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.
Game of Thrones
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 A daily walk 'can add seven years to your life'
- 2 Rules on 5p plastic bags likely to lead to arguments at the check-out
- 3 Chrissie Hynde says women who 'wear high heels and dress provocatively entice rapists'
- 4 Blood Moon and Supermoon: September to bring brightest – and dimmest – full Moon of the year on same night
- 5 News agency criticised for describing Amal Clooney as 'actor's wife' in coverage of human rights trial
X Factor hopeful Mason Noise: 'How is Cheryl Fernandez-Versini in the music business, let alone a judge?'
Artist takes LSD, draws herself over different stages of the 9-hour trip to show its effects
Trevor Noah, Edinburgh Fringe review: New Daily Show host warms up in inspired style
Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Online toy marathon to launch new film
The X Factor 2015: Ratings drop almost 2 million compared to last year's launch show
Climate change: 2015 will be the hottest year on record 'by a mile', experts say
'Women only' train carriages: Jeremy Corbyn unveils radical move to tackle public harassment
Black holes are a passage to another universe, says Stephen Hawking
Tony Blair attacks Jeremy Corbyn's 'Alice In Wonderland' politics
Theresa May says migrants should be banned from entering the UK unless they have jobs lined up
Iain Duncan Smith 'should resign over disability benefit death figures', says Jeremy Corbyn