Reviews Round-Up

The critic's verdicts on Nate Silver, Alice Munro and Ben Thompson's Mary Whitehouse biography

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver

Ever since Nate Silver induced global jaw-dropping when he correctly predicted 50 out of 50 states for the US election last week, his revered status in the field of psephology has been guaranteed. With his new book, however, his ranking on the bestsellers chart will surely rest on another question – can he make statistics sexy?

Just about so, according to Bryan Appleyard in the Sunday Times, "'Fascinating' is perhaps not a word you associate with statistics," he begins. "Well, get used to it." This "fat and fascinating book" succeeds in its aim of explaining a niche subject lucidly to a broad audience. Sophisticated mathematical models may not be the stuff of great literature, but Appleyard insitsts that Silver’s book is "full of satisfying facts", and "a useful attempt to explain a complicated and dynamic field".

If the reader is expecting a detective-style work in the genre of Freakonomics, or a "classic underdog tale" like Moneyball,  however, The Signal and the Noise may dissapoint, warns Noam Scheiber writing in the New York Times. "This one isn’t so much about his [Silver's] rise to statistical godliness, though it includes a smidgen of back story. It’s largely about evaluating predictions in a variety of fields, from finance to weather to epidemiology." Silver’s book, he goes on, "is more like an engagingly written user’s manual, with forays into topics like dynamic nonlinear systems". Ruth Scurr, reviewing for the Guardian agrees that the book is, in essence, "a lucid explanation of how to think probabilistically", rather than a populist work.

Still, these are the only criticism in what is otherwise a sea of praise, and you can see why. The recent election success has donated an awe of the modern-day oracle to Silver, and its no surprise he’s captured the public imagination. As Schieber notes, it’s as if there’s "no question he couldn’t answer with a big enough spreadsheet".

Dear Life by Alice Munro

The literary world has long been lacking a high enough hyperbole for Alice Munro. Can this – her latest collection of stories, published as the writer just turned 81 - maintain that same inimitable standard? Carrie Synder, writing for the Canadian National Post, doesn’t beat about the bush; “These stories are perfect. Of course they are”.

All the critics are unanimous that Dear Life, offers exactly what we would expect from Munro, and we’ve come to expect nothing less than linguistic and structural flawlessness. Each aspects of a Munro story are there, her characters are ‘bare and true’ according to Anne Enright in the Guardian. Her prose is "piercingly clear'"and "brisk - moving" notes Peter Kemp in the Sunday Times. But most pressingly, what we reputedly turn to Munro for is her devastating emotional resonance, and once again, Dear Life doesn’t disappoint; "You can't get away from people, in these stories. Even the ones you thought had wandered off show up again, if only to be avoided, if only as a voice in the next room".

In fact, critics have started to take it to so far for granted that a Munro collection will deliver the goods that much of the reviews are concerned not with weighing up her quality, but with deconstructing her literary techniques so as to explore exactly how she achieves her effects. Kemp delves into the mechanics of her technique, noting that "a perfectly chosen word crisps up a phrase" and "points of view are switched at just the right moment not only to prolong suspense but to deepen complication", whilst Synder examines how "even at the sentence level, she constructs fascinating conflict and unexpected oppositions".

The fact of Munro entering her octogenariancy with this collection has lead to speculation on how her writing style has altered, if at all, with age. "The timelines in her stories have become longer, and the sense of fatedness has stretched to match," notes Enright, although the general consensus is that age hasn't affected the writer other than to make her even - if that's possible - better.

Not one of the critics has a complaint of the collection, other than the minor note that Munro has chosen a new approach with the final four works, writing autobiographically in pieces that she herself concedes are "not quite stories". "Though I count myself as one of the people most interested in this writer on planet Earth, I find, to my surprise that they do not hold me in the same way – it is Munro's stories that I want; not her, after all" notes Enright of these works.

Look out for the review of Dear Life in the next issue of the New Statesman.

 

BAN THIS FILTH! Letter from the Mary Whitehouse Archive edited by Ben Thompson

Mary Whitehouse is, in many ways, the dream subject for a new biography. On the one hand, her entire character was something of "a gift to the satirist", and secondly, her persistent complaints at the moral demise of the BBC are oddly prophetic, given that the Newsnight omnishambles saga continues to dominate headlines this week. Critics of Ben Thompson’s book universally praise the poignant insights it lends into the very current question of morality and the media, "a fascinating book" amounting to "a net-curtain-twitching cultural history" says William Cook in this week’s New Statesman.

Cook notes that Thompson made a positive decision to veer away from the structural hallmarks of biography, “rather than writing a standard biography…Ben Thompson has hit upon the bright idea of annotating the letters...from her extensive archive”.

The highlight of the book, critics agree, is its humour. Cook is impressed by the ‘good jokes’, whilst Dominic Sandbrook in the Sunday Times goes further, citing a "hilarious book" with "comic gems on almost every page".

Critics are similarly united at Thompson’s  decision to respectfully portray Whitehouse as an intelligent woman with strong logic behind her actions, rather than ridiculing her endlessly. "To his credit, the author resists the temptation to sneer too much at ­Whitehouse," notes Sandbrook, whilst Andew Anthony, writing in the Guardian elaborates "he respects Whitehouse as a cultural phenomenon but is also archly drawn to her value as a social joke".

Martin Fletcher in the Independent goes on to conclude, "Ben Thompson's witty and engaging commentary is admirably even-handed: 'we complained about her when she was alive, we sort of miss her now she's gone.'"

Alice Munro in 2009 (Photo credit: PETER MUHLY/AFP/Getty Images)
© THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit