The Satellite People of Hans Olav Lahlum

I am a big of of Nordic Noir, Henning Mankell, Peter Hoegn, Asa Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Camilla Lackberg. Hans Olav Lahlum belongs to the same gentre but with a twist. His novels are written in the classical style and they are taking place in the late 1960s. Satellite people is the second book of the K2 and Patricia Series; the first one “The Human Flies” was in the shortlist for the 2015 Petrona Award.

In Oslo, in 1968, the wealthy businessman Magdalon Schelderup dies during a dinner party. The “satellite people” are his 10 guests, which include an ex-wife, his mistress, grownup children,employees and old friends, any one of whom may have a motive for murder.

Satellite people, says Patricia… “are individuals who for whatever reason move in a more or less fixed orbit round another person. It is a phenomenon that can be found in many relationships and at all levels of society. For example, it might be a kind mother who even when she is a very old lady herself continues to circle round a sick child, or a son who though grown still gives all to his father. It could easily be argued that our longest-serving prime minister Einar Gerhertsen’s editor brother was a kind of satellite person to his sibling . And the wife of the current prime minister, also only orbits her husband.

The phenomenon is in fact particularly evident in the wealth upper-classes…. Many strong and powerful people, intentionally or unintentionally, encourage other people to orbit thema as satellites. ……And now it appear that one of the satellites has broken loose its path in a very dramatic fashion and crashed into the planet it was orbiting. This has sparked a highly unpredictable situation. All the fixed orbits have been broken and chaos threatens a universe that has lost its centre point and organised force.”

Lahlum dedicates his book to Agatha Kristie, “the world’s greatest crime writer”, and indeed the plot is inspired by Christie, with a detective duo, Inspector Kolbjorn Kristiansen, known as K2, and the brilliant and enigmatic, wheelchair-using Patricia who lives isolated in her house, something that relates strongly to Rex Stout’s detective Nero Wolfe. The relationship between the two is interesting and dynamic and it has certainly been developed since the first book of the series. Patricia is more mature, more human.

The characters are unique and memorable, they seem more like real people, with their secrets, fears, cruelties and hatreds. Lahlum is a smart writer, with a wonderful deft and humane touch in his writing. Looking forward to the third book in the series.

Jonathan Franzen’s Discomfort Zone

I like Jonathan Franzen’s writing. I like his storytelling ability, the power, the elegance and the clarity in his writing.

But, I have mixed feelings about “The Discomfort Zone”. That four of the six chapters of the books have previously appeared, as separate pieces in the New Yorker, makes you think that Franzen used these pre-existing essays to produce a personal history-narrative. Perhaps this is the reason that the book lacks the continuity and the linearity of a memoir and, it also a good reason not to buy this book; I have borrowed mine from the library.

Centrally Located” is the less successful chapter of the book. Despite the abundance of characters, and dialogue (a high school chess team, form a group of teen pranksters called DIOTI— an anagram of Idiot), the story lacks purpose and destination. Perhaps the reader would benefit from skipping a few pages.

Despite the structural problems and the redundancies that make the book good but not great, is worth reading. The “House for Sale” and “My Bird Problem,” are truly wonderful essays. Franzen’s writing is strong, humorous and engaging. Dominant is his disregard for political-correctness, too.

[….. I was enraged about the aftermath of Katrina, too. For a while, that September, I couldn’t go online, open a newspaper, or even take cash from an ATM without encountering entreaties to aid the hurricane’s homeless victims. The fund-raising apparatus was so far-reaching and well orchestrated it seemed quasi-official, like the “Support Our Troops” ribbons that had shown up on half the country’s cars overnight. But it seemed to me that helping Katrina’s homeless victims ought to be the  government’s job, not mine. I’d always voted for candidates who wanted to raise my taxes, because I thought paying taxes was patriotic and because my idea of how to be left alone—my libertarian ideal!—was a well-funded, well-managed central government that spared me from having to make a hundred different spending decisions every week. Like, was Katrina as bad as the Pakistan earthquake? As bad as breast cancer? As bad as AIDS in Africa? Not as bad? How much less bad? I wanted my government to figure these things out.

It was true that the Bush tax cuts had put some extra money in my pocket, and even those of us who hadn’t voted for a privatised America still obliged to be good citizens. But with government abandoning so many of its former responsibilities, there were now hundreds of new causes to contribute to. Bush hadn’t just neglected emergency management and flood control; aside from Iraq, there wasn’t much he hadn’t neglected. Why should I pony up for this particular disaster? And why give political succor to people I believed were ruining the country? If the Republicans were so opposed to big government, let them ask their own donors to pony up! ……]

Sex and Brains!

Is your brain male or female?

That was the title of BBC documentary in 2014.  In one of the documentary interviews,  Michael Mosley, a British physician claimed that “studies” have found that women are better at “empathizing and communicating”, while men are better at “systematising”  which means  understanding and building systems-not just computers and machinery, but abstract systems such as politics and music. Michael Mosley has been strongly influenced by the work of Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University who argued that the differences between male and female brains occur because of the higher testosterone levels in the womb.  No need to say who have the highest levels.

Simon Baron-Cohen  is so confident that there is a link between foetal testosterone and  mathematical ability that

….’he expresses concern that a future, hypothetical prenatal treatment for autism that blocks the action of foetal testosterone might reduce ‘that baby’s future ability to attend to details and to understand systemic information like maths’.

In Delusions of Gender the psychologist Cordelia Fine spends a lot of time discussing the topic of foetal testosterone, exposes the bad science and reveals how unconscious gender bias influences people’s behaviour. Her initial motivation, she says in an interview in the American Scientist,  was “simply to alert people to the fact that old-fashioned stereotypes are being dressed up in neuroscientific finery, and to remind people not to be so enthralled with brain imaging that they forget the importance of social factors.”

She discusses research into hormonally-driven “hard-wiring” of gendered interests, behaviours and aptitudes,  aka neurosexism. She is also funny!

….  [W]hen I decided to follow up [Louann] Brizendine’s claim  (Louann Brizendine is an American neuropsychiatrist) that the female brain is wired to empathize, it nonetheless proved to be an exercise that turned up surprise after surprise. I tracked down every neuroscience study cited by Brizendine as evidence for feminine superiority in mind reading. (No, really, no need to thank me. I do this sort of thing for pleasure). There were many such references, over just a few pages of text, creating the impression that it is no mere opinion, but scientifically established fact, that the female brain is wired for empathy in a way that the male brain is not. Yet fact-checking revealed the deployment of some rather misleading practices. For example, let’s work our way through the middle of page 162 to the top of page 164 in her book (The female brain, 2007). We kick off with a study of psychotherapists, which found that therapists develop a good rapport with their clients by mirroring their actions. Casually, Brizendine notes, All of the therapists who showed these responses happened to be women.” For some reason, she fails to mention that this is because only female therapists, selected from phone directories, happened to be recruited for the study.

There may be slight variations in the brains of women and men, says Cordelia Fine, but the wiring is soft. Thinking, learning, sensing can all change neural structure directly. As Bruce Wexler has argued, one important implication of this neuroplasticity is that we are not locked into the absolute hardware of our ancestors. We are not prisoners of our genders or our genes.

“ In addition to having the longest period during which brain growth is shaped by the environment, human beings alter the environment that shapes their brains to a degree without precedent among animals ….. It is this ability to shape the environment that in turn shapes our brains that has allowed human adaptability and capability to develop at a much faster rate than is possible through alternation of the genetic code itself. This transgenerational shaping of brain function through culture also means that processes that govern the evolution of societies and cultures have a great influence on how our individual brains and minds work.”

In the epilogue of her book, Fine writes:

The fluidity of the self and the mind is impressive and is in continual cahoots with the environment. When social psychologists discover, for example, that mere words (like competition), everyday objects (like briefcases and boardroom tables), people, or even scenery can trigger particular motives in us, or that similar role models can seep into our most private ambitions, it makes sense to start questioning the direction of causality between gender difference and gender inequality. We are justified in wondering whether, as gender scholar Michael Kimmel suggests, “gender difference is a product of gender inequality, and not the other way around.”
As for hormones that act on the brain, if you cuddle a baby, get a promotion, see billboard after billboard of near-naked women, or hear a gender stereotype that places one sex at a higher status than the other, don’t expect your hormonal state to remain impervious. It won’t. “Even how we behave or what we think about can affect the levels of our sex hormones,” point out Gene Worship authors Gisela Kaplan and Lesley Rogers.

And gender differences in the mind can shift from moment to moment: for example, as stereotype threat is created or dispersed, or self-identity changes. But also, our actions and attitudes change the very cultural patterns that interact with the minds of others to coproduce their actions and attitudes that, in turn, become part of the cultural milieu: in short, “culture and psyche make each other up.” When a woman persists with a high-level math course or runs as a presidential candidate, or a father leaves work early to pick up the children from school, they are altering, little by little, the implicit patterns of the minds around them. As society slowly changes, so too do the differences between male and female selves, abilities, emotions, values, interests, hormones, and brains – because each is inextricably intimate with the social context in which it develops and functions.

Our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference. Together, they wire gender. But the wiring is soft, not hard. It is flexible, malleable, and changeable. And, if we only believe this, it will continue to unravel.

V.S. Naipaul – The Middle Passage

The Middle Passage (1962) is V.S. Naipaul’s first work of travel writing. It is an account of his returning journey to five Caribbean “post-colonial” societies, Trinidad, Guyana, Surinam, Martinique and Jamaica.

The Middle Passage, Naipaul takes the title of his book from the name for the route travelled by the slaves as they were transported from Africa to the colonies of the West Indies, is a highly personal book. Naipaul is continuously confronted with his feelings, the fear of returning to tropical Trinidad, the fear of remembering. Not surprisingly, emotions make him unconsciously biased toward the people of his native country and the other post colonial Caribbean countries. He lucks that kind of stimuli, the rigour and the emotional curiosity of a traveller.

I have tried hard to feel interest in the Amerindians as a whole, but had failed. I couldn’t read their faces; I couldn’t understand their language, and could never gauge at what level communication was possible. Among more complex peoples there are certain individuals who have the power to transmit to you their sense of defeat and purposeless: emotional parasites’ who flourish by draining you of the vitality you preserve with difficulty. The Amerindians had this effect on me.

The cultural gap between Naipul and the Caribbean region is too wide and unlike to be narrowed during the journey. He is detached, sad and uncertain, an outsider; he sees the post slave-holding societies with a critical eye and in order to corroborate his observations he quotes Victorian travel writers, such as Antony Trollope and Charles Kingsley.

All these do not suggest that the work is unimportant. Quite the opposite! The Middle Passage mirrors the cultural blend of the multiracial Caribbean societies, the differences, tensions and conflicts. Insightfully and vividly written, a human and intellectual adventure.

…. [The paths and ditches and houses and fields looked so alike. The house stood on a rectangular plot of land, and, with ditches on all sides, appeared moaned. Rustling junk in a rusting corrugated-iron  shed; a bicycle wheel against a pillar; chickens in the dust and drying mud below the two or three dwarf coconut trees; a bad-tempered barking mongrel; and the mosquitoes thick in the damp heat. A young spastic Indian woman in a slack cotton dress held the dog. We crossed the moat and made our way to the back of the house where, unprotected from the sun, a very old man with white hair and bristle of white bird sat on the ground rubbing oil on himself. The mosquitoes left him alone; they left Jonny alone. But thwy fastened on to me, to my hair, my shirt, my trousers,and even my eyelets of my shoes. Movement didn’t disturb them; they had to be brushed off.] ….

…. [A derelict man in a derelict land; a man discovering himself, with surprise and resignation, lost in a landscape which had never ceased to be unreal because the scene of enforced and always temporary residence; the slaves kidnapped from one continent and abandoned on the unprofitable plantations of another, from which there could never more be escape;] …..

Wealth Inequality and the Forces of Convergence | Reading “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”

A 700-page book on economics is not exactly a light read for someone with a background in environmental sciences, but after all this success, discussions and reviews, I felt I had to read Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I borrowed it from the library and I am glad I did. There have been plenty of reviews, critiques and a variety of arguments for and against, but, to me, the real importance of the book lies in just a few pages where the author discusses the forces of convergence that have led to decreasing inequality.

Thomas Piketty’s central argument is that when the returns on capital (r) outpace economic growth (g), {r>g} over time, wealth inequality increases and therefore, those who control wealth will always get richer and those who depend on the growth of the economy, the labour, will always be poorer compared to the rich. Piketty’s suggestion that a global tax of up to 2% a year should be introduced on individual wealth to prevent capital concentrating in the hands of the few has been controversial but there has been no real attack. One of the problems with the global tax is that it requires a high level of international cooperation.  Some, Bill Gates included, have suggested a progressive tax on consumption instead.

Inequality  is one of the biggest challenges facing the world  today. A high level of inequality does not affect only the poor, but can be detrimental to growth, stability and well-being in general. The demand for governments to tackle extreme inequality is growing.

 Forces of Convergence

Thomas Piketty suggests that there are two forces of convergence that could decrease inequality, both within and between nations. One is the diffusion of knowledge and two, investing in people. In his own words:

“The main forces for convergence are the diffusion of knowledge and investment in training and skills. The law of supply and demand, as well as the mobility of capital and labour, which is a variant of that law, may always tend towards convergence as well, but the influence of this economic law is less powerful than the diffusion of knowledge and skill and is frequently ambiguous or contradictory in its implications. Knowledge and skill diffusion is the key of the overall productivity growth as well as the reduction of inequality both within and between countries.”

Knowledge transfer and diffusion can generate innovative ideas for the 21st century. But we need to accelerate the process of diffusion and find even better ways to include people and improve their skills. Piketty says,

“…….. the principal force for convergence –the diffusion of knowledge– is only partly natural and spontaneous. It also depends in large part on educational policies, access to training and to the acquisition of appropriate skills, and associated institution.”    

In 1786, Thomas Jefferson, said,

“I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness”

Phantoms on the Bookselves

After owning books, almost the next best thing is to talk about them, once said Charles Nodier.

This is a book about books. Jacques Bonnet writes about his private library, comprised of more than forty thousand volumes, about its origins, contents and organisation.

This is also a book about a life built around reading, about the seductive power of books, the joy of a serendipitous find in a second-hand bookstore.

“The love of books, the possession of them, can be thought of as an extension of one’s self or being” says James Salter, “ not separate from the love of life but rather as an extra dimension of it, and even of what comes after.”

If books and reading is a part of yourself, you would love this small charming book, full of witty and vivacity.

Phantom in French, is a ghost but it is also the card that librarians leave to mark a place where a volume has been removed from a bookcase.

The Missing Shade of Blue or the dangers and the delights of philosophy

It was the title that made me pick up this book off the shelf in the library. The Missing Shade of Blue refers to David Hume’s thesis, or rather objection to his thesis, that simple ideas are derived from corresponding simple impressions. But Hume also argues that under certain conditions it seems possible that an idea can emerge without being caused by an impession.  We can imagine a purple horse without having seen one. As he describes in the ‘missing shade of blue’ thought experiment

Suppose, therefore, a person to have enjoyed his sight for thirty years, and to have become perfectly acquainted with colours of all kinds except one particular shade of blue, for instance, which it never has been his fortune to meet with. Let all the different shades of that colour, except that single one, be placed before him, descending gradually from the deepest to the lightest; it is plain that he will perceive a blank, where that shade is wanting, and will be sensible that there is a greater distance in that place between the contiguous colours than in any other. Now I ask, whether it be possible for him, from his own imagination, to supply this deficiency, and raise up to himself the idea of that particular shade, though it had never been conveyed to him by his senses? I believe there are few but will be of opinion that he can: and this may serve as a proof that the simple ideas are not always, in every instance, derived from the correspondent impressions; though this instance is so singular, that it is scarcely worth our observing, and does not merit that for it alone we should alter our general maxim.*

Jennie Erdal’s book , “The Missing Shade of Blue. A philosophical mystery”   refers to our ability to make sense of something that we have not experienced. Happiness, perhaps!

It is a book about the dangers and the delights of philosophy which as Carrie (one of the characters in the story) warns, it can “seriously damage your heart”. It is about love and death “the principal concerns in most people’s lives.” It is also a book a about language and fly-fishing.

A gripping story, beautifully written.

*"An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding", David Hume, 1748