimo’ is no longer the preferred term, but it is the term used by Rasmussen. I considered using Inuit instead, but I for all I know there is some further nuance and I would still end up getting it wrong… so I thought I’d stick to being consistent with the book. No offence is intended.

» The images, ‘Eskimo Puppies‘ and ‘Approaching Blizzard‘, are from a set of cigarette cards called ‘Sights of the Arctic’ which I found in the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Echoes from the Dead Zone by Yiannis Papadakis

Yiannis Papadakis is a Greek Cypriot anthropologist, and Echoes from the Dead Zone is based on his fieldwork in Turkey and on both sides of the Green Line in Cyprus. he investigates the different attitudes of people on each side of the conflict, and in the process has to confront all his own prejudices from growing up on the Greek side.

Papadakis only managed to spend a month in the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and was accompanied by government minders the whole time, although as well as that he spent a few months in Turkey itself and a year in the village of Pyla/Pile which is within the UN-controlled ‘Dead Zone’.

cyprus

I came to it vaguely expecting it to be a basically two-sided conflict, Greeks vs. Turks, but of course it’s much messier than that; there are tensions between the Greek Cypriots and Greeks from Greece, and between Turkish Cypriots and Turks from Turkey. There are tensions on both sides of the divide between those who see themselves as Cypriot first and Greek or Turkish second, and those who look to the motherland, who see themselves as Greeks or Turks who happen to live in Cyprus.

And the different groups have quite different views of history; not just the relevant modern history, the half-century or so that takes in Cyprus winning independence from the British, the Turkish invasion and so on, but also the longer history of classical Greece and Byzantium and the Ottoman empire.

I think it’s probably inevitable, as a British reader, that it reminded me above all of Northern Ireland; but I guess all these local religio-culturo-ethnic conflicts are fundamentally rather similar: deeply intractable and ultimately pointless.

Weather forecasts in Cyprus did not just tell the weather, I now noted. They expressed positions on the Cyprus Problem. ‘The Flag’, the Turkish Cypriot TV channel, broadcast a daily news bulletin in Greek for the enlightenment of Greek Cypriots. During the weather forecast, they gave temperatures only in towns in the north, where no Greek Cypriots lived. The towns were called by their Turkish names. On the Greek Cypriot side, RIK, the state TV station, used a map of Cyprus without a dividing line, but only mentioned the temperatures in the south. other Greek Cypriot channels, right-wing private ones, regarded this as unpatriotic. they also showed temperatures in the north to make the point that those areas too belonged to Greek Cypriots.

Maps in Cyprus, as elsewhere, were a political instrument. I remembered the map of Greece — not of Cyprus — at school. In order for Cyprus to appear in the map of Greece, it was cut and placed in a box next to Crete. I only became aware of this when I first saw Turkish Cypriot maps. No need to cut and paste to include Cyprus in the map of Turkey. Greek Cypriot maps showing Cyprus in the world at large always extended westwards, positioning Cyprus in a European context. The never showed Cyprus in the Middle East or Africa. The problem with the ‘Cyprus in Europe’ maps was that bits of Africa, the Middle East, and — sadly — Turkey were visible. One such map by the Greek Cypriot Public Information Office presented such undesirable bits as blank. The biggest challenge was to make a map of Cyprus that included Greece but not Turkey. The map shown as background during the news on The Word, the Church channel, managed best, with Turkey obscured by mist, as if weather conditions had rendered it invisible.

Echoes from the Dead Zone is my book from Cyprus for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo, crossing the “green line”, is © danceinthesky and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

Your Inner Fish is a book which uses comparisons between human anatomy and the anatomy of other animals, living or extinct, to show how evolution helps explain the way we are and the way our bodies develop. Shubin is the palaeontologist who discovered Tiktaalik, one of the key fossils in understanding the fish/tetrapod transition, so that features somewhat, but he also draws on a wide range of examples from other species. tiktaalik

So for example, he traces the evolution of fin into hand over evolutionary history, but also examines how the growing embryo creates a hand (or a fin) from a blob of undifferentiated cells. He uses the evolutionary relationship between the structure of the human head and the gill arches of a shark to explain why the nerves of the head have such a peculiar relationship, how hiccuping is related to our amphibian ancestry, and so on.

