The month in books

Publishers are already eying airport bookshops, but there’s nothing escapist about May’s selections
April 24, 2013
Big Brother (Harper Collins, £16.99) sees novelist Lionel Shriver grappling with obesity. The book begins when Pandora fails to recognise her own sibling at the airport. Edison has always loomed larger-than-life in his little sister’s world. Now, this formerly slender jazz pianist is so huge he has to be rolled off the plane in a wheelchair. Shriver makes it impossible to feel anything but revulsion for him. Never mind the aesthetics of his suicide-by-pie mission, he’s a tedious egotist who wreaks havoc as a house guest and is positively gleeful when Pandora’s relationship with her step-kids and husband starts to crack. Yet she sticks by him, joining him on a months-long, make-or-break liquid diet at enormous risk to her marriage. Eventually Edison begins to grow on you, but by making him sympathy-proof to start with, Shriver forces us to truly see him. Obese characters tend to be oddly invisible in real life and scantily drawn on the page, but Edison is multidimensional, not merely an emblem of all that’s wrong with American culture. It’s a sign of the complexity of a novel that ranks alongside We Need to Talk About Kevin in its willingness—and elaborating here would set spoiler alarms ringing—to say the unthinkable.

Michael Pollan is the man who simmered down the tenets of healthy eating to a single sentence: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” In his new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (Allen Lane, £20) he hits on a staggeringly simple diet: eat whatever you want so long as you cook it yourself. From scratch. His recipe for a whole-wheat country loaf takes between five and 10 days. Pollan’s book is many things, among them a memoir of learning to master the absolute basics of culinary creation: fire, water, air and earth. As Pollan chats with cheesemaking nuns and discovers Walt Whitman’s views on composting, he reminds us that cooking used to be all about connection—with the world around us, with other times and cultures, and with those we cook for. It is, he says, “a form of intimacy.” Old-timey, chicken-soup wisdom for sure, but references to self-sufficiency and lessening the control that big business has over our diets lend it a subversive edge. Most of us aren’t going to be tackling that bread recipe any time soon and nor does Pollan expect it, but a chatty willingness to consider more practical fixes makes the book both approachable and rewarding.

Pollan’s research took him to some unlikely places, including a Wonder Bread factory. It’s more incongruous still to find the biologist Steve Jones engrossed in the Bible. His latest work, The Serpent’s Promise (Little, Brown, £25), offers a fresh way of negotiating the standoff between science and religion. As he sees it, the core puzzles preoccupying today’s scientists—about the origins of the universe and our place in it—are the same ones that inspired the writers of the Old and New Testaments. The Bible, he argues, with a magnanimity sure to drive creationists wild, “sits firmly in the genealogy of ideas.” Leading the reader through some of the good book’s most compelling mysteries such as the virgin birth and Methuselah’s longevity (he lived to see his 969th birthday), Jones uses science to pick up where religious explanations falter. Provocative and often enlightening, The Serpent’s Promise does invite one question: if science is to us moderns what religion was to our forefathers, what might our own descendents make of Jones and Co’s theories?

In another title that threads together past and present, financial historian William J Bernstein turns to the business of information in Masters of the Word: How Media Shaped History(Atlantic, £18.99), and by media, he means everything from the invention of writing to the photocopier. The internet of course gets a look in, but Bernstein takes a long view, going back as far as Mesopotamia five millennia ago. The book’s animating conflict is over just who controls communications technology, a ceaseless tug of war between people and their rulers. Throughout history, Bernstein says, the words “politics” and “communication” are nearly synonymous. It was increased literacy that helped democracy spread in ancient Greece, for instance. There’s something refreshing about a book that sees the digital revolution as being part of a far longer story rather than a 21st century game-changer. He resists fashionable simplifications such as depicting the Athenian agora as a “social network,” but in looking back, Bernstein alerts us to what we should be monitoring as we hurtle forward.

No one knows that better than John le Carré. In his fine new novel, A Delicate Truth(Hamish Hamilton, £18.99) he depicts the world of espionage as having changed both radically and very little since the end of the Cold War. The story centres on a clandestine operation gone horribly wrong in Gibraltar in 2008. Three years later, the cover-up is beginning to unravel. The hero of the hour is Toby Bell, a foreign office high-flyer hobbled with an old-fashioned sense of what’s right. He is, le Carré observes, “the most feared creature of our contemporary world: a solitary decider.” The novel’s cast also includes an evangelist Texan heiress, a mercenary with a “slippy glance,” and a Blairite MP whose Glaswegian accent is entirely tactical. But le Carré is at his devastating best when it comes to the man behind it all: telegenic Jay Crispin, the product of a world in which war has gone corporate. “He was your normal, rootless, amoral, plausible, half-educated, nicely spoken frozen adolescent in a bespoke suit, with an unappeasable craving for money, power and respect.” With private defence firms coordinating missions and non-government employees being given access to official secrets, the landscape of the spying game has changed. Then again, in le Carré’s telling it still involves plenty of time spent waiting around or staring through dirty net curtains. Ultimately, it’s the personal animosities and attractions rippling through the negotiations and betrayals that le Carré captures so brilliantly, and it’s this that keeps him current.