Warwick

Monað modes lust mæla gehƿylce ferð to feran.

The Ancestor's Tale - Richard Dawkins There are some facts the simple knowing of which seems to me to be a supreme achievement of our species. The fact that we are all made of stardust. The fact that 99.9999999999999 percent of all matter is empty. The fact that mass and energy can be expressed in terms of each other. Stuff like that.

Pre-eminent among these to me, for sheer mind-expanding awe, is the fact that life on this planet has developed precisely once, as far as we know, and everything on earth has evolved from it. That means that when you go outside and lie down in the garden, everything you can see and hear – people walking nearby, their pet dogs, the squirrel darting past, the birds you can hear tweeting, the insects and tiny bugs crawling around underneath you, the trees the birds are standing on, the grass you're lying on, the bacteria in your guts – all of them are your cousins: you're quite literally related to them in the real, genealogical sense.

If you go far enough back in time, in other words, you will eventually find a creature whose descendants evolved into both squirrels (say) and people. Indeed, the rules of heredity being what they are, you could even find a single individual who was a common ancestor to every squirrel and human alive. And indeed such an animal really did exist, around 75 million years ago in the Upper Cretaceous. It probably looked sort of mousey, and Dawkins estimates that he or she was our ‘15-million-greats-grandparent’. Squirrels are not ‘closer’ to this creature than humans are: we and they are equally related, having been evolving independently for the same amount of time.

The Ancestor's Tale takes exactly this approach to exploring evolution. It starts with humans and works backwards – looking first at the common ancestor between humans and chimpanzees, and continuing until we reach the common ancestor of all life on earth. Dawkins's word for a common ancestor of more than one species is ‘concestor’, and there are only about 40 of them (!) between us and the origin of life more than three billion years ago. The Cretaceous mammal I mentioned above, which evolved into us and squirrels (along with all the other rodents, lagomorphs and primates), is Concestor 10 according to this schema.

I think there's a lot of traps you can fall into when you start thinking about evolution. It's easy to feel, instinctively, that evolution is somehow teleological: that it's been working towards – if not us, then at least creatures that are increasingly complex and increasingly intelligent. But that of course is not the case. Things survive that reproduce themselves well, and there are plenty of single-celled organisms still with us that have seen no need to get any more complicated for millions of years. Bacterial life is in fact astonishingly varied and rich, whole phyla of creatures that branched off before multicellular life even came about; indeed, chemically speaking,

we are more similar to some bacteria than some bacteria are to other bacteria.


Just think about that for a second.

Before Dawkins got distracted by religious idiocy, he was well known as being one of the scientists most able to explain complicated ideas in a fresh and accessible way. All his skills are on display in this work. It's not just the zoology and the evolutionary biology, where you'd expect him to be strong; there's also a fantastically lucid explanation of the biochemistry within a cell, and even one of the best explanations of the physics of radioactivity that I've come across. He is calm and careful; he repeats himself where necessary; he shares several teacherly witticisms; and he does all this without ever condescending to the reader. He allows paragraphs of complex material to sit, so that you can read and re-read them a few times before he carries on. Occasionally he cannot stop himself breaking out in exclamations of wonder or poetic meditation – as when he discusses the fossilised footprints of three early hominids from some three-and-a-half million years ago:

Who does not wonder what these individuals were to each other, whether they held hands or even talked, and what forgotten errand they shared in a Pliocene dawn?


His enthusiasm is infectious. The whole book is a fantastic exploration of this most beautiful piece of modern human understanding. It's full of astonishing anecdotes and scientific details about the natural world, but it also all ties together into a conception of life that's more awe-inspiring and more moving than any supernatural system could ever be.
Language, Cognition, and Human Nature - Steven Pinker This is a first for me – to see a popular science writer bringing out a book of what you might call their "selected academic papers". I suppose it speaks to Steven Pinker's (justified) popularity, but even so it's difficult to know exactly who the intended audience is: the stuff in here seems far too advanced for those who merely take a passing interest in linguistic theory or cognitive science, but on the other hand working academics or students in the field presumably already have access to most of these studies via university libraries, academic websites, etc. I suppose there's something to be said for having it all pulled together in a nice bound copy?

Among linguists, Pinker has become just slightly…well, "divisive" and "controversial" are much too strong words, but let's just say that his success with the public has meant that some of his ideas are taken as fact now, when many would say they're still under debate. Notably his championing of Noam Chomsky's Universal Grammar theory, which definitely is still controversial and divisive. On the other hand, it's also unfair to characterise Pinker as a Chomsky cheerleader – perhaps his most important academic paper (certainly his most-cited) was a 1990 study coauthored with Paul Bloom which went dead against Chomsky's non-Darwinist ideas on language evolution.

Actually, this last paper was almost taboo-busting – the idea of how language evolved is so thorny, and so beset by competing arguments, that the Linguistic Society of Paris famously banned any mention of it back in 1866. I love the paper for its epigraph – a comment contrasting the birth of language with the supposed first spoken words of the infant Thomas Babbington Macaulay:

…once when he was taken out, his hostess accidentally spilled hot tea on him. The little lad first bawled his head off, but when he had calmed he said in answer to his hostess' concern, ‘Thank you Madam, the agony is sensibly abated.’


It was an important paper, and it led to a bit of a renaissance of language evolution studies in the 1990s. On the other hand, this collection is also at times a way for Pinker to promote papers that he feels have received too little attention: ‘As far as I know,’ he says of one study, ‘this article has attracted zero citations (except by me)’.

Of course much of his work is not to do with linguistics at all, or at least not directly – he has had a long involvement with cognitive science generally, though the studies in here that mark this involvement are mostly over my head. For the general reader, perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the thoughtful introduction, in which Pinker considers the value in maintaining an interest in both academic studies and also popular writing.

The demand for clarity [in works aimed at the general public] can expose bad ideas that are obscured by murky academese, and the demand for concrete detail in recounting experiments ("Ernie and Bert puppets" not "stimuli") can uncover flaws in design that would otherwise be overlooked.


Well, quite. Which brings us back to the question of who this book is aimed at exactly. Despite the witty introduction and the perceptive chapter-by-chapter commentaries, I suspect it has rather little general appeal – though that's not to detract from the fact that it's a very rich collection of often brilliant work.
The Stain - Rikki Ducornet


This wonderfully strange and hormonal B-movie of a novel has the feel of an uncensored fairy-tale, and I mean that in the best possible way. It's pulsing with onanistic nuns and Satanic alchemists and hirsute dildo-salesmen; and yet the whole thing somehow also works as a dark metaphor for the experience of a girl on the cusp of adolescence, discovering, with the usual mixture of excitement and terror and awe, the mysteries of life, death, puberty, sexuality and religion. It reads something like an Angela Carter rewrite of Diderot's The Nun, and it should have been filmed by 80s-era Pedro Almodóvar.

The girl in question is Charlotte, whom we follow from birth to age 14 or so, sometime towards the end of the nineteenth-century in a rural hamlet in France's Loire Valley (at the time, the author was living in Le Puy-Notre-Dame). There is no great compelling story-arc: the action advances episodically through encounters of almost magisterial weirdness, in which wide-eyed naïf Charlotte grows up and tries to make sense of life as she is buffeted in turn by the various eccentric inhabitants of the village. The scenes and the characters are over-the-top, often ludicrous, but it's all very self-aware and witty, not to mention deliciously dark and extreme – it can be ridiculous but it's so much fun.

