Book Reviews: May 07 issue

In association with The Nile
What Males A Woman Tick…
And other stories…Michael Morrissey’s autumn discoveries

THE FEMALE BRAIN by Louann Brizendine, Bantam Press, $37.99
This book is strongly reminiscent in design to an earlier book entitled Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps. It has crystal-clear almost baby talk language text much in the style you might read in women’s magazines, but at the back of the book is an encyclopaedic follow up in the form of almost line by line references and a bibliography of mammoth proportions. As much of the references are very recent, it seems childish or stubborn to occasionally resist their conclusions, though it is well to remember that however up to date the research is now, it will be revised in the future.
The former book had a distinctly patronisingly anti-male tone while The Female Brain deals principally with the female perspective, so has a cast-iron excuse for any seeming “bias”. In the main, both books tend to reinforce a lot of the time-honoured perceptions about the differences between men and women and militate strongly against the view which peaked in the 1970s that the principal differences between men and women were all socially and environmentally produced. The Blank Slate approach is gone and the Previously Coloured Slate is back. Actually, it’s not that simple because the current view – which makes perfect sense to the reviewer, is “that the fundamentally misconceived nature versus nurture debate should be abandoned: child development is inextricably both”.
One of the important areas that Brizendine clarifies is why fewer women succeed in the sciences – it is not due to lack of mathematical ability but because at the crucial stage of adolescence, estrogen floods the girl’s body compelling her to focus on emotions and communication whereas boys find it easier to withdraw and be alone. Curiously, I still find myself at odds with the characterisation of the reluctant-to-talk male either in adolescence or in adulthood. I was a non-stop talker throughout and all the truly marathon talkers I know are male. Maybe there is a special geek/intellectual hormone as yet undetected?
The general impression gained from Brizendine’s writing is that we are as hormone-driven as surely as a motor car is driven by fuel. On page 55 it is admitted, “a hormone alone does not cause a behaviour”. Nonetheless, it is the former rather than the latter view that comes through most strongly. Thus, for women, talking or telephoning brings up pleasure-reinforcing amounts of dopamine and oxytocin – the latter being especially stimulated by intimacy. Men on the other hand seek independence rather than intimacy. Though she doesn’t say so, I would assume what is labeled bonding is often more important to men – bonding with each other. I also find it hard to square off the assertion that women will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid conflict against the sassy feminists and women I know.
Despite my resistance to some of its points, this book is crammed with revelation and affirmation of traditional gender different perceptions. Chapter three informs us that only 5 per cent of mammals are monogamous – and so you must be wondering are humans (and in particular males) part of that five per cent? The answer seems to be kind of. From observations of prairie and montane voles, the critical factor (so we are told) is the length of one’s vasopressin receptor. The prairie voles with the longer version are more faithful. So in future women may be in quest of mates with long vasopressin receptors. This is of course if men are like voles.
My general take on this book is that everyone should read it – for it rings a lot of bells at the biological level. And yet curiously I find some of its assertions contradicted by my own experiences. Also, if all its views are accepted as stated, it seems to deny human beings the capacity to make decisions contrary to their hormonal promptings – in other words it denies us free will. Which one of my hormones, I wonder, prompted that remark?
THINGS I DIDN’T KNOW by Robert Hughes, Knopf, $65
More than a generation ago, I saw a picture of Robert Hughes that aroused deep envy. He was young (relatively), good looking, had a powerful-looking motorcycle and was Time magazine’s new art critic – presumably at a princely salary. I was a little published writer mail-sorting in the Sydney Post Office and did not own a motorcycle – and was not earning all that much. Now, some thirty years down the track, I have published a fair amount but still have no motorcycle – and no princely salary. Hughes is moderately famous and I am relatively unknown. Apart from that, what else is in common?
Surprisingly, quite a bit. Irish background, both raised as Catholics, destined for the law (but dropping the bench for more literary pursuits) plus jaffas, Minties, harbour ferries, trams, flying boats, the strap, Dad & Dave and Mandrake the dapper Magician gesturing hypnotically. And both were maturing as young men when our respective countries had scant confidence in local art – when the only way to view the grand masterpieces of European art was to go to Europe and see them – and there was little informed art criticism or art history. But since that time (1950s/1960s), both have developed enormously and large scale exhibitions from overseas are relatively common. Despite having five times the population, Australia had much the same colonial cringe as its smaller younger brother across the Tasman.
Hughes slid rather casually into the role of art critic in a way that is hard to imagine now. “I’ve just fired the art critic,” announced the Observer’s editor Donald Horne, “Anyone know anything about art?” Hughes, the cartoonist, became an overnight art critic. Since that fortuitous beginning, Hughes has done his homework. Over the ensuing decades, it is clear from his richly detailed account that he has made himself at home with western art throughout England, Europe and America – the range of references is impressive. Included among his cultural formative icons are George Orwell, drama critic Kenneth Tynan, Kenneth (“Civilisation”) Clark; heavyweight Australian painters like Sydney Nolan and Arthur Streeton and writer Alan Moorehead.
