October & November Books 2018

SWL Humanists Book Group

16th October ‘Frankenstein’, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Shelley not only tells a terrifying tale, she raises profound, disturbing questions about the very nature of life and the place of humankind within the cosmos: What does it mean to be human? What responsibilities do we have to each other? (288 pages)

20th November ‘The Brain: The Story of You’, David Eagleman 

Locked in the silence and darkness of your skull, your brain fashions the rich narratives of your reality and your identity. Join renowned neuroscientist David Eagleman for a journey into the questions at the mysterious heart of our existence. What is reality? Who are “you”? How do you make decisions? Why does your brain need other people?  This is the story of how your life shapes your brain, and how your brain shapes your life. (224 pages)

Book Group – Reviews 2018

Our October book was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Of the nine of us who met to discuss Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ only two in our group had read it before, although we all thought we knew Frankenstein. We were grateful for the opportunity. The book was seen by some as nascent science fiction.

Opinions varied over the book’s narrative, style and characterisation. One person thought it a “slog” and three of us felt it was in parts long winded with its lengthy, stiffly formal passages of dialogue. For others this was not a problem. The exchanges between Frankenstein and the “daemon” he had created were well written and even theatrically amusing in places. Some saw the descriptions of alpine scenery and England as an enhancement. We all agreed that the author’s knowledge of geography was amusing – the idea of rowing from Orkney to the Ireland in just a few hours caused some mirth.

Whatever our various views on the style, we were united on the contents of the book – bursting with ideas and raising questions of interest to humanists: what does it mean to be human? Is it mainly nature rather than nurture that shapes us? What is the source of evil? What is paradise? Does the quest for knowledge and scientific progress lead to irreversible changes that are harmful to life? Echoes of John Milton’s Paradise Lost resounded through the creature’s laments.

Toward the end of the book, Frankenstein in pursuit of the creature he has made, observes: “the snows descended on my head and I saw the print of his huge step on the white plain”. As Fiona Sampson says in her recent biography of Mary Shelley “Mary’s print is huge too; huge for writing women, for the always emerging, always creative scientific imagination and for the dreams and nightmares of the Western World”.

On the question would you recommend the book to a friend on a 0 to 10 scale scores ranged from four to ten, with an average score of 8.

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In September our group read ‘The Death of Truth’ by Michiko Kakutani.

Her short book elicited a fair amount of criticism. Whilst presenting the problem of a lack of truth, particularly in relation to American politics today, it was felt the author failed to offer anything new to the subject. Her book being seen as a ‘rant’, a piece of journalism existing in its ‘own bubble’, offering no solutions and possessing very little humour. However it promoted a wide-ranging discussion from religious beliefs and where they fit into ‘truth’, to the growth of cynicism in society arising from that ‘firehose of falsehood’ she mentions, the role of the internet and the subsequent emergence of the ‘troll’.

Our reviewer liked the quotation from Kipling, ‘We are all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding’ and how the author drew upon the words of Jefferson, Washington, Orwell and Huxley to illustrate her sense of a dystopian future.

We awarded the book a 4 out of 10 (based on the average vote given by 7 attendees), acknowledging that, by dividing our monthly reading clearly into Fiction/Non Fiction, at least we attempt to draw a line between the two.

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There was a grand turn out of nine people in August for Penelope Fitzgerald’s ‘The Golden Child’. It was her first work of fiction written in 1977 in part as a protest of the poor museum experience at the dimly lit Tutankhamun exhibition, and as an amusement for her terminally ill husband.

A word that occurred fourteen times in the discussion notes was ‘absurd’ – four of us used the word admiringly and with great fondness for the apparently haphazard splashes of colour and images, and muddles of madness and violence that adorn the work; five were less than enthusiastic referring to the plot as “incoherent”, “made up as she went along”, a “patchwork of ideas”, “inhabited by unrecognisable caricatures”. We were unified in our dislike of the portrayal of all three female characters, one of whom doesn’t even appear.

The shift of the plot to Russia seemed all too surreal for some – as for the Russian circus….? And yet – and yet – one or two of us toyed with the thought of Fitzgerald writing about a certain perfume spray discovered just recently in a Salisbury park ….. how might Fitzgerald enjoy the macabre tapestry of such an unlikely plot?

“Overwrought” was the description of one devoted admirer who did not fail to recognise the gentle qualities of Waring or the extremes of the ‘fish finger exquisite’ Marcus Hawthorne-Mannering, Keeper of Funerary Art; both treated like the majority of other characters with deadpan humour.