Ducornet's prose is a delight: lexically rich but also able to throw out passages of condensed wit – such as this thumbnail description of villagers during a flood:

In the villages of Louerre and Louresse, desperate families huddled together on rooftops and looked on helplessly as their livestock and an occasional arthritic ancestor drowned.



It takes both skill and humour to withhold the verb to the very end of the sentence there, and there are many similarly nimble phrases studded throughout the novel, going off like little depth-charges in your brain. Although you always feel that Ducornet's in control, it isn't what you'd call a restrained prose style: on the contrary, she's pretty much turned all the dials up to eleven throughout. Here's how we're introduced to Sister Malicia, the apotheosis of every nightmarish schoolteacher-nun that you've ever read about or encountered:

…a cadaverous creature as human as a broom handle, her arms knotted across her flat chest to protect the inverted nipples that dented the flesh like the cruel traces of tacks, her pale blue eyes lying loosely in their sockets like faded minerals in sagging boxes […she] carried her lovelessness with majesty.



Subtlety is clearly not the point here: Ducornet is having fun, fun, fun. Like an illustrated mediaeval manuscript, her narrative is booby-trapped with moments of unexpected obscenity or grotesquerie that jump at you out of nowhere.

Returning to his bed, the Devil's insinuations hot in his ears, he sinks his teeth into the palpitating sugar-plum of Dreamland, and straddling the corpulent finger of sleep, thrusting hard, fucks Time.



What's that all about? God knows, but there's a lot of sentences like that in here. I was grinning and scratching my head a lot – appreciatively. You have to admire the audacity of someone who can describe a nun's anus as her ‘rosy cyclopean nether eye’ – and how many other writers, searching for an adjective to describe the Virgin Mary's breasts, would plump for ‘quince-shaped’?! This is deft but this is also bonkers – a combination that I happen to love. Shall we have more quotes? Here's the village Exorcist contemplating his latest ritual:

But first the convent must be cleansed, the floors and walls washed with vinegar. He'll have to grease some snakes, salt the shit, tattoo a pregnant sow, fuck a three-horned cow, burn myrrh…



Although it sometimes seems like craziness for craziness's sake, you never stop feeling for poor Charlotte at the heart of the novel. The book is full of provocative symbolism and apparent magic – but like all proper fairy-tales, that's not what it's ultimately about. It's about learning to navigate the very real dangers and pleasures of reality. Behind the inventive and balls-deep insanity, in the end The Stain invites wiser, more grown-up readers to share one character's ‘intimate conviction that everything that is, is visible. That the universe is knowable, if only you dare look.’

Sex and Punishment - Eric Berkowitz In March 1320, eleven-year-old Joan Seler was playing outside her father's house in central London when she was grabbed by a passing French merchant. The assailant dragged her back to his place, where, according to trial testimony, he

raised the clothes of the same Joan…to her navel, she being clothed in a blue coat and a shift of light cloth and feloniously…with both his hands separated the legs and thighs of this same Joan, and with his right hand took his male organ of such and such a length and size and put it into the secret parts of the same Joan, and bruised her watershed and laid her open so that she was bleeding, and ravished her maidenhead, against the peace of our lord the King.


To say nothing of the peace of eleven-year-old Joan Seler. She reported the rape to officials and her father straight away, and eight months of legal skirmishing followed. But the case was eventually thrown out on technicalities: she had filed suit after the forty-day time limit, and she got confused over what day of the week the assault had taken place. Whereupon, the French merchant countersued his victim and her family for conspiracy. ‘The record ends with Joan's father being arrested.’

So ends a fairly typical example of the ‘justice’ on show in Eric Berkowitz's tabloidy but fascinating history of how legal systems have tried to regulate sexual behaviour, which starts with the Code of Hammurabi and works its way chronologically through to the trials of Oscar Wilde.

Because the book is built around court cases, there are always winners and losers. The biggest losers were women, who got an almost universally shitty deal from every society ever from the start of recorded history up to within living memory. Women in ancient societies were owned by men, first their fathers and then their husbands – and if they didn't have a husband (let's say he died), then many societies would assign the woman a guardian to own her on behalf of the state. Rome's Oppian Law, for instance, prevented women from wearing expensive clothes, travelling in a carriage, or owning more than half an ounce of gold; when the Senate debated repealing it, Cato, like the early men's-rights activist he was, foresaw terrible consequences: ‘From the moment they become your equals, they will become your masters.’

Rape in this context, of course, was not really a sex crime but rather a crime against property. Women could lose out even with a guilty verdict – like in Assyria, where rapists were punished by proxy: their wives were given up to be raped in turn by the original victim's husband and father.

As always, the Middle Ages have the best stories. Europe's crazy mixture of Classical law-codes and Biblical morals led to a whole patchwork of sexual transgressions that were fitted into a baffling sliding scale of sin.

A man who had sex with a pig knew that he was being less offensive to God than he would be if he had anal intercourse with his wife, and women in some regions knew they could draw a longer period of penance for performing fellatio on a man than killing him outright.


Which is just as well, because if I was a woman in the Middle Ages, I would have been in a state of homicidal fury 24/7.

Then again, in other kinds of sexual litigation, courts often turned to the expert testimony of what I can only describe as ‘forensic prostitutes’. In one mediaeval divorce case that centred on a man's supposed impotence, the court set a team of girls loose on the husband to test his physical reactions. Sure enough, one reported back that she ‘exposed her naked breasts, and…rubbed the penis and testicles of the said John…the whole time aforesaid the said penis was scarcely three inches long…remaining without any increase or decrease.’ Even more amazing is a case from Venice, where one Nicolò was accused of impotence and ‘arranged a public inspection by prostitutes to prove his virility’:

He took a scribe, his boss, and a priest to a brothel, where he hired two women. Soon after he started in with one of the women, he called the priest over. The priest testified that Nicolò had placed the clergyman's hand on his erect penis, bragging: ‘Look here, I am a man, even though some say I cannot get it up.’ Nicolò then had intercourse with the prostitute on a bench while the witnesses watched, after which he smeared his ejaculate on the hands of the scribe.


We're a long way from Rumpole of the Bailey.

Unfortunately, although the anecdotal value of Sex and Punishment is high, the book gets off to a poor start and it has several methodological and stylistic problems.

My main concern boils down to the fact that Eric Berkowitz is a lawyer and journalist, not a historian: the writing style is a shade too casual for my liking and too few of his facts are supported with footnotes. This is particularly annoying in the early chapters covering Ancient Greece and the Near East, where for example Herodotus is taken as a reliable source on temple prostitution – hmm – and where Berkowitz makes several unsupported statements that just seem like complete speculation: ‘Before the Biblical period, sex law had nothing to do with morality as we know it’; ‘It was not until about 9000 BC […] that the link between sexual intercourse and pregnancy was confirmed’ – how do you know?

His prose style goes for easy readability, but it too often just seems unserious. Describing Christianity as ‘a small, gay-bashing Near Eastern religion’, or Greek symposia as ‘whore-greased dinner parties’, is a mistake and it rapidly eroded my faith in the author. Similarly, while historians have learned to be cautious of drawing modern analogies, Berkowitz thinks nothing of making extremely clumsy comparisons such as the following:

Far from barring homosexuality in the military, as the United States famously did in 1942, or embracing a ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell’ policy as it did fifty-one years later, Greek societies saw no incompatibility between male-male love and military discipline.


