Sunday 03 November 1996
! The Faber Book of Science edited by John Carey, pounds 9.99. "The aim of this book is to make science intelligible to non-scientists," runs the first sentence of Prof Carey's introduction. I am not sure that the mark is hit, or could ever be hit, given that science is an entire intellectual continent, hardly to be reduced to a the span of an afternoon stroll by a 500-page anthology. But Carey rightly insists that good science-writing can be appreciated by all, and his selection of prose (and a little verse) from Vesalius to Steve Jones does help vindicate the aesthetic reputation of Boffinland. Here are a number of great scientists who were very good writers (as Darwin was) and a few great writers who were passable scientists (like Nabokov) plus lively extracts from science biographies.
! Wild Olives: Life in Majorca with Robert Graves by William Graves, Pimlico pounds 10. The author, a professional geologist, is the famous poet's son - not, as he makes clear, a particularly comfortable brief. Father on Majorca had a disturbing habit of getting off with girls so as to make them his "muses" while Mother looked helplessly on. Graves was not, on this evidence, a particularly affectionate or influential parent, more an outcrop of rock in whose shadow the children got on with their lives. It's no good hoping for the acuteness of an Edmund Gosse or Blake Morrison here. The book most resembles Gerald Durrell in Corfu, but without the jokes: William Graves, while loving Majorca's landscape, declines to examine the substrata of his feelings.
! The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture by Jonathan Sawday, Routledge pounds 12.99. We think of the Renaissance - via the cliche about "renaissance men" - as a time in which disparate thoughts and activities were fused to energise a new humanism. But, as Sawday points out in this study, it was even more a time of furious anatomisation and dissection, of tearing limbs and organs apart. The enterprise of splitting and sorting and clearing away old phobias about the insides of things sometimes took the form of staged public dissections, a fascination which was paralleled by poets "blazoning" or anatomising the bodies of their loved ones. But the meaning of dissection went beyond either enlightenment or titillation. Executed criminals' remains could be turned over to the anatomist as a final indignity.
! The Drowning Room by Michael Pye, Granta pounds 6.99. In this history novel of Old and New Amsterdam, Pye borrows a powerful image from The Embarrassment of Riches, Simon Schama's book on the Dutch Republic. According to Schama, there was a dungeon in Amsterdam designed for the work-shy, which filled with water unless the inmate kept working the hand-pump provided. This and other images of drowning - ever-present in the Netherlands psyche - pervade Pye's fictional account of the life of Gretje Reyniers, a character he came across while researching the early history of Manhattan. Gretje was a persistent runaway, whore, businesswoman and survivor: a Dutch Moll Flanders, in fact. Pye's portrait of both sides of the 17th-century Atlantic is fresh and evocative.
! Madam Speaker: The Life of Betty Boothroyd by Paul Routledge, HarperCollins pounds 6.99. I take it we are all agreed that Betty Boothroyd is a good egg. As Speaker she's the official conduit for our national political debate and our own BB has taken to the role like a high kicker to the London Palladium. She is streets ahead of anyone, even Trevor MacDonald, as putative President of the Republic. Not all MPs are fans, though. Some say she recklessly endangered Major by allowing a vote on the Social Chapter; others that she was soft on Michael Mates. This astute biography tries to be as scrupulously neutral as the woman herself.
! Michelangelo by George Bull, Penguin pounds 11. Bull's life of Michelangelo joins the Penguin list alongside Serge Bramly's fine Leonardo da Vinci, and is certainly as scholarly. These 450 pages are crammed with detail about the artist's movements, business dealings, friendships and patrons. But Bull is far less willing than Bramly to speculate about his subject's psychology. He claims in his introduction that "the advantage of being able to discuss his sexual orientation" and then proceeds to decline that advantage, never even stating openly that Michelangelo was homosexual: in this and other ways the discussion of the art does rather suffer from Bull's overall discretion about Michelangelo's inner life. Three paragraphs suffice to discuss the meaning of the David, while St Peter's Pieta must make do with one.
In The Beatles: Unseen (Penguin pounds 9.99), photographer John Howard gives a glimpse of the Fab Four off duty with their entourage, the posse of grim-looking wives and girlfriends and "Long Tall Mally" the roadie. His snaps capture the frequent bursts of hilarity at their parties, press conferences and gigs. Above, John Lennon shaving on the set of How I Won the War
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