Category Archives: my favourite books

‘Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life’ by Peter Godfrey-Smith

'Other Minds' by Peter Godfrey-SmithOther Minds is an engrossing account of how intelligence and ‘consciousness’ might have evolved in animals, specifically in cephalopods – that is, octopuses, cuttlefish and squid, those fascinating sea creatures who are “the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien”. Peter Godfrey-Smith, a professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Sydney, writes in a clear, accessible manner about this very complex subject, with a great deal of warmth and humour and creativity (for example, he describes scallops as “swimming castanets” and cuttlefish as wearing “animated eyeshadow”).

He begins by discussing how neurons (nerve cells, the building blocks of the nervous system) might have evolved in our earliest common ancestors, then looks at how the cephalopods developed their vulnerable soft bodies and why they might have ended up with such large and complex nervous systems. An octopus has about 500 million neurons, comparable to a dog, but these are not distributed in the same way. Dogs and other vertebrates, including humans, have a large brain that directs the actions of the body using neurons, which branch off from a spinal cord. However, the octopus “is suffused with nervousness; the body is not a separate thing that is controlled by the brain or nervous system”. Its arms can act on the direction of its brain or can act completely independently of the brain and each other.

Octopus behaviour is as mysterious and strange as its neuroanatomy. They can perform well in experiments – learning how to navigate a maze, unscrew jars or operate a lever to receive food rewards – but they also have a tendency to cause mayhem. In one experiment in the 1950s, an octopus named Charles decided to break the lever he was meant to be pulling, snapped off the lamp above his tank, and directed jets of water at the experimenter. Octopuses in captivity often escape, cause floods or short-circuit the lights. Even if they decide to hang around and cooperate, they can recognise individual humans, are aware of when they’re being observed, and can behave in ways that seem deliberate:

“Octopuses love to eat crabs, but in the lab are often fed on thawed-out frozen shrimp or squid. It takes octopuses a while to get used to these second-rate foods, but eventually they do. One day, [Jean] Boal was walking down a row of tanks, feeding each octopus a piece of thawed squid as she passed. On reaching the end of the row, she walked back the way she’d come. The octopus in the first tank, though, seemed to be waiting for her. It had not eaten its squid, but instead was holding it conspicuously. As Boal stood there, the octopus made its way slowly across the tank toward the outflow pipe, watching her all the way. When it reached the outflow pipe, still watching her, it dumped the scrap of squid down the drain.”

Fortunately, most of the observations described in this book are not of poor captive octopuses, but octopuses in the wild, notably at an unusual site off the east coast of Australia, which the author and his colleagues named ‘Octopolis’. Although octopuses are usually solitary creatures, the octopuses living at Octopolis have built a little town, perhaps for protection from predators, and they interact in fascinating ways. The researchers make a point of not interfering with the octopuses, but the octopuses are curious about the divers and their camera equipment, and even make ‘friends’ with one particular researcher, Matt Lawrence:

“Once at a site close to this one, an octopus grabbed his hand and walked off with him in tow. Matt followed, as if he were being led across the sea floor by a very small eight-legged child. The tour went on for ten minutes, and ended at the octopus’s den.”

There’s also an intriguing chapter about the giant cuttlefish, which can change its skin colour and shape in seconds – as camouflage, to communicate with predators or prey or its own species, even as random patterns when resting. Remarkably, it can match its skin colour to its surroundings, even though the two eyes in its head seem to be colourblind. What it does have are thousands of photoreceptor and colour cells all over its skin, which can detect and reflect changes in light and then activate colour cells in response – in effect, ‘seeing with its skin’.

So much about cephalopods is still unknown, and a lot of this book consists of questions and tentative attempts at answers. Why do cephalopods need such a complex nervous system when most of them barely seem to communicate within their own species? Why do they have such enormous brains, when they have such short life spans to use those brains? How can a tree live for two thousand years and a boring rockfish for two hundred years, when the splendidly colourful cuttlefish and curious, clever, playful octopus live for only two years? (Also, who knew that there was such a thing as a vampire squid?)

Other Minds is highly recommended for readers interested in animal intelligence, and in cephalopod intelligence in particular. It would probably help readers to have some basic knowledge of the theory of evolution and how human cognition works, but I think the author does a good job of explaining complex ideas in an accessible way. There are some lovely photos in the book and the author has posted some interesting videos on his You Tube channel.

‘Aunts Up The Cross’ by Robin Dalton

“My great-aunt Juliet was knocked over and killed by a bus when she was eighty-five. The bus was travelling very slowly in the right direction and could hardly have been missed by anyone except Aunt Juliet, who must have been travelling fairly fast in the wrong direction.”

'Aunts Up The Cross' by Robin DaltonSo begins this highly entertaining memoir about a rich and eccentric Sydney family in the 1920s and 1930s. The author’s many older relatives tend to die in unusual ways: Aunt Juliet’s husband was killed when he fell through the dining room floor and broke his neck; Uncle Spot fell off a ladder while attempting to change a light bulb; Uncle Luke tumbled backwards off his office chair; Aunt Eva ate too many green apples; Aunt Jan died “from blowing up a balloon”. Even a visiting plumber dies of a heart attack after catching sight of the author’s ravishing mother, who’d “emerged naked from her dressing room en route to take a bath”.

There are also a number of unbalanced servants, pets and permanent house-guests, as well as an interfering grandmother who lives downstairs with batty Aunt Juliet (before Juliet gets run over by the bus) and a doctor father with a gambling habit who manages to shoot his own knee off (by accident, in his consulting rooms, while seeing a patient). The author claims “it was the clash and mingling of the Irish [on her father’s side] and Jewish [on her mother’s side] temperaments which provided this climate of high dramatic comedy. The fact that the doors were open and everybody joined in was pure Australian.”

Aunts Up The Cross was first published in 1965, long after the author had moved to London, and it shows (the author is particularly scathing about Australian architecture and the state of Australian theatre). The edition I read, however, was the 2001 Penguin re-release, which includes dozens of fascinating photographs of the various aunts and uncles and grandparents, the author’s extremely good-looking parents and the author herself as a pretty and indulged only child. There are also photos of the family mansion in Kings Cross, which burned down during the Second World War and is now the site of Fitzroy Gardens and the El Alamein Fountain.

My only criticism would be that this book is so short, a mere two hundred pages. I’d have liked to have learned more about the author herself, who went to a day school with the Governor’s daughter, then a posh country boarding school before working for the U.S. Army office in Sydney during the war and getting engaged multiple times. However the author, now ninety-six, has a new memoir out entitled One Leg Over, apparently about the many men who fell in love with her over her long and eventful life, so I have that to look forward to.

‘Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation’ by Elizabeth Pisani

This is a fascinating book about a year spent travelling around the Indonesian archipelago, written by a multilingual British woman who has spent much of her adult life in this diverse nation. She began her career as a journalist, then became an epidemiologist employed by the Indonesian Ministry of Health. In 2011, she decided to take time off to travel and learn more:

'Indonesia Etc' by Elizabeth Pisani“I only had one rule: ‘Just say yes’. Because Indonesians are among the most hospitable people on earth, this made for a lot of yesses. Tea with the Sultan? Lovely! Join a wedding procession? Yes please! Visit a leper colony? Of course! Sleep under a tree with a family of nomads? Why not? Dog for dinner? Uuuuh, sure. This policy took me to islands I had never heard of. I was welcomed into the homes of farmers and priests, policemen and fishermen, teachers, bus drivers, soldiers, nurses. I travelled mostly on boats and rickety-but-lurid buses that blared Indo-pop and had sick-bags swinging from the ceiling. Sometimes, though, I lucked into a chartered plane or rode cocooned in a leather car-seat behind tinted glass. I can count on one hand the number of times I was treated with anything other than kindness. I can also count on one hand the number of days that I did not have a conversation about corruption, incompetence, injustice and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

This is saved from being one of those ‘patronising white person blogging about their year of backpacking though a developing nation’ books by the author’s wide-ranging and first-hand knowledge of Indonesia. She displays genuine curiosity and warmth as she visits each community, but she’s also able to draw on her previous experiences. For example, there’s an excellent chapter on Aceh, the province that’s been wracked with separatist violence for decades. She provides a good summary of its complex post-colonial history, explaining why Aceh’s separatist movement is completely different to those in East Timor and West Papua, but she also relates anecdotes from working as a journalist in Aceh in the 1990s:

“At the time, it was impossible to tell who was behind the attacks. Only once, we saw a letter addressed to Indonesian newspaper editors, claiming responsibility for this wave of raids. Written entirely in lower-case, the letter was an eccentrically spelled mish-mash of anti-Javanese invective, childish threats, wounded pride and separatist rhetoric […] People called the troublemakers the GPK, just as the government did, and they had many theories about who they were. Most involved some combination of the following: disgruntled former soldiers who had been fired in a short-lived campaign against corruption in the military; thugs who wanted a bigger share of the marijuana trade (saus ganja was once a common ingredient in the cuisine of the region, and Aceh remained a centre of production for the crop); hot-blooded separatists back from training in Libya. It seemed wildly improbable to me that an organisation that didn’t have a shift key on its typewriter and couldn’t spell its own name would be linked to international terror training networks; it was only years later that I found that some of the fighters were indeed graduates from Middle Eastern training camps, though all the other theories also proved to be true.”

