Songs for the Missing

I’d wanted to read Last Night at the Lobster, but Songs for the Missing was the Stewart O’Nan book that was available.

It’s a good read. Haunting, in its own way. It tells the story of a family as they experience, and then deal with, the death of their teenage daughter.

But O’Nan is very particular about his subject. There is no focus on the absence, or how it happened. No CSI style focus on mystery or gore. Rather, this is purely about the family – what they’re experiencing, and the agony of not knowing.

O’Nan has an incredibly understated style. In some ways its perfect – slow, dreary, melancholic. He captures very well the long, slow, every day struggle of a family trying to collect the pieces, and to move on. That works well.

But at the same time it can feel as though he undersells the story; when there are only a few pages to what must be traumatic, devastating, life changing experiences for the characters, it can feel odd that they get as much attention as going to the supermarket. In that sense it’s perhaps a very minimalist realism, but … it doesn’t quite feel right to me.

Still, a good read overall.


The Expanding Circle

I’ve been reading Singer for a while now. I started with One World, which I found underwhelming, but thought it indicated a mind that would interesting on other topics. I tried How are we to live, and found it disappointing.

The Expanding Circle was really my final attempt to like Singer. It’s a on a really important topic – ethics, evolution, and how they connect – but I found it deeply disappointing. So much of what has annoyed me his other books is present here too. I’ll walk through what bothered me in a little more detail below, but in short, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Singer starts by talking about evolution, and how it connects to ethics. From there, he moves into a discussion of what that means, both historically (in a limited discussion), and the ethical implications.

Part of what bothers me is how sloppy his writing feels. On evolution, it’s apparent that he’s not a biologist. This isn’t a detailed, descriptive study of how ethics operate in an evolutionary context; it’s someone taking ‘just-so’ evolutionary stories and riffing off them. Sometimes that can be useful, but it isn’t a rigorous inductive piece of work. Which means we’re then left relying on Singer’s ability to step through clearly and logically a set of philosophical conclusions; and I found that part deeply unsatisfying. Perhaps he does it more clearly in his academic writings, but in his popular publications I’ve found the thinking loose and uneven, to the point where it makes for quite frustrating reading at points.

A central part of his argument is that as groupings of agents, we develop a moral code that applies universally within our groups or societies. I think this is a questionable claim – I think what actually happens is more complex than that. But from there, Singer argues that our capacity for reason (again – given how crucial this is in his argument, I would have preferred a much clearer definition and proof of this) means we need ethical systems that apply consistently across agents (again, I think this isn’t clearly established).

But even given this assumption, there’s a question about why this moral code that’s socially applied should apply individually. I think to say that simply because a society accepts a moral code, we should internalise it, is very wrong. But from my reading of his piece, this is a crucial part of his argument; that we gain our moral systems from the one that emerges in society.

And particularly, I think a key part of his argument is that this moral code has an impartial point of view; I think this is a little bit ‘just-so‘ for my taste. However, the one that really bothers me is the idea that this impartial point of view gives equal weight to all agents involved.

To be clear, it’s not that the conclusion bothers me. I think it’s absolutely correct, and an important conclusion. I just don’t think that Singer does anywhere near the work that’s required, and I don’t think his logical arguments enable him to draw that conclusion rigorously. And I think because it’s such an important – such a central point, with so much of what follows hanging off it – that it annoys me he isn’t rigorous in establishing it.

It seems that I’m not the only one who’s found Singer’s logic a little weak. A review of Singer under fire notes that some critics have found this argument a little weak:

Marcus Düwell claims that Singer moves illegitimately from the observation that moral language incorporates a concern for impartial justification to the substantive conclusion that morality requires impartial concern (p. 404-407). Singer responds by arguing that he does not make this transition without argument. He sees the perspective of impartial concern as the “first base” of ethical thinking, a simple universalization of self-interested decision making. Unless arguments can be given that other considerations are relevant from an impartial point of view, we should assume that impartial justification involves impartial consideration of interests (p. 421-422).

It’s not that I disagree with the conclusion; I think a rigorous form of ethics relies on seeing people (agents) equally. But I think because that point is so central, it has to be rigorously justified, and I think Singer’s piece is sloppy and unsatisfying.

So. That’s probably the last Singer I’ll read for a while. It was disappointing, and I think if you’re interested in ethics and philosophy, I’d recommend starting somewhere else. Gewirth is one I’ve found useful, and I’m planning to read a little more down the road.

The Madonnas of Leningrad

The Madonnas of Leningrad is a lovely piece. The language is rich, but it isn’t a slow read – it’s easy to pick up.

It flits – well, most of the time – between two stories. A woman in the US, growing older and struggling with dementia. And her earlier experiences, as a tour guide in the Hermitage before and then during World War II. In particular, she struggles through the siege of Leningrad. Some of the horror of that experience is evoked, but only lightly; this isn’t an in-depth treatment of that, and it doesn’t fully convey, I don’t think, the horrific nature of what that experience might have been like. It’s still easy to feel as though things are redeemed by the transformative power of art; or at least to feel some sense of detachment from the characters’ suffering and pain, which I don’t think would have been the case if it was evoked more strongly.

A lovely read – well worth it.

EDIT: I’ve just remembered another point I wanted to mention. Reading the afterward, I find that Debra Dean had no first hand experience of what she’s writing about. She only travelled to St Petersburg after her novel had been accepted (there’s an interesting account of her experience visiting at the end of the book). I don’t think that’s a problem at all, but I think it’s an interesting example of that tension between what it is that makes a good piece of fiction, and our ideas of authenticity in telling particular stories.

The Big Issue’s Fiction Edition

As a reader, I’m a huge fan of The Big Issue – it’s a great magazine, done in a good way. But I hadn’t come across their fiction edition before, which I’ve really enjoyed. Well worth reading it, if you like good stories. I would list the standouts, but really they’re all good – I’ll just say particularly that ‘Old Man’s Country’ by Mark Smith has a lovely feel to it, and ‘Ninehearts’ by Maree Kimberley is very fun.