Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

It was a situation where I felt I had to buy a book before I left the shop and the longer I looked, the less likely I felt I would end up with something I wanted. But all of a sudden I stumbled on this Tyler from 2016, which is apparently part of a series where modern writers are commissioned to do a take on a Shakespeare story. On the one hand, I have read all the books written by Tyler except for the one that won a Women’s Literature prize, which I felt obliged to boycott. On the other, I hate The Taming of the Shrew and I could see no good coming from this.

Yes, I thought to myself grimly after ten pages, just as I suspected. A dud if ever there was one. But actually, sticking to it, I quickly came to like it. Not love. And I think it fades towards the end. But not awful, at any rate. I don’t feel like I should have spent the ten bucks on smashed avo instead. High praise indeed.

At its best this is classic Tyler. The caricature of scientists is well done. The scenes where she is working as a teacher’s assistant with little children are as charming as Tyler gets. Indeed, one is left wondering if it is a happy ending that she marries and becomes a one child family botanist when she could give so much joy to so many children.

I’m really undecided overall with this one. Anybody read it? Please tell me what you think!

Conversations on Chemistry by Jane Haldimand Marcet

My career as a scientific investigator ended when I was five.

I’d discovered that if you scratch your skin with your fingernail, it goes white and then if you lick it – or otherwise apply water – the scratch will disappear. I thought this was pretty interesting and I wanted to explore the idea more. I looked at the car. I got my metal cap gun. Just don’t say a thing, okay? I did a pretty good job of ruining the paintwork, confident in the idea I was merely going to wash all those scratches away.

Don’t ask what happened when my parents found out. Suffice to say, the aftermath of the Heidi incident was a pat on the head and extra dessert by comparison.

Post-grad chemists, I gather, learn that in fact at least 85% of what they do for the rest of their lives will fail. I had an early one out of one, a hundred percent lesson.

You might think it is weird that I wanted to be a saint when I grew up, but honestly, being boiled in oil or eaten by cannibals just seemed so much more – well, civilised – that what happens to intrepid scientists.

You won’t have heard of Jane Marcet. Female, you see. But maybe the most important, inspirational writer in education in the late eighteenth and then nineteenth centuries. She made Faraday what he was. Or so he later said. Here is both a discussion of her and a link to an online version of this book.

Seduced by Logic: Émilie Du Châtelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian Revolution by Robyn Arianrhod

On Goodreads when I reviewed this some years back I began with a cross rant, which I’m going to truncate here. It is a great pity that this book did not have competent editorial assistance – not one of OUP’s strong points (rolls eyes). Intensely irritating is that the author uses the word ‘recall’ incessantly and inappropriately. It would have been a simple matter for OUP to fix before publication. It’s by no means the only flaw and more on that later.

However, I really don’t want to put you off reading about two women whose impact on the science world of France and the UK lasted for hundreds of years.

As the author chose to write this in chronological order, this book has the misfortune of starting with the more interesting of the two stories it tells. The tale of Chatelet verges on the incredible, after which Somerville’s life palls in comparison. I can’t help thinking with some creativity applied, this history might have been presented in reverse chronological order to good effect. There might even have been some advantage in having done so, aside from making it more readable.

I bought this book because I discovered the influence that Mary Somerville had in England for a hundred years or so as the translator (and ‘improver’) of Laplace used in universities until the mid-nineteenth century, at least, and wished to find out more about the background to this. The first part of the book, however, tells the nicely complementary story of Emilie du Chatelet, who somewhat earlier translated Newton to French, standing the test of time so that even late in the twentieth century it was highly regarded. Chatelet, like Somerville, was forced to set about her own education as an adult, no easy thing despite being an aristocrat. Her life was spent looking after an estate, having at least some times to educate her children herself, it was spent in part with her husband – if only for form and friendliness – and in passion and intellect with Voltaire. It is evident from this book that Voltaire would have been greatly diminished in the absence of Chatelet. Although one could say this was a reciprocal relationship, it nonetheless was a relationship that made things harder in some respects for Chatelet as she put Voltaire first always. Thus her life also consisted of keeping him out of gaol, getting him out of gaol, getting him unexiled, keeping him out of trouble, and helping him with his scientific endeavours. This latter was particularly important since he really wasn’t up to it, whereas she was. Her own research, however, tended to be conducted in secret in the middle of the night, in her bedroom, using as equipment torn sheets and the like, so that it didn’t interfere with his work or make him jealous.