Much of the conflict in Indonesia that’s reported in the Australian media as being due to ‘the rise of Islam’ turns out to have a more complex, but also more prosaic, explanation. For example, the gangs of leather-jacketed, motorbike-riding thugs previously employed by politicians in Jakarta to attack student demonstrators have now

“begun to appear in turbans or knitted skullcaps, long white robes and straggly beards [to] selectively smash up those bars, nightclubs and brothels that don’t pay them protection money. A friend in the music business told me they demonstrated against Lady Gaga only after her promoters refused to pay them to provide security for her concert. But they do not choose their targets indiscriminately. They never vent their wrath on the porn industry, for example, because it is said to be controlled by the military.”

Most of the book, though, is not explicitly about politics but about the lives of ordinary Indonesians, trying to earn enough money to raise their families while dealing with a corrupt and incompetent bureaucracy, but also doing what people all over the world do – attending school, playing games, visiting friends, celebrating birthdays and weddings, and, even in the remotest islands, Facebooking on their mobile phones. It’s all related in a warm, entertaining style by an intrepid traveller. I think even readers who aren’t much interested in Indonesia will enjoy this book.

My Favourite Books of 2016

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I’ve read in 2016 (so far) that I loved the most. But first, some statistics.

I only read 46 new books this year (new to me, that is), fewer than I usually read. This was partly because I was studying for most of the year, plus I’d started a new job, both of which took up lots of mental energy. I also read a great deal of (mostly depressing) political news in newspapers, magazines and blogs. So when I wasn’t doing that, I escaped into the comfort of old favourites from my bookshelves, including a dozen of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s books and a re-read of all the Rivers of London novels in preparation for the release of Book Six in that series.

So, what type of new books did I read this year?

Type of books 2016

Author nationality for books read in 2016

It was the year of British literature, it seems.

Author gender for books read in 2016

And women writers dominate, yet again.

Now for my favourites.

My Favourite Adult Fiction

My favourite novels this year included Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Slade House by David Mitchell and the latest installment of the Rivers of London series, The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch.

My Favourite Non-Fiction

It was non-fiction that really captured my interest this year. Favourites included The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists by David Aaronovitch, and two of Bill Bryson’s books, At Home: A Short History of Private Life and The Road to Little Dribbling. I’m only halfway through Stalin Ate My Homework by Alexei Sayle, but I’m really enjoying it so far. However, my absolute favourite of the year was Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, a brilliantly incisive yet accessible discussion of neurocognitive research into sex differences, which I realise I didn’t actually review on this blog because I was too busy writing assignments at the time. I will try to remedy that at some stage in the near future, but in the meantime, here’s a good review.

My Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

I loved Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I was also beguiled by the first book in Antonia Forest’s Marlow series, Autumn Term.

My Favourite Picture Books and Graphic Novels

I was entertained (and occasionally enraged) by a collection of First Dog on the Moon’s political cartoons, A Treasury of Cartoons. I also enjoyed Night Witch, a graphic novel in the Rivers of London series, by Ben Aaronovitch, Andrew Cartmel, Lee Sullivan and others (although it wasn’t as good as the prose novels).

Thank you to everyone who contributed to Memoranda in 2016. I hope you’ve all had a good reading year and that 2017 brings you lots of inspiring, informative and entertaining books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012
Favourite Books of 2013
Favourite Books of 2014
Favourite Books of 2015

‘Olive Kitteridge’ by Elizabeth Strout

'Olive Kitteridge' by Elizabeth StroutI’ve been engrossed in this collection of short stories, most of them set in a small coastal town in Maine and all connected in some way to the central character, Olive Kitteridge. Olive, a retired high-school teacher, is fascinatingly awful – irritable, moody, impatient and highly critical of just about everyone she knows, including her sweet, long-suffering husband, Henry. Olive is an intelligent and perceptive woman and she can be compassionate to those in need of comfort – a suicidal former student, a young stranger with anorexia, a newcomer to town who’s recently bereaved. However, she’s also tragically incapable of seeing her own flaws and is baffled when her son chooses to move to the other side of the continent to get away from her. There’s some beautiful descriptive writing and lots of thoughtful commentary on the complex ways people behave and relate to one another. I must admit it does get a bit grim, what with all the characters being cheated on and abandoned and wanting to kill themselves, but it does end with a suggestion of hope, with Olive musing:

“… if love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it. And if her platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.

[…]

Her eyes were closed, and throughout her tired self swept waves of gratitude – and regret. She pictured the sunny room, the sun-washed wall, the bayberry outside. It baffled her, the world. She did not want to leave it yet.”

Recommended for those who like the short stories of Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood.

What I’ve Been Reading

There are times – for instance, when the world appears to be heading to hell in a handbasket – when even the most politically engaged, newspaper-addicted reader needs to escape into some frothy fiction. And fortunately for me, two of my favourite writers happened to have new novels out.

