March 29, 2011

Ted Dunphy on The Wasted Vigil

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The Wasted Vigil

by Nadeem Aslam

Bamiyan Buddha

Nadeem Aslam has created a remarkable insight into the conflicts in Afghanistan. Exquisitely written, with an eye for detail and a wonderful observation of colours and textures The Wasted Vigil takes the reader on a journey that is complex, challenging and provocative. Aslam’s love for the Afghan countryside and its wide array of plants and flowers is constantly on display. The countryside and the house with the attached perfume factory are centrepieces in the story, with the excavated, toppled Buddha in the perfume factory standing for the enduring timelessness of the place.

Yet the individuals who inhabit the house and the country flit across the pages of the book like minor Shakespearean characters, drawn in to utter a few lines, before disappearing, to leave the main thread of the story to unroll further. They are on private quests to find healing, wholeness or love. Most add little of benefit to the people or the country, offering only hardship while perpetuating servitude and superstition. Aslam introduces them swiftly and just as quickly leaves them, while he develops another strand in the mosaic he builds against the framework of the country’s beauty.

By combining this beauty with the clashing ideologies and intertwining fates of his characters – showing them in their worst light – the book lays bare the fundamental wrongness of the conflict. The intruders trample across the country, subjugating its people and destroying its nature and history, and Aslam shows his contempt for them all and their thoughtless ways. The self-serving local warlords are painted in no less a critical light than the Taliban, with their fixed ideological beliefs and their imperviousness to reality or to the real needs of the people. Aslam delivers scathing attacks on the brutality of the Russian army, but he is no less vitriolic when he turns his attention to the depredations perpetrated by the Coalition Forces, with their mercy mission to establish peace on terms beneficial to themselves. The contribution of the hypocritical clerics to maintaining a system of servitude among the people is not overlooked and receives the acerbic judgment it deserves.

This is a book where passages describing the beauty of the landscape and the colours and aromas of the fauna are couched alongside precise, detailed descriptions of the cruelty used in torture, revenge and inter-tribal conflicts. The gruesome and inhuman actions of the perpetrators are presented in their full horror. The descriptions, sparsely and artfully written in a matter of fact way, are sufficiently robust without need of further embellishments. Belligerents are shown to be morally destitute even when claiming that all is done in the cause of right. The reader is left gasping at the degree of barbarity displayed by all those who claim to be on the side of truth, godliness and justice.

If a book ever preached the incomprehensible horrors of war this is it. While “the heroes of East and West are slaughtering each other in the dust of Afghanistan,” others pay the price and the land is scarred but never destroyed. The main character, Marcus Caldwell, who is a link across the dividing line between the West and the Muslim world, provides the one strand of hope. Submerged often in the lake of his own suffering, his guardianship of the house, the perfume factory and the toppled Buddha gives him a contact point with the timelessness of the land and the country that is the only hope for the future. His perfume factory may one day work again distilling delight from the colourful flowers from his garden.

March 28, 2011

Hilary Watson on The Wasted Vigil

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The Wasted Vigil

by Nadeem Aslam

Nailed book

"On the wide ceiling are hundreds of books, each held in place by an iron nail hammered through it. A spike driven through the pages of history, a spike through the pages of love, a spike through the sacred." Nadeem Aslam’s novel The Wasted Vigil begins with the incredible image of a house with its ceilings covered by a man’s entire collection of books.  Lara, a Russian woman, has come to this house in Afghanistan in the hope of finding information about her brother: a man who ran away from the Soviet army into which he was conscripted many years before. Marcus, an English expatriate, who owns the house, wants to find out more about his missing daughter and grandson, who may be connected to this soldier.

Through intricate details like the ceilings of books, Aslam delicately immerses the reader into the recent history of Afghanistan. It soon becomes apparent that the books are nailed out of reach so as not to be destroyed by the Taliban. It is details like the books, or the Englishman’s missing hand, or the giant Buddha head that lies within the perfume factory at the back of the house, that are constantly revisited and re-evaluated as Aslam layers his narratives over one another. Through the novel, books fall from ceiling, or are removed by characters for various reasons.