Indeed, maybe she underestimated him in this last regard, since it seems he was anything but jealous of her greater abilities, generous in his praise and loyal to –

Loyal to? How to finish that. Emilie was beautiful, extremely intelligent and men were loyal to her. Her husband put up with the fact that her relationship with Voltaire utterly broke the formal rules of extra-marital affairs in France: it was real and it was public. Voltaire, when Emilie was in her late thirties, told her he didn’t want to have sex with her any more. She was gutted but still stunning. After she found out by accident that Voltaire had moved on sexually, so did she. She became involved with a young man of society. Despite this Voltaire was utterly loyal in that he stayed with her, her husband stayed with her and Newton stayed with her. She was still desperately trying to finish her translation of Newton when the unthinkable happened. She felt pregnant to the young man. In her forties! I imagine that would be like being in your sixties and becoming pregnant now. Life expectancy can’t have been more than around that figure, I would have thought. So now she has the disgrace of this happening, she has Voltaire livid – somehow he seemed to think that she would remain celibate in memory of him?! – her husband is humiliated, the young man is confused…but she still has them all. They are all still with her, now a bub inside her too…AND Newton. I am truly in awe of the fact that in this state she was still working on Newton. Voltaire, somewhat losing patience, said to a friend

‘Madame du Chatelet has not yet delivered. She has more difficulty bringing into the world a baby than a book’.

Despite that, the baby did slip out with incredible ease, Emilie spent the next days making last changes to Principia

And then? Suddenly one week after giving birth she died, just like that.

The husband, the ex-sexual-lover and still lover in other ways Voltaire, the young lover and father of the baby Saint-Lambert, were all utterly devastated. Of the latter it was said by a friend ‘I would never have believed him capable of such passion,’ his grief led to a breakdown from which he took a year to recover.

I can’t help thinking Humphrey Bogart would have said ‘This is some dame’. Boy, is she what.

Then, this heartbreaking footnote from some 40 years later in the 1790s when the churchyard in which she was buried was ransacked. One of her young admirers, now 83 years

watched a shocking desecration of Emilie’s grave, in which her bones were scattered and her jewellery and finery mocked and stolen by uncomprehending ‘citizens’ of the new republic. When the mob had gone, Devaux lovingly replaced Emilie’s remains in her grave. There was no inscription on her black, marble tombstone, but the old man regularly kept a silent vigil in honour of her memory, sitting by her grave and remembering the glory days of the philosophes – the days of hope, through faith in reason, before reason temporarily turned into madness.

This is the story that is unputdownable, it is impossible not to love Emilie and the author does a fair job of putting you in her shoes, at her dinner table, in her pained thoughts about her work. She also does a reasonable job of putting science as it was into the social and philosophical setting of the period. For me, she did not do a good job of making the science itself accessible, but aside from being a scientific imbecile, you will recall I was also irritated beyond endurance by the recall word and after a while skipped over the science. The author already has a reputation for pop maths/science, so I am prepared to take all the blame.

I’ve been discussing the whole issue of reviewing lately, being honest vs saying nice things and I’m rather torn on this one. It has large flaws, but nonetheless the subject matter is in my opinion so rarely dealt with, that it is worth endeavouring with this and most readers might not even notice some of the things that I have been picky about. Although the author herself was full of praise for the publishing assistance she received when she wrote to me in response to a query, I think she has been utterly let down by completely inadequate editorial process. I simply cannot understand at a point in time where real publishing houses should be stating loudly and clearly that there is genuine value and purpose to their role, why it is that we see instead something that quite simply fails the writer. The material was here to make a GREAT book, instead of which it is far far less than that.

Shame OUP.
——————-

Written during my reading…

Recommended for: all the male scientists and academics who think they have it tough.

I bought this to find out more about Mary Somerville, having discovered how influential her work was in the UK for a hundred years. What a bonus to discover the story of the scientist, mathematician and writer Emilie Du Chatelet.

The book is in chronological order and hence starts with an account of du Chatelet’s life and work. She has the advantage of being a wealthy aristocrat. Against that, however, all the disadvantages stand out, the consequence of being female. Even becoming educated as an adult was a great struggle.