'The Hanging Tree' by Ben AaronovitchThe Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch was a very satisfying new installment of the Rivers of London series. It was good to see Peter back in London where he belongs, solving crimes, making new enemies and nearly getting killed in various dramatic and supernatural ways. He’s assisted by all the old crowd – Stephanopoulos, Guleed the Somali Muslim Ninja, the Rivers, Dr Walid, Kimberley the FBI agent – and it’s nice to see the subtle development of his relationship with his boss, Nightingale (who is actually observed smiling, and at one point, even winking, at Peter in this book). There’s also not one, but two new groups of magicians introduced, who may or may not be Peter’s allies, and there are important revelations about the Faceless Man and Lesley. With the author juggling so many characters and subplots, it’s not surprising that he occasionally drops one, kicks it under the sofa and pretends it never existed. What, for example, has happened to Abigail? But Peter’s narration is so entertaining and the action is so exciting that I honestly didn’t mind the odd plot hole – and in fairness to the author, he does tend to address these sorts of issues eventually, even if it does take a few books before you find out who, exactly, that strange fox-obsessed guy is, or what’s happened to the Quiet People. I also really enjoy the bits where the author goes off on tangents that have absolutely nothing to do with the story – for example, there’s a hilarious scene where he pokes fun at the sort of pompous old white men who keep getting short-listed for the Booker Prize, which makes me wonder whether Ben Aaronovitch ever had an unpleasant encounter with, say, Martin Amis at the BBC one day (although really, the fictional novelist could be based on any number of British male writers). Anyway, The Hanging Tree was well worth the wait and I think I might need to check out the Rivers of London graphic novels while I’m waiting for the next book.

'Vinegar Girl' by Anne TylerAnne Tyler also has a new book out, this one a modern retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. It’s part of a series commissioned by The Hogarth Press, with Jeanette Winterson doing The Winter’s Tale, Margaret Atwood The Tempest, Howard Jacobson The Merchant of Venice and so on. Now, I really, really hate The Taming of the Shrew, but I figured if anyone could find some charm and humour in the story, it would be Anne Tyler and indeed, I did enjoy a number of scenes, particularly the ones in which Kate, in this version a preschool assistant, interacts with her four-year-old students. The problem is trying to make modern-day Kate’s situation plausible, while staying true to the events of the play. Tyler decides to make Kate the intelligent, strong-minded 29-year-old daughter of an eccentric Baltimore scientist, Dr Battista. His brilliant Russian assistant’s visa is about to expire, so Dr Battista starts a “touchingly ludicrous” campaign for Kate to marry the young man, enabling Pyotr to qualify for a Green Card. This makes no sense whatsoever. If Kate is so smart and stubborn and independent, why is she still living at home acting as an unpaid servant for her selfish father and younger sister, and working in a dead-end child-care job she dislikes? Why does she have no friends and why has she never had a boyfriend (or girlfriend)? She’s not even particularly shrewish, just a bit tactless. If she wants to improve her life, which she does, there are dozens of ways to accomplish this without having to marry a man she barely knows, and who rapidly reveals himself to be a sexist jerk with no social skills. All the characters are paper-thin, but I kept reading, mildly engaged with the story, until the climactic scene in which Kate gives a speech that nearly made me throw the book across the room. Hey, did you know that it’s totally fine for men to be verbally and physically abusive, because “it’s hard being a man”? They just get frustrated because they have to be in charge of everything and have all the power and success in society! They just don’t get enough practice expressing their feelings and their “interpersonal whatchamacallit”! Then Kate and Pyotr live happily ever after, the end. So if you haven’t read any Anne Tyler before, please don’t start with this book. I don’t know what she was thinking. Unless she thought a vile misogynist was about to become President of her country…

‘Autumn Term’, Part Eight

Chapter Seventeen: The Prince and the Pauper

Exams are over (“Third Remove had consoled one another by remarking loudly that they’d all done equally badly”) and the day of the play dawns. Even though I’m not that interested in theatre, I enjoyed reading about the girls’ ingenious solutions to the problems of putting on a play with a small cast and almost no budget. However, Tim is starting to worry, especially when Miss Cartwright asks if they’re ready:

“…for [Tim] was uneasily conscious that perhaps she had been almost too successful in keeping Cartwright at a distance; and if, by any evil chance, the play should collapse dismally, she had no doubt but that Cartwright could, if she chose, be a formidable antagonist. The Pomona row would be nothing in comparison…”

Luckily, Nicola has organised posters, programmes and tickets, which Tim had completely forgotten about (“Nicola was really an excellent person to have around,” thinks Tim, YES TIM, SHE REALLY IS). Then the twins go off to meet their parents, who don’t even know there is a play because apparently they never read their children’s letters. But at least Mrs Marlow doesn’t embarrass the twins by wearing gaudy make-up or a fancy hat or trying to kiss them. The older Marlow sisters seem to have very low expectations for the play, assuming it will be a sweet tale about fairies and talking animals and anyway, “no one can ever hear what Thirds say unless they sit on the stage, practically.”