Because in other respects Classical Greece and twentieth-century America are identical? It gets even worse a few pages later, when he summarises Pericles' appearance in court to defend a favourite courtesan, Aspasia, before suggesting: ‘Think of Bill Clinton's conduct…’

Overall it compares unfavorably with Faramerz Dabhoiwala's [b:The Origins of Sex|13353151|The Origins of Sex A History of the First Sexual Revolution|Faramerz Dabhoiwala|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1347726330s/13353151.jpg|18578533], which came out the same year, although the focus is very different. Luckily, things do start to improve fairly steadily as the reliability of Berkowitz's source material increases, and by the end he has made a good case that ‘Neither the law nor religion ever seems to have lasting changes on what people do in bed.’ Sexual practices remain the same; the only difference is whether society punishes you for them or not.

The things lawmakers have worried about have never been constant – adulterous women used to be the big thing, then homosexuality, now paedophilia – and they continue to shift. One ends the book with a renewed sense of how arbitrary our current laws are, especially in matters that already differ widely by region, such as the age of consent – 14 in Germany, 16 in Britain, 18 in California. However, with the possible exception of some recent activity in parts of the US, it does seem that Western legislation has been moving in the right direction – by which I mean away from protecting the ruling classes and towards protecting the most vulnerable.

A lot of this must be to do with changing psychological issues around sex – many of which still seem pretty obvious. ‘When lawmakers view sex as bad,’ Berkowitz observes, in what could be a one-line summary of the whole book, ‘they write bad sex laws.’
Les Poésies - Gérard d'Houville In 1910, French newspaper L'Intransigeant asked its readers which female writer most deserved to be elected to the Académie française. Gérard d'Houville – yes, it's a she – came out in first place, beating Anna de Noailles and [a:Colette|51575|Colette|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1206665516p2/51575.jpg]. At the time she was a household name; she is still the only woman ever to have received the Académie's top prizes for both poetry and fiction. Yet she is now utterly unknown; no biography in English, no works left in print even in French, no Goodreads entry until a second ago, not even a Wikipedia article on her until I wrote one yesterday.

"Gérard d'Houville" was the pseudonym of Marie de Régnier, and her fate, even more than most women of the time, has been to be discussed and remembered almost exclusively in terms of her relationships with men. The daughter of a famous poet and the husband of a famous poet, she picked a pen-name not to try and disguise her sex (she was always openly referred to as "Madame" Gérard d'Houville) but rather to try and find a little anonymity to work in.

I am as guilty of it as anyone: I'd never heard of her until someone asked me who the naked woman on the front of [b:this book|17313931|Œuvre Érotique|Pierre Louÿs|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1359793745s/17313931.jpg|23979957] is. It turned out to be Marie; she was a long-term lover of Pierre Louÿs and a frequent subject of his erotic photography. Her portrait was also taken, more decorously, by many artists of the time.

image
Portrait de Marie de Régnier, 1907, by Jean-Louis Forain

Facinating though her lovelife is, her work has apparently been glossed over by later critics, very unfairly from what I have been able to uncover of it. Though her novels are all out of print (the second-hand bookshop hunt starts now), there are some poems floating around online which to me absolutely justify the high praise she got in her lifetime. Here's one that should tempt any feminist academic to write a paper on her, and which I've translated rather hastily but hopefully well enough to give you an idea:

The Loneliness of Women

Are you frightened? Here you are, alone with the silence…
No breath…no footstep…no words to recite….
Alone like a flower without the wind's guidance,
Alone with your scent and your dreams of the night.

Are you frightened? Here you are, alone in the gloom…
Everything heavy and lightless and bland.
Alone like a corpse at the back of its tomb—
Although love and contentment are so near at hand.

Are you frightened? Here you are, alone in the dark…
Alone like a star when the morning comes—
Like a gold butterfly in a shadowy park,
Dying and pulsing for its distant sun…

Here you are, alone with your savage heart
That beats and rebeats in its human cell,
Alone with that vagabond torment, that hurt,
That tempest that howls round your rational shell.

Here you are, alone, love, forever alone,
Despite all your youth and your confident eyes;
As alone already as some withered old crone
Whose children have grown up and said their goodbyes.

Alone, though so loving and fertile and live.
For that thirst for eternity you feel will not pall—
And your most desperate cry of sensual strife,
However profound, is still just a call.

Man does not understand your strange distress;
In vain you will ache through your sparkling decline.
Within you there suffers some mighty goddess—
And you dream of the dawn when you'll rise up divine.


As-tu peur ? Te voici seule avec le silence...
Aucun souffle... aucun pas... nulle voix et nul bruit...
Seule comme une fleur que nul vent ne balance,
Seule avec ton parfum et ton rêve et la nuit.

As-tu peur ? Te voici seule avec la ténèbre,
Seule comme une morte au fond de son tombeau ;
Tout est pesant et noir, taciturne et funèbre
Malgré l’amour si proche et le bonheur si beau.

As-tu peur ? Te voici toute seule avec l’ombre,
Seule comme une étoile au moment du matin ;
Comme un papillon d’or au fond d’un jardin sombre
Se meurt en palpitant pour son soleil lointain...

Te voici toute seule avec ton cœur sauvage
Qui se débat et bat son humane prison,
Seule avec ce tourment qui rôde et te ravage,
Perpétuel orage autour de ta raison.

Te voici seule, ô belle, ô douce, à jamais seule ;
Et malgré ta jeunesse et tes yeux triomphants,
Oui, déjà seule ainsi qu’une très vieille aïeule
Qui aurait vu partir tous ses petits-enfants

Seule, ô force d’amour, ô vivante, ô féconde,
Car rien n’apaisera ta soif de l’éternel,
Car ton plus rauque cri de volupté profonde,
Ce cri désespéré, n’est encore qu’un appel.

L’homme ne comprend pas ton étrange détresse ;
L’élan de ta douleur toujours se brise en vain...
Et, femelle en qui souffre une grande déesse,
Tu rêves au réveil qui te sera divin.


At the time, she was often compared to Mallarmé, and as a Mallarmé fan I can quite see why. There are other pieces I like even more that are unfortunately beyond my powers of translation.

How do writers like this disappear so completely? I don't know, but I hope the bouquinistes along the Seine will be kind to me next time I'm in town, because I hope to move this one to the "Read" shelf soon, if at all possible.

Her fate so far seems rather upsetting, but I take some consolation in a poem of hers of that name: "Don't complain too much about divine injustice," she says in verse that I won't attempt to reproduce; "those who are happy have not listened to that sacred beating that moves their chest. Those who are happy have not existed."
L'Écume des jours - Boris Vian Wow, this book destroyed me. Beautiful, oneiric, sexy, deadpan, linguistically inventive – and then in the end remorselessly tragic.

You know what reading this book is like? It's like you're sitting there having fun, the sun's shining – and who do you see bouncing towards you but the most adorable, cute little character you can imagine. The Andrex puppy, say—

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Aw, look! It's the Andrex puppy! C'mere, little fella! And he bounds over to you, his little tail wagging away, birds tweeting in the background, ah the warm sun on your face.

And then – just as you open your arms to give him a big hug – suddenly you realise that there's a slightly rabid look in his eye. And just as you start to press his cuddly little body into yours, OH SHIT WHAT THE FUCK his sharp little teeth are ripping into the soft flesh of your throat, WHAT ARE YOU DOING ANDREX PUPPY and he's growling away, claws slashing, AAAUGH arterial blood is spurting all over the grass and the daisies and OH MY GOD YOU'RE DEAD.

YOU WERE KILLED BY THE ANDREX PUPPY, THE CUTEST CREATURE ALIVE.

image
I am a Photoshop master

Well fuck you, Boris Vian! And fuck everyone else that wrote reviews making this sound like a cuddly love-fest! Did you all stop reading after 150 pages, or what??

What makes this book so deeply affecting is that the world it offers you is the most charming and wonderful fictional environment I've encountered for years. After fifty pages I wanted to curl up and live in it. The laws of physics are different here: everything is soft and yielding and in tune with your moods. It is like a sort of magic realism avant la lettre, only less irritating and laboured: what it really reminds me of most of all is the fluid, anything-can-happen creativity of Through the Looking-Glass. This is a world where you go on a date, and things like this happen:

They walked, following the first pavement they came to. A little pink cloud came down from the sky and approached them.
‘May I?’ it suggested.
‘Go ahead!’ said Colin; and the cloud surrounded them.
Inside, it was warm and it smelled of cinnamon sugar.
‘No one can see us any more!’ said Colin. ‘But we can see them.’
‘Be careful,’ said Chloé, ‘it's a little transparent.’

Ils marchaient, suivant le premier trottoir venu. Un petit nuage rose descendait de l'air et s'approcha d'eux.
— J'y vais? proposa-t-il.
— Vas-y ! dit Colin, et le nuage les enveloppa.
À l'intérieur, il faisait chaud at çs sentait le sucre à cannelle.
— On ne nous voit plus ! dit Colin... Mais nous, on les voit.
— C'est un peu transparent, dit Chloé, méfiez-vous.


And they walk along in their own little cloud, watching the other passers-by and looking in the shop windows.

On another occasion, guests at a dinner-party eat eel that was caught by the butler in his bathroom tap. One of the diners later complains to Colin about how unlikely this seems. ‘I was up all night fishing in my own taps to see if I could catch one too,’ he says the next day. ‘But round our place, you only get trout.’ In the middle of the table, Colin has a centrepiece ‘consisting of a jar of formaldehyde in which two chicken embryos appeared to be miming the Spectre de la Rose, in the choreography of Nijinsky’.

It is incredibly hard to pull this sort of thing off without seeming twee or annoying, and Vian just doesn't seem twee or annoying. I've stared at some of these passages till I was cross-eyed and I still don't understand how he manages it, but it works; I believe everything he says.

This is a very funny book; it owes a debt to PG Wodehouse, not least in the character of Nicolas the butler, who in my head was played by 90s Stephen Fry. It's also sexy as hell, Vian managing to succeed in that very continental tradition of respectful objectivisation, a neat oxymoron to pull off – the girls are adorable and everybody (at least at first) seems young and beautiful and comfortably-off. The latent sexiness creeps into the narrative voice in all kinds of ways: at one point a door clicks shut ‘with the sound of a bare hand on a bare bottom’ (avec le bruit d'une main nue sur une fesse nue).

But what is actually going on here? Is it really just an extended adult fairy-tale? As the book goes on, you gradually realise – in my case, with a terrible sense of regret – that what Vian is really doing is setting up an Edenic picture of young love only to stress the awfulness of what comes after. You'd better have the most acrobatic sex and the most delicious meals of your life while you're still young (this novel says), because before you know it you're going to have to go out there and earn a living, and then your whole life will stop being about creativity and start being about where the money is coming from. (‘It's horrible,’ Colin says at one point about work. ‘It reduces man to the ranks of machinery.’)

An old man in a white shirt with bushy hair was reading a manual behind a desk....
‘Good morning sir,’ said Colin.
‘Good morning sir,’ said the man.
His voice was cracked and thickened with age.
‘I've come about the job,’ said Colin.
‘Oh?’ said the man. ‘We've been looking for someone for a month without any luck. It's quite hard work, you know.’
‘Yes,’ said Colin. ‘But it's well paid.’
‘Good Lord,’ said the man, ‘it wears you out, you know, and it might not be worth the money – but it's not for me to denigrate the administration. At any rate, you can see I'm still alive.’
‘Have you been working here long?’ said Colin.
‘A year,’ said the man. ‘I'm 29.’
He ran a trembling, wrinkled hand across the folds of his face.


It's the novel of someone in their twenties facing the looming prospect of adult life. In keeping with the hyperbole of the book in general, respectable adulthood isn't just a chore – it's the apocalypse. Forget about wistful, wishy-washy endings – in this one all your favourite characters end up wasting away, burning to death, getting shot, having their hearts cut out, or committing suicide. Welcome to France, population: miserable.

The violence is actually there from the very beginning, in a cartoony kind of way, and Vian has a very artful way of allowing you to realise that those cartoon injuries are in fact bleeding real blood. I'd be lying if I said part of me wasn't hoping for a more life-affirming ending, but it's hard to object when you're being played so expertly. This book is like nothing you've read: a blend of Wodehouse, Huysmans, Faulkner and Lewis Carrol, all set to a pounding soundtrack of Vian's beloved boogie-woogie and blues music. It is the dream of being young and the nightmare of getting old. I fell in love with it. And I will never trust the Andrex puppy again.
Things We Didn't See Coming - Steven Amsterdam


I don't have a particularly good relationship with post-apocalyptic fiction, tending to find it either too far-fetched or, if not far-fetched, too depressing to want to immerse myself in for very long. I was spoiled early by having to read Robert Swindells's relentlessly bleak postnuclear misery-fest Brother in the Land for a school English class, after which I spent much of the next few years lying awake at night worrying that the noise of jumbo jets coming over Gatwick's flight path might in fact be the noise of a nuclear wind rushing towards our house. Thanks Miss Cutler.

Of course it's useful (necessary, even) to be scared by these ideas once or twice – but once you've got to grips with the basic principles, I'm not always sure the lessons learned are worth the emotional trauma involved. Which is what these books try and put you through, because despite the tone of some of my reviews I'm actually not a very critical reader – I tend to be pretty wide-eyed and immersive when it comes to fiction.

More generally, though, I think the genre suffers disproportionately from the prevailing fallacy that tragedy is somehow ‘truer’ than comedy. (Which some critics genuinely believe, not without reason, but which I don't.) This is why for example I am in no great hurry to read The Road, because although I often love Cormac McCarthy's writing style, I think his general philosophy depends on wilfully ignoring huge vistas of human experience and interaction – which is creatively interesting, but when it comes right down to it, no less selective a vision than that of someone like Terry Pratchett.

All of this is my way of saying that I liked Things We Didn't See Coming a lot more than I expected to when a cute sales assistant in a Melbourne branch of Readers flirted me into buying it ‘because the author's a local’. Actually Steven Amsterdam is originally from New York, but Melbourne has been his home for years now: the landscape of this book feels vaguely American, but the language includes some telltale non-US elements (like ‘Mum’). It begins on the eve of the millennium, and disappears off into an alternative present / near-future where society and the environment have broken down.

The book is constructed as a novel-in-short-stories, a format I like anyway and one which works especially well here. In nine standalone chapters, we see our unnamed narrator at different stages in his life, from a ten-year-old boy to a semi-invalid, prematurely-aged wasteland survivor. There is a lot of enjoyable speculation to be had over what must have happened in the long years between chapters, as secondary characters come and go, and as the world around us changes: we see at various times endless rain, urban looting, rural survivalism, drought, plague, even momentary periods of political stability with a decadent ruling class. The prose is sparse, uncomplicated and effective, and a lot of the key developments are unexplained and off-stage.

I like that the geopolitical/environmental speculation is not the main point here. What Amsterdam is really interested in is how interpersonal relationships work, how trust breaks down and whether it can ever be properly built up under extreme circumstances, and how to work out what really matters and strip down your life to just that. There is a nice strain of dark humour running through the book, and although it takes a steady look at the worst aspects of human nature, it doesn't forget the other aspects.