Marcus’ house becomes the centre of activity for the Englishman, the Russian, an American ex-spy, and a young Islamic fundamentalist. While at times the present activity of the characters seems slow, the narrative trails deeper and deeper into their pasts in order to explain the significance of the characters’ presence in the same place. The interactions in the present are informed by and interlaced with the histories of the characters and the country, to give the scenes greater power.

A large proportion of the book follows the mind of the young fundamentalist, both in terms of his religious practices and beliefs and his thoughts towards the other people in the house. They, on the one hand, have showed him great compassion, and on the other insult him in their daily practices. Aslam’s characters can be seen as pawns in the greater discussions of world politics between Afghanistan and the East, versus America and the West, though through careful handling, the author gives each a complex past, a belief system and reasoning for the way in which they act in the present.

One of the novel’s greatest achievements is to reinvestigate and reinterpret the last traces left by missing people. The novel explores the various degrees of truth that characters know about their lost family members, and the information that is deliberately withheld or disclosed in conversations with others. This is particularly rich in the search for information about Marcus’ daughter and his lost grandson. Each time a character learns of new information it feels like Aslam is getting closer to revealing the truth about what happened, though each stage of the storytelling is warped by the agendas of the characters, and an absolute “truth” may never be found. It is the search that gives the characters, and the novel, hope.

March 26, 2011

Sarah Cuming on Dazzled and Deceived

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Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage

by Peter Forbes

White Siberian Tiger from Birmingham

Having grown up in a house with a zoology graduate father, Darwinian theories and the basic principles of evolutionary history have constantly seeped into my environment. As a child, many of the books found around our house were far too serious, far too complex and detailed to hold much interest for me, and the language they employed was far too academic for me to be able to fully appreciate their meaning. I am a lot older now, and I daresay that, should I wish it, I could make my way through all the big, heavy books with serious covers and tiny writing and even batter the most difficult scientific terminology into submission – but it’s nice not to have to.

Peter Forbes’s Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage may tackle some of the major milestones in evolutionary theory and zoological experimentation that have occurred during the past two hundred-odd years, but in a style that makes it palatable to people who don’t walk around with a scientific dictionary stashed away in their head. There is inevitably some use of scientific language, of course, otherwise the book would have been impossible to write, but Forbes explains what each term means in a way that sticks. What makes Forbes’s writing particularly engaging, brings it out of the dry world of academia and into sparkling life, is his use of imagery. Interesting yet complex theories are rendered comprehensible via the use of skilfully drawn similes and metaphors, leaving the reader with a very distinct impression of what it is the author is trying to teach them. This may sound like a trivial compliment, with descriptive language surely being an expected and natural tool within a writer’s repertoire, and yet I think it is one which is largely underappreciated. And, considering the subject matter of the book – glorious creatures using vivid colour and clever trickery to send out falsified messages to the world in dazzling displays of natural mimicry – could there be a more appropriate way of simplifying scientific theory for lay readers than the use of imagery?

The theme of images, both benign (or seemingly so) and malevolent, is the constant thread that weaves its way through the centre of Forbes’s artful tapestry. Other narrative threads work their way in, such as art and warfare and history and science, each topic dancing in and out of the intricate pattern. It is hard, sometimes, to see where the dividing line falls between nature and human ingenuity, with understanding of one often feeding back into understanding of the other, but Forbes tells the story in such a way that the blurred lines do not matter; one aspect of a topic leads smoothly into the next, even if for the discoverers of different theories it was a far rockier road.

Forbes follows the development of camouflage and mimicry theories through history, from the first early Victorian forays into identification of mimics and their possible evolutionary methods, to the most modern understanding of genetics and the ways in which small variations in these codes can influence how a creature functions. The theme of nature in relation to humanity continues by illustrating how we as an intelligent species have adopted camouflage through artifice rather than genetics.

Art and science meet in an unlikely and sometimes uneasy partnership, employing various theories of camouflage, deception, and misdirection in numerous conflicts. This is an interesting comparison to make, because we rarely think of animals as being at war – a term which seems so very human – and yet, as Forbes so successfully illustrates, their struggle for survival can be seen as nothing less: a war between predator and prey in which the most effective deception wins. The fact that we have become our own predators, preying on each other, our territories far bigger than those of any animal, is perhaps a sign that there is simply nothing else we have left to be frightened of. And is perhaps the reason, if it could ever really be called that, why we as a species have never developed a physical form of mimicry or camouflage that would serve as a warning to or an escape from potential predators.

That is perhaps the only thing I would have liked to see expanded upon in Forbes’s work: why human beings have had to consciously develop their own camouflage and deceptions when other predators have not. Why we have had to go through tortures of scientific and artistic breakdown of structures and perspectives before we have managed to achieve something which nature seems to do so easily. Many major predators, tigers being the obvious example and one that Forbes refers to, have evolved some form of camouflage or patterning that makes them less likely to be seen by their prey, even though they themselves might not be consciously aware of it. We have not. On the most obvious level, this must be because natural selection has not required us to do so, yet the reasons behind this still seem unclear.

Forbes’ accounts of natural history imply some possibilities, such as how various creatures cover themselves in the surrounding vegetation in order to remain hidden, suggesting that humans have sometimes acted in a similar manner. These implications provide a possible, though unspecific, theory as to why humans act the way they do and why it has taken us (apparently) such a long time to delve into the idea of concealing ourselves. Perhaps it really is as simple as the fact that we are such effective predators that we never needed to evolve camouflage or deceptive techniques, and that when we did, against each other, our astounding intelligence led us gradually into a more comprehensive method of fighting via stealth. Perhaps it is simply that I am asking questions that cannot be answered yet, because the scientists themselves may not know? Or perhaps the answer is there already and I am merely making life complicated for myself by not accepting suggestions as fact.

Either way, this is undoubtedly a beautifully written and skilfully assembled book, with so much fascinating knowledge contained within its pages that it is sure to pique the interest of just about anyone. The interplay of different disciplines that have enabled us to reach such a thorough understanding of evolutionary history with regards to mimicry and camouflage is an elegant and thrilling one to observe, and one which reveals some truly remarkable aspects of nature to the human eye.

All in all, I would say that this is a very thorough and detailed account of the development and effectiveness of different images within natural history, and it is one which, due to Forbes’s approach to the material, would be appreciated by an audience with a wide range of interests. My only final quibble, given the subject matter, is that we didn’t have a few more of the stunning photographs found at the centre of the book.

March 25, 2011

And the winner is…

Writing about web page

Dazzled and Deceived by Peter Forbes!

Dazzled and Deceived cover     Peter Forbes

It was pure chance that the first two student reviews to come in were on Dazzled and Deceived. We will put it down to serendipity and not some shared subconscious message flying around the country. It's an exciting book, that's for sure. And the Prize Ceremony was a blast - you can see an abbreviated video of the announcement and Peter's speech at the website.

To boot, the Vice Chancellor has announced two whopping £5000 bursaries for the BA in English and Creative Writing! It's tucked away in the press release, but probably one of the most important aspects of the Prize as a whole (for me, at least). The idea of giving away a hefty £50,000 may seem foolhardy in these frugal times, where it's hard to even think creatively, let alone write, with the chopping axe of government disturbing your concentration. Yet here, in the midst of Cameron's hack and slash, is evidence that Warwick's innovative entreprenneurial spirit has paid off. These bursaries are a public demonstration of what's happening behind the scenes as a result of the Prize: more residencies and greater opportunities for our students to engage with the world of writing. The Prize returns its value to the university, like all good gift cycles, in other forms.

The Prize will see Peter Forbes taking up a residency at Warwick at some point in the next 18 months, demonstrating his writing talents to our writing students. He will also show the wider university his knowledge of camouflage, biological and military history, and various other specialist interests; and, hopefully, his knowledge of poetry - he was Editor of Poetry Review through the nineties, one of the magazine's longest serving editors in fact, as well as editor of a landmark anthology, Scanning the Century.

(Secretly, I also hope we'll get to see him play a bit of music some time - I saw him play with The Bettertones while I was working at the Poetry Society a few years ago and they were a lot of fun.)

Meanwhile, more reviews to come from our students, of the shortlisted titles, so watch this space.

March 21, 2011

Gruffyd Jones on Dazzled and Deceived

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Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage

by Peter Forbes

Monarch butterfly

Reading Dazzled and Deceived is a very odd but fascinating experience.  Part biological guidebook, part history lesson; it begins at the genesis of the study of mimicry and camouflage in nature; taking us on a tour through the Amazon rainforest to look at the patterns on butterfly wings, and to find out how they appeared and why.  From here, Forbes gives us a nicely judged historical walkthrough of natural selection and its students’ chase towards understanding the existence of animals, like the swallowtail caterpillar that can pose like a venomous snake.  It is actually surprising how much the study of animals echoing each other factored into the discovery of natural selection.

As the tapestry of biological discovery unfurls, the study of mimicry and camouflage leaves the exclusive purview of biologists. A group of painters begin to show interest in the aesthetics of camouflage and what it could say about nature.  The emergence of men such as Abbott H. Thayer into the story – men who were perhaps a little too engaged in the artistic merits of mimicry to answer its puzzles – makes for some fairly comic moments.  As the book begins to gather its cast list, we come across some surprisingly familiar faces.  Pablo Picasso, Vladimir Nabokov and even Teddy Roosevelt make an appearance (the latter chastises Thayer for his beliefs about mimicry, perhaps a little put out that he isn’t involved).  It seems everybody that Forbes brings us has an opinion on the matter.  The field in fact begin to get quite crowded, but the author manages to keep it under control.

With the arrival of the artists comes the arrival of war, and the attempted implementation of camouflage into the allied forces.  I feel the book falters here a little, perhaps appropriately, as it takes on a different guise and attempts to weave the tapestry of mimicry a little too finely. The jump between the scientific minutiae and the large historical overview seem a little uncomfortable.  However, there is an emotional charge behind this book that carries it nicely.  Forbes has a great admiration for biologists, and makes their constant disappointment tangible for the reader.  They are always one step behind history, and by the end of the book, I was fairly humbled by the fact that so many people had worked so hard on their individual stepping stones of discovery so that the truth of the natural world could be discovered outside of their lifetimes.

By the end of the book, I felt saturated but entertained, and well-informed.  Forbes has managed, in a deceptively ambitious way, to take an aspect of the world and to chase its thread through it, so that by the end, I felt as if I hadn’t been reading a nature book at all.  Its shortcomings in terms of consistency can easily be forgiven thanks to the book's engaging and ingratiating style. Forbes tells a huge story, with all of its implications, yet starting with the humble clue of the peculiar patterns found on a butterfly's wings.

Shuli Sudderuddin on Dazzled and Deceived

Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage

by Peter Forbes

Charles Darwin

Most laymen know of Darwin and vaguely understand his enormous contribution to the understanding of natural selection.  But, like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, which covers most aspects of science, Forbes offers an even more incisive look at how the scientific discovery of mimicry and camouflage by those such as Darwin, Henry Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace has shaped history.

Forbes’ account opens with mimicry between butterflies and how this continues to support Darwinian science over the years – non-poisonous butterflies grow to look like their dangerous cousins to protect them from predators.  As someone who really appreciates insight into the life sciences and how early naturalists hit upon the idea of evolution, I enjoyed this immensely.  But the story really gets going in Chapter Five when artists, especially one Abbott Handerson Thayer, start to show interest in the nature of camouflage in animals.

World War I looms and Forbes takes us through a fascinating, funny and sometimes tragic series of events in which artists try and often fail to convince their governments to allow them to create army camouflage and sometimes paint whole fleets of ships to “dazzle” the opposition.  Some artists are eventually commissioned and recognised, and some are forgotten.  We learn of the origins of the “camo” uniforms that most soldiers wear today, as well as the ragged netting the army is often seen draping over its camps.