Backstage, Lawrie is sick (literally) with nerves and even Lois looks “white and highly strung” as they prepare for the curtain to rise. Nicola is polite to Lois, but still hasn’t forgiven her:

“But one couldn’t, thought Nicola stubbornly, suddenly like people because everyone else did, or forget that they had been fairly swinish, even if they were doing their best now; and she would be glad when the play was over and she needn’t even smile at Lois in corridors.”

At last Tim switches on the ‘radiogram’, puts on a record of Greensleeves (her aunt’s favourite song), the curtain goes up and … it all goes beautifully. Lawrie is even better than she was in rehearsals (“she was liking the audience”), the twins work well together, Pomona is really good, Tim works all the lights and curtains and music on cue. Marie does get a bad case of stage-fright, but the others, especially shy little Elaine, ad lib effectively to cover this up. Then comes the final Coronation scene and the curtain falls:

“No curtain calls, Tim had said in a moment of pessimism, forestalling the possibility that none might be required. But she had not been prepared for the sudden roar of applause which came from the body of the theatre; it would be ill-mannered not to answer that. She signalled to [the cast] to stay put and raised the curtain again, watching Nicola’s face break from its expression of rapt gravity into a sudden grin of pleasure.”

Rapturous applause that goes on and on. Then the audience calls for the producer. Tim, stunned, is forced onto the stage to take her bow and I might have got a tiny bit teary at that point.

Chapter Eighteen: Marie Puts Her Foot In It

Backstage there’s jubilation, then Third Remove have to “subdue their faces and voices to the proper expressions of modest unconcern” when they go to meet the parents and rest of the school in the Assembly Hall. The senior Marlows tell the twins they enjoyed the play, but Ann blunders when she says out loud that Lawrie was marvellous, better than Nicola. The others are horrified, but I’m not sure if it’s because they think praise will go to Lawrie’s head and she’ll become unbearable (a plausible concern) or they’re afraid Nicola will feel hurt (but Nicola impatiently says of course she knows Lawrie is better). Later, when the twins are alone, Lawrie remarks:

…that she wished their father and mother would say how frightfully good they’d been instead of just looking calm and pleased.

‘But they never do,’ protested Nicola. ‘You know they don’t if it’s anything proper. Even when Kay got Matric with distinction in practically everything, they just said it wasn’t bad and she must keep it up. You don’t want them to make a special fuss like when we got our Brownie Wings, do you?’

‘Yes,’ said Lawrie candidly, ‘I do. I like being told.’

Anyway, Commander Marlow quickly turns the subject to whether Third Remove really did do everything themselves, with no help from the seniors or staff. Rowan, honourable as ever, admits Lois did a brilliant job with the reading, then they all learn that Tim did practically all the work:

Karen and Rowan looked at one another.

‘Produced it–’ said Rowan.

‘Wrote it–’ said Karen.

‘Press-ganged Lois Sanger–’

‘And saw that her form-mistress gave no trouble,’ concluded Karen. ‘Next term someone had better keep a very special eye on T. Keith.’

‘Why?’ asked Lawrie.

‘Dangerous,’ said Karen, grinning at her father. ‘Organizing ability highly developed. Too much spare time owing to present position in school. Highly explosive combination unless superfluous energy directed into constructive channels.’

Yeah, good luck with trying to direct Tim into ‘constructive channels’, Karen. Although it’s nice to see Karen showing some perspicacity at last – until now, she’s been portrayed as academic, but fairly clueless about everything else in life. Finally I understand why she was made head girl.

After the parents leave, Miss Keith and Miss Cartwright congratulate Third Remove on their “corporate form effort” that wasn’t “merely the work of one or two enthusiastic people who ran around doing everything while the rest waited hopefully to be told what to do next”. As usual, the teachers don’t have any idea what was really going on. But Miss Keith does say they might do some scenes on Speech Day, which is a tremendous honour, and Miss Jennings comes up to congratulate Nicola on their backdrops and Nicola’s performance.

Nicola, by now feeling a bit overwhelmed, escapes backstage to tidy up, followed by Marie who is being over-friendly to make up for her awful performance in the play. Then Lawrie arrives with Miss Redmond, the Guide Captain, who announces grandly that the insurance company has determined the twins didn’t cause the farm fire. (Mind you, she doesn’t apologise or ask the twins to come back to Guides.) Nicola, who knew perfectly well they hadn’t set the fire, says a brief and polite thank you, and Miss Redmond departs, a bit disconcerted by the lack of gratitude. But then Marie accidentally reveals she hadn’t been inside the farm that day, which leads to the revelation that she lied at the Court of Honour.

