Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Rebecca Stott, Antony Beevor and Kathleen Riley.

Darwin's Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists by Rebecca Stott

“There may be no such thing as originality,” Richard Fortey writes in the Guardian in his review of Rebecca Stott’s latest book. It’s a work that examines just such an idea. What Stott calls "ghosts" are Darwin’s intellectual forebears – his predecessors and his contemporaries whose parallel researches gave rise, indirectly otherwise, to his own discoveries. The Origin of Species acknowledged a list of such  great minds; Stott’s book unearths and ever more intriguing list, revealing the way in which the strand of evolutionary thought has - like a living organism - refined, absorbed, and mutated over time.

Fortey finds Stott’s list “more interesting” than Darwin’s own. He’s fascinated by her exploration of an “extraordinary batch of free thinkers” such as French consul in Cairo Benoît de Maillet, Swiss naturalist Abraham Tremblay, and Renaissance ecologist al-Jahiz. “Every character that Stott introduces has a riveting story to tell, and all their histories are told with style and historical nous.”

But Fortey des not see these character are any discredit to the great theorist, rather an enriching backdrop against which Darwin worked – a great thinker who looked at the phenomenon of natural selection with fresh eyes. “As so often before and after, he [Darwin] was starting afresh, open to past influences, but fuelled by his Beagle voyage….the 19th century was truly the right time for evolution to emerge from the shadows…Stott has done a wonderful job in showing just how many extraordinary people had speculated on where we came from before the great theorist dispelled all doubts”.

Ziauddin Sardar, writing in the Independent , also lauds Stott’s efforts to show that “Darwin stood on the shoulders of giants.” He reads the book as less forgiving of Darwin, stating at the outset that “Charles Darwin was not the first person to observe mutation of species or work on natural selection. Indeed, the notion of evolution was not particularly original in Darwin's time.” Equally impressed by Scott’s detective work, he calls her thorough and unusual catalogue of “unsung heroes” a “fascinating history of an idea that is crucial to our understanding of life on earth.”

Gillian Beer, writing in the Telgraph, points out that Darwin was known for his ceaseless interrogations of the natural world. Stott shows “some of the same zeal in asking unexpected questions.” She calls the book “extraordinarily wide-ranging and engaging”, and places particular emphasis on Stott’s novelistic accomplishment: “each of her subjects emerges as living in ordinary weather and among objects, family, and political difficulties. So, without sentimentality, we come to feel the value of these often obsessional men”.

She picks up on Stott’s own awareness of evolutionary theory not as a linear, upward trajectory, but rather a sinuous, stop-start footpath. “Although the book is arranged chronologically, the ideas pursued did not steadily accumulate nor did the people Stott describes often feed off each other’s knowledge. Insights flourished and were lost…. She draws on an array of scholarship and assembles it into an intricate sequence of stories and investigations that are her own. The outcome is gripping as well as fair-minded.”

An essay by Rebecca Stott on Darwin's "ghosts" was published in the New Statesman on 16 May.

 

The Second World War by Antony Beevor

Former British army officer and acclaimed author of several histories, Beevor’s latest is a sweeping study of the Second World War, beginning from the unusual starting point of a Japanese victory at the Mongolian boarder in 1939. From there he turns his gaze across Europe and the Pacific, composing what Ian Thomson in the Spectator calls “a lucid and wide-ranging account of the most destructive war of all time”.

“Antony Beevor has done a great deal to popularise history,” writes Roger Moorhouse in the Independent. He calls The Second World War “a handsome, yet rather daunting doorstop of a book. But happily, its 800-odd pages fly by with considerable speed, as Beevor warms to his task, being especially strong on grand strategy and on the experience of ordinary soldiers. The narrative never flags and the myriad pieces of this intricate kaleidoscope are pieced together with exemplary skill.”

Moorhouse praises Beevor’s “searing accounts of man's inhumanity to his fellow man” and his “eye-opening revelations” including sanctioned cannibalism in the Japanese army. He finds fault only with comparison to Beevor’s previous work: “In tackling such a vast subject, Beevor has been obliged to sacrifice too much of the very aspect that had become his stylistic trademark: the telling anecdote, the poignant aside, the illuminating vignette. The result is that the book – for all its excellence – appears to lack some of the pizzazz of his earlier offerings.”

Overall though, he finds the work well worth his time, calling it a “splendid book, erudite, with an admirable clarity of thought and expression. For a summary of the Second World War – who did what to whom, when and why – the general reader would need look no further.”

Tony Barber, writing in the Financial Times, admired Beevor’s accomplished narrative. “Every nation experienced and remembers the war in different ways…” he writes. “A general history of the war needs to embrace this variety of experience and capture the interplay between the momentous events unfolding on different continents and the high seas. Antony Beevor effectively meets this challenge.”

He notes especially Beevor's knowledge of “how to keep a good story rolling”, delighting in the details: “Beevor shows an original touch by drawing attention to little-known but revealing episodes”.

“The Second World War is not without flaws,” he notes. “It is a narrative history from start to finish, mainly military in its focus. As such, it is too rigidly structured to permit proper treatment of important themes such as the war economies of the participants … Where Beevor mentions the economics of the war, his touch is less sure than normal.”

But overall though it’s high praise for a mammoth undertaking of such dense and varied subject matter.  “Beevor’s book is a pleasure to read and an example of intelligent, lively historical writing at its best.”

John Gray’s review of "The Second World" War by Antony Beevor will appear in the next issue of the New Statesman, out tomorrow.

 

The Astairs: Fred and Adele by Kathleen Riley

“It is hard to believe that Kathleen Riley’s The Astaires is the first full-length study of the celebrated partnership that so defined 20th-century musical comedy,” wrote Sarah Churchwell in the New Statesman last week, and it seems critics across the board are similarly eager for this account of the famous dancers. Ethan Morden, writing in the Wall Street Journal, delights at the arrival of an overdue biography.  “It's quite a saga,” he says of Fred Astaire’s life, “but we really only know its second half…thanks to his imperishable movies Fred is linked with Ginger Rogers; or with the most beautiful of his partners, Rita Hayworth; or with the most effervescent of his partners, Judy Garland; or with the most technically accomplished of his partners, Eleanor Powell…The most Astaire of his partners is forgotten… Kathleen Riley's book on Fred and Adele…is a welcome rehabilitation.”

He enjoys Riley rendering of the “crazy joy” and “guiltless worldview” that was theatre of the 1920s, calling The Astaires “a salute to an America at ease with itself and doing something wonderful in the song-and-dance line that seemed, for a time, like the hottest thing in the culture.”

Churchwell points towards Riley’s successes, especially the way she “usefully contextualises the way in which his partnership with Adele col­oured Fred’s initial reluctance to partner with Rogers.”

However, she finds fault with Riley’s apparently uncritical adoration of her subjects. “The Astaires undoubtedly deserve our admiration but The Astaires flirts with hagiography.” She cites one example in particular: “Noting that Fred referred in the 1920s to the blues as 'nigger music', Riley hastens to assure us that this does not mean he was a racist: 'It should be stressed that Astaire’s use of the term ‘nigger’ in this context was not intended to cause offence. It is indicative of a less sensitive and less enlightened era regarding race issues.' That’s one way of putting it. Another is that it was indicative of racism, of a time when white people didn’t give a damn if they caused offence to black people, rendering the question of intention entirely moot.”

Despite finding the book “reluctant to be too plain-speaking” and “partial to “occasional fits of overwriting”, she calls the work “an important, overdue recognition of the contribution that this remarkable partnership made to the popular theatre”.

Former New York City ballet dancer Toni Bentley writes an engaging review for the New York Times. “Astaire is our American Casanova camouflaged in tux and tails…In her fascinating new book, 'The Astaires,' the Australian theater historian Kathleen Riley describes the exploits of this brother-sister team in glorious detail.”

She applauds Riley's illumination of a relationship that shaped the world's most celebrated partner-dancer: “It becomes clear that it was behind and beside, but never in front of, Adele that Fred learned not only how to dance, but how to present a woman, honour her and make her glow.”

“Riley’s book suffers, though not egregiously,” Bentley argues, “from the rather humour­less, linear reportage — the laundry-list narrative — and the slightly defensive tone of so much academic writing, in which being correct is clearly more valued than being interesting”.

But overall, “Riley performs the great service of giving us the history before the history, of Fred and Adele, the biggest vaudeville and musical theater stars of their time. It’s a love story rarely told, of that between a sister and her brother, one bonded in blood but cemented by hoofing.”

In "Darwin's Ghosts", author Rebecca Stott invetigates the heritage of evolutionary thought (Photo: Getty Images)
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If you don’t know what a Fwooper is by now, where have you been?

Meet the latest magical characters entering the Harry Potter universe.

Yesterday, the latest and final trailer was released for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them –  the latest Harry Potter franchise film from J K Rowling. Based on an index of magical animals that Rowling released for Comic Relief all the way back in 2001, it naturally features a whole range of strange creatures from the series – with familiar and fresh faces alike.

