Books in Brief: what to read this October

From Annie Ernaux’s shame to Rory Stewart’s political ambitions, from neuroscience to board games, here are this month’s short reviews from the magazine

October 04, 2023
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by Annie Ernaux, tr. Tanya Leslie (Fitzcarraldo Editions, £9.99)

Each of Annie Ernaux’s books is a microcosm in which one event, just one, casts a shadow over all others: this only happened because of that, and so on. There is never any reason or meaning, only consequences. In Shame, newly published in the UK, that event is perhaps more consequential than most: it’s the day in the summer of 1952 when she watched her father drag her mother to the cellar and, holding her “by the shoulders, or maybe the neck”, threatened her with a woodcutting scythe.

It lasted only a few minutes, but it fostered in Ernaux a sense of shame so overbearing that it came to permeate everything: the street she lived on, the clothes she wore, the looks she and her family would get from those more well-off in town or at the convent school. With a shadow like that hanging over you from the age of 12, it’s no wonder Ernaux has made her writing life an exercise in scouring darkness.

I read Shame thinking it was one of Ernaux’s earlier works, for while all her signature motifs are in evidence—photographs interrogated, newspapers combed, dates precisely catalogued—they feel somewhat less developed, as if the central event is just too big to be so neatly documented. Yet its publication in 1997 was not long after A Man’s Place or before Happening, two of her most enduring works.

This isn’t to say Shame is a waste of your time. Far from it. But that those already familiar with Ernaux might not find too many surprises. And for those who aren’t already familiar—well, why aren’t you?

David McAllister 

Politics On the Edge: A Memoir from Within
by Rory Stewart (Jonathan Cape, £22)

Rory Stewart is aware that he’s ridiculous. In his new memoir, Politics On the Edge, he recounts being given his first ministerial post by David Cameron while attempting to hide a fresh cappuccino stain on his trousers; in his first backbench rebellion, over an amendment about mountain rescue, he hides in the parliamentary toilets to avoid voting. A former Conservative colleague calls him “a highly unusual little man.”

He feels his failures deeply. After he is recorded calling parts of his constituency “primitive”, he considers suicide. And he is still bewildered by his poor performance in the second Tory leadership debate. “I was going from misreading the space, to insulting it,” he writes. “I felt like a satellite falling out of orbit.”

Stewart (interviewed on p88) is eloquent and indignant about duplicitousness and incompetence in modern politics. He is withering about his former rivals: Boris Johnson is an “egotistical chancer”; Liz Truss is “weird”; George Osborne “reminded me of an eighteenth-century French cardinal”; David Cameron’s speech on Afghanistan “would have made a good… undergraduate PPE essay”.

Stewart—who now, of course, co-hosts The Rest is Politics, one of the country’s most popular podcasts—writes that he has dreamed of public service since childhood. Yet when his wife Shoshana asks him to list the policies he’d enact as prime minister, he can only list “a cake mix of random frustrations with
 daily life”.

“Can I… can I not just say I want to make Britain a better and happier place?” he asks. In September, he told an interviewer that he’d still like to be prime minister. But he never really explains, in this book or elsewhere, what he’d do if he got there.

Emily Lawford

The Balanced Brain: The Science of Mental Health
by Camilla Nord (Allen Lane, £25) 

Camilla Nord, head of Cambridge University’s Mental Health Neuroscience department, opens her book The Balanced Brain with a description of 10 hours of sheer joy—her wedding day. The night before there had been a rainstorm and, having planned to get married outdoors, Nord didn’t sleep for worry. But she needn’t have fretted: the next day the sun came out and the wedding went perfectly.

Later in the book, Nord explains how it is this element of positive surprise—of things turning out better than anticipated—that leads us to experience pleasure: dopamine is fired when our brains make a “positive prediction error”. The brain, she explains, is constantly making predictions: prediction errors cause learning about the world, both the unexpectedly good and the unexpectedly bad. Disruptions in the mechanisms that control these predictions could lead to a negative view of the world and thus depression or other mental health problems.

The Balanced Brain is a fascinating tour of the latest research on how these mechanisms work—and an examination of treatments from deep brain stimulation to mindfulness, from homeopathy to antidepressants. Nord’s careful argument is that mental health requires a kind of homeostasis in the brain that will be influenced by different factors for everyone.

It is a refreshing counterblast to many popular ideas about wellbeing: she is unconvinced by puritanical fitness or diet regimes. There is also a revelatory chapter on why the placebo effect can be real and useful in treating mental distress.

“The future of our society’s mental health will not arrive in the form of a single treatment breakthrough,” she writes. “It is more likely to arrive through a systematic, scientific approach to the underlying processes causing someone’s distress and what interventions might remedy them.”

Sarah Collins

The Wren, The Wren
by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape, £18.99)

Enright returns to the familiar ground of tangled familial relationships in this, her accomplished eighth novel. Ostensibly the story of a “spiralling love—that doomed, glorious ever-closer closeness” between a mother (the fiercely independent Carmel) and her daughter (Nell), what trickles through both the text and these women’s lives is the looming presence of Carmel’s father: Phil McDaragh, a brooding, often brutish poet who won Carmel’s mother “with verse”, but then abandoned her and their daughters when she was dying of cancer.

The novel alternates between the perspectives of mother and daughter, interspersed with examples of McDaragh’s poems (which aren’t just convincing but worth praise in and of their own right). Nell’s chapters are told in the first person—intimate, slippery, intense—while Carmel’s point-of-view is rendered with the slight distance of the close third-person. The account of her pregnancy and first years with Nell reminded me of that benchmark of novels about single parenthood, Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone; both authors take a sort-of no-nonsense approach to the majesty of a world expanded by mother love.

Enright’s prose throughout, though, is something close to poetry, her sentences skitter along with sweet cadences, never detracting from the story she’s telling, but instead making the reading experience richer and more poignant.

Lucy Scholes 

Around the World in 80 Games
by Marcus du Sautoy (Fourth Estate, £22) 

Maths is fun? Who knew? Certainly not me when I was growing up, but I think I’d have got on differently had I been handed a copy of Marcus du Sautoy’s book on the mathematics behind popular games.

He really is a wonderful teacher: as conversant in the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the poetry of Paul Valéry as he is, well, conversational. Du Sautoy has an easy, freewheeling style that helps you, his student, keep up. The maths lessons, such as they are, come almost by stealth.

But, just as much, du Sautoy is a wonderful tour guide: the book is very almost a travelogue, ranging from its author’s encounters with ancient Middle Eastern games such as Ur and Senet to that terrible, modern game of chance known as “Chocolate Chilli Roulette”. It’s a literal journey, but also an intellectual one. You never lose the sense that games mean a lot to du Sautoy and have shaped his career as a mathematician.

So now I know: maths is fun. Or at least useful. If you take this number and divide it by the square root of some other, then multiply the result by 73… checkmate.

Peter Hoskin