Only one of the stories felt underdeveloped to me; all of them completely held my attention and left me with lots to think about. Recommended for late-night reading under Gatwick flight path.

Julia Paradise - Rod Jones Reading this strange, hallucinogenic gem of a book feels like undergoing dream therapy, or a particularly intense bout of psychoanalysis. It's a grown-up novel, which takes the world seriously and whose themes are a lot darker than they at first appear.

The scene is Shanghai in the 1920s, where bored psychiatrist Kenneth Ayres makes a good living treating (and sometimes seducing) a string of hypertense colonial women in his practice at a top hotel. One day, in walks Julia Paradise, the morphine-addicted wife of a missionary, a look of ‘glittering disorientation’ in her eyes, suffering from a variety of nervous disorders including morbid hallucinations of animals.

She saw mice, rats, insects, snakes – her imagination seemed to select the clasically loathsome creatures. One of her most persistent hallucinations was a small brightly patterned snake moving across the floor in the periphery of her vision. Her zoöpsia was accompanied by a terror of real animals. The mere touch of fur, even in a coat, caused her nausea. Her pet miniature dog, which formerly she had fawned over, now revolted her and she had killed it with a walking stick in a fit of terror.


Under hypnosis, Julia begins to tell Kenneth Ayres a series of bafflingly colourful tales about her childhood in tropical Queensland. There are animals everywhere – indeed nature in general, in her childhood regressions, seems to be out of control – wild undergrowth, vines, creepers, writhing roots, thick mosses, and riverbanks surging with uncontrollable water.

With each wet season, the house had fallen deeper into decay. Mosses crept around the window frames, tree ferns sprouted from the outside walls, and when leaves and overhanging branches fell onto the roof they rotted there and provided a rich compost base for the next generation of parasitical growth. A small softwood tree with shiny oval-shaped leaves grew out of the veranda and the roots hung down through the holes in the rusted iron roof, where they tickled the face of anyone foolish enough to walk along that veranda in the dark. It was from one of these twisted clumps of roots one afternoon as Julia sat alone in an old wicker chair reading her Golden Treasury and listening to the groans of her father and a woman making love inside the darkened house, that a green tree snake began to unwind itself.


Slowly, a number of very disturbing and yet horrifyingly erotic episodes of sexual awakening creep into Julia's hypnotic stories of her preteen years. Her mother is dead, her father has his own dark desires, and she has to grow up much too fast. Kenneth Ayres is excited. He has certain predilections of his own, that you gradually realise are more sinister than he has been able to admit to himself. But is it possible that Julia Paradise knows more about him than she's letting on? Can her appalling childhood stories really be true? Why do so few of the facts check out, and what could she really be playing at?

And then just as you're coming to terms with this psychosexual stuff, the book very artfully allows you to realise that the absence of any political context in the first half of the story is merely a way of telling you something important about Kenneth Ayres. The expat bubble in Shaghai is just that – a bubble – and the real world of the Chinese Civil War and the looming conflict with Japan is about to come bursting in. Some people are set for a political awakening, and some others might be beyond redemption.

Is Julia Paradise really mad? – and if she is, maybe madness is the only sane response for a woman in a world where whole cities of wives, children and old women are being violated, and where even in peacetime Ayres can walk down Bubbling Well Road and find any number of child prostitutes who are destitute enough to allow themselves to be raped for small change.

There are no big solutions at the end of this book. There are just puzzles to chew over. It's the kind of book you want your friends to read so you can dicuss theories with them. The key quote is in the epigraph, from one of Flaubert's letters: ‘stupidity consists in wanting to reach conclusions. We are a thread, and we want to know the whole cloth….’ There is, as one of the characters realises at one point, ‘something subtly and inevitably manipulative in the silences’.

It's short and dense and very well put together: an intriguing exploration of the places where sex and politics meet. Read it as a jumping-off point, and let your subconscious do the rest.
My Love Must Wait - Ernestine Hill Ernestine Hill was a mid-century Australian author who has become – not exactly forgotten, but certainly not much known outside her home country, and little enough read even there. She was mostly a journalist-cum-travel-writer, but she also wrote this one novel, a labour of love, which tells the eventful and ultimately sad life story of Matthew Flinders.

Flinders was the last of the great maritime explorers, and probably the most brilliant navigator and cartographer of all of them. He was the one who proved that the fledgling European colonies known as New Holland and New South Wales were not points on an archipelago, but did indeed represent one single enormous land continent, which Flinders dubbed ‘Australia’. (Hence why nowadays ninety percent of Australian towns seem to be built around a main road called Flinders Street.)

He survived shipwreck, unfriendly natives, struggles with stiff English authorities, and a six-year imprisonment by the French on the island formerly known as Île-de-France (now Mauritius), but Ernestine Hill also uncovered, beneath these better-known facts, an affecting love story between Flinders and his wife Ann, who didn't see him for nine years, and then only far too briefly.

Unfortunately it was this subplot that gave the book its not-very-appropriate and rather Mills-&-Booney title. This is not really a love story overall, it's a biographical novelisation in the grand old style – I was about to write ‘the kind of thing no one writes anymore’, but it actually reminded me of nothing so much as Hilary Mantel's historical novels. Hill shares Mantel's rigidly faithful approach to her source material, and every vessel, headland and minor midshipman in this book turns out really to have existed; even the incidental dialogue is based on reams of letters, journals and logbooks.

Although the book as a whole sometimes feels too long, the writing is curt and imaginative, much better than for some reason I was expecting. Islets are ‘annotated, every one, with the bright green asterisk of the coco-nut palm’, trees ‘creep away from the wind like bent and wizened beggars’, forbidding cliffs are ‘a vizor on the face of nature’, myriads of South Sea islands swim into view ‘as though God had suddenly split his world into kaleidoscopic fragments’. There is an efficiency to the prose that put me in mind of Flinders's own approving thoughts while reading William Dampier's memoirs: ‘He would sink a fleet and sack a city in a sentence, to devote two pages, with illustrations in the margin, to a catfish, a catamaran, or the sapadillo-tree.’

Mind you, sometimes she does become more voluble. She is particularly good on the romantic but thankless precariousness of a life in the navy:

How many had he known…shabby lieutenants on a few pounds a week fighting for their lives all their lives in the war and on the waves in rotten ships…ambassadors to the foreigner and the cannibal, trading for wheat, gold, pearls, pepper, territory…diplomats, chancellors and high financiers to the feathered savage, walking encyclopaedias of world-wide knowledge, vegetable, animal and mineral […] homeless men, nameless men, their wave-washed journals the first pages in the chronicles of empire, their future at worst a watery grave, at best an old age of cards, prating to their families on Navy half-pay…and here he was aspiring to be one of them. Why? ‘I gave my heart to know wisdom.’


Occasional passages are lightly overwritten, but it's always good fun:

Scarred and tattooed sailors of the Seven Seas, with evil, mottled faces thronged the taverns to fight by day and lust by night where harlots writhed their polished bodies, whirling in veils of flame, to the obscene screaming of the Congo pipes and fandango of tambourines. The West Indies were a painted veil of cruelty and greed. Here faith was blasphemy, the sea polluted with filth, and God and man defiled.


I hadn't realised Flinders was from Lincolnshire, a part of England I love and where I lived for many years, so I was secretly thrilled to read the lavish descriptions of his childhood in a little village just outside Boston. In a final chapter that is really a kind of afterword, Hill writes movingly of the strange coincidence that Matthew Flinders and the Pilgrim Fathers both set off from the same obscure place, linking this tiny corner of the Fenlands with both Australia and America: ‘The square tower of Boston Stump looked down on the little ships that sailed to great beginnings; that low coast of East Anglia has mothered two great nations.’

