Review – “Total Man” – Stan Gooch

Total ManTotal Man by Stan Gooch

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

[This is the one of the books I set myself to read in my challenge to read last year all the books I read up to 1977 that I still own in their original edition. This was so long I started it last year and only finished this year!]

When I first read this back in 1977, I remember finding it interesting – but this time it has been most dull. And long! At nearly 600 pages, it could easily have been much (much) shorter. Back then, this would have been one of my first introductions to psychology, and  popular science, and it was also full of notions that seemed novel and interesting: essentially explaining “The Divided Self” as instantiated in brain structures and through them in culture, left hand and right hand, female and male, psychotic and neurotic, conscious and subconcious; a lot of polarities compared and contrasted (but with many fuzzy bits pruned).

Reading it this time, however, in a less innocent and more critical mode, I couldn’t help noticing quite how ridiculously speculative it all is, with lots of “if this is the case”, “if we were to suppose”, “if we can conclude”. If you ignore the hypothetical nature of the claims and just focus on the claims generated by the hypotheticals, it can all seem quite plausible, but the long chains of inferences seems a little weak to carry the bridge across the Gulf of Possible Nonsense.

As to the hypothetical nature of the arguments, you will find (opening the book at random) chains of sentences like this: “This is probably a serious misconception”… “was probably after all first on the scene”…. “Is it not far more likely“… “This is perhaps yet one of the further meanings”… “To generalise at this point”… “This claim is somewhat borne out”… “the difference may be perceived” “For reasons …by no means entirely clear“… “the possible exceptions to this statement”… “one has suggested…” (My italics) Webs of speculation feed into mazes of conjecture that terminate in knots of problematic conclusions. Because the conclusions rest upon so many interlinked hypotheticals, I began to find myself asking, “but what if it isn’t likely, or probable, or not borne out at all”, and so on.

The book is also structured in a way that hinders reading. Footnotes abound, but these are often additional speculations or clarifications associated with points just made. Many, many of these could have been added within the flow of the text, and in some cases might have helped the argument. As it was, I found myself breaking the flow of reading to jump to another point, and then having to regain my rhythm. Additionally, almost out of the blue, towards the end of the books and after spending 500 pages  describing Systems A and B — their polarity, their links, their conflicts, their associations with psychology — System C pops up. That a System C should exist after the previous speculations kind of makes sense — a synthesis of the thesis and antithesis of A and B. But there has been little to prepare the reader for this kind of synthesis, although, of course, it explains the Total Man of the title. Yet, one also feels that this is also a way to marry Gooch’s theories with other world views involving trinities, which couldn’t be ignored if as he used culture, religion and literature as evidence.

The book also became a vehicle for other pet theories of Gooch’s that appeared in later books. One is tempted to think that he wanted to get these ideas out in some form in case he never got another book deal. For example, there is a very (very) long section on the differences and conflicts between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons that takes up nearly eighty pages — and yet by the end of it I had lost the thread of Gooch’s argument. This conflict was to become the subject of his “The Neanderthal Question” (and other later books). Similarly, there’s a short (and, again, confusing) section on probability and chance (when discussing the I Ching) that he expanded in his “The Paranormal” to even more confusing effect.

The book isn’t entirely without merit, and introduced me, 40 years ago, when I was young and not so widely-read, to a lot topics and notions. But it is a slog, and it is not well-structured, so come prepared for the long knitting session involved in handling the skein of suppositions.

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Review – “Antic Hay” – Aldous Huxley

Antic HayAntic Hay by Aldous Huxley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Antic Hay, but found its second half better than its first. The novel starts slowly, and when the protagonist, Gumbril, meets his intellectual and arty friends in London and thus introduces us to them, I almost despaired. Certainly, Huxley was a bright and intelligent young thing, and his friends certainly would also have been intelligent and intellectual and arty. However, when somebody tries to capture the essence of such situations they inevitably fall flat – what is charming, witty, intense and clever when you’re twenty-three, drunk and an Oxbridge graduate, can sound rather fey, precious and irritating when you’re sober and went to a red-brick university (or none at all!).