Most of this material is rather technical and many of the examples were somewhat familiar to me, so the book could easily have been either impenetrable or just dull. In fact I found it worked very well; even when I had encountered some of the examples before, having them all put together into one book was very helpful. I really did feel after reading it that I was more in touch with my inner fish (and inner wormy thing, for that matter).

And it’s well written, as well. There was a rather clumsy bit in one the first chapter where he attempts to explain cladistics via a visit to the zoo, which had me worried that the book was going to be aimed at eleven-year-olds, but fortunately it turned out to be a blip. Generally the book seems well-pitched for intelligent adults who are curious about biology.

How Life Imitates Chess by Garry Kasparov

I wouldn’t normally rush to read a chess-themed self-help book, which is more or less what How Life Imitates Chess is. But, you know, it’s Garry Kasparov! The Beast of Baku!

Kasparov seems to have impressed himself on my imagination surprisingly powerfully, considering I’m not much of a chess player. Although I’ve never taken chess seriously, there was a time when I played quite a lot. At school there were a limited number of places to go at lunchtime when the weather was bad; I used to go to the chess room. Even at the peak of my chess-playing powers, I was pretty rubbish, but there wasn’t a great depth of talent at the school, so when they were short of people I would be drafted in to play board eight for the chess team. As far as I can recall, the chess team didn’t win single match in my time at the school, so it wasn’t much of an achievement.

kasparov

At that time Kasparov was the towering figure in chess, and however casual my own chess was, it was hard not to be aware of him. He was the last of the great Soviet chess champions, with all the Cold War mystique that came with that, and he looked the part with the incredible intensity of his gaze and his heavy eyebrows. On top of that there were the matches against a sequence of IBM supercomputers which seemed like such a symbolic moment in the dawning computer age.

And there was the world championship match against the English player Nigel Short, at least some which was broadcast live on Channel 4, hosted by Carol Vorderman of all people. Sadly none of it seems to have made it to YouTube, because I’d be fascinated to see what it looked like. I remember they had a phone vote for the public to suggest the next move, at which point a couple of Grandmasters would explain why the public was an idiot.

So when I was looking for books from the former Soviet republics for the Read The World challenge, it occurred to me that Kasparov might have written an autobiography which I could read as my book for Azerbaijan. Instead I found How Life Imitates Chess, which uses examples from Kasparov’s chess career as well as business and history to illustrate points about, for example, the value of preparation, and analysing your own weaknesses.

As long as he’s talking about chess, I found it really interesting. The psychology of chess, the different approaches different players take, the preparation that goes into a big match at the top level; when he’s talking about chess, he’s engaging and insightful. The self-help aspect I found less convincing.

Partially I suspect that’s because, despite the long history of chess metaphors, chess isn’t actually a very good model for many other human activities. It’s a completely zero-sum game; for one player to win, the other has to lose. Each chess game starts in exactly the same way, with both players having exactly equal resources and position save only the advantage of playing white. There is no unknown information and no element of chance. It is exceptionally well-suited to rigorous analysis, with information about past performances available with an accuracy that makes baseball statistics look vague and wishy-washy.

These qualities are what make it such a fascinating game, but they are also ways in which it is quite unlike, say, running a business. And businessmen are pretty clearly the intended market; it’s aimed at MBA types who want a change from Sun Tzu. That’s made explicit by the subtitle of the US edition (How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves, from the Board to the Boardroom) but not, interestingly enough, the UK edition (How Life Imitates Chess: Insights into life as a game of strategy).

I also think his heart isn’t really in it. His examples from business and history are very obvious ones and he doesn’t make much attempt to develop them in any detail; his conclusions are plausible enough but often a bit superficial. I don’t think this book was born out of a deep desire to teach people ‘lessons about mastering the strategic and emotional skills to navigate life’s toughest challenges and maximise success no matter how tough the competition’, as the blurb puts it. It was written to make money from Kasparov’s reputation. I gather from the book that he has been working the circuit giving talks to businessmen and the book was presumably born out of that. It feels like it is fundamentally a sideline for him compared to his real passions of writing about chess and campaigning in Russian politics.

But, still, I thought it was well worth reading for the chess bits, which he manages to make interesting and informative while requiring no real chess knowledge in the reader. I would have preferred a straight autobiography, but I still enjoyed the book. I was irritated to realise after I bought it that it was ‘written with Mig Greengard’, because it makes it unclear how much of what you’re getting is Kasparov and how much is the ghostwriter, but I will still be counting it as my book from Azerbaijan for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo is from Life magazine, as hosted by Google.

An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie

An African in Greenland is an autobiographical book; as a teenager in Togo, Tété-Michel Kpomassie read a book about Greenland and decided to go there. It took him eight years, working a variety of jobs, to make his way up through West Africa and Europe before eventually arranging a trip to Greenland, where he stayed for about two years (in, if I’ve got my sums right, 1965).

The book’s title implies that there is some kind of different perspective that Kpomassie is going to bring because he’s African, and I have to admit that it was part of the appeal for me when I bought the book. It’s such an immediately striking juxtaposition, this young man from Togo living among the Inuit and eating seal blubber: just the title is like a pitch for a cheesy Hollywood comedy.

In fact, it’s not obvious that his Africanness makes that much difference to the book, after the first couple of chapters that take place in Africa, and in retrospect it’s hard to say what I was expecting, really. There are a couple of occasions where he compares local beliefs (about the travels of the human soul in dreams, for example) with those he grew up with; and his Africanness does make him an instant celebrity in Greenland: the first black person most of them had seen, and several inches taller than most of the locals.

It is, though, an interesting and enjoyable book about Greenland: ice-fishing and dog-sledding and eating of revolting-sounding bits of raw viscera and lumps of animal fat. Whale lung! Boiled sea gull! Yummy. And as with Halldór Laxness in Iceland, endless cups of coffee.

Although actually, I think it’s to his credit that he clearly made a point of eating everything that was put in front of him, and doesn’t spend a lot of time in the book dwelling on the off-putting nature of the food. Perhaps it’s nicer than it sounds; perhaps he just wanted to downplay the potential freak-show aspect of this kind of travel book. He has a fairly clear-eyed view of the harshness of life for many of the people he meets and the social problems he encounters, but he doesn’t dwell on it excessively. Perhaps even more surprising for someone who had travelled for eight years to get there to fulfil a childhood dream, he doesn’t romanticise the country either: not too much of the noble savage stuff.

Here’s a longish passage about life during the time of the midnight sun, with 24 hour daylight:

The oddest thing was that we couldn’t get to sleep any more. To fill in the time I stayed at the school, where I took notes, sometimes until three in the morning. Kield Pedersen, the Danish headmaster, kindly gave me access to the Medelelser of his establishment — many bulky volumes which contained the findings of every piece of research done in Greenland since the days of Hans Egede.

Outside, small orange or red tents sprang up, erected by children whom the endless daylight kept from sleeping. At three in the morning you could still see them playing outside. Sometimes they went on like this for two whole days without going to bed. Eventually they dropped with fatigue, and then might sleep for two days at a stretch. It was the teachers, not the parents, who complained, because most of the time their classes were half empty.

Sleep eluded the adults, too. Everyone was restless. They had hardly set foot indoors before they were longing to go out again, to tramp on and on, to run from hill to hill. They rambled around incessantly, in search of who knows what. All through the spring they’d go wandering like this, building cooking fires in the mountains with three stones for an oven, gathering parnet berries, resting no matter where when tiredness overtook them. both with humans and animals, spring here was the season of tireless frenzies of love. Groups of boys and girls ran laughing and shouting until early morning, and there was the noise of rutting huskies fighting, the deep growls of the males mingling with the bitches’ piercing yelps. The birds sang and the eiders quacked in the creeks.

The landscape seemed excluded from this general harmony, and it changed from day to day. All the filth of Christianshåb was suddenly exposed by the sun’s return and the thaw. Snow melted n the slopes, the street became a river of mud, and innumerable streams riddled the ash-grey earth and brought to light piles of of old bottles and cans, dog shit, household waste, and rotten potatoes. All the garbage which cold and snow had preserved — now swollen with melted water, rotting fast and buzzing with clouds of flies, real flies, come out to haunt us like a bad conscience. Outside the doors and under the foundations, the houses were repulsively filthy. the borrowed coat of spotless white had covered so much offal! A sickening stench hung everywhere. the dogs, some of them now moulting, slunk squalidly about the village. You really wondered whether you were still living in the same land that had once been so clean and white.

An African in Greenland is my book from Togo for the Read The World challenge. Oh, I nearly forgot: it was translated from the French by James Kirkup.

» The photo, Oqaatsut/Rodebay, Greenland, is © kaet44 and used under a CC attribution licence. Rodebay is one of the villages where Kpomassie spent a winter in Greenland.

Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land by Tim Mackintosh-Smith

I was originally considering Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land* as my book from Yemen for the Read The World challenge, but I’ve tracked down a novel by an actual Yemeni writer which is available in English⁑, so I’ll read that at some stage. I still wanted to read Travels in Dictionary Land, though, because I very much enjoyed Mackintosh-Smith’s two books† following in the footsteps of the medieval Arab traveller Ibn Battutah.

Sana'a old city, Yemen

I’m not quite sure how long Mackintosh-Smith had lived in Yemen when this book was published 10 years ago, but he still lives there; he is clearly deeply engaged with Arab culture, history and language generally and Yemen in particular — in fact, living in San’a and chewing qat, I think in the terminology of the Empire they would have said he has gone native — and the book mixes what you might call straight travel writing with historical context and snippets of literature and mythology.

I think it’s easiest to just quote a couple of passages.

Very occasionally they [scorpions] are found in bunches of qat. Once, a baby one walked out of my bundle and across my lap, and disappeared among the leavings in the the middle of the room. I have never seen qat-chewers move faster. Another creature that sometimes pops up in qat is the fukhakh, the hisser — the Yemeni name for the chameleon. Its blood taken externally is a cure for baldness, but its breath makes your teeth fall out.. The gecko too is often killed, as it eats the remains of food from around your mouth as you sleep, pisses and gives you spots. Despite this I have been attached to several that have grown up in my house as they are clever flycatchers and converse, like the Hottentots, in clicks.

Or, in a bar in Aden:

Then the band broke into a sort of Egyptian glam-rock number and, unexpectedly, the floor filled with young men dressed in Paisley pattern shirts and pleated trousers. The number of pleats seemed to reflect their prowess at dancing. One particularly energetic youth — a twenty-pleater — shone out: his pelvis was articulated in extraordinary places, and spurts of sweat shot from his forehead. These were the mutamaykalin, the Michaelesques — the fans of Michael Jackson.

So, generally speaking, enjoyable stuff. Some of the political/history passages are less gripping than the travel anecdotes, but at least I now know a lot more about Yemen.

* sold under the title Yemen: The Unknown Arabia in the US.
The Hostage, by Zayd Mutee‘ Dammaj.
Travels with a Tangerine and The Hall of a Thousand Columns.

» The photo of Sana’a old town in Yemen is © eesti and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Dry Store Room No. 1 by Richard Fortey

Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum is about the behind-the-scenes work at the Natural History Museum in London. Whether you find that an appealing subject for a book depends, I suppose, on your feelings about museums and/or natural history; personally I found it irresistible.

The public face of the museum — animatronic dinosaurs and overexcited schoolchildren — gives relatively little sense of the scientific work that goes on behind the scenes, all of which is centred on the museum’s collection of biological specimens: pressed plants, trays of pinned beetles, drawers full of bird skins or fossils, jars of starfish in alcohol. The sheer scale of these collections is hard to comprehend: the museum holds over 70 million specimens. That means every person in the UK could be given one to take home and they’d still have enough left over for everyone in Sweden. 28 million of them are insects.

The collections haven’t been accumulated simply through an excess of acquisitiveness, although there must be some connection between the satisfaction biologists get from collecting beetles and other people’s collections of stamps, obscure soul 45s or golf memorabilia. The point of the collection is that it is a vast reference library: if you find an earwig in Burma and you’re not sure whether it’s a new species, you can start by checking the literature; but if all else fails, the last resort is to go to a museum, open up the drawers full of earwigs, and start peering at them through a microscope.

This kind of taxonomical work — preparing specimens, describing species, working out their relationships, publishing highly technical articles about it — might seem to be complete drudgery to an outsider; it is slow, careful, precise, unglamorous. But it obviously has a hold on people, because the book is full of people who spend decades working on some particular group of organisms, retire, and then keep coming in to the museum to continue their work in retirement. Fortey himself is apparently one of them, retired in 2006 but still working away at his trilobites.

The books combines a history of the museum, examples of the work done there, anecdotes about characters on the staff (not surprisingly, perhaps, there have been a few notable eccentrics) and a passionate defence of taxonomy as a valuable field of study. It’s well-written, entertaining, pitched at the interested amateur, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

» The pictures, from the Bombus pages at the NHM website, are of male bumblebee genitalia. This isn’t a highly specialised branch of pornography; it’s a normal way of identifying them (and quite a few other kinds of insects).

Crete by Antony Beevor

The story of the German invasion of Crete during WW2 and, to a lesser extent, the resistance thereafter.

This is really a book of cockups all round; the Germans had already taken the Greek mainland and planned a completely airborne invasion of Crete using paratroops and gliders which was, as it turned out, wildly ambitious, not least because a man floating down on a parachute is an easy target for someone on the ground. Moreover, thanks to Bletchley Park, the Allied commander had access to information derived directly from German radio traffic.

Nonetheless, thanks to bad planning (for example, the Allies had been in the island for many months, but they still didn’t have a robust communications network in place), lack of initiative, and most crucially, the Allied CO’s misunderstanding of the intelligence he was being given, the Germans managed to take Crete, although with enormous losses, and the Brits, Aussies and New Zealanders had to make a scrambled retreat across the island. Helped by the terrifying ferocity of the Cretans, who had several centuries of experience fighting guerrilla wars against the Ottoman Empire, and since becoming part of Greece in 1918, had kept in practice with hunting and blood-feuds.

And of course with the Allies gone, the Germans then had a brutal crack-down on the Cretans. After the invasion the British helped set up a resistance network on the island, and eventually as the tide of the war turned, Crete was won back.

The overriding thing I was left with from the book was Crete once again getting caught up in the violent arguments of big countries that really had nothing to do with them.

The book feels a bit British-centric, but other than that it seemed to give a good account of what happened, and Beevor writes well.

Monkey Girl by Edward Humes

This book is about the Dover, Pennsylvania school board’s decision to put Intelligent Design into the biology curriculum and the ensuing trial that ruled it a breach of the constitutional separation of church and state.

It’s interesting enough, but not particularly special. Perhaps they were keen to get to press quickly and the book is less finished than it could be. Specifically I think it lacks a clear focus or narrative; it spends too much time going over the history of legal conflicts over teaching creationism, and makes that background rather dry. It doesn’t really get any momentum until it gets on to the trial itself in the second half of the book, which is quite well done.

In terms of the balance these kinds of books have to strike between lively reporting and melodrama, I felt too often it was telling me things were dramatic rather than communicating what must have been the real human drama of the situation.

I also didn’t feel I was in the hands of someone who really had a bone-deep understanding of the issues at stake. Humes is clearly on the side of the scientists, although I think he tries to avoid being flamboyantly partisan, and I felt that some of the of the anti-ID arguments were being reproduced in a rather uncritical and undigested form. This is a trivial example of the kind of thing that sets off my alarm bells: Humes is taking Ann Coulter apart (not difficult) and says that in a three sentence, 69 word passage, there are ‘five lies and one ludicrous error’. He says this, about the phrase ‘Liberals’ creation myth is Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution…’:

It is a lie to characterize the modern science of evolution as “Darwin’s theory,” as it now encompasses genetics, DNA analysis, microbiology, embryology, artificial life experiments, and a host of other findings, methods and scientific disciplines that Darwin (and apparently Coulter) never heard of.

It’s true, of course, that biology and the understanding of evolution has moved on a lot since Darwin’s time. Coulter’s phrasing is simplistic and reductive, and may well be calculated to create a misleading impression that the idea of natural selection is outmoded or based on a personality cult. But even so, as a five word description used in brief for the theoretical underpinnings of biology, ‘Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution’ is surely not outrageous. And it certainly isn’t a ‘lie’ in the sense I understand that word.

It’s not like you have to stretch very far to find Coulter talking crap—the next sentence is a doozy—and it doesn’t do his credibilty any good to be imprecise when he attacks her.

I’m about as naturally sympathetic an audience as this book could hope to find, so if I find myself feeling it could usefully be more even-handed, there might be a problem. It’s only nuances, though.

The Tribes of Britain by David Miles

This is the blurb:

“Who are the English, the Irish, the Scots and the Welsh? – a ragbag of migrants, reflecting thousands of years of continuity and change. Now scientific techniques can explore this complex genetic jigsaw: ancient Britons and Saxons, Celts and Romans, Vikings and Normans, and the more recent migrations which have created these multicultural islands.

Drawing on the most recent discoveries, this book both challenges traditional views of history and provides new insight into who we are today.”

The book lacks pretty much everything that blurb might lead me to hope for: extensive analysis of the genetic make-up of the British, a surprising new perspective on British history, new insight into how it makes modern Britain what it is.

It’s a readable and up-to-date history of Britain focussing on population movements and demographics, with lots of quotable and surprising snippets. Who knew, for example, that the ‘fitz’ in names like ‘Fitzroy’ was from the French ‘fils de’? Or that among the black population of the UK, Africans now outnumber people from the West Indies? But if you have a broad understanding of the history of these islands, it’s not going to force you to re-evaluate it. And while I enjoyed many bits of it, this kind of large-scale history doesn’t lend itself to a clear narrative thread, and it was definitely putdownable.

The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner

This book was recommended to me when I was in the Galapagos; I finally got round to reading it and I’m really glad I did. It’s an account of Peter and Rosemary Grant’s long-term study to measure the effects of natural selection on finches in the Galapagos. When this book was published in 1994, the study had been going for twenty years, but it’s still ongoing.

The choice of Galapagos finches isn’t just because of their iconic status in history of evolution; they’re an isolated population, they’re particularly variable, and a few very similar competing species live together in a very simple environment — only a few species of food plant, and almost no other small birds.

Over that period, they and their students have collected a staggering amount of data; detailed measurements of every finch on the island of Daphne Major, and records of who breeds with who, where their territories are, what songs they sing, what they eat, which territories are most productive, how the food supply varies from year to year and so on. That data has enabled them to show not just that tiny variations (in this case, particularly beak size) can have a measurable effect on the survival and breeding prospects of a bird, but that a change to the environment — a very wet year or a drought — can select for different physical characteristics to the extent of having a measurable impact on the average measurements of the population.

In effect, they have showed that you can observe evolution in action and that in the right circumstances it can happen extremely fast.

I really thought this was an excellent book. The detailed account of a single large research study sets it apart from all the other popular accounts of evolution I’ve read. There’s easily enough material to sustain a whole book and Weiner does an excellent job of communicating all the details with enough human interest to keep the book getting bogged down.

  • 1
  • 2
Close Menu