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.
Final Top Gear reviewTV
FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets
Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Should Apple buy Greece?
- 2 Michael Douglas regrets 'embarrassing' Catherine Zeta-Jones with oral sex comments
- 3 Drummer Lee Rigby's family reject 'extremist' groups using Woolwich murder for political gain
- 4 Tunisia hotel attack: Locals form 'human shield' to protect hotel from gunman Seifeddine Rezgui
- 5 Fox News anchor asks 'what's to prevent' three people from marrying after same-sex marriage legalised
The moment a Queen's Guard soldier lost it and drew his gun at annoying tourist
Greece crisis: The wider lesson is that it’s time to abandon this failed experiment in currencies
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Extend Right To Buy to tenants of private landlords, Labour's Jeremy Corbyn says
David Cameron struck double blow in his hopes to win Britain a new EU deal
Pentagon accuses Russia of 'playing with fire' over nuclear threats towards Nato