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)
KEVIN C MOORE
Show Hide image

Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism