Sunday 14 September 1997
Cocaine Nights by J G Ballard, Flamingo pounds 6.99. Ballard as country-house detective writer? Well, that's pretty much what he's up to here, and he does it rather well. Charles, the narrator, is a travel writer, working on a guide to - wait for it - the best brothels in the world. His brother, Frank, manages a posh Costa del Sol resort - and is awaiting trial for having burnt five people to death. The plot thickens, as is customary, with lashings of drugs, porn videos, fancy cars and half-naked, strangely numbed, women. And there are, as usual, plenty of Ballard's marvellously stunned, deadpan obiter dicta, this time on the topic of retirement complexes for the elderly rich, "the memory erasing white architecture; the enforced leisure that fossilised the nervous system ..." And so on. Ballard has now been scaring himself with much the same apocalyptic terrors for a good 30 years. This doesn't mean he's getting boring. But it does mean his novels are getting increasingly - and I think, deliberately - camp.
Life's Grandeur: the Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin by Stephen Jay Gould, Vintage pounds 7.69. Stephen Jay Gould is a professor of zoology and palaeontology at Harvard. And yet, he's still the tough-talking, inquisitive, intellectually, combative working-class New Yorker he started out as, which is one reason he does pop-science writing so well. According to Gould, popular understandings of Darwinian evolution are half-baked and unscientific. Man is not and was never a pinnacle of natural selection. He's a minor evolutionary accident, surrounded by triumphantly breeding bacteria. Gould proves his thesis with a virtuoso critique of statistics. Chapter four tells of how he himself was diagnosed in 1982 as suffering from abdominal mesothelioma. The graphs say he should have been dead years ago. But that, Gould argues, only highlights the ways in which most of us read graphs wrongly.
Big Girls Don't Cry by Connie Briscoe, HarperCollins pounds 6.99. Why is women's potboiling fiction usually so depressing? Because it's all fantastic stuff and nonsense. This is one reason why buppy potboilers - the US fashion for easygoing success-stories written by and for professional black women - are an excellent thing. "I don't see the big deal about college," says young Naomi, in her late-1960s Afro-headed dropout phase. "I mean, why waste all that time and money when whites aren't going to give you a decent job?" "Because that's how it is," her mom says. "You're going to come up against this sort of thing all your life," her dad adds. "Learn to handle it now." Naomi's story, from Black Power boho thru to late Eighties businesswoman and philanthropist, is utterly formulaic, but in an ethically bracing way. I'd have learnt a lot from it when I was a teenager. And I liked it much better than many a fancier novel even now.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Snoop Dogg and Jared Leto buy a stake in Reddit as A-list invests $50m
- 2 Prince held a Facebook Q&A and this is the only question he answered...
- 3 'F*ck it, I quit': KTVA reporter Charlo Greene quits live on air in spectacular fashion
- 4 35,000 walrus gather ashore on north-west Alaska beach 'for a rest'
- 5 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
Ed Sheeran dedicates song to David Cameron
Star Wars 7: David Fincher's sequel idea sounds a lot more intriguing
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'
Exclusive: 'Putin's Russia has been my biggest regret,' says Nato's outgoing Secretary General
The Osborne Ultimatum: Chancellor’s benefits freeze bombshell will affect ten million households
There’s no excuse for Dave Lee Travis’s behaviour, but we need to keep a sense of proportion
Should gay sex be illegal? 16% of Britons think so
Mark Reckless becomes second Tory MP to defect to Ukip in a month
Benefits 'smart cards' plan revealed by Iain Duncan Smith to stop claimants spending welfare money on alcohol
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