True Stories – a book review


True Stories: And Other Essays by Francis Spufford

I recently finished True Stories: And Other Essays by Francis Spufford – a collection of real gems by a man who can truly write. A selection of essays, book reviews, and other non-fiction works, this book is divided into the thematic sections “Cold,” “Red,” “Sacred,” “Technical,” and “Printed.” The section “Technical,” for example, includes a piece on British engineering, together with a wide-ranging essay on Babbage’s “Difference Engine No. 2,” reconstructed by the Science Museum, London. Babbage never completed this device, of course, and perhaps could not have done so, given the technological limitations of his time. This leads Spufford into a general reflection on counterfactual history, drawing also on the novel The Difference Engine.

The section “Cold” includes several pieces on polar exploration, such as an introduction written for The Worst Journey in the World (a memoir of the 1910–1913 British Antarctic Expedition), and a piece on Ernest Shackleton. I’ve been fascinated by polar exploration since childhood, so I found these particularly interesting.


Grotto in an iceberg, photographed during the 1910–1913 British Antarctic Expedition (image credit)

The section “Red” deals largely with the former Soviet Union. It includes an explanation of Spufford’s fictional documentary book Red Plenty, and the essay “The Soviet Moment,” which is still online at The Guardian: “It was not the revolutionary country people were thinking of, all red flags and fiery speechmaking, pictured through the iconography of Eisenstein movies; not the Stalinesque Soviet Union of mass mobilisation and mass terror and austere totalitarian fervour. This was, all of a sudden, a frowning but managerial kind of a place, a civil and technological kind of a place, all labs and skyscrapers, which was doing the same kind of things as the west but threatened – while the moment lasted – to be doing them better. American colleges worried that they weren’t turning out engineers in the USSR’s amazing numbers. Bouts of anguished soul-searching filled the op-ed pages of European and American newspapers, as columnists asked how a free society could hope to match the steely strategic determination of the prospering, successful Soviet Union. … The loudest and most important lesson of the Soviet experience should always be: don’t ever do this again. Children, don’t try this at home. … Yet we’d better remember to sympathise with the underlying vision that drove this disastrous history, because it is basically our own.

The section “Sacred,” obviously, deals with religion (Spufford is an English Anglican). It includes a critique of Richard Dawkins, a reflection on C. S. Lewis, and a record of travels in Iran. The New Humanist still has online the essay beginning “Allow me to annoy you with the prospect of mutual respect between believers and atheists. … No? No. Because the idea of atheism as an extravagant faith-driven deviation from the null case goes against one of the most cherished elements in the self-image of polemical unbelief: that atheism is somehow scientific, that it is to be adopted as the counterpart in the realm of meaning to the caution and rigour of the scientific method.


Spufford visited the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran (image credit)

Finally, the section “Printed” includes miscellaneous introductions and book reviews, including an introduction to The Jungle Book, a review of the Mars trilogy, and an obituary of Iain M. Banks. This last section reflects Spufford’s wide-ranging interests in technology, exploration, and imagination. For me, at least, it established a connection of sorts with the author: we read the same things; we are brothers.


The last section of True Stories includes a review of the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson

See The New York Times and the New York Journal of Books for other reviews of True Stories. I’m giving it four stars overall, although several of the individual essays deserve five. This book was a delight to read.

* * * *
True Stories: And Other Essays by Francis Spufford: 4 stars


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Joseph Dalton Hooker

The botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker was born 200 years ago, on 30 June 1817. Kew Gardens, of which he was the director, has a special event to commemorate him. Hooker travelled on expeditions to Antarctica, India, Palestine, Morocco, and the Western United States. The pictures below are from his The botany of the Antarctic voyage of H.M. discovery ships Erebus and Terror in the years 1839–1843, under the command of Captain Sir James Clark Ross. He also published several volumes on the botany of India.


The Antarctic ozone hole is finally shrinking

In good news for the month, the Antarctic ozone hole (shown above as at 2006) has been shrinking since the year 2000, according to a recent article in Science. Various natural ups and downs have obscured this encouraging trend, which is also visible in the graph below (data from here):

The data shows that the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which phased out chlorofluorocarbons, is finally having an effect. The planet, in this respect, is indeed slowly healing. More details can be found in Science News.


1957–58, the International Geophysical Year

The International Geophysical Year (actually a year and a half, from July 1957 to December 1958) saw the beginning of the “space race,” and the collection of a huge amount of valuable data. The science books I grew up with as a child were constantly referring to the results of the event.

The IGY, as it was abbreviated, included several solar eclipses (23 Oct 57, 19 Apr 58, 12 Oct 58) as well as the record-breaking solar maximum of 1957/58. In fact, February 11, 1958 turned out to be a very good night for Aurora chasers.

The IGY incorporated, among other activities:

    

Perhaps the world can use more collaborative efforts like the IGY.

Blogroll: AntarcticArctic

AntarcticArctic is a blog by a “Waste Management Specialist” at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station over the dark Antarctic winter. It has covered several interesting topics, such as the Aurora Australis and Aurora Borealis (see satellite image below).

I’m not sure if the blog will survive its author’s return to warmer climes – but, through both words and photographs, it has succeeded in sharing a perspective on our planet that most of us will never experience.

Penguins in the cold

A recent article in Wired shows some fabulous infrared images of Emperor Penguins. Somewhat surprisingly, large sections of an Emperor Penguin’s body surface are cooler than the surrounding air. Their eyes, their flippers, and the tops of their feet stand out as hot spots.

Emperor Penguins survive the long Antarctic winter by huddling together, in temperatures that can drop to −40° — a theme I explored in my children’s book Penguin, which was so beautifully illustrated by Marion & Steve Isham.