The legacy of the crippling handicap of being female was that even when she overcame it to produce a translation of Newton which remains the standard French account (as well as the first), at the time there was the usual condemnation and presumption that it was the result of the work of the various men in her life. I understand it is only over the past forty years or so, as women are slowly being accepted as approximately ‘equal’ to men, that history is being rewritten to put Du Chatelet where she should be.

Arianrhod is a competent writer and mathematician and gives an account which is nicely dispassionate while occasionally finding it impossible not to express her emotion. You will understand why, if you read the book. You will read it with your heart in your mouth for Du Chatelet. You’ll be barracking for her all the way.


More on this book’s minusses.

  • Hate the reference ‘system’. You guess when you are on a page if there will be any references and go to the back of the book to search for them.
  • The author makes some attempt to explain the personal side of this venture, her own development in the field and how it drew her to her subjects. There is a brief discussion of the status of women in science at the time of writing. I don’t think any of this works. The author’s life is not an interesting addition to the story of the subjects and the discussion of ‘how things are now’ is simply way too cursory for it to have any point. Nor is is possible to see the soul mate connection: the author spent a bit of time in her life deliberately eschewing modern conveniences which is simply not anything like the difficulties under which these two were forced to labour.

Machines Like Us by Ian McEwan

Plenty of spoilers ahead.

There is a choice when writing this sort of book. You can put it in a near future, like Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, or you can apparently put it in an alternative past. This is the 1980s, but not as we knew them. I am curious to know the motivation for this. It could be that it’s harder to make up a future than edit the past to taste. Or it could be that it will make it feel more like this is how it is.

And, it seems to me, if that was McEwan’s idea, he’s succeeded surprisingly well. I wasn’t irritated once that he’d made his own version of history – but then, most movies now are bio-pics, so why not? I guess we are used to the idea now that history is just an opinion, a story, my facts versus yours.

In fact there isn’t much to choose between the two settings, both Atwood’s and McEwan’s are completely believable. Probably because we are already in them, her future and his past. It would be nice to think that the point of a book like this – or like the movie of a few years ago, Her – is that it’s important for big picture thinkers to talk about these revolutionary changes upon us in AI. The biggest of all, that we have created our own destruction, and plenty of others working down from there. It’s hard to believe that we have marginalised the role of story tellers, philosophers, sociologists, ethicists, thinkers at this crucial point in our history. Stepping onto university soil recently for the first time in a few decades, I discover that it has been completely hijacked by business. Ethics, science, thought – nothing is independent of business in these once hallowed halls of intelligence at work. How can AI possibly develop in an ethical way if it is all controlled by big money?

But is this the point of the book? A thoughtful person giving his glimpse of understanding of a difficult future? Or is McEwan, expressing the concern of a friend who raised it with me, just on a bandwagon? Writing about it because that’s the show-me-the-money thing to write about now. A decade ago it was autistic female detectives (extra money if you can write about it in Swedish).

Certainly McEwan has scooped bits and pieces from the media of late, I guess to set some of the issues out in ways that may be easily digested. The famous Go match. The problem of the driverless car’s ethical decisions. Perhaps this is also to make what he segues to more believable. The ‘human’ robot who likes good clothes, washes the dishes, is obsessed with writing haikus and despite this is way ahead of the human curve. Is that just a small step from the Go match?

Curiously, although the 1980s Britain in which this is set, is in economic and social chaos with a bad Tory government in power (is bad redundant?), McEwan not only makes it inevitable that these human robots exist, but he makes them the product of good minds. This seems odd, doesn’t it? AI is a business, controlled by enormously wealthy men (sic) who have no discernable social instincts. One wouldn’t be surprised if they were all assessed as sociopaths given the opportunity.

In McEwan’s near past, the people who create the robots are Nice Scientists, the robots are Nice and Terribly Much Cleverer than Us Really Quickly, and humans are muddling along much as in the past. The moral of the story is that these inventions are sentient, conscious, like sex in a ‘human’ like way, and are altogether better than us too.

Well, I didn’t feel like that reading the book. I can completely understand why one failed human took the ——– and – well. I’ll stop that spoiler right there. Was I supposed to? I’m not sure.

