Monday, 9 December 2002

Lotsa books

Listening to:

Brahms, symphony no. 3 in F, op 90.

Just read:

Granta 79: celebrity.

This issue of the literary magazine was an enjoyable one. The photo essay was a series of photos that “ordinary” people had sent in, showing them in the company of someone famous. One was even of someone with a famous horse (not, I hasten to add, that I had ever heard of this horse). I also remember an interesting essay about the position of the monarchy in the UK. The author puts forward the interesting theory that people like going to see the Queen because it gives them a chance to be part of a big crowd and to see that they and the rest of the crowd behave well. The British like to be decorous; like to think that they're capable of civilised behaviour in the mass, so that they can go to line the streets of London and wait quietly for hours before the Queen even arrives. As a republican, I can only mutter that it seems an expensive habit. On the other hand, it is good for people to learn to congregate without starting riots.

Brenda Maddox, Rosalind Franklin: the dark lady of DNA.

This was another biography of a scientific subject. I liked it a lot. Rosalind Franklin played an important rôle in the discovery of the structure of DNA. She took particularly good crystallographic photos, and was, it appears, thinking thoughts of roughly the right sort when Crick and Watson had their own Eureka moment. They were helped to this important idea after obtaining one photo of Franklin's in a slightly underhand way, and this doesn't reflect so well on them. Just as in all science, they were standing on the shoulders of giants, and anyone else who offered what looked like a good perspective could expect to be clambered on. Nonetheless, they did have the idea first, and deserve the credit. Certainly, Franklin doesn't seem to have harboured them any ill-will, and got on particularly well with Crick.

But this biography tells the story of the whole life, and the research into DNA was a relatively small part of Franklin's career. Maddox also describes her childhood and early schooling in plenty of interesting detail. One chapter, about post-graduate work in Cambridge, features an obnoxious chemist called Norrish. (I think he may have gone on to win a Nobel Prize.) This was something of a strange experience; it's an uncommon enough surname that my eye tends to pick it out automatically on a page.

The tragic bit is that Franklin died of cancer in the late 50s, before Crick, Watson and Wilkins got their Nobel Prize for the work on DNA; before the publication of Watson's popular science book, which portrayed Franklin very unsympathetically and very unfairly in the opinion of most; and before she had a chance to do all the research she wanted. She was less than forty, and was definitely cut down in her prime.

The comparison with A beautiful mind is an interesting one. Franklin's subject is more accessible than Nash's, and she didn't have a lot else going on in her life apart from it. This means that there is even more science in this biography, but much less in the way of intimate personal stories. When Franklin took time off, she hosted dinner parties and went walking over European mountains with friends. Nash went bonkers, fathered illegitimate children and got arrested in Californian toilets for obscene behaviour. I didn't mind this difference in focus at all. The science was interesting, and there was lots of personal detail in terms of the inevitable politicking attendant on working with others in any sort of field. It's not so clear that this biography will ever turn into an Oscar-winning film, but I'd recommend it just as highly.

Robertson Davies, The Cornish trilogy.

I don't know if this trilogy's component novels are available separately. I read a fat paperback omnibus of all three, and enjoyed it a great deal. The three novels are definitely separate books, so it's not as if Davies set out to write one big novel, and just happened to split it up into three volumes (as happened with The Lord of the Rings, say). There are definite linkages between all three, but the basic stories in each are self-contained. The first novel is definitely the weakest. It's made unappealing through the presence of a couple of characters who are supposed to be unappealing, but who get far too much air time, right up until the moment when they undergo mutual annihilation. This latter is done extremely stylishly, and is really very funny, in a beautifully shocking way. The other problem with this first novel, is that Davies presents a scientist as a fairly important secondary character, and completely fails to convince me that any scientist could be remotely like this. All three novels are quite philosophical, by which I mean that there are frequent digressions into things like morality and the nature of Art. This can be difficult to do well, but Davies usually does a good job of it, and kept my interest, even if the story wasn't advancing at a great rate of knots.

