The Complete Little World of Don Camillo by Giovanni Guareschi

It’s flat. Don Camillo’s world. Flat. Flatter than Norfolk. Flatter than the Netherlands. Flatter than a table. Completely, unrelentingly flat.

That world is the flood plain of the River Po, Emilia Romagna in Italy. The soil there, nourished by thousands of years of effluvium from the flooding Po, is the richest in Italy. Bologna, the provincial capital, has the best food in the country. But these are the stories of the people of the plain, of the farmers and mechanics and one large, ham-handed priest who suffer through the unrelenting glare of the summer, then suffer through the rising fog and the long damp of the winter. It was a malarial land, dangerous as well as bountiful, and its people were touched by its geography: harsh, generous, superstitious and pious. My relatives live there now, and it hasn’t changed so much since Don Camillo’s days in the middle of the 20th century. Yes, it’s richer, the coast is tourified, but the geography is still overwhelming.

Read these stories for a glimpse into an old Italy that still lurks, barely covered, beneath the new Italy.

The Essential Difference by Simon Baron-Cohen

Judging by some of the other reviews on Good Reads, The Essential Difference is in danger of falling victim to today’s fraught sexual politics. This is both unfair and deeply unjust to autistic people – Baron-Cohen’s first and continuing main research interest is autism.

Some background. Baron-Cohen conducted the seminal experiment on autism where he and his researchers presented to groups of children, some autistic, some neurotypical and some with Down’s syndrome, two dolls. One of the dolls then picked up an object and hid it under a cup. That doll was then taken from the room and the other doll lifted the cup, took out the object and hid it under a different cup. The first doll was then brought back and the children were asked which cup the doll would look under to find the object. The neurotypical and Down’s syndrome children said the cup under which that doll had first hidden the object. The autistic children selected the second cup.

This was one of the first major clues as to the nature of autism, and Baron-Cohen has continued to investigate the condition ever since. He developed a theory that autism is a result of what he calls the extreme male brain, and adduces evidence for this in his book. Of course, for that theory to hold, there have to be differences between male and female brains, and much of the book is concerned with demonstrating that. Which is where Baron-Cohen, a Guardian-reading liberal if ever there was one, has found himself unwittingly on the receiving end of angry feminist attacks. For among some strands of feminist thinking it is an article of faith that there are no inherent differences between male and female brains: it’s all environment and upbringing, a neurological blank slate on which a sexist culture writes boys and girls in shades of blue and pink.

You know what? That’s rubbish. If you want complete gender parity, then let’s even out autism. Let’s have just as many girls as boys remaining completely non-verbal, unreachable, sealed into their own wordless world. Let’s have some girls so acutely sensitive to sensory overstimulation that they have to wear boxing gloves all the time to stop them poking their own eyes out (the family that had to do this forgot on one occasion: their boy gouged his own eyes out). Is that the sort of equality feminists want? As the father of two autistic boys, I’d be happy to share.

And yes, yes, I know that girls are probably under dignosed with autism. But really, it’s not that hard to spot the most acute forms: watch for the boy who can’t speak, jumping up and down with headphones on. Among these most severe cases, boys outnumber girls by 10 or more to one. So let’s have some equality there.

As to whether Baron-Cohen’s extreme male brain hypothesis holds true, that requires further work. It answers well to two of the three main diagnostic criteria for autism – social communication difficulties and behavioural inflexibility – but has less to say about sensory sensitivity. But parents who are trying to stop their children hurting themselves really don’t need to be conscripted into the feminist war against the patriarchy. We’ve got enough problems to deal with – and Baron-Cohen has been on our side for many years in this struggle.

Adventures in Bookland: Fighting ISIS by Tim Locks

A strange book this. On the outside, the story of a fairly ordinary Englishman deciding to sell up everything he owned to go and help the Kurds in their fight against ISIS, on the inside it’s a story of identities assumed and cast off.

First, the outside story. Tim Locks, horrified by what he sees and hears of ISIS on TV and the internet, decides to mortgage his house and sell his business and go off and fight. The fighting, it turns out, mostly involves sitting around – he is good on conveying the boredom that is the greater part of most military action – and the motley collection of Western fighters who turn up in what the Kurds fervently hope will one day be Kurdistan to take part in the war. The fact that, in the end, Locks contributes relatively little to the war beyond bankrolling more experienced volunteers (Locks has no military experience at the start of his adventures) adds to the authenticity of the book. Somebody who was making things up would hardly bother writing a memoir in which so little actually happens!

