Review Redux 1-25-10

A great title like Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human deserves equally fine content, and the Australian‘s Jose Borghino thinks Richard Wrangham’s book qualifies: “The best kind of scientific writing: clear, strongly argued and provocative. That it’s still contentious makes it all the more exciting.” Contentious? Yes, I’d say so. Wrangham’s interpretation includes this premise:

Cooking was the catalyst for the sexual division of labour in humans and … it created and perpetuated a novel system of male cultural superiority. His logic goes like this: the habiline evolutionary leap 2.5 million years ago meant that we are genetically programmed to be hunter-gatherers. Human males are physically better suited to hunting, but can ill afford to spend an inordinate amount of time preparing and digesting food at night after returning from a hunting expedition. Therefore, human society has evolved so that gatherers (females) prepare an evening meal of quickly and easily digestible, cooked food, ready for the return of the hunters.

You can hear Wrangham’s discomfort: “Cooking brought huge nutritional benefits. But for women, the adoption of cooking has also led to a major increase in their vulnerability to male authority. Men were the great beneficiaries. It is not a pretty picture.”

Rewriting mythic literature, and possibly history, is a fond goal of some writers. In Ransom, David Malouf proves more than up to the task of recasting portions of the Trojan War’s engorged time sequence—already ten years along before Homer’s Iliad even opens:

[The] transformative novelization of this moving encounter between [Priam and Achilles] exploits two lesser-known myths—neither of them part of the Iliad—to supplement Homer’s narrative, searching for the lost child that Priam once was, marking his spiritual evolution and following him to his pitiable doom.”

It’s not all prose, though. There’s literal poetry as well:

A poet as well as a novelist, Malouf is best in a number of extended prose-poetry set pieces that encompass these and other episodes. His physical description of the city of Troy, soon to be a smoking wreck, is itself enough to stir the tears of things: “Tucked in between rocky outcrops there are kitchen gardens, with a fig tree, a pomegranate, a row or two of lettuce or broad beans, a clump of herbs where snails the size of a baby’s fingernail are reborn in their dozens after a storm and hang like raindrops from every stalk.”

Readers are in good hands, New York Times reviewer Steve Coates says: “That this tender novel lingers so long and hauntingly in the mind is a testament both to Malouf’s poetry and to his reverence for the endless power of myth.”

Lionel Shriver’s Financial Times review resembles a paean to Maria McCann’s debut novel, although it’s ostensibly her second novel, The Wilding, that’s under consideration:

McCann’s magnificent As Meat Loves Salt (2001) has for years betokened the fact that there’s no justice in the world—or at least not in the literary one. The term “tour de force” has been degraded from overuse, and more’s the pity; it should have been reserved for achievements of such magnitude. A page-turner, a compendium of meticulous yet seamlessly integrated historical research and 500-plus pages of virtuoso prose, McCann’s astonishing first novel was nonetheless roundly ignored by book awards—which should provide any capable author who is likewise neglected a sour little comfort.

Long in coming but worth waiting for, The Wilding duplicates the same driving narrative urgency but otherwise displays that McCann is a writer of considerable range. As Meat Loves Salt was painted on the panoramic canvas of the English civil war, capturing the high drama of two male lovers AWOL from the New Model Army in an era when homosexuality was a hanging offence. By contrast, The Wilding is an exquisitely detailed miniature, its drama the sordid, quiet betrayals of kin-on-kin.

This serves me well, since now I must read both books of which I’d been unaware. That’s the underhanded price incurred by this reviewing book reviews gig: too damn many good books out there I’ve never heard of and wouldn’t otherwise know about. I ought to be sending the boss an invoice for collateral damage. Back to the book under review, however:

McCann’s second novel takes place in 1672, a generation after the war. The narrator, a young man named Jonathan Dymond who still lives with his parents, has learned his father’s trade of cider-making. For while contemporary British newspapers are rife with articles every autumn about the wholesale demise of English varietals and the encroachment of cheap Granny Smiths from New Zealand in supermarkets, The Wilding recalls that nostalgic time when the country was awash in orchards, and one suspects the results of pressings in those days were far superior to Strongbow and Diamond White.

I can’t resist; must read soonest.