So, let’s get to know the animals we meet in the latest trailer.

Niffler

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXX (Competent wizards should cope)

Any self-respecting Harry Potter fan will remember the niffler. A mole-like fellow mostly found down mines, the niffler’s most distinctive characteristic is its love for (and ability to sniff out) gold. Nifflers were part of Hagrid’s most successful lesson, when he buried leprechaun gold and asked his students to use nifflers to dig up as much as possible – “easily the most fun they had ever had in Care of Magical Creatures”. And who could forget when Lee Jordan, on more than one occasion, released a hairy-snouted niffler into Umbridge’s office, “which promptly tore the place apart in its search for shiny objects, leapt on Umbridge on her reentrance, and tried to gnaw the rings off her stubby fingers”? Some would say the niffler is a distant relative of the New Statesman’s own Media Mole – sniffing out content gold on a daily basis.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Niffler is a British beast. Fluffy, black and long-snouted, this burrowing creature has a predilection for anything glittery. Nifflers are often kept by goblins to burrow deep into the earth for treasure. Though the Niffler is gentle and even affectionate, it can be destructive to belongings and should never be kept in a house. Nifflers live in lairs up to twenty feet below the surface and produce six to eight young in a litter.

An Egg

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: N/A. It’s an egg.

Well, well, well, if it isn’t the guy from Twitter that told me to go fuck myself. Who knows what magical creature is appearing from within this hatching egg – the only animal we’ve seen hatch in the Potterverse before was Noberta the Norwegian Ridgeback dragon, but this egg looks too small to be one of those. Aside from dragons, we know from Fantastic Beasts that Acromantula, Ashwinder serpents, Basilisks, Chimaera, doxies and fairies, Fwoopers, Hippocampi, Hippogriffs, Occamys, Phoenixes, and Runespoor all come from eggs. My money would be on this being the egg of an Occamy – a key player in the next movie – but their eggs are made from pure silver. So I’d guess this belongs to a Fwooper.

Nomaj

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: N/A (but should be XXXXX to be honest)

Meaning “no magic”, this is basically your common or garden variety Muggle, just with a fancy new American name. Look how Muggleish this one is, falling through suitcases like a chump and getting in a muddle about basic magical principles. Get it together, mate! It remains unconfirmed whether this man’s animate moustache is a magical creature in its own right.

Billywig

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXX (Competent wizards should cope)

You might not remember billywigs from the Harry Potter series – they only get a couple of passing, esoteric mentions in the final book. But anyone who remembers Fizzing Whizbees – in Ron’s words, “massive sherbert balls that make you levitate a few inches off the ground while you’re sucking them”, will have a tangential relationship with them – according to Fantastic Beasts, they’re a key ingredient in the classic wizarding sweet. These bugs seem to match the billywig description.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Billywig is an insect native to Australia. It is around half an inch long and a vivid sapphire blue, although its speed is such that it is rarely noticed by Muggles and often not by wizards until they have been stung. The Billywig’s wings are attached to the top of its head and are rotated very fast so that it spins as it flies. At the bottom of the body is a long thin sting. Those who have been stung by a Billywig suffer giddiness followed by levitation. Generations of young Australian witches and wizards have attempted to catch Billywigs and provoke them into stinging in order to enjoy these side effects, though too many stings may cause the victim to hover uncontrollably for days on end, and where there is a severe allergic reaction, permanent floating may ensue. Dried Billywig stings are used in several potions and are believed to be a component in the popular sweet Fizzing Whizzbees.

Graphorn

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXXX (Dangerous / requires specialist knowledge / skilled wizard may handle)

This is not a “canon” animal in that it doesn’t appear in the original series. God, it’s weird looking.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Graphorn is found in mountainous European regions. Large and greyish purple with a humped back, the Graphorn has two very long, sharp horns, walks on large, four-thumbed feet, and has an extremely aggressive nature. Mountain trolls can occasionally be seen mounted on Graphorns, though the latter do not seem to take kindly to attempts to tame them and it is more common to see a troll covered in Graphorn scars. Powdered Graphorn horn is used in many potions, though it is immensely expensive owing to the difficulty in collecting it. Graphorn hide is even tougher than a dragon’s and repels most spells.