The second novel surprised me by dropping back to the start of the 20th century to tell the life-story of Francis Cornish, who was dead at the start of the first novel. Where it was hard to see any particular theme in the first, this second is definitely about painting, a subject that Davies writes about very well. (This contrasts with the treatment he metes out to Science in the first novel.) Francis Cornish is a fascinating character, and the other characters, his family, lovers and acquaintances, are also compellingly drawn. I found a lot to savour in this novel, managing to bear the cutesy interjections from a pair of disembodied spirits.

The third novel shifts back to the modern Canada of the first novel, and we rejoin the cast of characters that we met there (less the awful duo that did the mutual annihilation). There are more characters to meet as well, and if painting was the focus before, now we get to look at music, and opera in particular. The new characters are again very good, and the plot is a good vehicle for their continuing interaction, even though nothing particularly dramatic happens.

Davies wrote a number of other novels, and I'm definitely looking forward to reading them too.

To read next:

Walter Moers, The 13½ lives of Captain Blue Bear.

I am now living in Australia. For the moment I'm in Perth, and in January I will be in Canberra. The hiatus in my web-log entries is a result of all the faff of moving a household.

Wednesday, 25 December 2002

Swallows & Amazons, Genome and Harry Potter

Listening to:

The (Thelonius) Monk Quartet, Misterioso. Jazz from New York's Five Spot Café, 1958.

Just read:

Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons.

This is a children's classic, and a very enjoyable read for a reminiscing adult too. It tells the story of a summer holiday from the perspective of four of the six children taking part, the Walkers. John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker are on holiday in England's Lake District, and get parental permission to sail to one of the lake's islands, and camp there. The boat they sail in is called the Swallow. Later on, they meet and quickly befriend Nancy and Peggy, who sail in the Amazon.

Most of the story is about exploring and sailing adventures, but there are also run-ins of various sorts with natives (also known as grown-ups). The natives range from charcoal burners on the mainland, to parents, to the hostile seeming “retired pirate” who lurks on his own house-boat. It's all told very well, and each of the four Walker children is an individual in their own right, with their own view of the world.

Matt Ridley, Genome.

This is a clear and informative popular science book about genetics. It's divided into 23 chapters, one for each human chromosome, and Ridley takes a gene or more from each chromosome as a starting point for the discussion in each chapter. He covers a lot of ground, and explains things pretty well. There is probably about the right amount of technical detail. There isn't always much to link one essay to the next, so the reader gets a survey, or a sampling, of the field, rather than a structured course of instruction. This makes the reading all the easier. Ridley discusses blood groups, RNA and DNA, the X and Y chromosomes, genetically transmitted diseases, prions (unique it seems because they don't rely on DNA or RNA to reproduce), the possibility that there may be genes determining sexuality, and even free will (in the context of a typical nature vs nurture discussion).

The only criticism I'd have of the book is that Ridley occasionally makes it all too obvious that he writes for the UK's Daily Telegraph newspaper. For example, he wonders at the decentralised marvel that is the development of the human embryo (or is it the immune system?), and then suggests that perhaps humans should try this in their societies too. He has a good go at left-wing political ideas on a number of occasions, and is happy to repeat someone's claim that the eugenics scare of the 1930s (when prominent scientists all over the world endorsed eugenicist claims that human populations were doomed to fall into wrack and ruin because of swamping from inferior stock), is just like the global warming scare of the present. (I'd disagree: even if you dismiss the proposed causes, and the proposed cures, there is loads of real data making it clear that the world is getting warmer. The eugenicists never had data, or facts in the same way. Theirs was the science of bald assertion.)

These are just occasional glitches in what is otherwise a very good read.