It’s a lovely way of showing how much Nicola has matured since the start of term, because she accepts Marie’s confession calmly, with apparent indifference. She doesn’t lash out at Marie or rush off to tell Miss Redmond, as she would have done a few months earlier. Lawrie gloats about how they’ve got something to hold over Marie as a threat now, although Nicola points out if Lawrie could get over Lois’s treachery, she could get over Marie’s as well. Lawrie, typically, avoids the question of Lois. And then Lawrie points out that, with the success of the play, the twins finally have something they’re good at, just like the other Marlows.

‘So we are,’ said Nicola, much struck by this. ‘That’s very odd. It feels quite natural, somehow, doesn’t it?’

And on that soothing note, they go to bed.

Chapter Nineteen: Holidays Begin Tomorrow

End of term! Which Kingscote celebrates with a two-hour assembly at which Miss Keith reads out the list of exam results, honours, form trophies and so on. Sounds riveting. Why can’t they just stick lists up on the noticeboards? It isn’t even the end of the school year. Lawrie, basking in her new fame as theatrical star, enjoys a conversation with the Sixth Formers in which they marvel over this year’s Third Remove, the oddest they can remember and filled with “brilliant eccentrics”. One Sixth Former predicts Tim’s future:

‘I can foresee the most frightful things happening when that Tim child is head girl. Nothing will ever go wrong exactly, but everything will be hideously unexpected … The staff will have a ghastly time.’

I don’t expect they have anything as democratic as student elections at Kingscote, which probably means the head girl is selected by Miss Keith. But maybe she’ll think the responsibility will do Tim good?

The one last excitement for Third Remove is that they’ve won the Tidiness Award, to Tim’s disgust (“We’re not that kind of form at all”). Also, it turns out Nicola has been awarded honours for her exam results and everyone else has failed spectacularly. Also, Miss Keith gives Tim a tiny compliment when she says the play’s performance justified her faith in Tim – although Tim points out that the headmistress “nearly frightened herself into a fit saying that when she thought of all the awful things it might do to my character”. It just occurs to me that Tim’s parents didn’t come to the play. Did she even go home for half-term? She’s had about two conversations with her aunt all term, so it’s not as though she has the consolation of a supportive relative at school. Poor Tim, no wonder she’s a bit spiky.

The Marlow sisters pack to go home and Nicola unwraps a parcel that’s just arrived – a photo of Giles’s new ship signed “Affec – G.A.M.”, so “it was good to know he wasn’t still furious”. Not that he actually apologised or anything. Lawrie is busy planning next term’s triumphs (winning the junior diving medal and so on) but Nicola is older and wiser:

“It was probably better to let things happen as they wanted to, instead of trying to arrange them, without knowing all the circumstances … much more interesting … much less disappointing …”

THE END.

Except it’s just the beginning of the series and I know they’re going to go home and get caught up in exciting adventures with spies and smugglers and drug-dealing pigeons. And what will happen next term at school? Will Nicola get moved up into IIIB or even IIIA, away from Lawrie and Tim? Will Ann coax the twins back into Guides? Will Ginty ever stop being a pain? And will the simmering tension between Rowan and that “boyish and handsome” Lois Sanger ever spark into romance? (There’s Marlow fanfiction out there, isn’t there? I bet there is. But it’s bound to be spoilery, so I can’t read any till I’ve read more of the books.)

In conclusion – Autumn Term was great! Funny, insightful, well-paced and highly recommended for those who enjoy British boarding school books.

_____

You might also be interested in reading:

‘Autumn Term’ by Antonia Forest
‘Autumn Term’: Part Two
‘Autumn Term’: Part Three
‘Autumn Term’: Part Four
‘Autumn Term’: Part Five
‘Autumn Term’: Part Six
‘Autumn Term’: Part Seven

‘The Genius of Birds’ by Jennifer Ackerman

'The Genius of Birds' by Jennifer AckermanCould there be a book title more perfectly designed to appeal to my interests? Jennifer Ackerman’s new book is a fascinating exploration of bird intelligence, which begins with a description of the New Caledonian crow’s amazing ability to make and use tools in a variety of contexts. Of course, other birds also use found objects – to hook food out of holes, to carry water or honey to their nests, even to fight off enemies (with one documented case of a crow and a jay having a ‘sword’ fight with a sharp twig). However, tool use is just one of an awe-inspiring array of abilities displayed by birds.

I was especially interested to read about the complex social skills of different bird species. Birds tease one another, play together, teach useful skills to younger birds and console family members after an upsetting event. Some of them spy on and steal from their rivals, kidnap baby birds or feign injury to fool an enemy. They are sensitive to injustice and, just like dogs and primates, will refuse to work for a smaller reward than their peers. They can choose to delay gratification to receive a bigger reward later (which many humans struggle to do) and will bring gifts to those who have rescued or fed them (although not necessarily gifts that most humans will appreciate – one girl in Seattle received buttons, screws, hinges, a tiny plastic tube and a rotting crab claw).

