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Public Library is sold as a collection of stories. To this reader, at least, it felt more like a collection of essays. That is, there seemed to be little fictional drive. The broad format seems to be:
I was doing A.
I found B.
This reminded me of C.
I continued doing A.
The essays all seem to have some kind of booky or literary angle that sometimes feels rather contrived. And in between each story/essay, there is a passage in italics, usually quoting famous people offering a personal reflection on their erstwhile use of public libraries. This often, but not always, involves the formative experience of progressing from the children’s library to the adult one. It’s fair enough, I remember the experience myself, but it’s not necessarily something I want to pay money to read.
As for the essays themselves, there is little warmth to them. The voice is flat and the first person narrator is generally (a possibly fictional representation of) Ali Smith. So, for example, we have Ali Smith keeping shop in her father’s independent electrical store in Inverness; or we have Ali Smith querying a credit card bill, or Ali Smith on a train. The playfulness of her earlier novels; the wit of her earlier stories is missing. Reading the collection is a pretty joyless experience – which is a shame when its purpose seems to be to celebrate the concept of the public library.
At the end, there’s little that was memorable. If I am honest, it’s really only the preamble where Ali Smith and a companion walk past a club in London called Library and go in asking for books. It’s a bit of a cheap gag – and it would have been obvious from the pavement that the building was a club and not a real library – but it did create a single image of humour from the contrived misunderstanding.
My top tip would be to go back into Ali Smith’s back catalogue, but leave this collection on the library shelf. For me, at least, it was a project that didn’t work.
Epstein, Joseph. A Literary Education
Joseph Epstein in this fat volume has collected selections from his journalistic essays from 1959 to 2013. In his Introduction he confesses, not over-modestly, to having been compared to Montaigne, Lamb, Hazlitt and Beerbohm, and called ‘the best essayist writing in English.’ Most of the nay-sayers gave him comfort in the fact that ‘most have seemed to me unjust.’ No false modesty here and none needed in the body of the book, which is lively, varied and not without humour.
Pride of place is given to his 2008 essay ‘A Literary Education: On being Well-Versed in Literature.’ ‘The effect of a Literary Education,’ Epstein insists throughout the book, ‘is not to gainsay the usefulness of many ideas, but to understand their limitation.’ There you have it: ideas are of limited use, whereas a liberal education ‘provides an enhanced appreciation of the mysteries and complexities of life.’ I happen to underwrite this, but I’m less convinced by his notion that ‘the major difference between Tolstoy and Flaubert is that Tolstoy worked from life, Flaubert from ideas.’ Neither do I concur with Epstein’s view that the first line of Anna Karenina is a ‘splendid sentence.’ To me it’s simply a damned lie and should have no place in the book.
But quibble as one might over particulars, my guess is that Epstein’s boast that he is ‘arguably’ the best essayist writing today in English is probably true. The essayist - as distinct from the ‘columnist’ - is today regrettably a member of a dying species. On the evidence of this book alone I would have to lament this fact. Open the book at any page and you will be hooked on the perspicacity of its author. ‘How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One,’ ‘Who Killed Poetry?’ ‘Old Age and Other Laughs’ and ‘The Death of the Liberal Arts’ for all their disparity of subject and tone contain a unifying message: life is richer and more mysterious than our ideas about it; it is also more joyful and intellectually liberating.
As with Tristram Shandy the author offers us a melange of his ‘life and opinions.’ Unlike Sterne’s Tristram, however, Epstein is politically and socially aware. He is not shy of putting the boot in to self-publicists and pretenders, to deluded ‘socialists’ and members of InCAR (The International Committee Against Racism), spending long pages on the case of Barbara Foley, who in 1986 was threatened with suspension after organising a riot preventing a speaker from getting a hearing at Northwestern University. Typically, Epstein cites a campus joke asking ‘How many members of InCAR does it take to change a light bulb?’ ‘None,’ the answer is. ‘They don’t change it - they smash it.’
By Ting Mikyunyu
I am declaring my interest in the following book, in that it is about a person I knew very, very well and with whom I spent many carefree days in the bush at Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage, in the company of some amazing chimpanzees.
Carole Noon wasn’t a Dr then, just plain “Carole with an e”, studying for her doctorate. What she achieved when she returned to the US is almost unbelievable. I haven’t got a copy of, nor read the book yet, so I can’t comment on its literary niceties. But, if it’s about Carole, it’s got to be heroic! Here’s all about the book, taken from the website of the organisation she founded: “Save the Chimps”.
“OPENING DOORS: Carole Noon and Her Dream to Save the Chimps”
By Gary Ferguson
Introduction by Jon Stryker
The inspiring true story of how one woman’s vision and determination created the world’s largest chimpanzee sanctuary.
2013 was a big year for chimpanzees in the news. Now, with President Obama signing a bill in late November paving the way for the retirement of most government-owned chimps to sanctuaries following years of service in medical labs, the future for these chimps is looking brighter. As the world awaits news about these chimps’ release into sanctuaries, a timely new book published by Save the Chimps—the world’s largest chimpanzee sanctuary—helps us understand the issues at stake.
Author Gary Ferguson, a distinguished wildlife and conservation writer, takes us back to 1997 and the initial rescue of 21 chimps who had been released by the U.S. Air Force into the laboratory of the Coulston Foundation in New Mexico, a biomedical facility with the worst record of any lab in the history of the Animal Welfare Act. He recounts how, spearheaded by primatologist Dr. Carole Noon, Save the Chimps sued the Air Force on behalf of the chimpanzees and after a year-long battle, gained permanent custody of 21 chimps. Less than one year later, with Coulston facing financial disaster, Dr. Noon had the opportunity to purchase the facility with support from the Arcus Foundation, thus taking on the care of 266 additional chimps.
Opening Doors describes the daunting challenges and countless rewards of developing the 200-acre sanctuary in Ft. Pierce, Florida to accommodate the emotional needs, dietary requirements, medical conditions, and distinct personalities of more than 250 chimpanzees. As Dr. Noon went on to rescue more chimps from biomedical labs, the pet industry, and the world of entertainment, the compelling narrative takes us behind the scenes to describe the meticulous care with which Dr. Noon trained her staff, expanded the facilities, and socialized the chimps to create a refuge they could call home for the rest of their lives. First-hand reminiscences from Dr. Noon and others infuse the tale with warmth, humor, and affection.
Along the way, we get to know the chimps, from Dana, one of the original Air Force chimps who played a pivotal role in creating families amongst the chimps, to Waylon, the gentle giant whom Dr. Noon called the nicest chimp she had ever met. Throughout the book, vibrant photographs depict the chimps playing, socializing, or simply relaxing and enjoying a quality of life that seemed impossible during the time they were held captive in labs, roadside circuses, and the backyards of people who kept them as pets.
As Dr. Noon always said, “chimpanzees are amazing people.” Opening Doors demonstrates not only how resilient, complex, and engaging chimpanzees truly are, but also how extraordinary Carole Noon was, herself, and how, through her dedication to providing a retreat for hundreds of chimps in need of a humane home, she helped pave the way for a more humane world.
About the Author
Gary Ferguson is the author of over 20 books on science and nature, including the award-winning Hawks Rest (National Geographic Adventure Press), as well as a keynote presenter at conservation and outdoor education gatherings around the country. He has written for publications ranging from Vanity Fair to The Los Angeles Times.
Jon Stryker is an architect, philanthropist, and activist for social and environmental causes. He is founder and president of the Arcus Foundation, a private foundation that supports great ape conservation as well as human social justice causes.
This book is available through the US BGO Amazon link (bottom of page), but not yet through Amazon UK.