Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Raymond and Tallis, Bergner and Adichie.

What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire by Daniel Bergner

Daniel Bergner’s ‘What Do Women Want?’ is an in-depth and unique take on female desire. Bergner uses scientific experiments and studies, anecdotal evidence, and interviews with experts in the field of arousal (sexoligists, behavioural scientists, and psychologists), to enlighten his thesis concerning the relationship between women and themes such as monogamy, intimacy, porn, narcissism and sex. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Bergner argues that women are naturally the less monogamous and more desire-driven than men and in the process forces the reader to challenge many common conceptions about the sexuality of the sexes.

Emma Brockes for The Guardian suggests that Bergner’s exposition of female desire is hardly a “new narrative” and criticises the implied causation in certain examples which extrapolate from the behaviour of rats and monkeys to human nature, saying they “can sometimes feel a bit flippant”. In addition, Brockes complains that “the potted social histories are cursory”, and dismisses Bergner’s superficial analysis of social or political context as “practically meaningless”. That said, Brockes concedes that there are “good sections” on the subjects of female mental health and reluctantly admits that Bergner’s discussion on the “difficulty of sustaining interest in a partner over the course of a long marriage” is “touching”.

Zoe Williams, also for The Guardian, looks at the disconcerting ramifications of Bergner’s findings and remarks that “the idea that fidelity has no natural defender” is somewhat unnerving. Moreover, Williams comments that it “blows [her] mind a little bit” that Bergner’s conclusions about female sexual energy were not arrived at sooner.

At the New York Times, Elain Blair, like Brockes, is sceptical of the task Bergner has set himself. She comments that despite primatologists finding evidence “that many kinds of female primates initiated sex, while their male counterparts pretty much sat around waiting for the ladies to take an interest in their erections”, in fact “[h]uman arousal and sexual behaviour are difficult to study in a lab.” Blair concludes that Bergner “seems to get lost in the sexiness of it all” – sometimes letting vaginal blood vessels “throb” with arousal - and states that “[t]here is something drastically under-theorized about what all these tentative findings and speculations…might mean taken together.”

NHS SOS: How the NHS Was Betrayed and How We Can Save It Edited by Jacky Davis and Raymond Tallis

This summer marks the 65th anniversary of the British National Health Service and coincides with the implementation of a series of far-reaching reforms. NHS SOS, edited by Jacky Davis, a consultant radiologist and co-chair of the NHS Consultants' Association, and Professor Raymond Tallis, a British polymath who specializes in geriatric care, depicts the “dismemberment” of the NHS as an institution and provides a manifesto for the retraction and reversal of Lansley’s reforms, paying particular attention to the effects of the Health and Social Care Act 2012.

The New Statesman’s Richard Horton writes that NHS SOS “lucidly describes” the way in which Lansley “infiltrated the Department of Health, ignored the advice of his most senior civil servants and implanted his plan to end more than 60 years of consensus.” Horton elucidates upon the “three catastrophic failures” which Tallis and Davis claim resulted in the “end of the NHS”. Firstly, Labour MPs are said to be “culpable” for having effectively “prepared the NHS for privatization”. Then Horton switches the onus to the media’s failure to ask the right questions concerning Lansley’s reforms. Finally Horton laments the “most atrocious betrayal of all”, citing the BMA’s policy of appeasement as the final nail in the NHS’s coffin. Horton calls NHS SOS “a painful story” but resolves that it is “one that we must confront if we are to have any hope of reclaiming what was once ours”.

Bernadette Hyland at the Morning Star is of the opinion that NHS SOS “is a difficult book to read” because “In chapter after chapter we see the way in which determined neoliberals have hacked away at a cherished British institution.” Despite calling NHS SOS a “devastating read”, Hyland achieves a more optimistic outlook than Horton, deciding that “the purpose of the book is to bring together the various individuals and organisations that are horrified by the prospect of the new NHS” and emphasising that “A whole section at the end of the book gives advice on what people can do to save the NHS.”

In a similar vein, Yvonne Roberts, writing for The Observer, provides an impassioned analysis of the nuances contained in Section 75 of the Health and Social Care Act, which removes the Health Secretary’s duty to “secure or provide” free of change “a comprehensive health service for the prevention, diagnoses and treatment of illness”, leaving behind only a duty to “promote”. Roberts, like Hyland, accentuates the optimistic normative ending of the book and advises her readers to “Buy the book, read that chapter, act” otherwise, in her words, “we'll all be sorry when she's dead and gone – and 90% of the country can't afford to be sick.”

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

In her third novel “Americanah”, former winner of the Orange Prize Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, follows the lives of two former sweethearts from modern-day Nigeria, Ifemelu and her first love Obinze. As a student, Ifemelu makes the decision to relocate and continue her studies in the U.S. Here she suffers a series of tribulations, eventually falling into prostitution. Obinze opts to move to the U.K. where he too is faced with trying times, and finds himself cleaning toilets before he is deported. Adichie tackles pressing issues regarding race, having acknowledged that many of the experiences faced by Ifemelu were very similar to her own. 

Claire Lowdon, Assistant Editor at Areté, unravelled “Americanah” for the New Statesman. Although in parts, examples of racial torments feel “like an anthology of examples - an agglomeration rather than an arrangement”, Adichie is undoubtedly insightful. Her observations “are always sharp, intelligent, humourous and humane” and her commentary “will challenge the way you think about race”. Despite some “wobbles, moments when the whole book risks losing its balance”, Adichie “is a very skilful writer and her talent for illuminating the intricacies of human interactions carries her.”

Mike Peed in the New York Times also acknowledges Adichie’s insightfulness. He praises her as “an extraordinarily self-aware thinker and writer”, and again remarks how “Americanah” manages to challenge our perceptions of race, holding “the discomfiting realities of our times fearlessly before us”. Adichie is “hugely empathetic, both worldly and geographically precise” and her work “never feels false”.

Laura Pearson in the Chicago Tribune, offers similarly impressive praise for an “absorbing love story”. Its ambition is evident, managing to present “a multilayered meditation on learning to belong to one's own life” alongside a romantic novel.  Like Lowdon, Pearson does note that Adichie “indulges in a lot of detail” to the extent that the novel “meanders” and “lags in places”. Yet the novel still remains precise, as Adiche manages to “capture specific emotions with rich, exacting detail”. Accompanied with Adiche’s own experience of life in Nigeria and the U.S., we “get vivid descriptions about the often lonely, disorienting experience of adjusting to a foreign country.”

Like Raymond and Tallis, protesters leading a mock funeral procession in London are critical of the Government's changes to the Health Service. Photograph: Olly Scarff at Getty Images

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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The marine, and human costs, of illegal fishing

Two new books take us inside the least regulated industry on the planet.

How big the sea is, how big. How poor a description that is, too, but the ocean usually resists description and words, no matter how many of its plains are named after Herodotus or how many fracture zones are called Charlie-Gibbs. It is rare to find good writing about the sea: that’s why everyone who tries quotes Conrad and Melville. It is rarer still to find good writing about the people of the sea, those strange creatures – strange to us, on our supposed maritime island, from where the ocean as a place of industry has long retreated – who set out to sea in boats and ships to make a living from it. These two, very different books try to bring them alive, although both really are about death.

Fishers and Plunderers is dense and dry, but within it are riches and horror. Seafaring is the second most dangerous job in the world, but deep-sea fishing is worse. In the UK, between 1996 and 2005, the rate of fatal accidents in the fishing industry was 115 times higher than that for the overall workforce.

The dizzying facts and stats come, and come again, like tides. We start with the ocean, and the fish in it – or the fish that used to be in it, before human beings learned to build vessels that could scrape the seabed, that could entangle dolphins, sharks and other unlucky passers-by. How wrong indeed was T H Huxley, the eminent biologist and chairman of a royal commission on sea fisheries, giving the inaugural address at the Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883, when he said: “I believe . . . that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say, that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish.”

He did not account for our greed. There are 16.5 million fishers catching 90 million tonnes of fish a year in four million fishing vessels. Pelagic long-lines, stretching dozens of kilometres, to hook tuna. Super-trawlers that can retrieve the equivalent weight of 20 busloads of fish a day, using nets 600 metres long. A biomass of predatory fish that has decreased by two-thirds in a hundred years. One-third of fish stocks fished unsustainably. Thousands of tonnes of “bycatch”, a benign word for a horrible thing: fish that are caught and discarded. An indictment of us.

But the sorry heart of this book lies with the fishers. There are the natural dangers that face them – ice, water and weather – such as the ones that overcame the crew of a British trawler near Iceland in the first half of the 20th century. They couldn’t beat the ice, so the skipper got everyone in the radio room, from where they phoned home. The crew “said goodbye, and eventually were just turned over and were lost”.

In every British fishing port, you will find a memorial to those lost at sea. There will not be a memorial to the fact that, in 2008, 75 per cent of those who died on UK boats were from eastern Europe or the Philippines. Fishing is the most unregulated industry on the planet, infected with abuse, slavery and worse. Some West African states lose 40 per cent of their catch to foreign vessels that come and steal from their waters, such as the bottom trawler Apsari-3, found fishing less than two nautical miles off the coast of Sierra Leone. The boat and officers were Korean, the crew from China, Indonesia and Vietnam. They had no contracts and no salaries, but were paid in packets of “trash fish” to sell ashore. They shared wooden and cardboard bunks in the hold. It was not an isolated case. Distant-water fishing nations operate vessels that abound with these ghosts: men trafficked or bonded into appalling conditions or contracts, stuck at sea for months at a time.

Modern shipping, with its “flag of convenience” system, makes slipperiness easy. Pay a fee, and you can fly the flag of any state and are then governed by its law at sea. Unscrupulous owners and operators can switch flag, name or identity almost instantly (hence “convenience”). Escape is easy for the criminals, and for the abused: often they go overboard. The illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing industry is worth up to $23.5bn each year, and it is extremely difficult to police. Much illegal fish from West Africa passes through Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, which has hardly any inspectors. It is repackaged, presented as legal catch and sold in western Europe. Some subheadings in the chapter on “Abuses and Slavery at Sea”: Abduction; Abuse; General; Beatings; Children; Death; Exploitation; Imprisonment; Murder.

Fishing has never been an easy life. It’s not that it was better then than it is now, but that now the abuse is industrialised, organised. The authors are a sober lot, and include Father Bruno Ciceri, who chairs the International Christian Maritime Association. The port priests are often the ones who save and soothe the fishers, though they can only do so much. I’m glad they do that. And I’m glad I don’t eat fish.

Julia Blackburn’s Threads is what you should read after finishing Fishers and Plunderers. Read it as an antidote to rigorous investigation, because this is a gorgeous, dreamy quest, for a man named John Craske, who was “a fisherman who became a fishmonger who became an invalid”. He also became an extraordinary artist, but one whose legacy is scattered and maligned.

Craske was born in Norfolk in 1881 and went to sea, like the rest of his family. At the age of 36 he fell ill with a mysterious illness, and never recovered. There were months of stupor and disability (Blackburn concludes that it was diabetes), of becoming, as his valiant wife, Laura, wrote, “very quiet. Sudden turns. Must get outside.” He did go back to sea, when his brothers took him on their fishing boat, lashing him to the mast in rough weather. He stayed for three months, rolling about in the hold or on deck until, somehow, he realised “it was not his home” and he came back to land.

Craske began to paint. They had no money, so he painted on what he had, which was the surfaces in his house. On the mantelpiece. On bits of cardboard. “On the seat of the chair he did a frigate in a storm.” His love of the sea and knowledge of it were clear, as a fisherman whom Blackburn interviews tells her. “You can’t put that energy out unless you’ve been there.”

This “quest” is meandering: don’t expect great events. The revelations are of emotion: sadness throughout for Craske’s life, though he may have been happy. Grief for Blackburn, who suffers a great loss while she is writing the book, so that from then on “grief is prowling close”. And joy, for being exposed to the embroidery of Craske, who took up the needle as he lay abed, finding a vocation. His little fishermen in their boats, sewn in careful stitches; his giant portrait of Dunkirk, with sweeping seas and tiny figures: they are amazing, yet were scorned by the museums and odd places where his work ended up, turned to the wall, ignored.

A doctor once told Craske’s wife that “he must go to sea. Only the sea will save him.” And it did, but not for long enough. We should thank Julia Blackburn for bringing back this quiet fisher and man of the sea; and Bruno Ciceri and his co-authors for exposing an unforgiving and cruel industry, where men die and the seas are depleted for the sake of our fish supper, out of sight beyond our horizon.

Rose George’s books include “Deep Sea and Foreign Going” (Portobello)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle