Microviews Vol. 2: Gappah, Lethem, Goldacre

on Thursday, January 14, 2010
Turns out that I have set the bar a bit low on my monthly reading challenges. We're only halfway through January and I've already finished the six "Books I Meant to Read Last Year". Even allowing for the extras that I wanted to leave time for (the new Saramago popped up out of nowhere and the latest Bolano is in the mail as I write), a target of six is a touch on the pessimistic side. I am, of course, loathe to increase the target going into next month's "Books I Swore I'd Never Read" lest I be forced to give Audrey Niffenegger a go, so perhaps I'll add another two books to this month's challenge instead:

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
Censoring An Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour

With that sorted, here are some more mini-reviews of books from the January list.

An Elergy for Easterly by Petina Gappah
The short story as a form holds little attraction for me. It's not that I have anything against these little lit-bites, but apart from the masters (Poe, Kafka, Carver, etc) I generally tend to steer clear. I also tend to avoid books with raves by J. M. Coetzee on their cover because, while he is my favourite living author, I have been burnt enough times to seriously question the similarities between his taste in books and my own. However, the sheer volume of praise heaped upon Gappah's collection late last year, including its winning the Guardian First Book award in December, made me push aside my biases and take the plunge. The stories contained in An Elegy For Easterly are the stories of modern Zimbabwe, with its ridiculous inflation, brutally misguided land reclamation and, of course, Robert Mugabe (i.e. corruption and oppression). Like all such collections, it is something of a hodge podge. Some of the stories are laugh-out-loud funny, others are painfully sad and still others are nothing short of infuriating. Pre-existing antipathies aside, I quite enjoyed the tales, with particular standouts including Something Nice From London, The Mupandawana Dancing Champion and Our Man In Geneva Wins a Million Euros. Yet when all was said and done I was left with a feeling eerily similar to the one I felt after I had finished Nam Le's much celebrated collection The Boat. I get it, you are great. Now bring on the novel!

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre
I ought to preface this review with two quick caveats. Firstly, I pride myself on being something of a hyper-rationalist and, as such, am inherently cynical. I like to think that my bullshit radar is finely tuned. Secondly, I have spent the greater part of my adult life fending off the 'miracle cures' foisted upon me by my mother, as influenced by whatever has appeared in the latest headline. Combine these caveats and it is not hard to work out that, in my case, Goldacre is preaching to the choir. A psuedoscience sceptic, practising doctor and Guardian columnist, Goldacre sets upon the naturopaths, homeopaths, nutritionists and other such quacks with the simplest of weapons - real science. Nothing is sacred here, from fish oil to brain gym to the 'MMR hoax'. Goldacre dismantles the faux-scientific mythology surrounding these frauds by exposing the charlatonry of their champions and critically evaluating the pathetic experimental designs of the 'tests' used to justify their claims. It's witty, it's righteously angry and it is very, very timely. Although I really enjoyed having the flames of my cynicism fanned, I also had a couple of minor problems with the book. Goldacre spends an inordinate amount of time blowing smoke up the bums of the folk at the Cochrane Institute, which is all very well and good except that one of the glowing quotes on the front cover comes from Iain Chalmers of... well... the Cochrane Library. It is the sort of thing he lambastes others for doing. Secondly, he has done me a personal disservice by making sure none of these 'cures' will ever work for me. You see, some of them actually do help, not for the reasons they claim but because of their placebo effects. The mind is a wonderful healer - just ask anyone who thinks hey've been cured by a homeopathic remedy. Nevertheless, my increased susceptibility to long-term illnesses aside, I cannot recommend Bad Science highly enough. Especially to my mum!

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Conventional wisdom amongst my fellow academics has it that one can tell an exam paper written by a student on performance enhancing drugs (read: speed). They are the ones with explosive verve, hyperactive grandiloquence and a massive overflow of absolute nonsense. Much like that last sentence. There is an air of all those things in Jonathan Lethem's latest which is fitting given that the Chronic of the title is a brand name for marijuana in the novel. And there is a lot of marijuana here. I'm surprised anyone can see the cityscape of New York, to which this book is essentially a bombastic ode, for all the smoke that wafts through these 450 pages. Main guy (though not biggest choofer) Chase Insteadman was once a child star but is now most famous for being the fiancee of "lostronaut" Janice Turnbull, the tragic heroine stuck spinning in a space station without hope of getting home. Chase falls under the spell of certifiable oddball Perkus Tooth and his strangely linked band of high end misfits. Along comes a tiger, terrorising the city (Lethem's version of which boasts some added crater-like architectural postmodern wonders), reality gets all twisted and somewhere down the line it all becomes very weird in a 'what is reality and what is crazy imagined conspiracy?' kinda way. Oh, and did I mention a lot of pot is smoked? There's something about Lethem that leaves me a bit cold. He lacks the narrative excitement of Michael Chabon or the linguistic acrobatics of David Foster Wallace and yet he tries to walk the fine line between those two. Ultimately, however, Chronic City is the literary equivalent of fireworks - spectacular for a moment but then lost in its own cloud of smoke.


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