Is the book dated? Has it become a period piece? Surely we reasoned, such a fake Museum exhibition could never convince a sophisticated modern audience or get past the many experts who would interrogate and analyse the exhibits. Papier mâché – gold leaf? No, no. Too absurd….   The general public is more than capable of distinguishing reality from absurdity, truth from lies….?

The overall score was 6 out of 10, with a range from 3 to 9 and a request to put Fitzgerald’s last novel ‘The Blue Flower’ on our reading list.

(For those interested in Penelope Fitzgerald we can recommend Hermione Lee’s ‘Penelope Fitzgerald – A Life’.)

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Our July book ‘Other Minds – the Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life’ by Peter Godfrey-Smith prompted a vigorous and wide-ranging discussion. What is it like to be an octopus? Someone thought that after reading the book it would be difficult to cook and eat one: “I became very fond of the octopus”.

The author wrote “One of the classic problems of my discipline – philosophy – is the relationship between mind and matter … and I want to make progress on that problem, vast as it is, in this book.”

Opinions varied on how successful he was. Some of us thought the book was not scientific enough and lacked a coherent structure. A glossary of terms would have been helpful.

It was suggested naughtily that the book had been written “in the style of an octopus”, with the tentacles reaching out in all directions for material. On the other hand some saw considerable merit in the descriptive passages in the book and the relaxed anecdotal style.

There was however general agreement that the level of insight into the mind–body distinction, whether or not it was helpful to make such a distinction, was inadequate. Questions about the scope of human intelligence, and subjective and objective reality were insufficiently explored it was thought.

Scores on the ‘would you recommend this book to a friend’ index ranged from 0 to 8 with an average of 6.5.

We Humanists might all agree with the author’s final sentence “when you dive into the sea, you are diving into the origins of us all.”

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Our book for June was Flann O’Brien’s ‘The Third Policeman’.

The wide range in the scoring, from 2 to 10 illustrates the diverse views this book generated, from “unreadable” to “one of the best books I have ever read, a Desert Island Disc book”.

Comments varied between ‘unfunny’, ‘laborious’ and ‘unrelenting’ and outstanding praise for the author’s use of language that echoed the early literature of Ireland, his occasional beautiful prose and his playfulness on all important ideas on life, death and hell. The footnotes were found either “boring” or a “clever mockery of specialists” who spend their lives examining scientists’, in this case, mad, theories.
It was generally felt the publisher had done the book no favours and challenged the use of quotes from professional reviewers such as ‘hilarious’ and ‘satire’ to describe it. There were quite a few objections to Anthony Burgess’s statement that only “stupid fools’ would fail to cherish the work of Flann O’Brien”. While one reader “fell out of bed laughing” and another (listening to the audio version) “nearly crashed the car” – we agreed it is most definitely a ‘Marmite’ book.

In May we discussed ‘The Drowned and the Saved’, by Primo Levi

We were all agreed we were grateful to have read this book. Levi was not only a fine writer and technician, he had the ability to quickly draw the reader in to what was a ‘grey’ world. He brought his analytical mind to bear on what remains ‘unbelievable’ to those of us who did not directly experience Hitler’s concentration and extermination camps. Like the Wedding Guest in Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ Levi was forced to tell “his ghastly tale.”

One of Levi’s purposes in writing this book forty years after the end of World War II was to warn future generations: this can happen again. Was he hard on the Germans in his final chapter ‘Letters from Germans’? We spoke of the correspondents who wrote they had not realised what Hitler intended: the response is the intention was made clear in ‘Mein Kampf’ (written in 1925 and 1926).

We spoke of Levi’s ability to examine various aspects of despair and the “extermination of memory” in an unclichéd way: to challenge his own guilt as a survivor – “we the survivors are not the true witnesses”.

Levi was searchingly honest about himself in the chapter ‘The Intellectual in Auschwitz’ – speaking of prayer “For one instant I felt the need to ask for help and asylum; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed: you do not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, nor when you are losing, A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd (what rights could I claim? and from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene, laden with the greatest impiety of which a non-believer is capable. I rejected that temptation: I knew that otherwise were I to survive, I would have to be ashamed of it.”

We Humanists will likely understand: but as a contrasting thought Levi the atheist acknowledges that more ‘survivors’ believed in a deity, since they had hopes of transcendence.

Our score based on the question would you recommend this to a friend was 8.5. One of our group remarked “everyone should read this book”.