What is truly odd about the book is Locks himself, and the authorial voice he and his ghostwriter have chosen. Early in the book we learn that Locks actually went to private schools as a boy, including Stowe College (current termly fees £11,500). Yet the book is written in the voice of a Middlesboro lad who went to a sink comp. Locks says that he hated school, and left with few qualifications – but you don’t spend so many years in such an environment, nor have parents who can afford those sorts of fees, without it leaving a mark on your deportment. So it is clear that Locks has reinvented himself, turning himself into something very different from his upbringing. If he had chosen to written about that, and how that affected his decision to go off and fight, he might have written a very different, and very much better, book.

Adventures in Bookland: The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease

It’s a shame I didn’t read this book when I was 17. Or indeed 27. I would run through a check list in my mind:

  • Reasonably presentable – check
  • Not actually smelling – check
  • Teeth brushed – check
  • Able to hold a conversation with a member of the opposite sex – well, by 27 I could check that. At 17, no.

So why could I not find a girlfriend? By 27 I had quite a few female friends. I actually enjoyed female company. But as for a girlfriend? Not a sniff.

Turns out that I was completely clueless about body language. Women might have been signalling to me left, right and under their eyelashes and I wouldn’t have recognised anything other than a large sign held up with the words, “Kiss me now” written on it in capitals. A book on body language would have served me in very good stead back then.

Of course, in today’s world, fraught with the consequences of misunderstood sexual signals, a large sign saying, “Kiss me now,” might well be the best way to proceed. Thankfully, I am married – although the book’s been helpful in reminding me to watch out for wifely signals too, although the wonderful woman has long known my blindness to anything less subtle than a flying brick – but I do wonder whether young men and women today can rely on these hard wired body language signs: for the simple reason that sometimes the body wants to do what the mind later regrets.

My advice: read the book, then get the invitation in writing first.

Adventures in Bookland: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Fellow readers of Moby-Dick, I call upon you to answer truthfully, hand-on-heart, the following question: did you really read Moby-Dick? You’re sure? All of it? Every…single…word? I must admit, I did not. I started off, with some considerable pleasure, enjoying the sonorous turn of phrase, each sentence imbued with the cadences of what I suspect must have been many hours spent by Melville listening to the sermoninising of 19th-century preachers – there is a music to that, which comes across on the page. But, I must admit, the pleasure, after 50 or so pages, turned to dutifulness, although the dutifulness was rewarded when Captain Ahab finally made his belated entrance to the story, hobbling on deck with his whale bone false leg and the stern prophetic utterances of a mad Elijah. The  problem is, however, that there isn’t that much of Captain Ahab, or the tattooed Red Indian harpooneer Queequeg, or the other characters, while there is a huge amount about 19th-century whaling, the whale-oil industry, thoughts on cetacean biology and assorted other topics that drag on for page after page after page after page… By page 200 I was skipping pages. By page 250 I was skipping chapters. By the end, I just wanted it all to end – which it does, in unseemly haste after all the build up.  I can imagine, when it was first published, the ending must have come as a tremendous shock to readers: that Ahab should fail, that the spirit of the untamed deep should destroy the progressive works of 19th-century Man and all the crew, must have been totally unexpected. But it surely takes an awfully long time to get there. However, in Captain Ahab and Moby-Dick (how many people remember that the name should be hyphenated? I certainly did not), Melville created two extraordinary characters, who linger in memory long after the turgid passages of explication have slipped away like receding waves: Ahab remains, granite, stern, wave washed but unbowed, and the Whale looms above him.


Adventures in Bookland: The Colonial Post-Captain by Chris Durbin

In literary terms I have two guilty pleasures: military SF (ie. big guys usually wearing exosuits blasting aliens) and Napoleonic-era naval fiction. Add to that a third: naval fiction set during (and just before) the Seven Years’ War, the global conflict between Britain and its allies, and France and her allies, that saw the British ascend to a place among the global powers. In naval terms, Chris Durbin’s first novel telling the adventures of Captain Carlisle, a colonial American serving in His Majesty’s Royal Navy, and his lieutenant, George Holbrooke, is not very different from the worlds of Jack Aubrey and Steven Maturin or Horatio Hornblower (which is probably why I like it so much!) and Durbin does an excellent job of introducing and differentiating his two main characters, while keeping them men of their time. If, as I do, you like Napoleonic-era naval fiction, then think on expanding your reading horizons to the generation before: you won’t be disappointed.


Adventures in Bookland: Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch

The seventh Peter Grant novel and, probably, the last I will bother reading. The problem for me is that Aaronovitch seems to find most interesting the characters I find least compelling (the various policemen and women who are almost entirely interchangeable, Peter’s riparian love interest Beverley, and, to be honest, Peter himself) while sidelining those whom I find most compelling, in particular Nightingale and Lesley. Also, having finished the book, I found out that some of these amorphous characters had been introduced via a couple of graphic novels that Aaronovitch has produced. It’s all a sure sign of a novel series being expanded into a world franchise: good sense from a business point of view, less so from an artistic one.

Adventures in Bookland: The Naulahka by Rudyard Kipling

As a long-time apologist of Rudyard Kipling’s work and a fan of even longer standing (I was about six when I first read The Jungle Book, although the tales that really inspired me were those of the duel between the mongoose, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, and the cobras Nag and Nagaina, and The White Seal‘s search for a birthing beach safe from the depredations of sealers), I was about two thirds of the way through The Naulahka and beginning to fear that I would not even be able to enjoy the story, let alone defend it, when the story flipped. What before I had read as the tale of Western disapproval of the East, as confirmation of all those lazy takes on Kipling as the apologist for Empire, I realised was something else entirely: The Naulahka is, in fact, a love letter to America and Americans. Kipling began writing the story in collaboration with Wolcott Balestier, the brother of his wife, Carrie Balestier, and its hero is as unabashedly American as Kipling could make him: the very personification of the men busy taming – and making money – from the expanding American frontier. The Naulahka puts such a man in India, not to illumine India, but to highlight America and Americans. Kipling makes no effort to present India or Indians from within – as he does in his other Indian stories – for the the protagonist is an outsider in India, and remains one for the entirety of the story. The Naulahka is Kipling’s version of de Tocqueville’s essay on America, an America exemplified by placing it in contrast to a stereotypical vision of India. Not Kipling’s best, but for this fan and apologist, enjoyable and defensible.


Adventures in Bookland: The Rough Guide to Unexplained Phenomena by Bob Rickard and John Michell

Our contemporary world, on its comfortable surface so often mundane, is, under that surface, deeply strange. But its strange in three different strands. There is the weirdness of science, of the quantum and relativistic phenomena of physics that underlie the material world. There is the strangeness of religion, that underlies the spiritual realm, with God taking delight in making mockery of all men’s plans. And then there is the weirdness of a third realm, not really addressed by the thought systems of either religion or science: the strangeness of what we might call the shadow realm, the world, or worlds, that lie between the equations of science and the insights of theology. In ancient Irish thought, this was the Otherworld, accessed through dreams and visions, through boundaries and under hill, that once visited could never be forgotten, a world hinted at in sidelong glimpses and unexpected memories. It’s that world that is explored in this book, a book of glimpses and strangenesses, of, as it says on the cover, unexplained phenomena. While this third world might seem to have receded through the last centuries of rationalism, I suspect that it has simply become stranger and more elusive, taking the chameleon hues,  in its interaction with humans, of our changing expectations. So what were once fairies and elves are now greys and greens.

But perhaps the clearest signs of this wild weird are not the things that might make some sort of sense, such as alien visitors, but rather the things that make no sort of sense at all. Of these, my favourite are the rains of fish, and frogs, and frog spawn, and a whole extraordinary variety of other things, presented here with all the detached curiosity of two dedicated scholars of the field. From this litany of strangeness and coincidence, there appears to me to be a suggestion of a sort of gonzo humour underlying this level of the world, a humour that delights in raining unusual objects on the world right up to pretty well the ultimate in weird: fixing wings on kittens.

So, yes, the world is strange, and its strangeness lies all around, most of the time hiding in plain view, or at the edge of vision. This book is a wonderful – and I use the word precisely – compendium of that strangeness. Highly recommended.


Adventures in Bookland: The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth

Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Welsh cleric (although possibly his family came from Brittany), wrote his Historia Regum Britanniae around 1135 and, almost immediately, it was dismissed by other chroniclers and historians as almost complete nonsense. It tells the story of the Kings of Britain, that is the native kings before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, finding the origins of the Britons in the fall of Troy and another princely Trojan refugee, Brutus in this instance. Virgil, the poet of imperial Rome, had of course mined a similar seam of history in his Aeneid, linking the origins of Rome to Prince Aeneas. So by linking the history of the Britons to that of Troy, Geoffrey was also implicitly making them cousins to Rome. It was a bold stroke for a marginalised people. He then went on to tell the stories of the kings of ancient Britain: in these pages you will find King Lear and his daughters, Old King Cole and, of course, Arthur. Geoffrey expands the few nuggets about Arthur that had appeared in previous works hugely, adding in the key figure of Merlin to the mix.

Despite the book being treated as nothing buy fantasy by historians such as William of Newburgh, it quickly became famous and widely read, introducing these kings into the folklore and folk memory of Britain. Having read the History of the Kings of Britain I can now see why. It is simply such great fun to read. Geoffrey breezes through the centuries, sometimes spending just a sentence on a king, at other times opening up the story to a chapter length or more. It’s a great piece of storytelling, dressed up as history.