Adventures in Words: Gut by Giulia Enders

Gut by Giulia Enders

Did you know that there is a poo scale? No, neither did I, until I read Enders’ bright and breezy book. ‘Bright and breezy’ might seem odd adjectives for a book about defaecation, about Enders’ fascination with what happens to what goes in at our mouths and out of our bottoms is both charming and enlightening – and renders the whole subject much more palatable (sorry!).

So the poo scale, known as the Bristol Stool Scale and only developed in 1997, divides poo into seven categories, with number 1 being little, hard rabbit pellets and number 7 dirty brown liquid with no solid bits, and all the variations in between. Ideally, we should be producing type 3 (‘sausage-shaped but with cracks on surface’) or type 4 (‘sausage- or snake-like, smooth and soft’) poos. Not only did I learn about types of poo but that the best way of expelling them from one’s bottom is, in fact, to squat. Sitting on a toilet produces a kink in the bowels that the bowel muscles have to push past where squatting smoothes out the bowel interior and enlists gravity. So the squat toilets that are still found in some Asian countries are better for defaecating while also producing a helpful hip flexion.

Apart from poo, the book goes into the extraordinary gut flora that live inside us – we are all, it seems, an ecosystem as much as individuals – and the fundamental ways in which the guts affects our health. These connections are only just being teased out but it appears that all sorts of conditions are made better or worse by our insides. It appears that the old adage that you are what you eat is truer than we ever realised.

An entertaining and informative book – and what more could you ask of a book about poo.

Adventures in Words: In Search of the First Civilizations by Michael Wood

In Search of the First Civilizations by Michael Wood

I’m afraid this is the first book by Michael Wood that I have found disappointing.

Perhaps the main reason is that it doesn’t do what it says on the cover. I thought this would be an examination and exploration of the first civilizations – it does rather say that, doesn’t it? – but it wasn’t. While it begins with the ancient civilizations of the Near East, India, China, Egypt, the Americas, it then assumes that the founding ideas of these civilizations have been transmitted down through the ages and, with somewhat cherrypicked examples, follows these regional civilizations through the ages up to the modern age, attempting to show that each is the heir of its past.

While I have some sympathy with the idea, the brush strokes are too broad and the crucial explosions of new religions, which alone are capable of redefining the ruling myths of a civilization, are glossed over. That there are continuities between the Egypt of the Pharaohs and modern Muslim Egypt I don’t think anyone would disagree with. But the discontinuities are, if anything, even more profound.

So skip this book and read Wood’s brilliant In Search of the Dark Ages instead.

Adventures in Words: The First Showman by Karl Shaw

The First Showman by Karl Shaw

It’s a real shame that this book seems to have died on the shelves. It tells the story of Philip Astley, showman extraordinaire, who astonished Georgian England, and indeed Europe, with his stunt riding skills as well as inventing a form of show, with lots of acts within a marked out oval, that was the origin of the modern circus. Astley was physically large and well built but his personality was even larger, while his life story, encompassing humble beginnngs, astonishing turns of fortune, fires, disasters, recoveries, is the stuff of a biographer’s dream.

Indeed, it’s such a vivid recreation of the man’s life and times that I earnestly wish more people would read it. Hearing of some of the stunts Astley and his team performed, one can only marvel at their skill and their courage – somersaults on the back of a galloping horse is merely par for the extraordinary course.

The book also offers a fascinating insight into the life of a Georgian entrepeneur, a man making his way into the expanding world of show business and, by his own energy and imagination, expanding it further. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the period or in the circus.

Adventures with Words: The Stranger Diaries

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

I don’t read much detective fiction but if it were all as good as this then I would certainly read more! What makes this story so enjoyable for a literature nerd like myself is the way that Elly Griffiths weaves the present-day detective story into the narrative of a faux Gothic short story, sitting somewhere between Edgar Allan Poe and The Castle of Otranto, which she reproduces in the course of the novel. Griffiths does a wonderful job of writing the story in the style of the early masters, a bit heightened for the sake of the plot, and then placing it into the story. A more seasoned reader of detective fiction might have guessed the perpetrator but I didn’t – and I was glad of that. For this newbie to detective fiction the story was a delight.

