What to read, or what not to read

Although I am annoyed with The Times today*, there is one comment and one article that I thought worthy of note. The comment is in a column by "sensible lady" Libby Purves. The title of the column is "Our trigger-happy reaction: blame the cops". The piece opens:

"The Raoul Moat affair reminds us how hard it is to deal with people unafraid to use their powerful weapons, impervious to the feelings of others, violently touchy about their own reputation and who harbour an irrational grudge against the police. I refer, of course, to large sections of the media and blogosphere".

Spot on, say I. Substitute the word "police" above for "scientific establishment" (publishers, research institutions, etc) or "scientists", and the sentiment epitomises many scientific bloggers and many people who blog about scientific issues. Not all, thankfully, but a great number. It is most saddening. It's also fair to apply this same condemnation to much of the way science is reported in the media by professional journalists. Again, there are some rays of light (not least in The Times itself, which has a very good science editor), but in the main, it is depressing.

The article that took my interest has the derivative title "The girl with the knuckleduster rings", with the introduction: "She doesn't have a dragon tattoo but Finland's hottest crime writer will soon be as well-known as Steig Larsson" 

and "Sofi Oksanen's works have made her a runaway success in Finland and a heroine in Estonia, but she has been accused of "Russophobia" ". All not very original.  I have read a review of Purge (Atlantic) previously and decided it probably was not for me, but as I was on the train reading the paper anyway, I thought I'd read on in case there was any new information in the piece. It does not start well, opining that Larsson has a "Nordic rival in the publishing world; a younger, more "literary" author from Finland who is fascinated by themes of sexual violence, the repercussions of misogyny and the satisfaction of in-your-face revenge."  Oksanen has won many Finnish prizes for Purge, her third novel, as well as this year's Nordic Council Literary Prize, said to be the Scandinavian equivalent of the Booker. The novel has been compared to Atonement and The Reader, capturing the conflicts of the Second World War and the universal horrors that war inflicts on women. It is about a pensioner, and what she did to survive the arrival of the Soviets in Estonia in 1940, and a young Russian woman who is "trafficked" to Germany, escapes, and makes her way to the pensioner's home, where violent revelations occur. The Times feature-writer, Viv Groskop,  says that the tone reminded her precisely of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in the way that sexual violence against women is graphically and horrifically depicted – a step too far, the writer seems to think. I will give this book a miss, based on this article. Although I don't mind such themes in the books I read, there was not much indication in this article that there were redeeming features or a real point to going through the experience of reading harrowing material. Stieg Larsson's trilogy, of course, did describe some violence towards women in a graphic fashion, but only a very small part of it, and the vast majority of the novels concerned campaigning and positive forces. Purge sounds unremittingly gloomy.

Grove Atlantic also publishes another book that has just won a prize (the Found in Translation award) but does not look as if I'll be reading: Pornographfia by Witold Gombrowicz, translated from the Polish by Danuta Borchardt (winner of the prize). " Witold Gombrowicz wrote Pornografia after leaving his native Poland for Argentina in 1939 and then watching from afar as the German invasion destroyed his country. Translated for the first time into English from the original Polish by award-winning translator Danuta Borchardt, Pornografia is one of Gombrowicz’s highest regarded works—a richly imagined tale of violence and carnality set in wartime Poland." More here, but it is strong medicine – too strong for me. Maybe crime fiction is not as horrific as "literary" fiction, these days!

*I was somewhat shocked to see in today's Times, the entire front page and several (pp 7 -11, inclusive) inside pages devoted to a syndication of Peter Mandelson's memoirs – publisher, unsurprisingly, Harper Collins (same owner). Apart from anything else, the man is a midget whose opinions and accounts are of little interest. My main objection is that it is usurping the newspaper role to do this quite so blatantly. It isn't "news", just some minor spin-doctor's opinion of events. Events that were so recent that they have not got any mature thought or consideration behind them. The time to publish your memoirs is after you have retired, when your contribution can be judged in proper perspective of recent history, not 5 minutes after you have left the building.