The novel is essentially plotless and episodic, but in the second half the episodes become more connected, and at last Huxley starts talking about people, real people, or at least the kind of people I might know. People who have relationships, and succeed or fail at them. The cyphers begin to develop into characters. Yes, it’s still a satire on the kind of people in the Bloomsbury set, but it begins to have more feeling, and I could empathise with characters.

In many ways this books is similar to Crome Yellow. But it is perhaps too long. There was a feeling that wheels were spinning a bit too much at the beginning. If this book had been as short as Crome Yellow, and had concentrated more on character development, then it might have been as entertaining as Crome Yellow.

Nonetheless, it was entertaining enough to keep me reading, and picked up just at the right point to prevent me dropping it.

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Review – “The Thirties” – Julian Symons

The Thirties: A Dream RevolvedThe Thirties: A Dream Revolved by Julian Symons

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Julian Symons is perhaps best known as a crime writer. He also wrote poetry, social and military history, biography, literary criticism … He was prolific, as a glance at his Wikipedia page will testify.

This book looks at the role of the arts – particularly literature, and particularly Auden, in the decade of the 1930s. Symons also discusses political movements – particularly of the left – and their connections to those artistic currents. Symons, who was in his twenties at the time, was a member of the intellectual and political groups he discusses, so has first-hand knowledge of the authors and artists in those groups, and of the political atmosphere at the time.

My knowledge of Thirties literature – particularly poetry – and the politics of the intelligentsia is limited. This book was, therefore, an interesting introduction to the period. Because my knowledge is limited, however, I cannot tell if the book was tendentious. Symons, to his credit, sometimes mocks his younger self, sometimes is appalled by him. The feeling I took from the book was that Symons was sympathetic to left-wing views, but was not a prosletyser, nor a zealot. Indeed, as he admits – and here is one of those moments he was appalled with himself – he sometimes took on the persona of a more right-wing individual in reaction against the zealous left-ism of the intelligentsia in which he found himself.

The book is short and easy to read – useful if all of this is new to you – and the chapters snappy and concise (each chapter tends to introduce a topic and then spin and divagate around it) – Auden, poetry, politics, theatre, the New Left Review, Gollancz, and so on were all introduced in chapters of little more than five or ten pages. The subjects of these chapters would then reappear, weaving their way through the Thirties until Spain and Munich.

The book is, then, a concise look at a particular period in British political and intellectual history, and will be of interest to those, like me, who had little knowledge of that period and that milieu. The book also (re)introduced me to some poets I had heard of but knew little of, such as Stephen Spender and Gavin Ewart – and the few line lines and stanzas Symons provides from these poets to colour his themes has spurred my interest in reading more of them.

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Review – “The Drought” – J G Ballard

The DroughtThe Drought by J.G. Ballard

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the books I’m reading this year that I first read over forty years ago that I still own in the same smoky edition I bought back in 1976.

I’ve marked it down a star on the second reading. I like it, but it’s not brilliant. Nowadays, I like characterisation in a novel far too much to truly enjoy a novel built on ciphers (a Ballardian word!) for characters. And too many of the many characters have too little to do. Quilter’s a bit odd. So? Mrs Quilter is his mum. So? Catherine Austen likes lions. So? There are some fish people… So? And so on. I also find some Ballardian metaphors and allusions… exaggerated? Overegged? For example I can’t imagine reading in somebody’s blanched face “an image of [Ransom’s] own future…” in which he “would have to create [a] sense of time out of landscape emerging around them”. That’s a lot to hang on a face…

Interestingly, there are hints of Crash in the novel: “It was as if her face already carried the injuries of an appalling motor-car accident that would happen somewhere in the future.”

