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Jonathan Birch (Cambridge)

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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fire and brimstone, 18 Jun. 2013
This review is from: Kveikur (Audio CD)
All Sigur Rós's music is a soundtrack to the Icelandic landscape. Their new album, Kveikur, does the volcanoes. The record opens with the thunderous bass line of Brennisteinn ('Brimstone'), a pyroclastic flow of a song: a percussive, aggressive statement of intent. The pace, intensity and sheer loudness of this opener is sustained throughout the album. It's a real change of direction for the band, and unquestionably a positive one.

The cover art suggests a dark, heavy album; and it is, in places. The title track is particularly powerful, combining anguished vocals and discordant violins and screeching feedback to chilling effect. But it's not all like that. As with previous Sigur Rós albums, there's a balance between light and dark, day and night, hope and despair. The counterpoint to Kveikur is Ísjaki ('Iceberg'): one of the most uplifting songs the band has ever written.

I've seen a number of critics describe Kveikur as a 'return to form', but I don't buy that: it requires that at some point the band lost its form. The truth is that Sigur Rós has never produced a bad album. Even last year's sombre Valtari makes sense in hindsight, now we can see it for what it was: an elegant and understated way of tying up loose ends, winding up the band's time as a four-piece and its record deal with EMI. Less than twelve months on, Sigur Rós has returned one member down, but with a new label, a new sound and a new sense of purpose.

The Leafcutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct
The Leafcutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct
by Bert Hölldobler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

4.0 out of 5 stars An expanded chapter from 'The Superorganism', 27 Dec. 2011
Leafcutter ants are fascinating creatures, and this is a fascinating book about them. The downside is that it is, as Hölldobler and Wilson openly admit, merely an expanded chapter from their 2009 book, 'The Superorganism'. To be honest, it does feel more like a long chapter than a whole book: the main text runs to only 127 pages, with generous line spacing and wide margins, and about a third of those pages are taken up by photographs.

If you're interested in ants, this will whet your appetite for more. But 'The Superorganism' gives better value for money, and the new book has relatively little to offer readers who already own its larger predecessor.

What Darwin Got Wrong
What Darwin Got Wrong
by Jerry A. Fodor
Edition: Hardcover

57 of 70 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Staggering hubris, 2 Mar. 2010
This review is from: What Darwin Got Wrong (Hardcover)
Ever since Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin launched their attack on the "Panglossian paradigm" of adaptationism, biologists have been cautious about claiming some well-adapted trait was shaped by selection for its current function. An adaptive trait, Gould and Lewontin argued, could simply be a lucky by-product of selection for some other trait.

They drew an analogy with the spandrels of San Marco: at first glance, these features linking the dome and arches look to have been designed for the sake of the beautiful images that adorn them. But further reflection reveals otherwise: they were actually a by-product of resting a dome on arches! The moral for biologists: take care to distinguish the real products of selection from the "free-riders".

In their provocative new book, Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini want to draw a different moral from this story. What it really shows, they argue, is that the idea of a trait being "selected for" is incoherent. To say the spandrels were put there to hold up the dome is, after all, to make a claim about what the architect had in mind. Since, by contrast, there is no mind in charge of natural selection, it makes no sense to say that some trait was "selected for" while another was a "free rider". Though they add a lot of complicated extras, this is the core of their master argument against Darwinism, as set out in Chapter 6.

So here's the obvious reply: the difference between selected-for traits and their free riders is a causal difference. Selected-for traits causally contribute to the reproductive success of organisms, whereas free riders don't. To say some trait is a "free rider" is to say that, regardless of its current function, it evolved without contributing to the success of its bearers. This is going to be hard to find out, of course, but the conceptual distinction is clear enough. No minds are needed.

This is what Fodor's critics have been saying for years. Yet it's not an objection explicitly addressed in the book, despite being, as far as I can tell, a perfectly good one.

It is important to realize the full scope (and extraordinary arrogance) of what Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini want to achieve here. Their ambition is not merely to downplay the significance of selection in evolution, as defenders of "evo-devo" often seek to do. Rather, they intend to annihilate the entire theory of evolution by natural selection a priori, from the recesses of their armchairs, with a knockdown objection at the conceptual level.

If they were right, biologists would certainly finish the book with egg on their faces. How stupid! To spend 150 years thinking some incoherent nonsense was the best idea ever! Unsurprisingly, all the egg goes the other way. In Daniel Dennett's words, "What could drive Fodor to hallucinate the pending demise of the theory of evolution by natural selection?"
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 16, 2012 3:01 PM BST

by J. M. Coetzee
Edition: Hardcover

58 of 62 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A portrait of the artist... as a supporting character, 24 Aug. 2009
This review is from: Summertime (Hardcover)
Ostensibly, J.M. Coetzee's Summertime is a third instalment of autobiography, succeeding Boyhood (1998) and Youth (2002) (both of which, incidentally, are excellent). But this description belies the book's true nature in two ways. First, Summertime is so far from being a conventional autobiography it's essentially a work of fiction. Second, it's a terrific book in its own right, and can be enjoyed without any prior knowledge of its forerunners.

The book begins in a style resembling Boyhood and Youth. Brief scenes from the life of Coetzee, now a thirtysomething in 1970s apartheid South Africa, are narrated in crisp third-person prose. Coetzee, we learn, is a down-and-out, unemployed and living with his elderly father, disgusted by apartheid but stuck in a rut of inaction verging on paralysis. But each scene stops abruptly, clearly unfinished, and after 15 pages the narrative stops altogether. What's going on? Here emerges the book's central conceit: Coetzee has died, leaving behind notebooks of assorted scraps. A would-be biographer, seeking to reconstruct "the story" of Coetzee's life, interviews a number of people who knew Coetzee at that time, and transcripts of these (fictional) interviews occupy most of the book's remainder.

The interviewees give us little vignettes in which Coetzee is a ghostly figure, a barely-there anonynimity, content to be manipulated and exploited by stronger characters: a man defined by his fleeting and unsatisfying connections to others. He is a supporting character. "I am perfectly aware it is John you want to hear about, not me," says Julia, Coetzee's one-time lover. "But the only story involving John that I can tell, or the only one I am prepared to tell, is this one, namely the story of my life and his part in it, which is quite different, quite another matter, from the story of his life and my part in it."

What a wonderful antidote to most autobiographies, in which the author is the protagonist in "My Story", steering a course through life like a Greek hero at the helm of a ship. Lives aren't like that. And what a remarkable fictional achievement, since, after all, the "interviews" are pure fiction. Coetzee imagines himself as he must have been viewed by others (scruffy, shy, maladroit, and not a bestselling-author-in-waiting), and does so with great perceptiveness and self-effacement, through a skilfully crafted range of utterly convincing other-voices.

John Berger famously wrote that "never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one". In this rich and intelligent work, Coetzee emphasizes that this goes for life stories too.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 10, 2009 1:05 PM BST

This Is How
This Is How
by M. J. Hyland
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Food for thought, 26 Jun. 2009
This review is from: This Is How (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
MJ Hyland has an unusual fondness for violent misfits. In her excellent novel Carry Me Down (2006), her pubescent protagonist John Egan learns the hard way that covering mummy's face with a pillow won't necessarily make her any happier. Now, in This Is How, Hyland presents the story of Patrick Oxtoby, a down-and-out mechanic in a seaside town who turns out to be a kind of Raskolnikov tribute act. In a drunken rage, poor anger-prone Patrick learns the hard way that clobbering someone with a wrench can have serious consequences.

The publisher seems oddly reluctant to tell you that this is a book about the aftermath of a violent crime, referring only to Patrick's "tragic undoing" and supplying a pretty little cover with a man and a dog. In reality, this misleadingly advertised novel is a compelling and macabre journey to the dark side of human existence.

Like Carry Me Down, This Is How is told through sparse, present-tense, first-person narration that rattles along at a crackling pace, capturing Patrick's shock and vulnerability as events spiral rapidly beyond his control. The result is a gripping, readable and surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a memorable antihero.