Adventures in Words: The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

Christopher Booker doesn’t keep the reader in suspense: they’re right there, on the cover: Overcoming the Monster (Beowulf), Rags to Riches (Oliver Twist), The Quest (The Lord of the Rings), Voyage and Return (The Odyssey), Comedy (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Tragedy (Hamlet) and Rebirth (A Christmas Carol). The stories in brackets are just a very few examples of the stories he quotes: one of the most impressive aspects of the book is that Booker seems to have read everything.

For the purposes of this review, I will take it as read that Booker makes his case: there really are only seven basic plots and all stories fall into these, although some incorporate more than one plot. For instance, The Lord of the Rings encompasses all seven of the plots. Instead, what I would like to consider is the why that Booker advances. Why do the stories that we tell, starting with the earliest stories known to us such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and continuing into the present day revolve around these seven basic plots? According to Booker, it is because they are shaped by the archetypes that, according to Carl Jung, sit deep in our unconscious, archetypes such as the shadow, the anima, the wise old man and so on, with the archetype of the self, the undivided whole adult human, being the gravitational centre around which the other archetypes revolve and to which they all aim to resolve.

According to Booker, the ideal story ends with its elements united and the Self realised, which is most often symbolised in stories by the hero marrying the heroine. This is the point and end of stories and, according to Booker, this is what gives them their unique power when told well.

I have some sympathy with this idea. But as sources of the fundamental meaning of life, Booker is asking purely human psychological constructs to take more weight than they can bear. Meaning, fundamentally, cannot be derived from the structures of our own psyches as, to use a metaphor, it is like blowing up a balloon and then expecting it to act as its own foundations. The sort of universal meaning Booker is talking about in his book cannot be located purely in the psychological structures of the mind, although these can be intimately connected to it, but has to be grounded in something deeper, wider, older and broader. Really, Booker is talking about God but seems unable or unwilling to acknowledge that.

So, curiously, the book suffers from something like the flaw that Booker ascribes to modern literature: an obsession with the the surface forms of things, the ego and its gratification at the expense of the deeper Self. The Seven Basic Plots likewise stops short before it reaches its destination, placing too much meaning in psychology while consciously or unconsciously avoiding the source of psychology, its ground and fountain.

However, the book remains a monumental body of work, deserving the highest accolade. I recommend it whole heartedly – and it will leave you wanting to read many more good books!

Adventures in Words: The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell

The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell

In a story of tables being turned, big-game hunter Sanger Rainsford finds that he is the prey and someone else in the hunter. It’s a taut, sharp thriller, a short story rather than a novel but one that’s deservedly remained in print since it was first published almost a hundred years ago.

But it makes me think: humans are pursuit hunters. We can run longer, farther and further than any other animal, having traded fur for the ability to sweat and thus regulate our temperature as we are running. As hunters of the African savannah, the ice plains of northern Europe or the deserts of Australia, that’s what we did: we pursued the prey relentlessly, running after it as it fled and never giving it time to rest so that, in the end, it simply collapsed. That is what we were. But it is also what we most fear: the relentless, implacable pursuer (think the first Terminator). What we fear most is an image of ourselves. And that is the fear that drives the plot of The Most Dangerous Game: man the hunter, hunted.

Adventures in Words: The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

A literary sensation when it came out, Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan was not quite what I expected. Yes, it shares some of the lurid prose as well as the tendency to drop off writing and add ellipses (…) when things start getting especially lurid of much other Victorian melodrama but then the stuff Machen is alluding to probably is better elided rather than spelled out. What I had not expected was the complexity of the narrative, with the point of view, time span and even the prose shifting during the course of the book. Perhaps I should have expected that – after all, Stevenson plays with points of view in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – but for some reason I had not. As such, the book requires a bit more thought and concentration than usual but it will repay the effort: this story really did push horror into the 20th century.

Adventures in Words: the Alex Verus series by Benedict Jacka

The Alex Verus series by Benedict Jacka

There’s 12 books in the Alex Verus series and I raced through them, so I must have loved them. Yes?

Well, yes, but with a couple of qualifications. First, let me tell you who Alex Verus is and why I ended up reading 12 books about him over the space of about three months. Alex Verus is a mage, that is to say a wizard. However, he can’t do everything: his particular ability is to be able to sight walk probable futures and to adjust his own actions in light of these probabilities. Basically, he tells the future. Within the context of the nearly non-stop action in the books, this manifests most often as him dodging blasts of magic from other mages, out to get him. Because it turns out that other mages have particular abilities too: elemental mages can manipulate earth, fire, water or air (usually one element per mage), time mages can see into the past, and so on.