Bird song is also complex, with many similarities to human language. Just like humans, young birds have an instinctual urge to vocalise, with an ‘optimal period’ of learning. Like humans, they learn by imitation and practice, although some birds are far superior to humans in the number of ‘languages’ they can learn and show amazing acoustic consistency when singing a particular song. Birds sing the dialect particular to their local area and can show ‘speech defects’, such as a stutter.

Other human-like abilities include architectural and artistic skills. There’s a wonderful description of an Australian satin bowerbird building not a nest, but a boudoir for attracting and seducing females:

“First, he furiously clears debris from an area about a yard square and then sets about diligently collecting twigs and grasses, which he distributes evenly to make his ‘platform’. From this collection, he selects choice twigs to plant in two neat rows, creating a kind of avenue carefully positioned to catch the morning strike of sun. At the northern end, he arranges his bed of fine twigs, evening it out. This will serve as the background for his panoply of decorations – and also as a sort of dance floor, where he will later offer up some showy pirouette and song.

Next comes the business of collecting treasures. Not just any object will do. This bird is bullish on blue: cornflower-blue tail feathers from a parrot, lavender lobelia blossoms, shiny blue fruits from the quandong tree, purple petunias, and blue delphiniums stolen from a nearby homestead, along with fragments of cobalt glass or pottery, navy blue hair ribbons, bits of turquoise tarp, blue bus tickets, straws, toys, ballpoint pens, that [turquoise glass] eyeball, and his prize, a baby-blue pacifier pilfered from his neighbor. These he arranges artfully against his twig canvas. If his flowers wither or his berries shrivel, he’ll replace them with fresh ones. Watch for a few more days, and you might see him paint a chest-high band on the inside of his twig hall, using dried hoop pine needles he has chewed and crushed in his beak.”

Other birds build ingenious nests from natural and human-made materials, with sparrows even adding cigarette butts (which contain chemicals that repel bird parasites).

There’s an engrossing discussion of how pigeons and migratory birds manage their extraordinary feats of navigation and memory, which leads to a critique of our biased, anthropocentric definitions of ‘intelligence’. The author ends with a sober warning about how human activity – hunting, deforestation, pollution and climate change – is already threatening some bird species. Within a few decades, the effect on bird diversity could be catastrophic and this book demonstrates just how much we would lose.

Anyone with the slightest interest in birds will find this book fascinating, but it will also appeal to those interested in the wider field of human and animal cognition. Highly recommended!

You might also be interested in reading:

‘Alex and Me’ by Irene M. Pepperberg

‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ by Diana Wynne Jones

I have had a mixed reaction to the novels of Diana Wynne Jones so far. I enjoyed Dogsbody, I thought Charmed Life was okay, I loathed Fire and Hemlock. I was also a bit put off by DWJ’s fans, some of whom display almost religious levels of devotion to her. This obliges them to not only promote her work assiduously, but also disparage anyone else who’s had the audacity to write children’s fantasy, especially if those writers manage to sell more books than their idol. (I mean, didn’t J. K. Rowling realise that Diana Wynne Jones was the only British author ever allowed to write about orphans attending magic school?)

'Howl's Moving Castle' by Diana Wynne JonesHowever, I’ve just finished Howl’s Moving Castle and finally understand what DWJ’s fans are going on about, because this book was utterly charming – funny, clever, warm-hearted and featuring some of the most endearing characters I’ve come across in children’s fantasy. The dreaded Wizard Howl, rumoured to suck the souls from innocent young girls or maybe eat their hearts, turns out to be far less evil than suspected, although with enough flaws to fill a (moving) castle. There’s also Calcifer, his adorably grumpy demon, Michael, the anxious apprentice and Sophie, the valiant heroine placed under a curse by a wicked witch. The author has a lot of fun playing with fantasy conventions – seven-league boots, magical disguises, mysterious spells, supernatural battles, kings sending magicians on dangerous quests and so on – although my favourite part was when the magical world collided with the real one. In one chapter, Sophie and Michael accompany Howl to his original home in the “land of Wales”. Sophie is baffled by the clothes (Howl dons a baggy jacket with the strange inscription “WELSH RUGBY”) and by the technology, which includes magical boxes with moving pictures, the boxes growing “on long, floppy white stalks that appeared to be rooted in the wall”. Throughout, the plot twists and turns in a very inventive and complicated manner, but it all ends as it should, with evil vanquished and the good living happily ever after.