Patrick protests his innocence on the grounds that he never "intended" to do anything wrong. "My mind played hardly any part," he tell us, "but my body acted and, as far as the law is concerned, my body may as well be all that I am". Is there some truth in this "don't blame me!" determinism? This is the central issue the novel explores.

Personally, I'm not convinced. Anger, loneliness, loss of control, ignorance, drunkenness... these are causes of violence, but not excuses. We don't have to let our irrational bloodlust get the better of us. When we do, we're responsible for what results. It's left to the reader to decide whether Patrick deserves to be held accountable for his horrific deed. If you read it let me know what you think.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 20, 2009 11:49 PM GMT

Price: £5.99

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deserves every success, 10 Jun. 2009
This review is from: Veckatimest (Audio CD)
I doubt Grizzly Bear's sonorous brand of chamber pop will be pumping out on Radio 1 any time soon, and it's probably a bit too unusual for Radio 2. But this belies the fact that anyone with eardrums can enjoy the beautiful Veckatimest (named for a little island off Cape Cod), which is original yet accessible, lush yet melodious, and undoubtedly one of the best records I've heard this year.

"Two Weeks" and "While You Wait for the Others" are standout tracks on a standout album, immaculate recordings that stand testament to the work ethic of a band clearly determined to bring already brilliant songs as close as possible to perfection. The Brooklyn quartet sounds every bit as close-knit and harmonious as Fleet Foxes but have, for my money, by steering clear of the folk clichés and retro OohOohings of the Seattle band in favour of darker lyrics and a harder-edged sound, produced a set of songs that, while still festival-friendly, soars even higher and stirs more deeply.

It's wonderful.

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall
Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Edition: Hardcover

27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Cultured, elegant and captivating, 22 May 2009
Kazuo Ishiguro is a proper writer: a book every four or five years, and, when they come along, they matter. His seven books, spanning thirty years, are the milestones of a lifelong meditation on longing, nostalgia, regret, and how on earth to cope with it all.

Reading Nocturnes, described on the jacket as a short-story "cycle", is like reading five Ishiguro novels in miniature. He's still the quintessence of himself, but here that essence is condensed and compressed into small, 30-page doses.

Like the nocturnes of Chopin, Fauré et al. from which the title derives, these are mood pieces, Romantic and pensive, evoking thoughts of finality and transience, of the passing of the day. Troubled relationships, usually marriages, lie in the background throughout.

The "nocturnes" are surprisingly uneventful, with a tendency to end on quiet, anticlimactic notes. In all five pieces, the characters come first. Fiction is all too often about authors moving their characters around like chess pieces; but Ishiguro's world is populated by free agents who flitter briefly across the page, fail to behave in a particularly novelistic way, then disappear back into the gloom of their real, monotonous lives. This wonderful, non-chessy writing is the secret to Ishiguro's success, and it's much in evidence here.

But there's a niggling feeling that Ishiguro is capable of more than this. There's enough overlap between the stories to make me wonder why he didn't stitch them together. I don't know whether to be impressed that Ishiguro didn't feel the need to merge the stories into a novel, or disappointed that he didn't bother.

Expect a work as distinctive and unforgettable as The Remains of the Day (1990) or Never Let Me Go (2005) and Nocturnes will fall short. But it's not some miscellaneous collection of unpublished scraps. Nocturnes is a finely crafted whole; cultured, elegant and captivating.

The Private Patient (Inspector Adam Dalgliesh Mystery)
The Private Patient (Inspector Adam Dalgliesh Mystery)
by P. D. James
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

36 of 39 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Elegant murder mystery, 10 May 2009
P.D. James is 88, and if the thought of churning out 400-page novels at that age impresses you, spare a thought for her detective, Adam Dalgliesh, who's been wrestling culprits to the floor since 1962. I can only assume he's been drinking the same elixir as James Bond, and gets younger and more muscular with each new case.

The setting for The Private Patient is, naturally, a decaying outpost of provincial privilege with a spooky and claustrophobic atmosphere. Rhoda Gradwyn, a fearless investigative journalist with a fair tally of accumulated enemies, books in to the private Dorset clinic of her plastic surgeon, George Chandler-Powell. The purpose of the visit: the removal of a deep scar across Gradwyn's cheek, inflicted during childhood. The operation is completed successfully. But the following night, bandages still wrapped round her face, Rhoda is strangled in her bed.

Helpfully enough, the clinic, a beautiful yet intimidating Tudor manor house, is an enclosed space chock full of suspects. Two of the staff have longstanding grudges against Gradwyn, another has a dark past that has caused her to assume a new identity, one of Rhoda's friends stands to gain from her will, and Chandler-Powell's two medical assistants both have reasons for wanting to ruin the surgeon's reputation. So whodunnit? And what is the significance of the ancient stone circle outside the manor, where a witch was once burned, and where strange lights were seen on the night of the murder?

The Private Patient is a novel resolute in its conformity to the conventions and clichés of its genre, but it's a class act nonetheless -- the work of a novelist rightly confident of the continuing power and relevance of the old Agatha Christie format. The story thrills and entices, like it should, but it's also familiar and pleasurable, a book to be dipped into at leisure rather than one to be read from a grim compulsion to get to the end. James is simply a terrific writer: elegant, erudite and measured.

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
by Geoff Dyer
Edition: Paperback

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining but unmemorable, 9 May 2009
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Geoff Dyer writes brilliantly, but his new book is oddly forgettable, serving as yet another reminder that he hasn't quite produced the masterpiece of which his formidable talent suggests he is capable.

First of all, it's not a novel. I read in an interview that Dyer planned to subtitle it "a diptych", but the publisher pointed out that this would be commercial suicide. The book in fact comprises two unconnected novellas, both of which are really thinly-fictionalized travelogues.

The first part, "Jeff in Venice", is a witty and sexy subversion of Thomas Mann's similarly-titled novella. In place of Mann's moral turmoil and sexual repression, Dyer presents Venice as an amoral tourist's playground in which our protagonist, middle-aged British journalist Jeff Atman, belts back bellinis with the art crowd at the Biennale and gets drawn into a steamy, cocaine-fuelled love affair that's as shallow as it is sordid. "Death in Varanasi" is rather less engaging: it's a gently-paced, largely descriptive first-person account of an unnamed middle-aged British journalist finding new age enlightenment in the Hindu Holy City.

The setting is the star in both parts of JIVDIV; the flaw is that both locations are so familiar and tourist-oriented already that another tourist's eye view is hardly necessary. The review of JIVDIV in The Sunday Times points out the problem: "[Dyer's] theme always seems to be What I Did On My Holidays, and in that sense he has not come far from English class in primary." It's a pithy putdown that Dyer invites and deserves.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 18, 2011 2:37 PM GMT

by Roberto Vidal Bolaño
Edition: Hardcover

17 of 23 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Very hard to enjoy, 12 April 2009
This review is from: 2666 (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I think it's fair to say that the gushing reviews of 2666 in the press have glossed over its obvious shortcomings. In dwelling on them here, I don't mean to diminish the status of Roberto Bolaño's achievement in this posthumously published work. 2666 is a serious and important novel that will be studied in academia for many years. But I think it's important that ordinary readers know what they're buying.

2666 is a first draft. Tragically, Bolaño died before the usual editing and redrafting process could take place. He left behind manuscripts for a series of five books, which his estate decided to publish in a single volume. All five parts involve the fictional Mexican city of Santa Teresa, but the links between them are pretty tenuous and the book reads more like an anthology than a novel. No one knows what the title means.

For many readers these facts may set off a few alarm bells. 2666 is unmistakably first draft material. It's immensely long, disjointed, erratic and unwieldy. Everything is done to excess. Book 4, for example, is 300 pages long, and consists of nothing but hundreds of descriptions of the murders of women. It is the closest thing to a genuinely unreadable book I have ever come across. Not because it wallows in horrific violence, but because the endless repetition is numbingly tedious.

I'm sure that was Bolaño's intention, and academics will hold conferences about how Bolaño confronts the reader and defies the conventions of fiction. But as an ordinary reader, I'd prefer to read something readable. 2666 is like a Turner prizewinning artwork. Totally original, massively acclaimed... but almost impossible to actually enjoy.

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