So – it’s elliptical, and kind of plotless, drifting like dunes in the hot sun, and full of a sense of unrelieved foreboding and ennui. Yet, I still rather like it. Few people write like Ballard, and this kind of British New Wave science fiction was certainly of the time, and defined a moment in the genre — the exploration of inner space rather than outer space — that I enjoy. It will be interesting to revisit Ballard’s other early apocalyptic novels at some point.

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[One of the books being read this year on the basis of this post: Something for World Book Day]

Review – “Stranger in a Strange Land” – Robert Heinlein

Stranger In A Strange LandStranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the books I’m reading this year that I first read over forty years ago that I still own in the same smoky edition I bought back in 1976.

I’m not going to write a long review, there will be plenty enough on Goodreads, Amazon and all over the Web. This is my second time reading it, and I still thought it was fun and interesting enough to get three stars. Yes, it’s sexist, and yes, its writing style is not “literature” – but then, it was written for teenage boys in the late 1950s and early 1960s, whose ideas of witty repartee would have been informed by 1940s detective movies on the television, gumshoes and newspaper men whose women knew their place.

And yet, there are enough ideas in the novel to turn a young boy’s (and girl’s) mind upside down and around about and set them all akimbo. Telepathy and telekinesis, and a man from Mars; older wiser, civilisations with mighty intellectual powers and wisdom; free love, and a lot of nakedness; criticism of religion while inventing a religion that is not a religion, and managing to confuse itself over the subject of religion, and whether God exists, whether there are immortal souls, and so on.

It’s not a great book, in the sense of great literature. But it’s fun, if a little tendentious, and perhaps a little preachy towards the end. However, there’s plenty there to set inquisitive young minds a-roaming, and more than enough that was, for the time, exciting, shocking and new.

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[One of the books being read this year on the basis of this post: Something for World Book Day]

Review — “The Fifth Voice” — Paul Connolly

The Fifth VoiceThe Fifth Voice by Paul Connolly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second self-published novel I’ve read, and proves — if proof were needed — that there are many more story-tellers out there than the gatekeepers of traditional publishing allow through those gates. Although, at the same time, I understand that the gatekeepers only have towns of limited sizes, and can only nourish a certain population they hope will be productive (and I think I’ve strained that gatekeeper metaphor quite enough…).

Anyway, this is the simple tale of a barbershop quartet — yes, I said barbershop quartet — and of the lives and loves of the members of that quartet. The fifth voice of the title is a kind of supernumerary voice created by the perfect unison of the quartet members, but in the book becomes a metaphor for.. well.. many things. The plot and subplots are straightforward enough, with few twists and turns. It is a kind of lighthearted romcom/bromance about singing people. You aren’t going to be surprised where the plot goes, nor where the subplots end up.

But then, not every narrative needs, I feel, to include intricate webs of tangled threads and unusual weltbilds. If this is an ordinary tale about ordinary folk you or I might know, pursuing artistic fulfillment or self-actualisation through ordinary, if slightly unusual, hobbies, it is nonetheless interesting for that. As is often the case, a novel can be introduction to worlds unknown — in this case barbershop and a capella singing, and Lundy Island — and thus enrich a world.

Ultimately, this was an easy read, about people I might know, with problems I might understand, told in an entertaining an engaging way.

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Review — “Matter” — Ian M Banks

Matter (Culture, #8)Matter by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very short review of a very long book…

I found this one of the more enjoyable of Banks’s sf books. I often find I like or appreciate the idea of what Banks is doing in sf more than I enjoy the books themselves, and some of the Culture books haven’t remained in my memory at all. What on earth, for example, was The Player of Games all about?

But Matter didn’t feel quite so overburdened with the weight — ironically, given its title — of its own cleverness and out-of-control invention, although I do think, like other of his books, it was a bit top-heavy with irrelevant detail (the appendix at the end only serving to reinforce this, with its lists of characters, spaceships, world levels and species names). Still, it was a romp, if a 550 page book can ever be a romp.

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