The book sucks you in, chews you up, spits you out. Completely worth reading if that’s what you want from a book. I’m just not sure if I believe his line. I suppose, though, that we’ll find out soon enough. The alternative near past is definitely catching up with us.

 

 

 

 

Conversations by Primo Levi and Tullio Regge

An erudite and entertaining exchange between two notable Italian minds. Is it relevant that they are Italian? Yes, since one of the things discussed is the impact of Fascism on education and science in particular. And yet here they are, survivors in more ways than one, in the case of Levi.

Primo Levi explains why, at the age of past sixty, he felt he must learn to write with a word processor – and this was in the late seventies/early eighties.

I read Pozzoli’s book Writing With a Computer, and it had on me the effect of the bugle call that wakes you up in the barracks. I realised that today one can certainly live without a computer, but one lives at the margins and is bound to become more and more detached from active society. The Greeks said of a person without culture: ‘He can neither write nor swim.’ Today one should add: ‘Nor use a computer’.

I’m surprised that one could say this so early. I got my first computer around 1988 and this was scarcely a common thing to do yet. And a person may be living on the margins with one – I can see that in the case of my mother, for example, who sees them as the work of the devil – but she is very cultured. The connection isn’t one I see, any more than thinking swimming is a cultured thing to do. Full disclosure – neither my mother nor I know how to swim.

Regge on how he became a physicist despite the best efforts of his father.

‘Get a serious degree, my father kept saying. Physics isn’t serious. If you want to do physics, get a degree in chemistry too, because put together they are like a degree in engineering. And when I got my degree in physics with the highest marks and I was given a teaching fellowship, he still insisted. At a certain point I went to Russia and Pravda published my photograph. I cut it out and sent it to my father. “So he’ll stop telling me to get a degree in chemistry,” I explained to my Russian friends who asked me why. This anecdote is still in circulation even now. I always run into somebody who asks me if my father is still insisting.’

Levi on the way in which his training in chemistry influenced how he wrote. And on becoming free of it as his job.

I spent the day after my resignation strolling through the streets of Turin on a working day: a working day – do  you realise what that meant? No more office hours, no more crossing town during the rush hours; and every blessed day, no night calls because a valve has broken or a rainstorm has flooded the cable beds. I felt I had avalanches of free time at my disposal: if before I had written three or four books, working in the evening and on Sunday, now I would write another twenty or thirty. Instead it didn’t go like that: a friend of mine used to say that in order to do things, ‘one mustn’t have time.’ Time is an eminently compressible material.

Scientists discussed include Einstein – this might seem to be a given, but in fact Regge’s important contributions to theoretical physics included work on Relativity – Hoyle, Dyson, Wheeler, Everett, Oppenheimer. And Gödel, this from Regge:

Very shy. Once I met him at a dinner, and I think I’m one of the few people who spent a few hours at table with him. I managed to extract something from him; not very flattering comments on Bertrand Russell, a few more benevolent opinions on Peano. I asked him whether he had been part of the Vienna Circle: he answered with a dry and conclusive ‘no.’ He was a close friend of Morgenstern, the economist, who one day went to see him but found the house deserted. A pot was boiling on the stove but of Gödel not a trace. Knowing what he was like, Morgenstern began to inspect the house and found him in the cellar hidden behind some sacks of coal, his phobia of visitors was so great.

In fact, a lot goes into this little book, even though it feels like a natural meander in the way a conversation should. Anybody interested in history of science will love it.

 

 

 

In Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman

4.30pm yesterday Start reading page one.

4.31pm Tablet makes noise. Stop to check email.

4.35pm Continue reading page one.

4.36pm Check phone, may be a test message.

Well, it would be easy enough, evidently, for most people’s diary of reading this book to go like that. But I, and most people who are important to me, aren’t like that. We hardly ever turn on our phones, if we do, we forget that they are on, get the text message days later. Don’t have smart phones.

I suspect Alan Lightman will never have the right audience. People like me don’t live in the way he rues. The people who might get something out of it aren’t going to. In fact, he pretty much concedes that it’s a do as I say, not as I do book. He did get a smart phone, later than other people, and was addicted within days.