Angus & Robertson have been printing this book continuously since 1941, so you'd think they'd have had time to correct the text by now – yet there are still far too many typos, misspellings and misprints in this edition. On the credit side, it does come with a very good introduction from Debra Adelaide. If you have a holiday hankering for sea stories, historical fiction, tragic love stories or obscure Australiana, this one will certainly tick your boxes, weigh your anchors, barbie your shrimps and shiver your timbers.
The Investigator in Port Phillip - Matthew Flinders, John Currey Having read Ernestine Hill's [b:My Love Must Wait|992503|My Love Must Wait|Ernestine Hill|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1285284714s/992503.jpg|977998], I wanted to read some actual Flinders. His masterpiece, A Voyage to Terra Australis, can be got for free via Project Gutenberg, but unless you have six or seven grand to spare there isn't a good print version available. This volume consists of the entries detailing his exploration of Port Phillip, on the coast of what's now Victoria, in April and May 1802. It's a really beautiful edition that comes with fold-out charts, copies of sketches from the ship's official artist, longitude tables, and detailed diagrams of HM Sloop the Investigator.

Flinders fretted about his prose, considering himself a seaman and not a writer, and working and reworking his text to try and make it appeal to the general public. Something of his character comes across in how he writes: he's precise, technically brilliant, but also a little stiff and nervous. Confident giving details of soundings and bearings, less so when recounting friendly but dramatic meetings with the local ‘Indians’ (whom we now know to have been Bunurong Aborigines). He also takes an interest in the wildlife, noting the presence of oysters washed up on shore, as well as emu, cassowary and ‘kanguroo’ in the woods.

I am sort of in awe at what explorers like Flinders accomplished, even if most of their sponsors and supporters were at least as concerned with empire-building as with geographical or scientific advances. If you have no particular interest in this sort of thing, I couldn't pretend that this has much in the way of riveting incident for the general reader. However it's short and focused and gives an excellent flavour of the time and the prevailing mood of excitement about this new-found land in the south.

Flinders's report on the suitability of Port Phillip for a new British settlement was taken seriously by the governor of New South Wales, who sent a team out to found a new convict settlement there the following year. The result is the city we now know as Melbourne.
Morris's Dictionary of Australian Words Names and Phrases - Edward Ellis Morris,  John Currey This was a controversial and divisive dictionary when it came out, but it's never really been surpassed and it's still essentially the cornerstone of Australian lexicography. It was first published in 1898 under the title of Austral English, its editor one of those manic and slightly bonkers Victorian academics who had been born in British India and emigrated to Australia to try and make a name for himself. When the Oxford English Dictionary was being compiled, Morris was fingered to supply them with interesting citations of vocabulary and usage from Australia and New Zealand. He was so enthusiastic about his duties that he soon had enough material for a book of his own: this is the result.

I said it was controversial – well you can imagine the reactions of many Australians at seeing a dictionary of their language overseen and written by some immigrant Brit who had been born in Madras and educated at Rugby and Oxford. And certainly an Anglocentric viewpoint is notoriously present in many of the definitions:

Midwinter, n. The seasons being reversed in Australia, Christmas occurs in the middle of summer…


It came in for some heavy criticism almost straight away, especially by Alfred Stephens of the Bulletin, and later again in Sidney J Baker's landmark work The Australian Language. The main objections were that Morris had missed important colloquialisms that only a ‘true’ Aussie would know – with the word matilda (‘swag’) particularly notable by its absence.

For all that, the scholarship behind this dictionary means that ‘Morris’ is still quite a important reference for Australianisms even now. Like his beloved OED, Morris's book is built according to historical principles with definitions illustrated by reams of quotations showing actual usage. This means that even where his definitions have become outdated or awkward, the information presented is still invaluable. An example, almost at random, to illustrate the general approach:

Humpy, n. (1) a native hut. The aboriginal word is Oompi; the initial h is a Cockney addition, and the word had been given an English look, the appearance of the huts suggesting the English word hump. (The forms himbing and yamba occur along the East coast of Australia. Probably it is kindred with koombar, bark, in Kabi dialect, Mary River, Queensland.) The old convict settlement of Moreton Bay, now broken up, was called Humpy Bong (see Bung), sc. Oompi Bong, a dead or deserted settlement. The aboriginal names for hut may be thus tabulated:
Gunyah / Goondie……New South Wales.
Humpy (Oompi)……Queensland.
Mia-mia……Victoria and Western Australia.
Wurley (Oorla)……South Australia.
Wharë……New Zealand.

1846. C. P. Hodgson, ‘Reminiscences of Australia,’ p. 228:
“A ‘gunyah’ or ‘umpee.’”
1876. J. Brunton Stephens, ‘Black Gin,’ p. 16:
“Lo, by the ‘humpy’ door, a smockless Venus.”

(2) Applied to a settler's house, very small and primitive.

1881. A. C. Grant, ‘Bush Life in Queensland,’ vol. i. p. 133:
“To dwell in the familiar old bark ‘humpy,’ so full of happy memories. The roof was covered with sheets of bark held down by large wooden riders pegged in the form of a square to one another.”
1885. R. M. Praed, ‘Australian Life,’, p. 57:
“A lonely hut…and a kitchen – a smaller humpey – at the back.”
1890. Rolf Boldrewood, ‘Squatter's Dream,’ p. 247:
“He's in bed in the humpy.”
1893. Gilbert Parker, ‘Pierre and his People,’ p. 135:
“Shon McGann was lying on a pile of buffalo robes in a mountain hut – an Australian would call it a humpey.”


All that could be added to that nowadays is the source language, which is thought to be Turrubal.

Of course Australian English has changed a lot since Morris first came out, and this won't help you with things like bottle-o, fair dinkum, or bogan – but as a historical dictionary it's a classic.
The Origin of Our Species - Chris Stringer My mind finds it so hard to deal with the colossal timescales involved in palaeontology – even more so in the case of books like this, where the story being pieced together on this Brobdingnagian canvas is so crucial and so awe-inspiring. You're considering vast, Cthulhu-like stretches of time in which human societies grew up, discovered modernity in the form of complex tools and ritualised behaviour, held out for a while against the environment, and then disappeared. One after another, flashes of human civilisation blinking in and out of existence in the archaeological record.

Seventy-two thousand years ago, at what's now Still Bay in South Africa, there was a human society that lasted for hundreds of centuries before vanishing; five millennia later, not far away at Howieson's Poort, a different and apparently unrelated civilisation thrived for a while before also being abruptly cut off. These people used compound tools and painted themselves with red ochre, buried their dead and wore jewelry made of tick shells; they must have had their own detailed rituals and legends and mythologies and social conventions that we can never now recover. In many cases they were succeeded by communities of much less advanced humans that did not understand their technology.

All of this is an excellent illustration of the crucial point that evolution is not teleology, that ‘progress’ is not necessarily selected for, and that civilisational modernity has come about through random fits and starts and not through some kind of natural incrementation. The fortuitous anomaly of the last two-to-three thousand years has made it hard to appreciate this basic fact, which often strikes you when reading history but which is even more forceful and awe-inspiring when it comes to prehistory and palaeontology.

Nowhere more so than in the case of ‘archaic humans’, i.e. other members of the Homo genus of which we are the last surviving species. Homo erectus, for instance, had already spread out from Africa to cover most of Europe and Asia, and it was once thought that erectus simply evolved into modern humans wherever it existed, so that different bands of humans suddenly popped into existence 100,000 years ago all around the Old World. This ‘multiregionalist’ hypothesis has now been largely replaced by a narrative whereby Homo sapiens evolved once, somewhere in eastern or southern Africa, and – after tens of thousands of years – finally expanded to colonise Eurasia and the rest of the world, in the process replacing whatever archaic hominins happened still to be in the area when they arrived.

In Europe, that meant Neanderthals. If you have any imagination at all, it's impossible not to feel a rush of excitement at the idea of early humans suddenly encountering groups of these manlike people – a bit like how Portuguese sailors must have felt when they found strange men living in the Americas, only much, much more so: instead of a separation time of 30,000 years or so, this was on the order of 140,000 years. Neanderthals died out pretty much as modern humans arrived in Europe, suggesting that neanderthalis was out-competed for resources or even perhaps the victim of inter-species violence. Then again – still thinking of the New World comparison – perhaps new diseases had something to do with it. (I wish more serious novelists would address themselves to this story. The only good example I know of is William Golding's [b:The Inheritors|14428|The Inheritors|William Golding|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1328875049s/14428.jpg|2766545].)

In any case, there was of course sex as well as violence involved. The idea that humans were boffing Neanderthals, at least occasionally, has been dramatically supported by genetic analysis: it transpires that if you're (genetically) European then around two percent of your DNA is inherited from them. Beyond Europe, it wasn't generally thought that there were any hominids left by the time that modern humans arrived – but this assumption has recently collapsed in a rather exciting way, thanks to new fossil discoveries as well as DNA studies. The most dramatic example is the so-called ‘hobbit’, Homo floresiensis, discovered on an Indonesian island, which seems to represent a descendant of Homo erectus that somehow survived on Flores until as recently as 12,000 years ago – in other words tens of millennia after modern humans were in the region. Moreover, the latest genetic evidence suggests that humans interbred with non-sapiens species even before leaving Africa.

So the ‘Out of Africa’ narrative is complicated a bit by increasing evidence of hybridisation and other complexities. Chris Stringer has been a key player in all this since the 70s, and he tells the story well, though the wealth of material tempts him to drift away from the point on occasion. He brings in a lot of very interesting cultural discussions about religion, language and other kinds of behavioural modernity. The writing style is confident and jovial, like listening to a kindly schoolteacher – he even attempts a few jokes (typically signalled by some hearty exclamation marks), which don't usually come off but you appreciate the effort.

For me this book was the primer in recent developments that I've been looking for – even if the answer to a lot of basic questions is still a cautious ‘we're not yet sure’. Chris Stringer is too conscientious a scientist to gloss over this basic uncertainty, and if you're looking for black-and-white answers rather than the tangle of scientific exploration then this book may frustrate you. Otherwise it should prove a fascinating and mind-expanding read.
Chums of St. Olaf's and other stories of School Life and Adventure - A.K. Parkes,  Eric Wood,  A.C. Booth,  Edward Leslie,  John Andrews This is one of those brilliant classic-era school stories where people say things like ‘Rather!’ and ‘Run like a hind, Blodger!’. In this case the plot revolves around lost Latin essays and a smuggler with the upsettingly venereal name of Fiery Dick. To give you a flavour, here's the opening:

‘Hullo, Jackson! Have you heard the news?’ was the greeting Jackson received when, having left his luggage at the bustling, confused station, in the hope that some one would deliver it some time, he sauntered in at the gate of St. Olaf's on the first day after the Easter holidays.

‘Yes, of course I have. Queen Anne's dead!’ answered Jackson with a grin.


What the fuck? I know schoolchildren aren't renowned for their sentimentality, but this seems a bit blasé all the same. ‘The queen's dead, and the prince regent's got terminal cancer! A-ha-ha-ha!’

Of course thinking about the chronology for a second I realise that Queen Anne must have died some time around seventeen-*coughcough* so this probably isn't as callous as it looks – the little scamp is just anticipating a prank from his chums. But they soon put him at his ease:

‘Rot!’ answered Perkins, his bosom friend. ‘It's something much more exciting. Old Bumble's gone.’


A teacher's dead! And the headmaster's wife has left him and taken the kids! What larks! A-ha-ha-ha-ha!

Things have certainly changed a lot in the schoolroom since these halcyon pre-war days. If you need a favour from a classmate at St Olaf's, it's the simplest thing in the world to ask a chum to help you out.

‘Oh, Perkins!’ he cried, ‘I have forgotten to send in my essay. Will you be a brick, and go up to the house, and send it off for me?’

‘You are an ass!’ grumbled Perkins.


I wonder how this would have played out when I was at school.

‘Er, Perkins, I've um…forgotten my essay. Any chance you could…be a brick, or whatever, and get it for me?’

‘Fuck off you spanner.’


Not only did I go to a school of the same (or very similar) name myself, but one of the stories in this volume is titled ‘Whirlwind Warwick's Commission’, so naturally when I saw it at some old book stall I had to get it. I don't collect this sort of thing, but I do quite like having a few around the house. (I've quietly mooted the prospect of ‘Whirlwind Warwick’ as a dashing new sobriquet for myself, but so far no one seems to be terribly convinced.)
Le dico des mots qui n'existent pas...et qu'on utilise quand même - Olivier Talon, Gilles Vervisch When Curiosity touched down in Mars's Gale Crater in August last year, the French press was seized by a little bout of vocabulary panic. Describing a Mars "landing" is not as simple as you might think in French. The problem is that the usual word – atterrissage – is based on terre ‘earth’, and of course if you land on Mars you aren't landing on "Earth" at all.

Some papers used various circumlocutions to avoid the word altogether, but a few (and the majority of news blogs) ran with a pleasing coinage: amarsissage. It's nice, isn't it, to see a language with a specific word for "Mars landing"?

Of course the Académie Française, taking their usual struthious approach to language change, do not approve of it and advise instead that you say atterrissage sur Mars. BO-RING.

This is one of the few very dictionaries in French to find space for words like amarsissage, dedicated as it is to so-called "non-existant" items of vocabulary (a problematic title that I will return to). It is not a big book, and the style is jokey rather than academic, but at least it's a start.

The entries are a mix of anglicisms (follower, factchecker, open space), internet neologisms (meuporg ‘MMORPG’, plussoyer ‘to "+1" a post you like’), and fairly innocuous-looking French formations that for one reason or another have not met with official recognition (court-termisme, dédiabolisation).

I already knew amarsissage but there were a lot of other things I learned here for the first time. I particularly love the word kikoolol, which denotes the sort of person who writes online messages like this:

hey :) gd 2 meet u lol got any moar pix lololll :) :D


It's a compound word from lol, of course, and kikoo, an irritating text-speak way of spelling coucou ‘hi’. I think we've all come across a lot of kikoolols – do we have a word for them in English? Not that I can think of.

Some of the words in here began as widespread mistakes, and I'm pleased to see them get some treatment. For example there's an entry for the contentious term au jour d'aujourd'hui, meaning roughly "today", which is that rare thing in languages, a triple-pleonasm. (Hui already meant ‘today’, but it sounded confusingly similar to oui and so people started specifying by saying aujourd'hui; now that that has become a set item, it's gone one step further into au jour d'aujourd'hui.) There are people who are violently opposed to this term, but as always with synonyms it has taken on slightly different connotations from the original, so that it doesn't really mean ‘today’ – the usual sense is more like ‘nowadays’, ‘in this day and age’.

The editors introduce their definition of au jour d'aujourd'hui by saying, "This is undoubtedly one of the most-used words of the contemporary language, even though it does not exist at all." Well this is a very strange interpretation of the word exist. Clearly it exists – you can hear it all over the place. What they mean is that it's not in Larousse (although even the Académie has said this one is OK "if not abused"). It's a bit annoying that a dictionary that gives space to all these words sabotages its own project by pretending in the title that they don't really exist – that they're somehow not real words. They are real words. How many times do linguists have to say it?

The funny thing is, the Académie pretends that it's trying to promote the French language against the menacing spread of global English, but they only make French seem more hidebound and old-fashioned. Perhaps if they celebrated the vibrancy and inventiveness of actual spoken French, as glimpsed in books like this, they would not have to be so defensive all the time. Talk about court-termisme....

There are a few notable absences – I was sad to see no entry for my current favourite French word, frigotartinable ‘spreadable straight from the fridge’. But for anyone who wants to keep across contemporary French websites and literature, this is a useful and entertaining collection.
The Case for God: What religion really means - Karen Armstrong Poor Karen Armstrong has been ploughing a lonely furrow in recent years, trying to show that there is a valid Third Way between increasingly defensive religious groups and increasingly forthright ‘new atheists’. Neither side thinks much of her. For those of us a bit more detached from the arguments, she often seems like the only one talking any sense.

Her main problem can best be summarised by saying that she and I share almost identical views on religion, and yet I would call myself an atheist whereas she describes herself as a ‘freelance monotheist’. In other words, she succeeds in finding a definition of ‘God’ which I am happy to accept, but only by defining it pretty much out of existence.

The arguments in here build on her extraordinary back-catalogue of books on theological history, two of which – [b:A History of God|3873|A History of God The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam|Karen Armstrong|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1165367092s/3873.jpg|2011826] and [b:The Battle for God|27309|The Battle for God A History of Fundamentalism|Karen Armstrong|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320511875s/27309.jpg|2229866] – are absolutely essential reading for anyone who wants to enter into the debate. This book, which is designed as a sort of ‘comeback’ against the attacks of Hitchens, Dawkins et al., mostly rehashes work from those two masterpieces, so I can only really give it three stars although much of what is in here is brilliantly done.

Again, the point she is keen to stress is that religion and science represent different types of knowledge – what the Greeks called mythos and logos. The latter deals in rational thought and the former in poetic truths. (Thus she immediately sidesteps any claims that religion has to scientific knowledge about the world: she has as much scorn as any atheist for those religious people who think that holy books are records of facts.) She makes a convincing case that, in the pre-modern world, most religious thinkers and mystics saw religion as having symbolic, not factual, importance – hence the bizarre doctrines which to the modern world seem so impossible.

In the early modern period, when the West was developing a wholly rational way of thinking about God and the world, philosophers and scientists were appalled by the irrationality of the Trinity. But for the Cappadocian fathers – Basil, Gregory and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus (329-90) – the whole point of the doctrine was to stop Christians thinking about God in rational terms. If you did that, you could only think about God as a being, because that was all our minds were capable of. The Trinity was not a ‘mystery’ that had to be believed but an image that Christians were supposed to contemplate in a particular way.


Such ideas were thus thought-exercises – like Zen Buddhist koan – designed to free up your mind to think about the impossible. For many of these mystics and religious thinkers, ‘God’ was not some supernatural entity – rather ‘God’ was a sort of codeword for ‘existence’, ‘reality’, or ‘the universe’, a way of contemplating ultimate truths.

The problem came with the Enlightenment, when religions felt under threat from science and tried to argue that they too had scientific knowledge about the world. For Armstrong, this is where it all went wrong: Western Christians became ‘addicted to scientific proof and were convinced that if God was not an empirically demonstrable fact, there was no sense in which religion could be true.’

This doesn't mean that religion is ‘only’ a myth – or rather, it does, except that Armstrong believes that myths, far from being ‘just stories’, are of supreme value to the way human beings experience the world. Here I agree with her, and this is also my problem with the so-called new atheism, which often seems to take a very reductionist and intolerant view of religion. To see a scientist as brilliant as Richard Dawkins reduced to explaining, in book-length form, that the idea of a benevolent omnipotent god is incompatible with such facts as childhood leukaemia or Auschwitz, makes me feel depressed and a bit embarrassed. The point is not that he's wrong, it's that it's so obvious. You'd have thought we'd be beyond this by now.

Armstrong relates a story Elie Wiesel tells about Auschwitz:

one day the Gestapo hanged a child with the face of a ‘sad-eyed angel’, who was silent and almost calm as he climbed the gallows. It took the child nearly an hour to die in front of the thousands of spectators who were forced to watch. Behind Wiesel, one of the prisoners muttered: ‘Where is God? Where is He?’ And Wiesel heard a voice within him saying in response, ‘Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.’


Two things should be crystal clear reading this. The first is the literal truth that no kindly all-powerful being could watch such scenes take place. But the second is the extraordinary poetic beauty of the response that Wiesel suggests. This, to me, is the power of religion – the same sort of truth as that offered by King Lear or Anna Karenina, something which helps you sympathise with others and which invites you to understand that there is a sense in which all reality is affected by what happens to any one individual.

My only concern is that Armstrong is overplaying the extent to which this premodern view of religion is really representative of the ‘silent majority’ of faithful (I can't remember if she says this outright or just implies it). Certainly there is a huge amount of thought and intelligence behind what's in here, and it succeeds in locating the value in something that many people nowadays find valueless. However, I can't help thinking (not without some satisfaction) that religious believers who pick this book up looking for a quick comeback to a YouTube Hitch-slap might find themselves with more to chew on than they expected.
Le bleu est une couleur chaude - Julie Maroh One of the films I saw at Cannes this year was La Vie d'Adèle (in English, Blue is the Warmest Colour), which eventually and deservedly won the Palme d'Or. I was a little obsessed with it – I dreamed about the film for two nights after I saw it, and I was still going over it in my head weeks later.

One person who was not a fan, though, was Julie Maroh, the author of the original comic book. She said the sex scenes in the film were ‘ridiculous’ and had been ‘turned into porn’, and she complained about the fact that the two lead actresses were not lesbians in real life – which seems a silly objection really, since it's impossible to imagine anyone on earth playing the title role better than Adèle Exarchopoulos.

This isn't a film review so I'm not going to go into that, but it did make me really want to read the BD – even though it's always complicated coming to a book after you've seen the film adaptation. With that proviso in mind, I really loved this. It's sometimes described as a coming-out story, which it kind of is, or as a lesbian romance, which it kind of is – but its qualities convince you that such categories seem petty. It's just a very moving love story.

What makes it work so well is the central character of Clémentine, who is utterly charming – wide-eyed and unsure, but also prone to making lots of silly mistakes. At the start of the book she's just 15, struggling with homework and playground cliques, fighting with her parents, slouching around dreary Lille in her hoodie. She can't seem to make things work with her boyfriend Thomas. And then, one day, she meets someone who makes her feel everything she hasn't felt with him – a girl with blue hair….

The visual style is very effective, much more artful and interesting in many ways than the film. The blue of Emma's hair becomes such a icon of Clémentine's life that other colours seem bland and washed-out, and only blue objects stand out, all of them aides-memoires for the new and overwhelming feelings rushing through her.

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The comic has more Tragedy! and Melodrama! than the film, but it's still very moving – a beautiful portrait of first love in all its excitement and confusion. Since the Cannes win, an English translation has been rushed into print, so hopefully Maroh's work will be as widely read as it deserves to be.

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Emir Abd El-Kader: Hero and Saint of Islam
Gustavo Polit, Eric Geoffroy, Ahmed Bouyerdene
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