The edition I read had some excellent illustrations by Tim Stevens (the scarecrow is especially creepy) and a lovely cover with Howl looking supernaturally handsome and his castle looming darkly in the background. But then I remembered this book was made into a much-loved animated film and went looking for the trailer and it looks TERRIBLE. The castle is all wrong! Everyone speaks American! The story looks more like a Disney princess romance than anything else! It doesn’t seem like the sort of film that even mentions “WELSH RUGBY”. However, if any of you have seen it and think it worth watching, I may give it a try. Also, if you have any recommendations for Diana Wynne Jones books that are just like Howl’s Moving Castle but nothing like Fire and Hemlock, I would be very interested to hear them.

What I’ve Been Reading : Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

For various reasons, I haven’t felt up to reading anything new lately, so I’ve been working my way through old favourites from my bookshelves. This has included a whole shelf of novels and short stories by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. I find her work consistently engrossing, although I’m not sure why, because she wrote the same story over and over again. Generally a Westerner – someone from America or Britain, usually with German parents or grandparents – arrives in India with great enthusiasm and is either gradually or suddenly disillusioned. Often there is a guru involved, who may or may not be as benevolent as he initially seems. In her later work, the setting is New York or London and the master is a tempestuous Central European musician or psychiatrist or academic, but the theme is the same – that the characters must efface themselves to reach true fulfilment, which rarely turns out to equal true happiness.

Her fiction always seems very autobiographical and in her introduction to Out of India, entitled ‘Myself in India’, she wrote:

'Out of India' by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

“I have lived in India for most of my adult life. My husband is Indian and so are my children. I am not, and less so every year […] There is a cycle that Europeans – by Europeans I mean all Westerners, including Americans – tend to pass through. It goes like this: first stage, tremendous enthusiasm – everything Indian is marvellous; second stage, everything Indian is not so marvellous; third stage, everything Indian abominable. For some people it ends there, for others the cycle renews itself and goes on. I have been through it so many times that now I think of myself strapped to a wheel that goes round and round and sometimes I’m up and sometimes I’m down.”

She was particularly interested in religion and “whether religion is such a potent force in India because life is so terrible, or is it the other way round – is life so terrible because, with the eyes of the spirit turned elsewhere, there is no incentive to improve its quality?” The heart of her problem, she said, was this:

“To live in India and be at peace, one must to a very considerable extent become Indian and adopt Indian attitudes, habits, beliefs, assume if possible an Indian personality. But how is this possible? […] Sometimes it seems to me how pleasant it would be to say yes and give in and wear a sari and be meek and accepting and see God in a cow. Other times it seems worthwhile to be defiant and European and – all right, be crushed by one’s environment, but all the same have made some attempt to remain standing.”

'The Nature of Passion' by Ruth Prawer JhabvalaThis author is probably best known for her Booker Prize-winning novel, Heat and Dust, and her Academy Award-winning script writing for the films of Merchant and Ivory. I like Heat and Dust, a book that contrasts historical and modern British attitudes towards India, and the film is pretty good, too. But my favourite Ruth Prawer Jhabvala novel about India would have to be The Nature of Passion. It’s a clever, droll, beautifully constructed story about a family in New Delhi in the 1950s. Lalaji is one of the new super-rich, a man who has acquired millions of rupees by a combination of ruthless scheming, graft and sheer hard work and believes his security lies in sticking to traditional Hindu values. His youngest offspring, however, have opposing ambitions. Chandra is trying to establish a squeaky-clean career in the Civil Service, Viddi wants to travel to Paris to be an art critic, and beautiful Nimmi longs to be modern and independent and marry for love. A crisis looms for Lalaji when a politician begins a campaign against bribery and corruption:

“Bribery and corruption! These were foreign words, it seemed to him, and the ideas behind them were also foreign. Here in India, he thought, one did not know such words. Giving presents and gratifications to Government officers was an indispensable courtesy and a respectable, civilised way of carrying on business. It was a custom, a tradition even, and hence should be respected; not tampered with by upstart Deputy Ministers who had been abroad and brought home unsuitable ideas.”

For those who prefer short stories, Out of India is a good representative collection of her work, although I also like A Stronger Climate because it divides the stories into two useful categories, ‘The Seekers’ and ‘The Sufferers’. I also enjoyed My Nine Lives: Chapters of a Possible Past, in which the nine stories, set in India, America and Britain, explore fictional “alternative destinies” for the author.
'Shards of Memory' by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

When it comes to her novels set (mostly) outside India, the one I keep returning to is Shards of Memory, a family saga involving a wealthy Anglo-German-Indian family living in New York and linked to a mysterious spiritual Master. I don’t know why I like it so much, because it’s certainly not flawless (for one thing, it ends too abruptly). I think it must be the characters, who are so complicated and eccentric and oddly endearing. I especially like Henry, the young man who reluctantly accepts his destiny as the Master’s heir, and Henry’s grandfather Graeme, a cynical British diplomat – and also, possibly, a spy…