The magical world is divided into the mages of Light and Dark, and independents, which does rather suggest that one side is good and the other bad. But it turns out that the Light mages aren’t that much better than the Dark mages but what they do have is a much more highly developed bureaucracy. Because, yes, being able to do magic doesn’t mean that the world becomes a place of wonder: turns out magical society is much like our own but with magic battles, examinations, bureaucrats and thoroughly expendable security men (and even greater isolation and loneliness).

Alex Verus starts off as an independent, trying to mind his own business and his magic shop in Camden. By the end of the series, he’s minded everyone’s business but his own and his shop in Camden has been variously exploded, bombed, attacked and burned down.

For books one to eight, my Alex Verus review runs so: Alex, while apparently minding his own business, is drawn into trying to foil a nefarious plot laid by one or another ruthless faction. Through great ingenuity, he seems on the point of succeeding, only for everything to go pear shaped. Alex and his small group of friends seem to be on the point of painful and terminal failure when another idea allows them to make good on the mission and escape with their lives.

Yes, Benedict Jacka is of the Raymond Chandler school of plotting: when in doubt, have someone come in through the ceiling with a lightning spell.

The last four books are basically one continuous story arc, bearing every sign of a series that the writer was rather surprised would get so far but who then decides to finish off by throwing everything into the plot, stirring it vigorously and seeing who survives.

It’s all tremendous fun although perhaps, if the pace wasn’t so wonderfully brisk, one might see a few holes opening up in the world building and the plot. But it all moves along so quickly that the reader is swept along in the magical tide of events, right through to the conclusion.

So if you like fast-paced storytelling with wands substituting for guns and a personable hero who tries not to kill people despite accumulating a body count to match Harold Shipman then this is the series for you.

Adventures in Words: Maxie’s Demon by Michael Scott Rohan

Maxie’s Demon by Michael Scott Rohan

I finished Maxie’s Demon a while ago and coming, belatedly, to reviewing it I find that I can remember very little of the story. This does, I’m afraid, rather confirm the feeling of disappointment I had in reading it. Maxie’s Demon is the fourth in Rohan’s Spiral series, a sort of spin off sequel, and it doesn’t really add anything to the first three books. The premise – the Spiral that connects, envelops and transcends mundane reality with intermingled worlds of history and myth – is as compelling as ever but the story, and Maxie the protagonist in particular, don’t really carry the premise anywhere further.

An enjoyable enough read in its own right but a disappointment after the previous books.

Adventures in Words: The Charioteer by Jemahl Evans

The Charioteer by Jemahl Evans

Silk. Even today the word carries connotations of luxury, elegance and cool sophistication. How much more was that the case in the 7th century when the only silk available in Europe, and in particular the still glorious Roman Empire based in Constantinople, had to be imported all the way from India. Wealthy Romans – and wealthy Romans were very wealthy – loved to flaunt their money by sponsoring Games (the old gladiatorial games had been outlawed when the Empire became Christian but the new Christian Empire became fanatically addicted to chariot racing) and wearing rich silk clothing. As the silk had to be transported through the territory of Rome’s long-standing enemy, the Sassanids, this left the Emperor beholden to his foes for supplying his magnates with their clothing.

In his history of the Emperor Justinian, Procopius mentions, in a small aside, how the secret of silk, silk worms breeding and feeding on mulberry bushes, was smuggled out of India and to Constantinople. From this short aside, Evans fashions a marvellously picaresque adventure novel where his protagonists, a retired charioteer, a disgraced aristocratic soldier looking to redeem his reputation and a general fixer who is convinced the world is flat, have to travel to India, retrieve the secret and get back to New Rome, all while being dogged by Sassanid secret agents.

It’s a marvellous romp across a world and a time that is little known, and that, unbeknownst to itself, would not last much longer. The Sassanids themselves would be overthrown in the next century when the conquering armies of Islam swept them aside. The Byzantines were shaken but rallied, but the central Asian world that our trio of adventurers cross was irrevocably changed.

Evans does a stirling job of bringing the time and its people to life, infusing the people with humanity while not downplaying the cultural strangeness of the time to modern people. The Charioteer is the first in a new series and I look forward to reading more adventures from Cal, Theo and Cosmas, and hope the book gets the readership it deserves. One word of warning though: don’t get too attached to the subsidiary characters. Not many of them make it through.