A recent movie:

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

I enjoyed this, and have now even seen it twice. It was good the second time too. Kenneth Branagh is very amusing as the fraudulent Gilderoy Lockhart, and there's lots to laugh at throughout. The climactic battle with the basilisk and the evil spirit of Voldemort is also very good. (The denouement in the school hall is somewhat gag-inducing, but nothing's perfect.) My biggest problem is with the nature of the universe that Rowling describes in her books, and which is accurately reflected in both movies to date. In particular, the school house system is completely unbelievable. It's unreal to have a house of good guys (Gryffindor) and one of baddies (Slytherin). It also ensures that we pay no attention to the two other houses at all. I don't see why the four houses couldn't have shared out a variety of behavioural characteristics, but with goodies and baddies evenly distributed across them all. The Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs feature almost not at all in the films, and even in the books, where this is more room for extra material, there is precious little about the other half of the school.

Getting this web-log out with any frequency this month is proving harder than I thought. This, coupled with the fact that I'm getting through more books than I might otherwise, means that I'm just going to produce book review entries for the immediate future I think.

Friday, 27 December 2002

Berlin and The Truth

Listening to:

Oscar Peterson, The sound of the trio.

Just read:

Antony Beevor, Berlin.

This is a sequel to Beevor's very successful Stalingrad. It describes the Russian campaign to take Berlin in the first half of 1945. This was a brutal invasion, one that the Russians explicitly thought of as revenge for the German invasion of the USSR in 1941. The final outcome was never in any doubt. At one point Beevor says that Stalin had a larger force just attacking Berlin than Hitler had for his invasion of all Russia (Operation Barbarossa). Given this, it seems incredible that the Nazi regime held on for so long. Beevor describes the discussions, and comings and goings in the Reich Chancellory, and it's clear from these that Hitler was living in a fantasy world, denying the reality of his situation. He insisted that he would never surrender, and didn't let his subordinates do so either. (Until, if you like, his final suicide.) What I find surprising is that his subordinates pretty well toed the line. Perhaps the secret to this sort of “loyalty” is to have lots of different power bases underneath you. The Wehrmacht couldn't mutiny safe in the knowledge that they were the only ones with access to the guns, because the independent SS was an army in itself. (The USSR did similar things too: the main Army was accompanied by special NKVD divisions.)

Beevor tells the military story, the movement of armies, well, but is also very good on the diplomatic story happening at the level above the generals. He's pretty critical of the US leadership for not being sufficiently suspicious of Stalin. It can't have helped that Roosevelt was seriously ill and died during this period. Stalin might have made noises sufficient to convince Roosevelt that Poland was going to be a free and independent democracy after the war, but Churchill was rather more suspicious. Finally, Beevor is also good on the impact of the war on the German people, on both sides of the front-line. As part of this, he spends quite a time discussing the very many rapes committed by the Russian troops, claiming that this aspect of the war hasn't been much discussed until now. This is not the only aspect of the civilian experience that he discusses but he does seem to pay it disproportionate attention, for all that it might be a historical scoop.

Berlin doesn't have Stalingrad's depressing story of thousands of soldiers trapped thousands of miles from home in a savage Russian winter. Nonetheless, it's full of its share of the horrors of war. It's a good book, interesting and well worth reading. Just don't expect to be smiling at the end of it.

Terry Pratchett, The truth.

I read this on the plane from England to Australia, and greatly enjoyed it. I suppose I might find more to dislike in it if I read it again in more pleasant surroundings, but my memories of it are all good. This novel is set in Ankh-Morpork, and features familiar Watch characters (Commander Vimes, Captain Carrot, Angua the werewolf, the Patrician, and “Slit me own throat Dobbler”, among others). The main heroes are new characters, however, which I liked. The plot doesn't involve any threats to the very fabric of the universe either, which I particularly liked. (Pratchett makes a joke of this feature of many of his earlier plots in the novel itself. The Patrician calls on the newly established newspaper, and makes a series of witty comments along the lines of supposing that the printing press was made from iron taken from eldritch sources, or that the newspaper's premises are on a inter-dimensional gateway.) There are all sorts of good jokes to be had in a newspaper business spoof, and the bad guys are also a very memorable duo. Perfect plane fodder, and a good, amusing read in any other situation too, I'd warrant.

On the TV behind me, England are losing the fourth Ashes Test match against Australia.