One of the things I love about having a proper computer, with a proper screen, is that it’s in its proper place. It isn’t part of me. It’s part of the room it sits in. Very occasionally it goes on a trip and reappears in another part of the world, part of another room. Never part of me. Going to my computer is a conscious act and this keeps addiction to a minimum. When I do go through periods of sitting there, ‘wasting time’ it’s for a purpose, pretty much that which is, after all, the message of the book. There are some things one can look at in a sort of Zen way, if you like, whilst sitting on a computer, whilst one’s brain is in the background, figuring something out. It can be calming, it can be a way of pushing stress away. I collect on Pinterest pictures of green. Perhaps for a person living in the middle of a European cityscape with no chance to take the daily meandering rural walks as a child Lightman wistfully refers to, these take the place. I hope they aren’t just an addiction.

But I spend substantial periods away from my computer too. Lightman doesn’t talk about cooking, but much of the ‘drudgery’ involved is mindless, exactly the sort of time one’s mind can transport itself. Washing up, chopping, stirring. One of the reasons I resist using machines to do the work of chopping is that it would take away that time, it would replace it with ugly noise and forced concentration. Lightman also doesn’t mention knitting, the Zen of nice white women who are wealthy enough to do knitting for the process without concern for the time taken. A privilege we have, that our mothers didn’t, who knitted furiously to get that jumper we needed ready for the moment.

I walk everywhere, unplugged. There was a period in my life when I listened to music while walking, but I seem to have left that long ago. I have never driven so the anger and stress of that appallingly wasted time has never been part of my life. On public transport I read. Or stare out the window. Or knit. Contemplate.

Time – of course it’s our enemy in the end. We will run out of it. But on a day to day basis it is not my enemy, it has little to do with my life. When walking, if presented with the shorter path which has the pollution (in every respect, especially noise) of motors or the peace of the pedestrian path, the latter is taken almost every time.

There is nothing special about any of this, they are choices we all make. Many choose to be plugged in so that they don’t hear the trees as they walk along the lake. Many choose to take a photo of their surrounds, rather than look at them. Many choose to evaluate their lives through the competition of Facebook. In the case of time, I’ve often been accused of having the time to spare, to for example, cook properly. But I make that choice. The person accusing me of it spends a lot of time watching football on TV. They don’t see the choice as they cook indifferent meals for their children, butchershop marinated meat, supermarket chopped vegetables. On the one hand, I suppose it is something I give people, cooking properly for them. On the other, for much of the process I get the possibility of the sort of time Lightman says he wants, but can’t give himself. Not really. He doesn’t even convince himself properly, let alone the rest of us.

He says nothing we didn’t already know in this book, perhaps he says some of it a little better, being the nice writer and thinker that he is. But….it’s a TED talk. Sigh. Converted into a little book (because it isn’t long enough to sustain a normal sized book) padded out with pictures which I found irrelevant and irritating. I would have preferred more words for my money, if I’d been the sort of person to buy such a book. Which I’m not.

The book itself is part of a series, the TED talk capitalist drive at work. I guess people get suckered into buying the lot. I don’t see it rising above the morass of that whole industry.

I don’t see why the book and the talk couldn’t have just said this:

TURN YOUR FUCKING PHONE OFF YOU DICKS. GET A LIFE.

 

 

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

I read this several years ago, and catching up now to put pen to page.

All games players should read the first half or so of this book. As I read it, page after page was covered in notes, ‘yes’ ‘no’ ‘really?’ ‘but’….

What Kahneman discusses in this book is something we’ve all known in a less rigorous way, perhaps – the intuitive and the analytical paths to decision making and action.

Two Systems

Psychologists have been intensely interested for several decades in the two modes of thinking evoked by the picture of the angry woman and by the multiplication problem, and have offered many labels for them. I adopt terms originally proposed by the psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West, and will refer to two systems in the mind, System 1 and System 2.

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.

System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.

The labels of System 1 and System 2 are widely used in psychology, but I go further than most in this book, which you can read as a psychodrama with two characters.

Surely you chess and bridge players are already sitting up and paying attention. We all know about that psychodrama. He continues:

When we think if ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do. Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is, the automatic System 1 is the hero of the book. I describe System 1 as effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2. The automatic operations of System 1 general surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, but only the slower System 2 can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps. I also describe circumstances in which System 2 takes over, overruling the freewheeling impulses and associations of System 1. You will be invited to think of the two systems as agents with their individual abilities, limitations, and functions.

Of course this hasn’t been written with game players in mind, and you may, like me, find yourself disagreeing with some of the ideas here. For a start, System 1 is based on the infinite hard work of System 2. As far as playing games go, you aren’t born with S1, it grows and improves because of S2. However, it is definitely food for thought and may help clarify aspects of how you are thinking and how you might address issues.

Educational and sometimes astonishing when it comes to how bad we humans are at dealing with data. There is a chapter dealing with Linda.  It’s quite incredible to see that around 90% of undergrads at major universities (I assume US), when presented with details leading to this:

Which alternative is more probable?
Linda is a bank teller.
Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

As the author notes, 89% of undergraduates had violated the rules of probability.

Equally, people were more likely to favour as more likely, the scenario of ‘an earthquake in California leading to a massive flood’, than they were the scenario of ‘a massive flood in the US’

and, most amusingly for all my sports betting friends, the scenario set at Wimbledon with Borg #1 at the time:

A. Borg will win the match
B. Borg will lose the first set
C. Borg will lose the first set but win the match
D. Bord will win the first set but lose the match

The critical items are B and C. B is the more inclusive event and its probability must be higher than that of an event it includes. Contrary to logic, but not to representativeness or plausability, 72% assigned B a lower probability than C

An important part of the book looks at financial investment at low and high levels. Highly worth reading to see what is being done to us from the top.

 

 

There’s no excuse for ugliness by Clive Blazey

I want to end on a good note about this, so let’s start with the bad. There is no excuse for ugliness in book publishing, Clive Blazey. This book has one very poor typesetting decision (repeated several times) and has been abominably proofread. In fact one could safely assume that it can’t have been proofread. May I point out to the author that the same care which he requires us to take of our garden design is no optional matter when it comes to a book.

I won’t talk of editing, as the passionate voice of the author may require a slack hand in that regard.

Few people could be further from being a gardener than am I. In fact, when we took possession of a house with a small amount of land last year, a friend visited whom I bombarded with questions – is this a weed? This? And what about this? He was impressed by my complete ignorance. The ‘garden’ we now owned was a detestable thing with not one concession to beauty. It consisted entirely of yaccas and agaves on account of their being water-cheap. Dirt-cheap in fact.

After a month, I mentioned to our neighbour across the road that I hated them and they were all going. The next morning, whilst still in bed, I heard the sound of chopping out the front. By the time I’d popped some clothes on and gone out to investigate, we had nothing left there but bare, sad looking soil. Step one was finished.

There was nothing for it now but to buy things and plant them, something neither of us had ever done before. I was completely intimidated by the prospect, not least because in my observation of others gardening, it never seemed to be fun. It was a chore involving lots of preparation and grunting. Not to mention barking crossly at the underlings involved. But in fact it couldn’t have been easier. We randomly put in plants all of which were happy with full fierce sun and were drought tolerant but looked nice too. This included several ground covers so that we could stop the weeds and help the soil.

If I had those first days over again, I’d do things differently. We didn’t prepare the soil nearly well enough. Still, the fact is that most things we planted lived and even thrived. In order to get a garden that was flowering in summer, which was our aim, we followed the straight-forward advice of buying the things in nurseries that were flowering. Our first impression is that gardening was too easy.

A year down the track, instead of an arid desert landscape of horrible succulents, we have a pretty, chaotic teensy cottage garden thing happening. But it isn’t enough. Like all slightly interested gardeners, I wanted more, and I wanted to improve what’s there. Mistakes were made which I wanted to fix.

Which brings me to this book. A major hope for me was to create a garden that would be aesthetically pleasing in summer. Serendipitously, for Blazey this is a vital consideration. We have fierce, debilitating summers which are only going to get worse. Blazey not only wants gardens which neutralise, as much as possible, that summer heat, but he is concerned with the psychological aspect as well. One ongoing theme is colours not only that fit together, but which counter the weather. For the dry heat of my part of the world, he wants cool colours. I couldn’t agree more. Some of the garishly extravagant pinks and reds one sees around the place are so wrong. I put in some flowers so blindingly white that you could land an aircraft by tme in the dead of night. It just isn’t right for summer and detracts from the more gentle colours around it.

