Friday, June 22, 2007

Matt Ridley, The Red Queen

Matt Ridley, The Red Queen: sex and the evolution of human nature. I love natural history books for the general public. They lack some of the passion of the partisan (think Stephen Jay Gould)- and I do enjoy the enthusiasm of scientists - but outsiders usually add interpretation and synthesis to make a larger picture cohesive. This was a pretty fun discussion of the evolutionary aspects of sex, well written and argued. Ridley gets a little more controversial, interesting, and tenuous when he ventures into the shaping of "human nature" by sexual selection - but that correlates pretty well with the current state of affairs in the field. The arguments he's collected are so diverse that at times they don't support each other: there are so many examples that eventually you feel that any theory can be supported by some animal model. The near-infinite number of reproductive strategies in the world make it difficult to prove any particular system by analogy. But I loved the way he traced through all the competing theories, and all the animal examples were the best part of the book, whether or not they detracted from the argument. Who doesn't love to read about the sex lives of chimps, lions, minnows, woodpeckers, snails, rotifers, and grackles?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Susan Tyler Hitchcock, Mad Mary Lamb

Susan Tyler Hitchcock, Mad Mary Lamb. I loved the Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare when I was a child and was always fascinated by the thumbnail biography of murder and insanity in the introduction. Hitchcock has retold the complete story of Mary and Charles' life together after Mary stabbed their mother in a fit of insanity. They lived together in happy domesticity although both suffered from periodic bouts of mental illness and instability. They began to have an influentail circle of friends who gathered informally in the evenings to drink, smoke, and talk. Charles was an aspiring poet and they were both close friends of the Wordsworth's, Coleridge, and other writers, poets, and publishers. Mary was a quiet and gentle woman by all accounts who stayed in the backround but displayed great kindness and intelligence when she participated in discussions. While Charles was the more published and confidant, eventually the two began to collaborate on projects and jointly wrote several children's books. It's interesting that Charles regarded Mary as caring for him rather than the other way around (since Mary had semiannual confinements in madhouses).
The Lambs had an extensive and fascinating correspondence of letters with friends that Hitchcock draws on to illuminate their story. She quotes Charles Lamb's letter about his sister's reading tastes: "'She must have a story - well, ill, or indifferently told - so there be life stirring in it, and plenty of good or evil accidents.'" Which is exactly how I feel when I'm deciding whether to continue a mediocre book. This was a great story indifferently told. Actually, most of the book was engrossing (and the story of the Lambs's lives and literary circle was wonderful material), but some of the author's assertions and extrapolations were illogical, self-contradictory, or vague. At times the writing detracted from the story, mostly when she was imagining the feelings and emotions of Mary herself. The conclusion seemed also hastily tacked on like a bit of a dissertation added so that the book could be said to have a specific argument. The excerpts from letters that form the scaffolding of the book far outshine the author's own voice. Flaws and all, though, a great deal of research was well synthesized to tell the story. I really wanted to go to the brother and sister's smokey evening gatherings to argue and talk about books or at least have someone to write long letters to.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Elizabeth Strout, Amy and Isabelle

Elizabeth Strout, Amy and Isabelle. Isabelle was an an infuriating but recognizable and pitiable women. Amy was superficially likable but essentially spoiled and vacant. A somehow lackluster novel about a complicated and fraught mother-daughter relationship. I can't define on what didn't inspire me - there were funny moments, true moments- but, while the people seemed real to me, the story didn't. And the sex (and sexual feelings, frustrations, and situations) in the book were really icky, not remotely stirring or even imaginative, and even more yucky than intended. Two scenes, however, were fabulous: 1) Isabelle furiously preparing to have "company" over, and decorating her downstairs bathroom, and 2) the hair-cutting confrontation. Both were absolutely right.