Some years ago (last decade!) I decided to do a brief round-up of some recent reads. Sadly I don’t
find make the time to gather my thoughts and sum up my opinions, so in no particular order, I thought I’d write a few words on some of the books that have graced my bedside table over the past few weeks.
Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks
In essence, this is the story of what happens when you put your money where your mouth is, even when your mouth is currently being fuelled by the wrong kind of babble-juice. Tony Hawks found himself challenged at a party that his oft-regaled anecdote of seeing someone hitchhiking with a fridge in Ireland was pigswill. In the morning, a note beside his bed seemed evidence that he’d taken up a £100 bet that he could do the same, circumnavigating the emerald isle with a home appliance.
What follows is a quirky adventure blending English stoicism and the Irish devotion to the craic, replete with fridge surfing, radio DJs, island kings and a night in the doghouse, all culminating in a triumphal march through the capital celebrating the pointlessness of it all. For anyone enjoying Irish sensibilities, there are plenty of amusing moments along the way. Ultimately a very pointless little book, but entertaining nonetheless.
The Great Dune Trilogy by Frank Herbert
A handful of words aren’t enough to do justice to Dune, let alone its two sequels Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. The first novel in particular is something of an operatic masterpiece, which despite such a depth and richness of ideas never bogs down as something like the oft-compared Lord of the Rings clearly does. Where other series focus on the science or the fiction, Dune creates an entire mythology, replete with political system, religion and technology.
I’ll be honest, reading all three novels back-to-back was something of a stretch, particularly as the second doesn’t live up anywhere near the expectations harboured following the operatic majesty of the first. Dune Messiah has something of a marmite effect on the fans. Fortunately the final volume in the original trilogy returns to better form, adding more sweeping strokes to Herbert’s epic canvas, without dawdling too much on the details. Definitely well worth reading the first if you’re a fan of (science) fiction in depth. Despite the few tweaks, David Lynch’s film captures the general tenor of this vision beautifully.
The Lady Vanishes & The Spiral Staircase by Ethel Lina White
A pleasant surprise with two short novels in one slender volume. It’s something of a shame that they are both published here under the names of the films they inspired rather than the books as they were written (The Lady Vanishes was originally entitled The Wheel Spins; The Spiral Staircase as Some Must Watch). The Lady Vanishes is rather overshadowed by the films and has a somewhat slow pace, which probably isn’t helped by knowing the story in advance. It’s almost a pity that this novel gets first billing, since the lesser-known The Spiral Staircase is the stronger of the two in my view. An atmospheric setting, strong characterisation, the gradually building suspense – the comparisons with Agatha Christie are unsurprising and genuinely well deserved.
Both of these thrillers deliver some classic 1930s suspense and mystery, and while the films probably outshine the novels on which they are based, as a light diversion for fans of mystery and skulduggery, you could do far worse.
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal
In this relatively short but accessible volume, primatologist Frans de Waal takes us on a tour through the world of animal intelligence, or at least the study of it. He points out how human beings, so obsessed with their own navels, are wont to move the goalposts any time some semblance of anthropomorphic intelligence is found in animal test subjects. ‘Animals aren’t intelligent because they can’t something’ is always true as long as something remains. They can’t use tools, talk, empathise, plan ahead, show regret, recognise their reflections, deceive. Each time some evidence appears which suggests the contrary, human exceptionalism comes up with the next new something to define the experience of the human condition.
Aside from the proselytising, de Waal rightly highlights the difficulties of any kind of study in this area. Human beings have an extremely difficult challenge in designing tests for non-human subjects to measure non-human capacities. That is the real question written on the cover, though it sometimes gets lost amidst the examples and de Waal’s broadsides against those in the behaviourist camp. Nevertheless, at its core it presents an interesting conundrum. The book could’ve done with some streamlining, but as a piece of popular science it offers an excellent introduction to the subject.