The book has short guides to what is going on in the garden, basic health of soil, the chain of events keeping plants alive, the general things one should consider in the design. The Diggers Club does something that apparently is novel, though it seems obvious – it gives a guide to the cold zone and hot zone of your area. Each plant’s description includes a code which shows the zones it can be planted in, as well as various attributes such as deciduous, when it flowers, high and width when grown.

Most  notably, Blazey is strongly anti-eucalyptus, whilst happy with suitable imports. Eucalyptus trees do not do a good job of providing shade, which is such a critical requirement in the dry hot heat of Adelaide. So pleased to hear this. I would dearly love to see Adelaide covered in lush greenery that provides the shade which will provide livability to houses, as well as make it far easier to walk. If we don’t have suitable trees, there are at least several months of the year in Adelaide where it is simply impossible to walk. It’s that simple.

That leaves the main part of the book, a reference to many plants which he sees as viable for the various conditions of Australia. I love it, I’ve gained many ideas from it, but nonetheless, to me it makes a basic presumption that he can afford to, since his gardens are huge, but normal householders can’t. A reference like this has to discuss root issues. There are sites online that do this, but I would much preferred it to have been a given in this guide. I think in general I would have loved more guidance for very small gardens.

In summary, a highly informative, slightly eccentric, passionate guide to the potential of suburban gardening in Australia. I thoroughly recommend it.

 

 

 

The Well and the Shallows by GK Chesterton

I hope it isn’t true, as described on GR, that this is his best collection of articles. It is my first of his. Curiously, although the GR blurb for it calls it a book of essays, one of the pieces in it specifically discusses the notion that he is writing something entirely different from that genre. Indeed, he seems to rather scorn the ‘essay’.

In the main it’s ponderous discussions of Catholicism. Almost however it starts, whether it’s Evolution, Fascism, Birth Control, Liberal politics, it fast becomes what’s good about Catholicism and bad about the other ones. Especially Protestantism, which being Germanic, is linked to the appalling state of affairs in Europe. The one unhesitating thumbs up for the book is that he gets stuck into Hitler, Nazis and Fascism.

But even when he is engaged elsewhere, such as the first essay on alliteration and puns, it all reads like it was hard work to write. He even has the gall to include unaltered as his opening piece, one that has a go at TS Eliot for having a go at him, even though it transpires that it wasn’t TS Eliot he should have been attacking. His preface apologises. But why didn’t he rewrite the piece to fix this? It strikes me as the writer being too fond of his words and not for any good reason.

This is a 1935 collection, which I’m considering interesting primarily for its comments on what’s happening in Germany/Italy etc. I’m not going to give up on him yet as I had a friend stay recently who picked up another from our shelves and stayed up half the night reading it. It must have been a darn sight better than this one.

Have Space Suit – Will Travel by Robert Heinlein

It’s a corker. One of those juvenile books that adults will enjoy too and it would make a splendid movie. Theoretically there is one in the pipelines, but nothing’s been heard of it for some years.

Have Space Suit has no weak points. Entertaining (some great one-liners), the science sounds plausible – not saying it is, I wouldn’t know – but one could imagine a young boy reading this and being inspired. I hope that last sentence is wrong and that girls read this too. The narrator is a teenage boy fresh out of high school. His side-kick is an 11 year old female genius, greatly admired and relied upon by the narrator. There is absolute equality. Important also is ‘The Mother Thing’, seemingly all knowing and all good.

I wouldn’t exactly say this makes the book a model of female emancipation in the science world. The mothers of both children are passive 1950s stay at home Moms. Even worst, Kip’s father married ‘his best student’, as male academics still find a handy thing to do. It doesn’t actually say she’s a good typist but…you can close your eyes and see it. Not that this is the setting time-wise. It’s sort of 1950s America set in an undated future. Loved the description of school education which was presumably a comment pertaining to the late fifties when the book was written and yet is likely pertinent today.

Some of the most interesting parts are those where great detail is made of things that I can’t see making the movie. The very long discussion of how space suits work, for example. But it will be a visual feast with some great action scenes and the trials scene near the end would do well in the cinematic version too. Love to know who is going to play the Roman Centurion. Not to mention the voice of the jury machine.

Bonus: there is no incest or paedophilia. Not that I noticed, anyway.