Book Review: The Truth about Language, by Michael C. Corballis

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_The_Truth_about_language.jpgThere are wonderful variations in the way we tell our stories, seen even in the smallest parcels of language. In Turkey, there are over two million forms of each verb – each word-form a complex interplay containing not only tense but the subject, object and indirect objects of the aforementioned verb. Walpiri, an Australian aboriginal language, can be scrambled: you can shuffle the words and it does not change the meaning.

How does this work then? Is it first things, then words? We have been looking at these sorts of questions for some 3000 years, beginning with the linguistic traditions in India and then in Ancient Greece. The Truth about language –what it is and where is came from adds to this ongoing conversation, one that has been dominated in recent times by Noam Chomsky, who argues that language arose suddenly and ‘in a way that cannot be explained by ordinary evolutionary process’.

In this engrossing book Professor Michael C. Corballis tames an array of findings, theories and disciplines to provide context for his take on the matter. What results is a highly digestible and enjoyable account of language for the general reader.

A look at our current world reveals that there are some 6000 languages spoken, over one hundred of which are spoken in Vanuatu alone. Our open-ended means of communication is far more evolved than that of other animals; it is a ‘Rubicon’ that our species has crossed. These things we know. But this gives rise to more questions and the central themes of the book: What do all of these languages have in common? What is language? Is it something we are born with or something we learn? Or both? And where did it come from?

Corballis tells us that any person can learn any languages ‘in spite of the extraordinary differences between the languages of the world’. Regardless of what we speak, we follow rules of how we put language units together to form meaningful content. We can recognise something is correct on an intuitive, but cannot tell you why. So how did we get to here? This is potentially the ‘hardest problem in science.’


Tower of Babel, by Hendrick van Cleve, from Wikimedia Commons 

Detective-like, Corballis pieces all the parts together, accommodating the findings of various disciplines – from anthropology and archaeology, through to zoology, linguistics and genetics. He guides the reader through this vast puzzle by laying out his points in a series of stepping-stones: physical characteristics, grammar, speech, how children learn, and how animals differ and are similar in communication, to name a few.

Then there is Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar, a general linguistic principal. Chomsky argues that there was first a new way of thinking, which was available only to humans (the I-language), and that the languages we speak or sign are secondary and external (E-languages). The way we form language is an unbounded merge where elements (such as phonemes or basic sounds) merge into larger units (such as morphemes or elements of meaning) and those larger units merge into still larger ones (phrases and so on). ‘The merges occur within I-language, the language of thought itself, but are manifest in the external languages we actually speak’. He explains language’s emergence in the human experience as a miraculous leap in evolution, due to a change in brain size or a minor mutation.

Enter Corballis. He argues that it came to us by ‘incremental process of Darwinian evolution, and not as some sudden gift that placed us beyond the reach of biological principles.’ He guides us through the precursors to language and the gradual changes along the way, tracing the transition from gesture to speech. Our ancestors achieved bipedialism and the hands were freed; gesturing accommodated the need to communicate information effectively in more dangerous surrounds, such as the exposed savannah. We needed to be social for survival.

Then there is speech – a triumphant culmination of fine motor skills, breathing, and the larynx. And don’t forget grammar. Corballis also takes us via the hippocampus – the part of the brain that allows us to understand scale and has a generative capacity to mind wander or to ‘time travel’ by imagining future possibilities – something other animals also demonstrate. This shared capacity lays the groundwork for the unique generative property of thought processes that language communicates. So, as Corballis concludes, it is the ability to communicate our mind wanderings, not the mind wanderings themselves, that makes us different from animals. The difference is one of degree not of kind.

Corballis writes ‘Language thrives on variation. And so does evolution’. It is a pleasure to read about the intersection of the two.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

The Truth about Language
by Michael C. Corballis
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408633

Michael C. Corballis will be speaking at the Auckland Writers Festival at 10.30am on Saturday, 20 May. 

Book Review: Safeguarding the Future: Governing in an Uncertain World, by Jonathon Boston

Available now in bookshops nationwide.cv_safeguarding_the_future

Given the context of our world, with its 24/7 news cycle and incessant need to be ‘current’, the rise of populist politics that pander to reactive tendencies, a desire for quick ‘fixes’ (whether this be wall-building or oil drilling), and ‘perpetual election campaigning’, one could argue that we live a little too much in the now (which, as it happens, passes pretty quickly). The ever-widening gaps in society (both ideological and economical) and climate change mean that how we think about time and subsequently plan for the future could result in unprecedented consequences.

It follows that good governance is vital for keeping short-term thinking in check. In Safeguarding the Future: Governing in an Uncertain World, public policy expert Jonathon Boston makes a well-argued case for wise stewardship and ways to achieve this with economy and clarity. He starts by asking ‘How . . . can the chances of short sighted policy decisions – ones that threaten or undermine citizens’ long-term wellbeing – be minimised?’.

In response Boston proposes a design-based approach – one that is ‘more practical than ethical and more applied than conceptual’. He lays out the concept of safeguarding the future and does not shy way from the difficulties involved in achieving such an approach in the face of competing interests, before examining ‘The attributes of anticipatory governance’.

He goes on to assess how New Zealand is faring in light of this; it is a performance that is cause for both ‘celebration and lament’. Although there are some good frameworks and structures in place to protect long-term interests, such as Treasury publishing a report (independent of the Ministry of Finance) on the country’s long-term fiscal position, Boston emphasises that attempts to address environmental and socials issues have failed, grounding his argument in research and analysis.

The major hurdle he identifies is the ‘presentist bias in policy-making in the democratic world’ and the ‘excessive weight given to short term considerations’. This presentist bias plays out in a series of ‘Politically salient asymmetries’ or the time difference between the flow of costs and benefits. Yet this presentist drive is not the reserve of politicians alone, but shared across society: ‘On the whole, when individuals are confronted with intertemporal choices . . . biases tilt their preferences and behaviours towards the present.’

Both citizens and politicians find it difficult to pay for something now, when they personally might not see the benefits later. This might not matter as much for something like roading, which can be fixed at some point in the future, but it does matter for those long-term impacts that cannot be undone, such as the extinction of a species. This seemingly wilful refusal to heed massive long-term costs ‘reflects deeper pathologies within our democratic institutions, civil society and political culture.’

He illuminates the discord in our accounting, and what we, as a society and through our representatives, attribute value to. The types of costs and benefits typically reported on have the same old themes: capital, manufacturing, finances. But natural resources, as well as human and social cost-benefits, are not given the same treatment. Auditing these assets is important to ‘affect how policy-makers and citizens perceive the world, assess progress and judge governmental performance.’ Accountability is key. As Boston points out there are currently no requirements for government to consider whether their policy frameworks are intergenerationally fair – even when long-term impacts are highly likely.

In his agenda for reform, where the ‘aim is to shift the political context in which decisions are made by incentivising forward thinking and countering the presentist bias’, Boston sensibly advocates for change that is ‘evolutionary rather than revolutionary’ because this is cheaper, politically more expedient and less time consuming.

Crucially there is a need for durable, cross-party agreements for any meaningful change in policy and institutions to take place (otherwise things are undone, done poorly or stalled) – Boston cites superannuation as the most successful to date; political leaders need ‘to frame policy problems and proposed solutions in ways that can attract broad public support – perhaps because they appeal to long-standing cultural narratives and deeply held values’. Our parliamentary system needs examination (ones similar to ours show a similar lack of resolve) – he recommends commitment devices, the stating of long-term goals, and the strengthening of monitoring. And extending the term of governance to four years.

As Boston himself concludes in the book, the aim is not perfection, but betterment and this certainly available to us, not to mention critical. There is an implicit call to action for citizens within this – after all, citizens in a democracy have not only rights but obligations too.

Boston’s case for an intergenerational duty of care and ways to enable and better this are convincing and clear. Future generations are not able to advocate now, so we should. After all, as the philosopher Rawls is quoted in the book, ‘The mere difference of location in time, of something’s being earlier or later, is not in itself a rational ground for having more or less regard for it.’

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Safeguarding the Future: Governing in an Uncertain World
By Jonathon Boston
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947518257

Book Review: Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_truth_and_beauty.jpgThere has been a surge in recent culture, and across disciplines, of what we could term as biographical impulse. Objects, diseases and cities, through to created historical figures in art works, have all been examined through this lens, which involves interpreting a range of material to construct a narrative. This surge has also led to increasing awareness of the tension in biographical enterprise: there is a constant process of resurrection and modification.

Both impulse and tension are reflected, and even cultivated, in the emergence of a new genre, which is subject to critical discussion in Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma. ‘Verse biography’ melds biography and poetry to produce works where ‘the competing and complementary claims of truth and beauty’ find home in historical figures, whose lives are rendered in poetry.

Biography often favours chronology as the driving narrative force or main thread of work, which is then fleshed out with anecdotes and facts, reliable accounts, and investigations of identity. But verse presents another way of looking at things – ‘a freedom from the concerns of conventional biography’. It emphasises moments, highlights omissions, plays with chronology and is free from the burden of establishing authority or authenticity. We see this tendency in Anne Carson’s lyrical treatment of Sappho’s fragments, where she plays with square brackets to indicate omission: ‘Brackets are an aesthetic gesture toward the papyrological event rather than an accurate record of it.’

There is an inevitable jousting between the autobiographical and biographical in any act of interpretation or reconstruction, but verse biography stands apart in its approach – it is deliberate and self-aware, conscious of its subjectivity. Not only does verse biography provide another framing for the story of a historical person – for example a look at Billy the Kid in Michael Ondjaate’s work focuses on Billy’s later years, his intimates, what drives him to violence – his ‘trials and tribulations in New Mexico’. But there is also a framing of the relationship between subject and writer, which propels us to consider whose voice is speaking through these works? In Margaret Atwood’s rendering of Susanna Moodie we are unsure whether it is writer or subject: ‘The mouth produces words/I said I created/ myself, and these/frames, comma, calendars/ that enclose me’.

Through various poets’ treatments of figures such as Emile Bronte, Captain Cook and Akhenaten, the cycle of destruction and renewal – of resurrection and modification – ‘reminds us that historical figures are but characters marked beneath our current selves.’ With contributions from academics and poets (sometimes both), the essays survey the concerns of voice, palimpsests, masks, mythologising, characters as vehicles for contemporary messages – and bring this ‘construction of life’ to the reader’s attention – revealing the awareness of these verse biographers carry in their works.

Although this academic text is by no means light reading, Truth and Beauty holds a certain unruly appeal in that it captures a moment in time in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where the emerging cultural practice of verse biography sits on the cusp of becoming something in particular. The collection of ten essays, which form this satisfying tome from Victoria University Press, critically analyses important verse biographers and captures this lively diversity, where ‘individual works are so variously influenced, so eclectic in approach to the idea of verse biography, and so various in form’. The range of possibilities before the institution of a canon or genre settles, and the freedom this entails, is exciting to consider. Indeed ‘verse biography expands the possibilities for both biography and lyric’.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand
edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560974


Book Review: Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_dont_dream_its_overThe title for this collaborative book of essays and insights, borrowed from the Crowded House song, “Don’t Dream it’s Over”, is apposite and timely. From the song there is the line “…they come to build a wall between us…”. If we took that literally with regard to journalism, applied to the commercial model for media, it seems that the quality product will soon be found behind a paywall; and the mass media will not provide anything in the way of investigative reporting in the future. The contributors to this book  make it abundantly clear that long-form print journalism is on the wane, and, in any case, the whole future of the print media itself is in doubt.

A lot has already been written about this demise, however, and though covered here the real insights are into the specific role of New Zealand journalism. We like to think of Crowded House as a New Zealand institution, but do we similarly think of any of the local media with this level of esteem? Other than the regard shown for public broadcasting on radio, in the form of RNZ, one’s reaction to the essays in general is to ask what is worth saving in the commercial media? And does it actually matter? Those of us who do listen to RNZ for much of the morning and early evening are still well informed, by and large, and can then pick and choose what to read or view from the commercial outlets. But even then, RNZ can be challenged for its content, as some of the contributors do, on the basis of a deficit in their indigenous and Pacific stories.

Industry insiders, such as Brent Edwards, do concede that there has been a loss of trust between the audience and the media, and he is particularly critical of political coverage. RNZ is actually the only media outlet that covers the proceedings of Parliament, while all the rest of the Press Gallery simply focus on the game of politics without any substance of policymaking. I suggest that the so-called ‘political editors’ don’t actually report anything, but simply provide an insider commentary. Morgan Godfery provides a brilliant chapter ‘Against political commentary’, where he wrestles with his own involvement as a commentator, and trappings of the elite company he has kept. He refers to the idea of ‘savvy commentary’, and the narrow demographic background of commentators creating a hermetically sealed world. He refers to the odd premise that this perpetuates: “a belief that political progress comes from pragmatic insiders who know how to manoeuvre within the system…” With his critique in mind, we should also note how partisan most of the broadcasters have become, even though the media insiders refer to certain examples to counter this.

The book’s editors point to the release of Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics as a catalyst for the collection, and contributors refer to the innovative use of the Panama Papers as a counter-example, whereby the government was held to account. Hager has his own chapter in the book, and the Panama Papers are mentioned a number of times, including in Peter Griffin’s essay on New Zealand’s fledgling data journalism ‘scene’. Griffin’s title is ‘Needles in the haystack’, but it might as well have been ‘Missing the wood for the trees’. This is because none of the contributors note that without the release of the Panama Papers as an international story, and with the New Zealand stories actually coming out of the Australian Financial Review, we would never have known that there was a tax haven operating in New Zealand. The local media seem to think that they are responsible for exposing this, and creating policy change, though nothing has actually happened yet to close the tax haven down. In fact, certain business reporters were aware of the trust law and the related industry, that is the basis for the tax haven. These are the same couple of reporters that noted that John Key’s agenda for an ‘international financial hub’ came to grief a few years ago. There is no mention at all of business reporting in this book, and its role in providing expert analysis of economic issues, even when it is still ideologically aligned to the right.

But, overall, the Freerange Press has done a great job with this book, and every chapter is worthwhile. Peter Arnett provides a foreword, and reflects on his being a foreign correspondent in Vietnam, something of a high point for the international press. There is also a chapter on the views of some journalism students, and, perhaps not surprisingly, they almost all want to work for major international broadcasters, other than the one who is happy to find a job at RNZ. The book has some very good design features, and some impressive motifs for each chapter heading, and the ‘tags’ at the end of the book. The ‘tags’ appear in place of a conventional index, which may, however, have been of some use given the length of the text. There is even a chapter that discusses the role of design in the digital age, which adds another dimension.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand
edited by Emma Johnson, Giovanni Tiso, Sarah Illingworth and Barnaby Bennett
Published by Freerange Press
ISBN 9780473364946

Book Review: Japan – From the Source

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_japan_from_the_sourceLike any traditional cuisine, Japanese food evokes its culture, environment and history. The ingredients available, the presentation trends, the methods of preparation, and the people making it and their belief systems all inform the food. These elements integrate and culminate upon the plate in a series of flavours, scents, textures and look. Yet this is perhaps achieved with more awareness in Japanese cuisine. There is much care and consideration involved in each step; there is a gentleness to it.

It is both wonderful and intimidating to consider each part of the process – from available ingredients (affected by trade or climate) to the plating – as being essential to the end result, not unlike a haiku. The search for harmonious balance, the blend of elements and senses eloquently expressed on the plate, the ideas associated with Japanese aesthetics – a subdued, stark or cutting beauty – can leave one feeling under-confident when considering whether to attempt to recreate this style of food.

Enter Lonely Planet’s Japan: From the source, which seeks to honour many of these elements. The idea behind this series is to present local dishes, with the chefs’ original recipes and methods, the way they have been practiced for centuries. Lonely Planet is tapping into a need for authenticity and place via the celebration of regional fare, or in other words, the dishes people have been making in places for ages.

But respecting authenticity requires time and practice. The editor acknowledges the difficulty of finding some of the ingredients in your average supermarket (Okinawan island tofu, katsuobushi and so on), but even with stand-in ingredients it can turn into a timely affair to create one dish.

Recipes are arranged by region. The book moves from northern Japan with its stews and soups that have developed in response to a cooler climate, through Tokyo and central Japan with its modern influence and fusion style, on to Kansai – the imperial heart of Japan – with its refined dishes, and ends in southern Japan with its subtropical climate, which, according to the editor, renders the food ‘distinct from that of other parts of Japan’.

The book is a visual pleasure and the photos of the dishes evoke the refined Japanese presentation style. Each recipe is accompanied by the story of the dish and the chef who has offered the recipe. Indeed many have shared their signature dish or one they have been polishing for years.

Accordingly the reality of making recipes from this book, for this cook in any case, was quite different – given my lack of practice and time. I made one of the quickest dishes – okonomiyaki or savoury pancake. The main ingredients are cabbage, pork belly and flour – whatever is readily available. Hence its fame in Hiroshima: ‘During the post-war era, okonomiyaki kept people’s stomach’s full’. My results were mediocre, far from the crisp, dense pancake containing finely shredded cabbage in the picture.

Japan: From the Source offers welcome insights into the culture, history and tastes of Japanese food, but you need time and patience to recreate the ‘Authentic recipes from the people that know them best’. And this should come as no surpise, given the aspects of practice, specialisation and refinement inherent in this cuisine and culture.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Japan – From the Source
Published by Lonely Planet
ISBN 9781760342982

Book Review: Silencing Science, by Shaun Hendy

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_silencing_scienceIn 2009, seismologist Yukinobu Okamura warned Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Science Agency that ‘a wall of water of the size that hit Fukushima Daiichi was quite possible during the lifetime of the plant’. This message never reached the public; the government dismissed it. The muzzling of science, in this instance, contributed to the world’s worst nuclear disaster after Chernobyl.

Shaun Hendy’s engaging book Silencing Science, which is part of the fantastic BWB Texts series (short books on big subjects), opens with the potentially devastating consequences that misinformation or the malfunctioning of science communication can have. This instantly gives rise to the question: could this happen here? From the start we are warned not to become complacent because Professor Hendy, director of Te Punaha Matatini (a New Zealand centre for research excellence), underlines that there are ‘rifts between our scientists, our politicians, and the public that put members of society at risk’.

Effective communication of science obviously has great use for us as a society and is also vital to an informed public, which in turn is part of a functioning democracy and any notion of consent being attributed to decisions made by those governing. Hendy bolsters these seemingly self-evident concepts throughout the book by illuminating why we need to be aware and vigilant of how this communication is under threat in Aotearoa. Indeed we soon see that science in the public sphere is undermined in myriad ways.

The frictions and complexities of science’s relationship with society, the media and policy-makers include: conflicts of interests; transparency issues; the insufficient independence of current scientific advisors; and the domino effect where scientists are cautious about speaking to journalists, journalists then don’t have access to good science or know how to engage with it, all of which results in a diminished public sphere. There is a reciprocal lack of trust between scientists and the public; some scientists are afraid of speaking out when funding is contingent upon certain sets of data or when there is the foreshadowing of attack on the horizon.

New Zealand is small and the country’s contact surface area is great, so the implications for misinformation or character assassinations are writ large when you can reach so much of society. There is also, as Hendy points out, very little doubling-up of expertise in the scientific world. This places a lot of responsibility on that sole expert’s shoulders, who might not come forward to speak at all if there is the threat of personal attack. Through these two factors of reach and singleness, our size has particular impact on public scientific discourse.

Hendy gives the example of Doug Sellman, who researches the harmful impacts of alcohol. With a few quick strokes of the keyboard, he was painted as a mad puritan on the infamous Whale Oil blog. As Hendy notes, other scientists, not ready to face attack, hang back and this diminishes the public sphere twice over as it ‘makes it easier to paint the likes of . . . Sellman as lone voices, driven by ideology and opportunity . . . rather than spokespeople for the scientific community’.

Without robust discussion, the culture of debate and critique is reduced and false balance enters public discourse. The most nefarious, commonly occurring example of this – due to the agency involved – is when interest groups and lobbyists manufacture public concern. Good ol’ fashioned fear mongering.

An example: Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, recommended fortifying bread with folic acid, as a means of addressing serious birth defects. A campaign against such a move led to the National government rejecting the recommendation. This campaign exploited ‘a common misunderstanding of the way science works. Science is never certain, particularly so when investigating the very small risks of a range of possible harms’. Here those representing the food lobby groups (who were against the change) could pick and choose individual studies (and disregard wide range of studies and expert opinions that have formed some sort of consensus) that suited, thereby bolstering their interests and sewing doubt in the public, ‘even when the weight of evidence is against them’.

The variations in science’s pace in the book – from the sudden threat of an emergency such as the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima through to the subtler, slower builds of climate change, water quality and so on – take the reader through the vast network of elements that help or hinder science’s capacity to fulfil its function in the public interest. As Hendy says: scientific discovery ‘depends not on the brilliance of the individual’ but rather ‘on communication’. The dire consequences of muted scientific sphere are revealed and we are called on to both value the role of scientists as the ‘critic and conscience’ of society and safeguard it.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Silencing Science
by Shaun Hendy
Published by BWB Texts
ISBN 9780947492847

Book Review: Boys in the trees: A memoir, by Carly Simon

cv_boys_in_the_treesAvailable now at bookshops nationwide.

Memoir as a form occupies an ambiguous status. It makes us ask ‘Why is this being told? Is this self-indulgent reflection or a confessional?’ Memoir brackets off a selected span of time, and is more about how the author remembers this period, than the period itself.

Memoirs also beg the question ‘What has been left out and why?’ It seems in Carly Simon’s Boys in Trees, not much has been. The book is anchored by the major male figures in her life, from childhood up until her public divorce from fellow musician James Taylor in the 80s, and rewards the reader’s false familiarity with a string of famous names and the emblematic times that they hailed from. It follows a turbulent and passionate three decades, which she lays bare unabashedly and with a good dose of the overblown. But then again her life, by our standards, is rather over-the-top.

Carly was born into a lush childhood of privilege and cultural opportunity as the third daughter of the famous, erudite and troubled publisher Richard L. Simon (co-founder of the publisher Simon & Schuster). Dinner parties at the family house in Stamford comprised a heady mix of showbiz people, classical composers and fast-witted authors. The keen sense of performance, that border between public and private, is evident right from the start, whether in the dual between outward confidence and inward suffering, or in a more literal sense: ‘Singing at the dinner table was nothing out of the ordinary; our entire house was an opera’.

She captures the betrayals and dark undercurrents that run through the household. Cuckolded and having had his business forced from him, her father is a shadow of his former self: distant from his daughter, retiring, padding around the house in a dressing gown. Carly’s mother Andrea has moved her twenty-year-old lover into the family house; Carly is exposed to other unwanted sexual improprieties. She develops a stutter and severe anxiety, which she calls The Beast, a constant life companion. Enter music – a soothing respite from the troubles of this private world.

Part Two examines more formative years: a music debut in the folk duo the Simon Sisters with her sister Lucy, the harassment of producers, the spending of her inheritance and years of her life on Freudian analysts. Then the ‘dazzling and uninhibited’ 70s arrive, where her song writing takes off – ‘It was the beginning of the beat to a different life.’

So too does her list of lovers. A series of romantic encounters of varying length and intimacy accumulate – Cat Stevens, Jack Nicholson, Mick Jagger, Kris Kristofferson. The accompanying anecdotes come thick and fast. Carly visits her analyst after spending the night with Warren Beatty and admits this to the analyst, only to learn that she is not the first patient that day to make such an admission. Stories of songs being written are set against a series of New York apartments filled with interesting people, empty wine glasses and overflowing ashtrays. We learn that ‘Anticipation’ was written while Carly waited for a running-late Cat Stevens at her apartment, while chicken with cream and cherries heated on the element.

The memoir builds inevitably towards its third part, which details her eleven-year love affair and marriage to James Taylor – a relationship that had a momentum of its own (which we are repeatedly told in a variety of ways). She describes their partnership as a perfect fourth, a melding of voices that then painfully unravels through cheating, depression, anxiety and drug abuse. This is where the pace slackens through over-analysis and an increase in repetitions and redundancies. Language becomes flowery to distraction: ‘James was my muse, my Orpheus, my sleeping darling, my “good night, sweet prince,” my something-in-the-way-he-moves’.

Carly comes across as smart, tenderly honest and funny – with a tendency for the over-the-top and over-analysis. In her remembering she is always looking for meaning, forcing its hand at times, which does become tiring. Yet this unconventional life is entertaining reading despite the need for more rigorous editing. The ambiguous memoir suits Carly’s portrayal of the ambiguous status of much of her life and loves.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Boys in Trees: A Memoir
by Carly Simon
Published by Constable
ISBN 9781472124036