Fwooper

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXX (Competent wizards should cope)

We see a bright pink bird sail past the Graphorn – I bet this is a Fwooper. Again, not an animal from the seven books, but here’s what we know about it from Fantastic Beasts:

The Fwooper is an African bird with extremely vivid plumage; Fwoopers may be orange, pink, lime green, or yellow. The Fwooper has long been a provider of fancy quills and also lays brilliantly patterned eggs. Though at first enjoyable, Fwooper song will eventually drive the listener to insanity8 and the Fwooper is consequently sold with a Silencing Charm upon it, which will need monthly reinforcement. Fwooper owners require licences, as the creatures must be handled responsibly.

Bowtruckle

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XX (Harmless / may be domesticated)

A fan favourite, maybe because one attacks Harry in a Care of Magical Creatures class, before it “set off at full tilt toward the forest, a little, moving stickman soon swallowed up by the tree roots.” Aw, cute and feisty! Tree guardians that usually live in trees that produce wand wood, they are pretty damn adorable. We know they like to eat fairy eggs, and we can assume they particularly favour doxy eggs: Aberforth once said, “they’ll be onto you like bowtruckles on doxy eggs”.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Bowtruckle is a tree-guardian creature found mainly in the west of England, southern Germany, and certain Scandinavian forests. It is immensely difficult to spot, being small (maximum eight inches in height) and apparently made of bark and twigs with two small brown eyes. The Bowtruckle, which eats insects, is a peaceable and intensely shy creature but if the tree in which it lives is threatened, it has been known to leap down upon the woodcutter or tree-surgeon attempting to harm its home and gouge at their eyes with its long, sharp fingers. An offering of woodlice will placate the Bowtruckle long enough to let a witch or wizard remove wand-wood from its tree.

Nundu

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: N/A, but pretty damn high we’d assume

Not in the books; not in Fantastic Beasts, definitely fucking weird. Pottermore have invented a Fantastic Beasts entry for it that did not appear in the 2001 book, so I guess we have to go from there.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (on Pottermore):

This east African beast is arguably the most dangerous in the world. A gigantic leopard that moves silently despite its size and whose breath causes disease virulent enough to eliminate entire villages, it has never yet been subdued by fewer than a hundred skilled wizards working together.

Thunderbird

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: N/A, but, again, we’d guess high

Again, this is seemingly a new creation invented for this film. It apparently “senses danger and creates storms as it flies”, and a house of the American Wizarding school Ilvermoney takes its name from this bird, and Pottermore gives a bit of extra detail, supposedly from History of Magic in North America, 1920s Wizarding America:

Shikoba Wolfe, who was of Choctaw descent, was primarily famous for intricately carved wands containing Thunderbird tail feathers (the Thunderbird is a magical American bird closely related to the phoenix). Wolfe wands were generally held to be extremely powerful, though difficult to master. They were particularly prized by Transfigurers.

Occamy

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXXX (Dangerous / requires specialist knowledge / skilled wizard may handle)

A horrific bird-snake, it seems as though Occamys start tiny and cute and end up huge and dangerous. I am intrigued. Again, not one from the books.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Occamy is found in the Far East and India. A plumed, twolegged winged creature with a serpentine body, the Occamy may reach a length of fifteen feet. It feeds mainly on rats and birds, though has been known to carry off monkeys. The Occamy is aggressive to all who approach it, particularly in defence of its eggs, whose shells are made of the purest, softest silver.

Erumpent

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXXX (Dangerous / requires specialist knowledge / skilled wizard may handle)

We never see an Erumpent in the Harry Potter series, but who could forget the exploding Erumpent horn – “an enormous, gray spiral horn, not unlike that of a unicorn” – at Xenophilius Lovegood’s house? Hermione spots it as “a Class B Tradeable Material and it’s an extraordinarily dangerous thing to have in a house!” We can therefore assume the Erumpent is a risky animal to be around. Also fucking ugly.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Erumpent is a large grey African beast of great power. Weighing up to a tonne, the Erumpent may be mistaken for a rhinoceros at a distance. It has a thick hide that repels most charms and curses, a large, sharp horn upon its nose and a long, rope-like tail. Erumpents give birth to only one calf at a time. The Erumpent will not attack unless sorely provoked, but should it charge, the results are usually catastrophic. The Erumpent’s horn can pierce everything from skin to metal, and contains a deadly fluid which will cause whatever is injected with it to explode. Erumpent numbers are not great, as males frequently explode each other during the mating season. They are treated with great caution by African wizards. Erumpent horns, tails, and the Exploding Fluid are all used in potions, though classified as Class B Tradeable Materials (Dangerous and Subject to Strict Control).

I’m sure there are loads more creatures to be discovered in the new film – but getting to know this small handful has exhausted me for now!

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.