Thayer’s example is particularly interesting – he works himself up into the frenzied belief that every living thing has developed its colouring for the sole purpose of camouflage and later attempts to paint each creature, including the brightly-plumaged peacock, “camouflaged” in its natural habitat.  When he attempts to convince the American government to let him try camouflage on their wartime ships, he is ignored and eventually dies a bitter man.

At the end of the book, Forbes shows how the discoveries in this field are progressing excitingly in modern science.  Where the language and principles may get too difficult for the layman to understand, he brings the attention back with captivating real-life illustrations.

His example on how inserting an armour-plating gene from a mouse (which is also found in all mammals including humans) into a stickleback can cause the fish to grow additional armour plates had me gawping.

All in, Dazzled and Deceived is a compelling and beautifully complex labour of love about mimicry and its role in evolution with human attempts to understand and even recreate such an idea.  For me, this is what ultimately makes the book so poignant and readable, man’s desperate labours to mimic what nature seems to have so effortlessly achieved.


Shuli Sudderuddin is a student on the MA in Writing at the University of Warwick, 2010-2011

Warwick Prize for Writing 2011 – Shortlist reviews

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With the Warwick Prize for Writing 2011 to be announced this week (tomorrow!), we've a few student reviews of the shortlisted titles to post up this year.

The shortlist in full:

Full details at the Prize website.

February 24, 2009

Francisco Goldman wins the Warwick Prize (Official panel disagrees)


So the results are out; the official panel ruled Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine the winner of the Warwick Prize for Writing. Their runner-up, our winner, was Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder (we didn’t award a runner-up, though I suspect we’d have ended up giving it to Reinventing the Sacred).

           What’s more interesting is that their choice of winner directly contrasted with ours; The Shock Doctrine was the first book we were able to agree on as the one which did not deserve to win. (I also now realise that the reason for one of the University organisers giggling when I said that in many ways, The Shock Doctrine was the perfect choice for ‘Red’ Warwick wasn’t because I’m funnier than even I imagined.) One panel member even stated, passionately, that she would fight to make sure that Klein’s book didn’t win.  There aren’t any rights and wrongs, of course, even though it’s Klein who will receive the £50,000 and not Goldman, but I have spent the rest of the evening wondering why there was such a very considerable divergence of opinion here.

           One possibility (which is not one I actually plan to concede as the reality here) is the timescale problem. We had to settle, fairly quickly, our reaction to Klein’s passionate polemic, which echoed in some sense Gao Xingjian’s Nobel-winning assertion that “Literature is not angry shouting and furthermore cannot turn an individual’s indignation into accusations.” I quoted- and mispronounced- Xingjian to the chair of the official panel after the event; his response was “Why not?”. Which is a reasonable riposte, but not, I think, a definitive solution to the problem.  There was clearly a debate here, at least, that might have been drawn out longer than our panel had time for.

           Another, more fanciful possibility was the idea that we, as members of Generation Obama, reacted poorly to a book attacking a government which is no longer in power, and perhaps that we’re already inclined to forgive America more than older readers.  Again, probably not such an issue.

           A third thought struck me afterwards; Maureen actually observed of The Shock Doctrine a week ago that she felt part of its strength lay in the fact that it was controversial enough to polarise readers and cause passionate debate. In that sense, it’s actually very fitting that it should come first with one panel and last with another- and that explanation may have to do for now. Congratulations, anyway, to Naomi Klein. And Francisco Goldman, you may not have won the prize money, but console yourself; a bunch of five quarrelling students thought your book deserved to win.

February 23, 2009

How to give away other people's money, when you have none of your own…

As Julian has written below, the books on the extremely varied shortlist provide us with great difficulties in attempting their comparison: Religion against politics, economy against literature, and madness against music. As far as I can tell, my fellow shadow panellists are all reasonable, intelligent people, without fundamentalist religious or political leanings. It has been wonderful to meet with them and talk about our thoughts on the books we have had the good fortune to be judging, but it has been incredibly cordial so far. Our opinions have not differed widely; at least, no wild insults have been thrown regarding individual preferences.

I am unsure as to how specific we are allowed to be on this blog, about which book we want to, or think should win the prize, but in an hour, the shadow panel is meeting to debate and decide the winner. In my last blog, I suggested that we would be judging from personal preference, but having worked my way through the shortlist, the judgement is clearly going to be more complex than that. Our personal choice will obviously be vital, but we will have to focus on the writing, the narrative, the facts presented, and how each of the books do these things in different ways. Which book speaks to us, changes our opinion, convinces us that we’re right, and makes us see the light?

In order to decide on our choice for the winner of the Warwick Prize for Writing, we’re going to have to throw out the concept of the ‘grey area’. While talking about the books to the shadow panellists, I proposed that the books were taking advantage of ‘grey areas’, in religion, science, medicine, and the rest, and had in some cases exploited this; taken things we don’t know, and interrogated all possible means and ends of the issue in order to draw a controversial and complex conclusion.

I agree with Julian that the differences between the books nearly denies their comparison, but rather than being judged on their own subject, they all have in common the dedication to their subject, which I was cynically calling the ‘grey area’. I think that the book which wins the prize should, instead of explaining to the reader the grey area of the topic, barely make it obvious that there is one. The writing should be reminiscent of a child’s glee, full of excitement and incredulous that any reader might feel otherwise. Writing like this is easy to read, and to become excited about, and this I feel is within the ethos of Warwick’s teaching: a dedication, not in a monastic or fundamentalist style, but a celebration of the topic, unavoidable in its enthusiasm. This is what I have kept in mind while reading the books, and ultimately, in deciding the winner.

Ellie Williams

February 20, 2009

The unique and varied (and cursed) shortlist

In one of our conversations about Kauffman's Reinventing the Sacred, one of us pointed out that for a book that poses a new image of God, it's got an awful lot of equations, graphs and talk of biology. It is undeniably astonishing, outlining a new theory on the way we view nature, evolution, politics, religion and psychology all grounded in scientific and philosphical ideas. If that sounds like an impressive feat, then prepare yourself, because the best is yet to come: the book is under 300 pages long. In that word count, I don't think Alex Ross covers more than a few decades of classical music. I think that Stuart Kauffman will agree with me: he's clearly just not trying hard enough...

What I'm trying to get at, apart from a handle on my sarcasm, is the difficulties of comparing the books on the extremely varied shortlist. Admirable as it is to encompass all genres of writing, the potential dangers the nature of the shortlist provides when pitting very different books against each other are numerous.

Maureen Freely seemed to me to be already outlining one in the video posted on the Warwick Writing Prize  webpage: she described novels that subtly dealt with important subject matter "little clouds floating across the sky" when compared to non-fiction books that could take vital topics dead on. The problem with comparing Reinventing the Sacred to The Rest is Noise is yet another difficulty: do you reward Kauffman for ambition and scope, when he takes on so much subject material that he inevitably fails to be completely convincing on all accounts? Or do you give the prize to Alex Ross or Lisa Appignanesi, who take one very precise and measured approach to their subject material, and master it entirely?

Perhaps the hardest attitude to rid oneself of is to see the books in terms of how "important" they seem to be. After all, it is hard not to see Montano's Malady, the sole novel, as an underdog (apologies for the expression: the oscar hype is clearly getting to me). Putting that piece against Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine seems to be veering on lunacy, inducing an immediate reaction to forget the quality of the writing entirely. If one book is to be as widely read as possible, would it be tempting to make it the analysis on the market's ongoing crimes against humanity... or the Borgesian literary mind-game?

If we are to decide on the best book on the shortlist, then these are all issues that we must put to one side, and somehow see which is the most powerful and well-crafted. I personally think that these problems are hard to escape from... but then again, some people on this Earth reinvent God, nature and physchology in under 300 pages... I'm clearly not, one might say, trying hard enough...

Julian Gyll-Murray

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