I’ve always been of the opinion that one can never get enough of the devil. So I was happy to see P.G. Maxwell-Stuart’s Satan: A Biography, which receives a positive and erudite review from James Sharpe writing in the Times Literary Supplement:

Maxwell-Stuart shows how the concept of the devil developed, from the deviant courtier at the divine court of those early Middle Eastern religions from which Judaism emerged through to the rebel angel of the Old Testament and the great opponent of Christ depicted in the New Testament. Here the author uses his linguistic skills to their full advantage, analysing the uncertain and unstable terminology from which “Satan” and “the devil” were derived. There is also a very clear exposition of how ideas on the devil developed in the early Church, when even very basic theological issues, the nature of Satan among them, were uncertain and matters of debate.

And, because our reviewer is a learned history professor, he begs to quibble in that lovely restrained way the English have:

This biography does not have a lot to say about its subject’s old age and dotage. The fact that (to take a fairly obvious example) the Faust legend inspired works by Goethe, Heine, W.S. Gilbert, Paul Valéry, Berlioz, Gounod, Turgenev, and Randy Newman suggests that Satan and the notion of evil he personified, less scarily perhaps, was to remain an important figure in European culture long after witch-burning and demonic possession ceased to be accepted phenomena. It is a pity that this issue was not given more coverage in an otherwise learned and fascinating book.

Can it be true that Zadie Smith is only 34 years old and yet has behind her such literary gravitas as to inspire the Village Voice‘s Zach Baron to wax so approvingly? In his words: “An unwavering surety of voice and an alert subjectivity. Changing My Mind hangs together.” Baron enjoys Smith’s critical commentaries:

In … Smith’s new book of occasional essays, both [E.M. Forster and Zora Neal Hurston] get critical evaluations. In an appraisal of her own first novel, Smith once copped to some “inspired thieving” from Nabokov—he, too, receives extended consideration in Changing My Mind. “This book was written without my knowledge,” the author admits in the foreword, meaning it was written piecemeal, unintentionally. In a drawer somewhere still sits “a solemn, theoretical book about writing,” entitled Fail Better. The next novel, which would be Smith’s fourth, remains unfinished. This is what was written instead, along the way.

But another too-soon-departed writer monolith haunts these pages, too:

The epigraph is from David Foster Wallace: “You get to decide what to worship.” That sentiment (and its author) lurks throughout Changing My Mind, which combines literary criticism—mostly first published in the New York Review of Books and the Guardian—with memoir, writerly advice, light reportage, and a season’s worth of pithy film reviews of flicks like Date Movie, done for some genius editor at the Sunday Telegraph.

At a time when internet freedom is being challenged in China, the heroic, tragic story of Galileo’s pursuit of solar centrality is an excellent reminder of the primacy of intellectual freedom. So it is that Paul Di Filippo’s review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel, Galileo’s Dream, caught my eye straightaway. The story is set in Galileo’s 17th century, our present and the future of 3020:

Because we get to experience the future settings and people through Galileo’s eyes, we are treated to a sense-of-wonder, conceptual breakthough narrative which evokes frissons worthy of Clarke and Stapledon. The human settlements on Europa, Io and elsewhere emerge shimmeringly like Diaspar in Clarke’s The City and the Stars. The main plot thread concerns the discovery of an alien intelligence in the ice-locked seas of Europa, and is a well-done exploration of that familiar motif, exfoliating out into fresh intellectual territory. The characters who inhabit this future—Ganymede, Hera, Aurora and others—radiate a convincing otherness.

Di Filippo is especially taken with Robinson’s protagonist:

What a rich, robust, exotic and satisfying life Robinson depicts! His Galileo is fully fleshed, blood and sinew, from his troublesome hernia to his weird laugh, from his fits of stubborness, pride, and temper to his love for his favorite daughter. The man strides boldly off the page, in all his flaws and virtues. The reader truly shares Galileo’s thrill of scientific insights and his frustrations with the reactionary forces that hinder progress. Likewise, his 17th-century milieu is vividly sketched, and all the speech of its inhabitants rings colloquial and earthy.


1 Comment to Review Redux 1-25-10

  1. NancyS's Gravatar NancyS
    January 25, 2010 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    I can’t wait to get my hands on that Satan bio.

    Nice roundup, Kat.

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