Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Michael Burleigh, Chang-rae Lee and Jane Smiley.

Moral Combat by Michael Burleigh

"Michael Burleigh has long been one of our foremost writers on the importance of ethics in history," writes Andrew Roberts in the Sunday Telegraph, "and in this deeply researched, closely argued and well-written analysis of the moral issues thrown up by the Second World War he has reached the zenith of his career."

The book is "full of poignant nuggets of information", Roberts says, "but easily its greatest strength lies in the wise, civilised but unshakeable moral certainty of its author". Thus the 55,000 volunteers who died in Bomber Command operations are "heroes" -- "a refreshing value judgement to find in a serious work of history", Roberts argues.

In the Sunday Times, Dominic Sandbrook writes: "Perhaps the most impressive thing about Burleigh's book is that, unlike so many historians, he has a refreshingly realistic, clear-eyed view of human nature. [Moral Combat] confronts us with the ethical questions millions of people faced in their daily lives, from the statesmen who devised the policy of appeasement to the soldiers for whom, 'at the combat coalface, killing became a job of work'."

But for David Herman, writing in the New Statesman, Burleigh's book, though impressive, "is a missed opportunity". The first section is, in Herman's view, a "not terribly original account of the Second World War . . . Burleigh's account of appeasement, for example, is one-dimensional." And although the historian "has devoured much of the scholarly literature in English and German", there are "surprising absences" from the source material, notably the "growing literature on southern and eastern Europe".

Herman concludes: "Burleigh could have produced the best single-volume history of the Second World War. This isn't it."

 

The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee

"The Korean-American author . . . has aimed high in The Surrendered, his fourth novel," writes Nick Rennison in the Sunday Times. "This is an exceptionally ambitious tale of war and violence and their ruinous impact on those who appear to have survived them." But the book's scope is also its downfall, Rennison opines: "It ends up hamstrung by Lee's overly obvious desire to produce fiction on an epic scale."

Oscillating between the bleak 1980s New York life of a terminal cancer victim, June, and her war-torn past in 1950s Korea, the novel is both "overwrought and overwritten", in Rennison's view -- "a big, fat narrative in which a thinner, sparer story is imprisoned, signalling to be let out".

Leo Robson, for the Observer, was disappointed with the book. "It is not even that Lee's story receives particularly patient unfolding, simply that he tells us everything several times. He uses two adjectives where one would do ('scraggly, patchy', 'matted, tangled') and repeats to no purpose: 'glide through the flak, slip past all disturbances'; 'beneath her skin, her flesh'."

For Alyssa McDonald in the New Statesman, however, "Lee is a quiet and restrained writer who uses language powerfully but without pyrotechnics; the horrors that befall his characters are intensified with dense visual detail." She continues: "At times the characters' misfortunes are so relentless that their power is lost." Even so, "The Surrendered is expertly crafted -- as you might expect from a novelist who is also director of Princeton's creative writing programme."

 

Private Life by Jane Smiley

"Jane Smiley has written a persuasive historical paean to the importance of divorce," writes Lionel Shriver for the Financial Times.

"Private Life dissects the kind of marriage that so many wives continued to tolerate through the first half of the 20th century, when divorce was legally possible yet remained scandalous."

Lorna Bradbury, for the Telegraph, explains: "Smiley, herself married three times, has long been a cheerful advocate of the attractions of divorce. Her 13th novel [examining the staid marriage of Margaret Mayfield in small-town Missouri in the late 1870s] might be seen as a meditation on this argument." The novel's problem, in Bradbury's view, "lies in Smiley's relationship with her heroine. One feels that she desperately wants to release Margaret from the constraints of her increasingly bleak marriage -- and that she only just manages to resist this urge."

Meanwhile, for Christian House, writing in the Independent, "problems . . . are drawn from [the book's] strict realism. The languorous pace, understandable considering the restraints of the pre-feminist era, can still frustrate, while Margaret's tight-lipped complicity in the events stifles sympathy for her." Nonetheless, House also writes, "The physical and psychological stress that [her husband] Andrew imposes on Margaret's life is conveyed with claustrophobic intensity."

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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder