Becoming extinct

Many people mistakenly think that Nature, the journal for which I work, is a "nature" magazine (in the sense of "furry animals") as opposed to a "magazine of the natural sciences". Anyone who read Nature would find 60 very heavy pages a week of technical scientific research from astronomy through to structural biology (we order each week from the cosmos to the biological molecule, running through physics, geology, zoology, immunology and cell biology en route, with all points between). We also publish a front "half" of news, reviews and stimulating comment, including book reviews and correspondence, my two favourite sections — but I think fair to say most of it aimed at professional scientists.

We get a lot of mail a day, and I mean a lot. Much of it consists of sober, or less, sober manuscript submissions. Some comes from journalists, others from readers. Most these days is over the web or by email.

Here is an example from today (Sacha is my colleague who operates the email account). I just think it is so nice that people care enough to ask a question like this from several thousand miles away — and are confident that we will know the answer! (Hope I got it right, punctuation people.)

mapletree7 said…

Thank you, thank you, thank you! Every time I see ‘went extinct’ I wince.

12:59 AM

Dave Lull said…

FWIW just as something of a confirmation here are the results of a Google battle

\"became extinct\" VS. \"went extinct\"
\"became extinct\" 470,000 (view)
\"went extinct\" 135,000 (view)
Total Pages Searched: 605,000
GoogleBattle winner is \"became extinct\"

4:29 PM

Maxine said…

Thank you, both. Though I hope the day will not come when we have to rely on Google battles for our grammar, it is a fun way to look at it.
I’ll ask one of our subeditors to put "became extinct" into the Nature style manual!

9:22 PM

Pancake day

Today is Shrove Tuesday. Cathy made pancake batter when she came home from school. She has just made us all a pancake, delicious. However, she’s also asked us all what we will be giving up for lent. No replies so far. I don’t know whether I should give up food, drink or blogging. I am sure I could do with reducing consumption of all of them. Anyway, the pancakes were good and there is more batter left…..

The Field of Blood

"The Field of Blood" by Denise Mina is a book I have been waiting to read for ages, as I adored her "Garnethill" trilogy and "Sanctum". But it is a bit of a mish-mash of too many intersecting themes: young aspiring 1980s journalist in sexist and union-dominated Scottish newspaper; local murder based on the Jamie Bulger case (notorious UK murder in which two boys killed a toddler); flashback story of (vaguely true) story of Glasgow criminal wrongly framed by security services; stifling Catholic impoverished family life and values; young first love. Themes of family and social ostracism are explored. At the same time the print is very big and margins very wide.

I was confused by all these threads so that for the first 100 pages or so I confess I thought the book was set in Ireland (main character called Paddy, big Catholic v Protestant local politics) even though people kept referring to Barlinnie jail and the Scottish Daily News. I also found the journalists and editors too many and sketchy to gel into characters I could remember from one scene to the next (not helped by all the jumping around between plots and time).

Once I struggled to page 200 I was into my stride and raced through the rest of the book. For me, the only part of it that really worked was the murder mystery: who really killed the baby. The angle of Paddy, an 18-year-old "copy boy", tenaciously overcoming sexist and racist prejudice to get her story was an inventive, if slight, one. However, the identity and motivation of the murderer were immediately obvious to a seasoned crime-fiction reader like me.

Mina can write well but also relapses into cliche too often. Chapters end like this: "….not knowing that JT and Farquharson were discussing a development that…..would tear her cosy life apart for ever." (Is this a "young adult" book, in fact, I found myself wondering a few times?) I was also struck that although Paddy has this burning desire to be a journalist, she never writes a word — I would say her desire was more to find out the "real" story than to write about it, on this evidence.

The Field of Blood is the start of a series about "Paddy Meehan, Glasgow’s youngest investigative journalist". Ian Rankin, Mark Billingham and Michael Connelly provide superb blurb endorsements (but only Billingham’s could definitely be said to apply to this particular book). If Mina can bring some focus to the next book she could be on to something, but so far not a patch on the Garnethill trilogy.

Anonymous said…

If you like crime fiction and suspense, I think you’d like this.

9:36 PM

Maxine said…

I’ve added the book/website to my crime fiction resource on Connotea at: You can sort by the tags down the left hand side.

Thanks for the book info, I will put it on my Amazon list. Looks good.
all best

7:05 PM

Academics as parents

3quarksdaily has a readable posting reporting Lindsay Beyerstein’s experience of being bought up (as we say here) or raised (as she does) by two academics.

She says: "My parents met in Berkeley in the 1960s while my dad was doing his PhD. Being raised by academic hippies is like being raised by wolves–you can rejoin human society, but you can never integrate seamlessly."

She goes on to say: "I remember the day in kindergarden when one little boy announced that he had a baby brother. How did that happen, someone asked. The kid said something about God. Other kids were floating theories about angel-storks. I felt I had to set the record straight. Many children cried. My mom was called in for a parent-teacher conference. The teacher was very upset.
"Did she tell the truth?" Mom asked."Oh, yes," the teacher said, "In great detail.""I don’t think we have a problem, then," Mom said. "

I remember a similar experience at primary school, no teachers involved in my memory, in which one girl was holding forth with great confidence that babies came out of the mouth as they (the babies) were too big to emerge from anywhere else. I felt constrained to correct her (though her rationale was impressive), but was outvoted by the belly-button contingent.

See here for the full posting by Lindsay. It does not reveal the academic discipline of her mother but she says her father is a "physiological psychologist". Her parents are also, from the sounds of it, the opposite of mainstream in their attitudes and lifestyle. She’s very positive about her upbringing. But that phrase "you can never integrate seamlessly" is telling. Of course I never could do any such thing and still cannot (though I was not bought up by academics I was bought up by people who admired that pursuit more than any other). Having thought about this for many years, I’ve concluded, perhaps banally, that what I feel is "just" the existential dilemma we all have: knowledge that we are mortal, and knowledge that making one choice limits others.

Who does "integrate seamlessly into society"? And if you do, is that a good thing or not? People who don’t are the people who drive progress (so the conventional wisdom has it) but aren’t necessarily "happy" (conventional wisdom again).

Philosophy 101. One thing is certain, though. Whether you "integrate seamlessly" is not directly and solely related to the profession and attitudes of your parents. Another certain thing is that there is no way to tell from appearances whether someone feels "seamlessly integrated" or not.

Captain Alatriste, cont.

Frank Wilson has sent me his review of Captain Alatriste, from the Philadelphia Inquirer of 29 May last year. I’ve provided a link to the Inquirer web page where you can read other examples of Frank’s excellent work. Unfortunately I could not find this particular review on the Inquirer site for a link, but Frank has kindly given me permission to post an extract here. It is a far better review than the previous one I discussed (sorry, Brothers), and has convinced me to dust off the book and read it.

Captain Alatriste, By Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden

"In 1623, the Prince of Wales (later King Charles I of unhappy memory), accompanied by the Duke of Buckingham, made a clandestine visit to Madrid. The purpose of the trip was to bring about the marriage of Charles to the Infanta Doña Maria, sister of Spain’s young King Philip IV.This visit serves as the historical basis for Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s latest novel, the first in a series featuring a 17th-century Spanish soldier – a wounded veteran of the wars in Holland – supplementing his pension with work as a hired swordsman.

Capt. Diego Alatriste y Tenorio’s story is related by Iñigo Balboa, who at the time of the events being recounted is Capt. Alatriste ‘s 13-year-old page. He is the son of one of the captain’s comrades-in-arms, who was killed in battle.

The captain has been hired, along with a mysterious Italian, to waylay and rob a pair of travelers. They are given their instructions in a secret meeting with two masked men, one of whom is clearly someone of rank and power. It is he who insists that, while the travelers may be roughed up and even slightly wounded, they are not to be seriously harmed, let alone killed.

But when he leaves the room, another figure enters, one not wearing a mask. He is Fray Emilio Bocanegra, and he represents – you guessed it – the Holy Inquisition. He countermands the other’s order and instructs the swordsmen to make sure that both travelers are slain.Yet things proceed according to no one’s plan, and the captain finds himself in a heap of trouble."

The second installment in the series, Purity of Blood, was reviewed in the New York Times by Terrence Rafferty on Sunday (26 February). Here’s an extract:

"Not the least of this novel’s charms is Pérez-Reverte’s old-fashioned willingness to be educational. He really wants us to understand what his country was like on its "road to the abyss," and to feel the toll that journey took on the hard-boiled Alatriste, wearying of violence like an aging gunslinger, and on the more complex, real-life figure with whom the writer naturally identifies, Quevedo."

(Picture credit: Danijel Zezelj.)

Giles G-B said…

The Flanders Panel is the only Perez-Reverte book I’ve read and I’m afraid I found it a bit dull. Hence, I’ve not read any other of Arturo’s works.

I was attracted to the art-themed mystery story but thought Michael Frayn’s Headlong was a much better example. After reading it, I headed off on city breaks to Brussels and Vienna to see all the Breughels I could. I recently saw another one in The Met in NYC and was reminded all over again of the wonder of the paintings and the excellence of Frayn’s book.

10:40 AM

Dave Lull said…

You can find Frank Wilson’s review here.

1:10 PM

Maxine said…

Thank you, Dave. Maybe you used Google cache to link — I tried via the Philly Inquirer home page and failed. One for Google if so. (And one for Dave Lull either way.)

And thank you, Giles G-B. Yet another one for my groaning Amazon basket! (I have enjoyed a few of Frayn’s books and loved the play "Copenhagen" (of course), but did not know about "Headlong".)

8:21 PM

Health care system Gladwell v. Gopnik con’t

Malcolm Gladwell has changed his mind about healthcare sytsems. He explains why in the link above and in other postings on his recently started blog.

I like this extract:

….."the idea of employer-based health care is just plain stupid–and only our familiarity with it and sheer inertia prevent us from rising up in rebellion. I always try to think of a suitable analogy and fail. The closest I can come is to imagine if we had employer-based subways in New York. You could ride the subway if you had a job. But if you lost your job, you would either have to walk or pay a prohibitively expensive subway surcharge. Of course, if you lost your job you would need the subway more than ever, because you couldn’t afford taxis and you would need to travel around looking for work. Right? In any case, what logical connection is there between employment and transporation? If you can answer that question, you can solve the riddle of the U.S. health care system. And maybe I’ll change my mind back. "

Wordsworth art

Here is a picture for Frank, of Jenny (left), Cathy (right) and their friend Louisa (middle), taken last summer in the Lake District. We were at Grasmere, and after walking round the lake it began to rain. We went to the Wordsworth museum at Dove cottage (but not into it), and found this lovely little stone house in which there were lots of Wordsworth-related art activities. All completely free. This kept the girls happy for hours, painting daffodils and so on.

The picture is not very good as they did not want it taken. I have two others with the younger two sticking out their tougues and Cathy with her head even further down than it is in this example, so I am afraid this is the best I can do. If you look closely at Jenny’s work, you may be able to make out the wild flowers that Wordsworth wrote about on occasion.

Tagging part 94

Apologies to anyone receiving this blog by rss, if you have recently received a large number of apparently new posts. I have been putting keywords onto February’s postings. So the new posts are apparent not real.

I clearly have not got this thing to work properly, as I have used Technorati tags for the keywords, but the keywords don’t seem to be recognised by Technorati. But I’ve made a start. This is all very time-consuming so will continue another day.

Mary’s Prayer

I finished "Mary’s Prayer" by Martyn Waites the other night. It isn’t a new book: I read it becuase his latest is out in paperback, and has received good reviews. Being neurotic about series, I read MW’s first book first (out of print, but obtained from a typically lovely seller via Amazon) , but I now believe that it is not part of the same series as his latest.

Mary’s Prayer is designed to be read at a single sitting. Pulp fiction pure and simple. Almost entirely plot-based, with clunky, cliched prose, and unlikely coincidences to move it all along. In a nutshell, a jaded (natch) journalist, whose family has been killed becuase of previous investigations, has gone to the dogs, is sent by chain-smoking (natch) editor to Newcastle upon Tyne to cover funeral of old schoolmate-turned-gangster. The story: "chance" meeting with old girlfriend (OK will stop writing "natch") leads to hero being caught up in web of politics, drugs, murder, corrupt local magnate, etc. Gratuitous violence; brief interlude of sex (this is the worst written part of the book); previously hostile police inspector now goes along with everything hero says; denoument; coda.

Waites does not keep all the plotlines together well, the murder being investigated gets lost in the confusion, and towards the end there is a risible page where the previously laconic hero blurts out a page-long speech without preamble, putting everything together far and away beyond anything the reader could have known about (the unmasking is also full of holes and almost everyone is revealed to have had no motivation for previous actions). It was very easy to read, though, one of those books you realise you have read without really noticing that you have read it.

I guess I will give Waites’ latest book (whose name I temporarily forget) a go, partly because I have bought it, and partly because four or five books come between Mary’s Prayer and the latest, so he may have found his own stride rather than writing derivative pastiche. But it will be his last chance with me.

London Reading Tube Map

London Reading Tube Map Originally uploaded by Annie Mole.

I have got a bit bored with the endless stream of London Underground mashup maps (station names changed in line with some theme). But this one is a bit different: "London Reading Map".

From the London Underground blog:

"Now the next is not entirely accurate when it comes to the Tube map and locations as a lot of artistic licence has been used. It’s the cover of a book – London by the Book – by Rough Guide in association with a campaign to "Get London Reading": "From Bloomsbury to Bromley, Geoffrey Chaucer to Zadie Smith, London by the Book is a guide to the city through writers and their writing. Packed with obscure and intriguing information (How did Graham Greene survive the bombing of his Clapham house in 1941? Which nineteenth-century poet was in the habit of sliding naked down the banisters?), it chronicles the waves of novelists, poets and playwrights who have lived in London over the centuries, written about it, and developed its identity as a result."

Apparently copies are being given out at some tube stations next week, or you can download it via a link on the London Underground Tube blog. (I have just been to take a look and it is 66 pages long. Luckily I noticed before pressing "print".)