‘Llyfr Glas Nebo’ gan Manon Steffan Ross

‘Llyfr Glas Nebo’ gan Manon Steffan Ross

I write this review with some trepidation and feel that I should issue a word of caution to anyone who decides to read this. It is unusual9781784616496_300x400 that I review a book which I have read that was not in my mother tongue. I have commented on books that were in a second language to me, but usually I was commenting as a learner of the language and discussing the book from this standpoint. This time things are a little different.

I became aware of this book because it won the prose medal at this year’s National Eisteddfod in Cardiff. Hearing this and because I have high regard for the author and her work I was eager to read it. I was also aware that there was a degree of hype around the book. Unusually there was quite a buzz on social media with recommendations coming from every corner.

The short story, or novella, is Manon Steffan Ros’s metier. There are few who are as able to condense so much emotion and thought into such well written small packages. Whether this is in her column, in Golwg, or through her novels, especially her contributions to the Stori Sydyn series, she is the master of the elegantly written but powerful piece. Therefore I was quite ready to go with the flow and believe the hype that I read.

This is the problem with the book. As I expected it is extremely well written; the descriptions of places are evocative and her portrayal of characters make them, and their relationships, come alive in the reader’s mind. No reader will forget the first description of Gwdig the unusual hare (I don’t want to give any spoilers so I will say no more) or the last description of Dwynwen. The writing is excellent, this is not the problem.

The writing style is simple and easy, very easy to read, and the story flows quickly. However, at times, it has the feel of a book from the Stori Sydyn series, as if it has been written for those reluctant to read or early in their lives as readers. It describes but doesn’t delve and this is disappointing. The hype, and the medal, lead one to expect more and this is a shame. This is not the author’s fault, but arises from inaccurate reviews and  from the medal process itself, as entries must be less than 40000 words. Also some of the literary references that pepper the story seem clunky and out of keeping. They have the feeling of being there to please the judges in a literary competition rather than as natural aspects of the story.

Read as science fiction, or a post-apocalyptic novella, it is enjoyable but rather lacking. There is very little science and this is not always correct, similarly with the self-sufficiency, this has not been developed accurately. In particular the scenes relation to animals, and their deaths, suggest that the author has little first hand experience of these events.

I therefore am uncertain on how to recommend this book. It is a good, if slight, read. Second language readers like myself will enjoy this and will find it useful. I am sure that many will enjoy it as a slim volume to while away an evening. But science fiction fans, or post-apocalyptic survivalists, are going to be disappointed, as I fear are many who are moved to purchase by the hype.





‘The Undoing Project’ by Michael Lewis

Ask people to name those who have helped us understand the human mind, or helped us to understand why we act in the way we do, and it likely that only a handful of names will be found in the replies. Freud and Jung will be the most common answers by far. This is rather sad as, important as their insights were, the work of these luminaries is now rather aged, much of the work is outdated, or has been surpassed by better explanations, or has been shown to be simply mistaken. Much of it was understandable when viewed though the lens of the Viennese culture at the time, but under the scrutiny of a modern lens it is found seriously lacking. However, they were giants of their day and were lofty shoulders on which others have stood and seen further.

These more recent giants are much less well known. Though their work is far reaching and has much better explanatory power their names remain less likely to be known. Despite their work altering the practice of medicine, causing economists to rethink their premises, changing how sportsmen play and are chosen, and even altering how the military and legal systems operate, they are still far from being household names. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky are the names of two of the most important psychologists of the last century and “The Undoing Project” is the story of their friendship and their work.

This book is essentially a dual biography220px-TheUndoingProjectFrontCover it follows their lives and the lives of some who were affected by their work. As they were Israeli academic psychologists  their lives were also bound up in the history of the birth of Israel and the wars that accompanied this. As a consequence the book is lively and exciting as we see the development of their friendship, the discovery of their psychological insights, the application of these insights in medicine and industry and the unfolding of the situation in the Middle East. There are no slow sections in this book, it is densely packed but very readable.

Despite being readable and often like a thriller, ‘what will happen next”, it does not shy away from discussing the psychological research in reasonable detail. It explains their research on heuristics in judgement, explains why our view of ourselves as simply rational beings is difficult to hold, and shows some of the surprising factors that can influence our decision making. It could act as a introduction or summary of their theories but for a fuller review Daniel Kahneman’s own book “Thinking, fast and slow” is recommended.

Hopefully this book will bring more the  modern psychological work into the public eye and allow us to  view ourselves with more useful scientific insights. Knowing the limitations of our rationality, the factors which influence our decision making, and the common sources of our errors might make us less likely to fall into to error and perhaps be less easy prey to those who know these factors and use them to manipulate our choices.


PS : the only caveat I might add is that there is a fair bit explained through the medium of American sports. This is awkward for a European reader. If female sexuality was a “dark continent” to Freud , then my ‘dark continent’ is the mystery that is  baseball and basketball.

There should be a law against it.

There should be a law against it.

My social life has changed. When I was young and energetic it often involved travel, excitement and fun. I recall evenings of humour, laughter, risks and the promise of passion. Now that I am old this has largely gone. My social events are now much more stolid and staid events. They increasingly consist of groups of people bemoaning the state of the world and the behaviour of those in it. Now I enjoy a moan and groan as much as the next carnaptious codger, and am no stranger to “in my day” or “when I was a lad” rants, but I have been rather concerned by a trend to accompany all these observations of current annoyances or inadequacies with a call to legislate against them. All problems, it seems, could be solved by a piece of legislation ; puppy farming to pollution, racist language to rioting, surly service staff to sexual impropriety, all we need to do is to draft the appropriate legislation and hey presto, problem solved. Really, there just should be a law against it!

Now I find this zeal for legislation rather strange. The people calling for these laws are clearly so upset by the behaviour that they witness that it has made them blind to the obvious. They bemoan the behaviour of others that they find shameful or abhorrent and stress that, during their lives, they have never done such a thing. That, during all the great many years they have lived, they have ensured that they never fell into such antics and there needs exist a law to protect people from making such errors. But during their illustrious lives there was no law against it. They managed to behave well without the cordon of law to protect them from error. They managed to get to late life avoiding killing, assaulting, cheating or conning their friends and family.

If they did not and had indeed lived a life of irresponsible abuse and debauchery, leaving a wake of victims and damage behind them, then perhaps we could respect their calls for new laws. If it were murderers and rapists calling for tougher legislation them perhaps their experience should guide us. If criminals start to say that an inadequacy of laws is the problem we should prick up our ears. But it is not, it is well meaning and well behaved people who are living proof that one does not need law to live well who make these statements. They managed to see actions were wrong and avoided them but feel others will not be as morally capable, as they are, and need laws to guide them. No law constrained their behaviour but others need laws to hold their desires and impulses in check.

The vast majority of us live our lives trying to live well. We try and pick a way through life which benefits us and our fellows. We have a moral code within us, of which we are to greater or lesser extent aware, which guides our actions and informs us of what we believe to be right or wrong. This internal code is in play for the vast majority of mankind for the vast majority of the time we only require the law for the very small number of times that this fails. Our internal code is much more important to us and ultimately takes priority over any law in any event. We know this code and it is always available to us, so it is this that we use as our guide. We do not use a lawbook to guide us, except when we are entering very strange and uncharted territories. We can enter into nearly all situations and deal with them if we have a clear internal moral view of the world.

Rather than making more and more calls for legislation we should look at this another way. If we feel people are prone to behaving badly we must presume that they don’t share the same code as ourselves. If they have a moral code but it differs from ours we should listen and find out why. Perhaps they are right, and it is we who need to change. (When the abolitionists or pacifists broke the laws and transgressed what was the common moral code they were not in fact wrong. The majority was in the wrong as time came to show). If it is not that they have a different code, but rather that they have no, or an inadequate code, then law is still not the answer. The answer is surely to try and rectify this deficit. But here we are in very dark and treacherous waters as we are in the area of moral instruction – teaching people, especially the young, how to be good and moral people.

In a secular society we are rather afraid of ideas like this as it carries ideas of religious authority. It is perhaps why we shy away from the idea of helping children, and others, learn what is right and what is wrong. We prefer to say that “it all depends” and there “is no absolute right or wrong” and hope that everything will work out for the best for everybody. But one could argue that a secular society need to consider moral instruction even more carefully as does not have any Divine guidance to call upon. But perhaps this is precisely why there are increasing numbers of grumpy old people collecting in groups, looking at society and lamenting the changes they see and clamouring for “a law against it”. Perhaps I must blame this change for my poorer social life.

It we want a better world we need better people. If we act by making more and more of our moral code external to us (by defining it in law) our own moral faculties will atrophy and weaken through disuse. We should aim to make ourselves better as individuals so there is less need for law rather than allow our baser natures to be our guide and relying on other to keep us in check by regulation as this is the way to totalitarianism and there can be no law against that!