Reading of Hughes’ cultural life – the major part of the book – is in stark contrast to the opening sequences where the unlucky art critic was recently involved in a hellish car crash and wound up having dream-hallucinations that suggested the pins needed to hold the shattered bones of his arm together were a medieval torture device. Born into a rich and privileged family, Hughes has made good use of the flying start his background gave him.
At times, Hughes is in almost in danger of overdoing the litany of great art that has subsequently kissed his privileged eyeballs but what saves his account from any nuance of showing off or the tedium of experiencing unrelenting excellence, is his marvelously rich essayist’s style which – despite its arcane vocabulary – remains lucid. Orwell crossed with Ruskin, one might say.
The still sneakingly conservative Hughes has little time for hippies and New Age goofiness,
though he likes the outrageous satirist Robert Crumb whose art he acutely analyses. If one imagines the life of an art critic as an endless browse through art galleries clutching a glass of wine – surely not too distant from the truth – Hughes was fortunate enough (so to speak) to be sent over to capture the great flood of Florence in 1966 which damaged countless works of art. Here Hughes’s prose rises to fresh heights of descriptive power and leads him to this startling conclusion: “What the Florence flood drowned in me was a belief in the potency of the avant garde”. I would have thought the destruction wrought would have hammered home the fact that all art is vulnerable. Surprisingly, I find myself increasingly in agreement with him – whether creeping middle-aged conservatism or due respect for the past, I leave readers to decide.
THE SMELL OF POWDER: A History of Dueling in New Zealand by Donald Kerr, Random House New Zealand, $ 29.99
The time is dawn. The place a little visited locale. Two gentlemen stand sideways to each other and fire pistols at one another. Assistants called seconds hover, making sure that everything is run according to the “rules”.
Rules? Believe it or not dueling has rules. Twenty six commandments were drawn up by an interested group of fellows at Clommel, Ireland in 1777. However, in the heat of the moment – though dueling is by nature generally a “cool” practice ie one done after the moment of provocation – sometimes seconds and the rules are forgotten.
Dueling was and is an illegal activity indulged in by “gentlemen” (though one or two women have tried it) who should be of equal social status. Kerr notes that in the forty plus one years of George 111’s reign (1760-1801), there were 172 reported duels and 91 deaths. In New Zealand, on the other hand, there were but 31 duels from 1809 to 1935 with only two deaths. Since, prior to reading Kerr’s beautifully produced book, I didn’t know there had been any, the unexpected number is sufficient to merit the period-charming history that Kerr has compiled.
My surmise is that New Zealand’s “Jack is good as his master” attitude – the desire to create a democratic rather than a tiered society with a small number of “gentlemen” – has helped work against the importation of this practice to Aotearoa. Possibly the rise of boxing as a sport and meeting behind the shed for a punch up as a way of settling differences has also played a part.
Kerr’s elegantly written accounts are an intriguing visit to a bygone era. Remarks that seemed provocative back then have lost their sting by now. Dudley Sinclair called Bendigo Mack an “adventurer” resulting in a thrashing with a pickled whip and a challenge to duel which, like several listed here, was called off at the last minute. Another insult that aroused ire was “ranker” i.e. someone who had risen up through the ranks of the army. Another gent was hit by “a rebounding orange”, and demanded satisfaction. Accusations of cheating at cards and impugning a lady’s reputation were also prominent among the causes to call for pistols at dawn.
On occasion, swords were the order of the day – such was the case in the last recorded duel in New Zealand in 1935 when an insult launched at King George V by a Russian officer resulted in a stabbing by an outraged loyalist. One can’t imagine any sleight upon a royal provoking such a reaction today.
Failure to respond to challenge could result in the passive party being “posted” – being publicly denounced as a dastardly coward, unprincipled villain, black guard, scoundrel etc. Reading between the lines, I can’t help wondering if wounded pride demanded the challenge and speculate there was relief when the injured parties were talked out of it – in one case by their own mothers arriving at the scene of pending combat. If only, one might wish, all occasions of violence were so easily defused, what a peaceful place the world would be.
This is a delightful and elegantly produced book which would make an ideal gift especially for a “gentleman” who presumably now will not “call one out” even for a sleight. And it appears that very soon even the smack across the cheek, that Hollywood has taught us is a prelude to a challenge, will also itself be illegal.
Around NZ.jpg
FROM THE WRITER’S NOTEBOOK by Lydia Monin, Reed Publishing, $29.99
Not so long ago when prominent overseas visitors arrived in New Zealand, they were anxiously approached for their impressions of New Zealand. If the often almost forcibly solicited response was favourable, well and good, and if not – well, that was something to worry and fret about. In other words, we had a bad case of colonial cringe and were eager for approval – especially from the Overseas Expert – an attitude satirised in Allen Curnow’s play of the same name.
At this time in our history, such writers as Trollope, Twain, Conan Doyle and Shaw were to some extent world cultural gurus and their visitations to these shores were hugely prominent events. Hence, the terrific attention paid to their observations. Nowadays – thanks to writers’ festivals – famous writers have become more commonplace. Besides, in the pre-war and Victorian era – when psychology, sociology and anthropology were infant sciences – writers were expected to have opinions on everything under heaven. In the case of Twain and Shaw, in particular, this was a role in which they appeared to cheerfully revel. Twain had good reason to be publicly loquacious – he was in debt and his world tour was a way of making badly needed cash.
J.B. Priestley, who visited in 1973, was probably the last writer to be feted as a general guru of our culture and society – thereafter, we have haltingly inched our way to a greater sophistication though we have lapses into “Overseasure” and colonial cringe from time to time. Like Kerr’s account on dueling, Monin’s book is chaptered in accordance with New Zealand geography – from north to south – and the book’s inner front and back pages offer a charming map of these noted literary travellers’ itineraries.
The scenic reputation which New Zealand justifiably enjoys to this day was in no small measure due to the praise heaped on our Pink and White Terraces (now sadly destroyed), Bay of Island fishing, Waitomo glow worm caves, Rotorua thermal area, Lake Taupo and Milford Sound and walk, by these visiting literary giants. We all appreciate praise and when a tough and sardonic critic like Shaw described the Waitomo glow worm caves as “sufficient to blot out all memories of ordinary scenery”, the whole country must have blushed with pride.
Shaw was to prove a most prescient observer. Whereas Trollope ventured to suggest Auckland might one day rival London (we are still awaiting this eventuality), Shaw accurately predicted that we would one day harness geysers for power. He also suggested that we should found our own film industry to help develop national identity, distribute milk freely, and cut the economic strings with mother England – and all of these ideas came to pass.
Among the past writer-celebrities, Monin has sprinkled a goodly number of more contemporary visiting scribes eg Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Robert Creeley and the sad case of Chinese poet Gu Cheng who murdered his wife on Waiheke Island in 1993, then committed suicide.
For the reader who may not even be aware that such eminences as D.H Lawrence, Rupert Brooke, Rudyard Kipling, John Galsworthy, and Noel Coward touched down on our shores however briefly, this book is a goldmine of critical comment, whether for or against. Wellington, Lawrence declared, was “a cold, snobbish, middle-class colony of pretentious nobodies” which makes me wonder if he spent his time in parliament. And the last word – and a surprisingly sweet utterance from so trenchant a critic – quoted by Monin, is from redoubtable old sage Shaw, who said on his departure, “If I showed my true feelings I would cry. It’s the best country I’ve been in.” The carpet laid out before the old cynic must have been very red and very thick indeed. But now, who’s being cynical?
WHYKICKAMOOCOW by Nicola McCloy, Random House, $19.99
The title is the English phonetic version of an imaginary Maori language-named town called Waikikamukau. I guess the intended pun is more humorous for English readers than Maori ones.
The interesting thing about this anthology of explanations for the origins of town or location names is how often the obvious notion proves not to be the historically accurate one. Bombay, for instance, just south of Auckland, is not named after the ancient city but the ship Bombay which brought settlers to the area in the 1860s. Interestingly enough the great Indian city has recently returned to its original Hindu name of Mumbai but Bombay, New Zealand, is sticking to its nomenclature. Dagg town is not named after sheep poo or comedian Fred Dagg but Captain Dagg, a whaler who made a massive haul of seal skins from there in the early 1800s. Other towns that have possible naughty nuances to their names such as Waipu and Pigroot are also noted.
Bulls does not come from the district sustaining a plenitude of male bovines, but from James Bull, a woodworker and carver, who funded a store which wound up providing everything from a beer to a bed for the night. The energetic Bull also established a carrying and sawmilling company. Soon locals said they could go to Bull’s for anything and everything.
Hence the town became Bulls – apostrophe omitted. Hinds in Canterbury has nothing to with the proliferation of deer farms but is named after Captain Hinds, an ardent Anglican and supporter of Edward Gibbon Wakefield.
Thankfully humour can sometimes have a place in history. Take Nightcaps, a town so humble that at one stage it was possible to buy a house there for one dollar (plus installation expenses). One can’t imagine a committee of civic-minded burghers coming up with such a moniker and such proves the case. A Captain Howell, a retired whaler who had 19 children (two by the first wife, 17 by the second) was gazing at the tops of the Takitimu mountains one typically misty night, and reportedly said, “They have their nightcaps on”. The rest, as they say, is history.
Since McCloy’s aim in part is to look for humour, quirkiness and oddity, she finds more of these in European names and the book as a whole has a European flavour. However, some. Maori names fit the brief. Taumata is the abbreviation for the longest place name in the world. Kumara in the South Island is not named after the delicious sweet potato and the town was originally called Kohimara. Ngatimoti, in the Motueka district, is misnomer – there is no tribe called Moti. The explanation is that Timoti is Maori translation of Timothy who carved into a tree “Na Timoti” – “belonging to Timoti”.
However, much of the time things are what they might seem – Auckland is named after the Earl of Auckland, Wellington after the Duke of Wellington, and Christchurch after Christ Church at Oxford. The humorous, the quirky and the odd, it seems, tend to gravitate toward the smaller towns. The larger metropoles take themselves more seriously.