Books in brief: what to read this May

From the mind of Stephen Hawking to conflicts in rural Argentina, here are this month’s short reviews from the magazine

May 01, 2024
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Stephen Hawking: Genius at Work
by Roger Highfield (Dorling Kindersley, £17.75)

I once went swimming with Stephen Hawking. Well, actually, I was in an outdoor pool, looked up—and there, to my amazement, was Hawking in his wheelchair, with his young son preparing to jump in the shallow end. It was in California—coincidentally, the same place that Roger Highfield also met Hawking for the first time.

Highfield, former science editor of the Telegraph and editor of New Scientist, is now science director of the Science Museum Group. It is in this latter capacity that he has written Stephen Hawking: Genius at Work.

The book was prompted by the donation of Hawking’s office to London’s Science Museum. Much of the book’s content is inspired by objects from that office, such as Hawking’s blackboard of scientific doodles and his Oxford cox blazer, worn when he was thrown into the River Cherwell.

Highfield writes with awe and affection for his subject and covers pretty much every aspect of Hawking’s life. Most notably, as a former physicist, he explains Hawking’s key contributions to physics and cosmology with rare clarity. His expression for the temperature of a black hole is one of only two formulae inscribed on flagstones on the floor of Westminster Abbey.

What Highfield communicates so effectively is Hawking’s extraordinary energy. That time I saw Hawking at the pool was during one of his regular trips to the California Institute of Technology to visit Kip Thorne, one of his many scientific collaborators. His travels took him everywhere, not only to visit scientists—but film directors such as Steven Spielberg, actors such as Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper) and presidents such as Barack Obama.

This sumptuously illustrated celebration of Hawking’s life captures perfectly its depth and breadth. If you ever achieve a hundredth of what Hawking did in a typical day, you are doing well.

Marcus Chown


The Book-Makers: A History of the Book in 18 Remarkable Lives
by Adam Smyth (Bodley Head, £25)

For many years now, biographers have been interested in the marginal figures of history, people whose lives had not been told before. The latest book of this sort is Adam Smyth’s The Book-Makers, which relates the history of book-printing through the lives of significant, though relatively underappreciated, printers. You know Gutenberg, probably Franklin, but do you know who printed Shakespeare’s First Folio or the man who invented the modern method of producing paper? Smyth also gives us insights into the lives of forgotten readers, such as the Tudors who literally cut the Pope out of their prayer books, or the members of the religious community at Little Gidding who made composite editions of the gospels for themselves, literally cut and pasted.

Smyth’s book is a fun and informative account of what it takes to make a book—there used to be 66 steps in the process, far more than the anticipated folding, beating, pressing, threading and gluing. It is also a repository of the people involved in those makings: the printers and their apprentices. The Book-Makers gives you a lively sense of the way in which books have been made and unmade, crafted, handled and spliced down the centuries; it tells you what a printer’s workshop smelled like, the tools at use; you will hear about the invention of typefaces, but also about the way readers have ornamented their books, in what is known as “extra-illustration”, by adding engravings.

The paper inventor, by the way, was Nicolas Louis Robert. Without his method of making continuous sheets of paper that are produced on a rotating roller, we would likely not have had newspapers or periodicals. He achieved no financial success in his lifetime, nor widespread recognition, and has been largely ignored by bibliographers. But, in many ways, he is one of the most significant inventors in history.

Henry Oliver


The Hypocrite
by Jo Hamya (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £18.99)

It’s August 2020 and, in the brief window of freedom between lockdowns, feminist playwright Sophia is staging a new work at a London theatre. Audience response has been good so far, but there’s still one opinion she’s awaiting: that of her reactionary novelist father. When he comes for a matinee, Sophia decamps to a restaurant with his ex-wife, her mother. She does not want to be watching when he realises the play is about him.

The penny doesn’t take long to drop. Ten years earlier, when Sophia was 17, she and her father went on holiday to Sicily, and the play’s set is “almost exact to the place they stayed”. The shirt worn by the main character, “a carbon copy of one he has hanging in his wardrobe”. And there’s the character himself, so obviously a “version of him, adapted, reduced, reframed, fucked like a pig and wrote like a dictator.” “His daughter is pitiless.”

Just as we find ourselves agreeing, a series of flashbacks presents the case for the defence. The Sicily trip was meant to be a bonding experience for them, an opportunity to heal after the divorce. Instead, Sophia’s father spent the time working on his novel, employing his daughter as an amanuensis when it suited him and leaving her to fend for herself when it didn’t. She was deeply hurt.

But does he deserve a public humiliation? Does exacting one not make her as bad as him? Toggling between Sophia’s pangs of conscience in the restaurant and her father’s mounting horror in the theatre, The Hypocrite poses the conundrum with wit, tension and unsparing insight into the generational divide. Here, Jo Hamya has written a powerful allegory for the culture wars at large.

George Cochrane


All Fours
by Miranda July (Canongate, £20)

The narrator of Miranda July’s latest novel is a July-like figure: a “semi-famous” artist in her early forties, who lives in Los Angeles with her music producer husband, Harris, and their child, Sam. A recent commission earned her an unexpectedly large fee, which she decides to splurge on a solo week in New York. And, rather than flying, she also decides to drive there, cross country, all by herself.

Early in the book, Harris makes the pronouncement that people are either Drivers or Parkers in life. The former, he argues, “are able to maintain awareness and engagement even when life is boring,” whereas the latter need applause for the tasks they perform. The narrator is a Parker—her art brings her the approbation that she craves. But maybe it’s time she stepped outside her comfort zone, both literally and metaphorically… not that things go to plan.

About half an hour into her drive, she feels the urge to leave the freeway. Three weeks later, she’s still there, holed up in a motel, lying to her family and utterly obsessed with a significantly younger man who works at the local Hertz car-hire branch.

While you can track July’s idiosyncratic style across the various mediums in which she works—she’s a filmmaker, an artist, a performer and an author—still she excels in each of these arenas on their own terms. All Fours—her third fiction title—is a case in point. Not only is it a fresh, oestrogen-fuelled take on the midlife crisis, but the prose is smart, sharp and deliciously readable. It’s sexy, it’s funny, but it’s also warm and tender in the best ways. The story of a woman for whom the menopause is the beginning rather than the end of something important.

Lucy Scholes


Not a River
by Selva Almada, tr. Annie McDermott (Charco Press, £11.99)

Two men take their late friend’s son fishing on an unnamed island separated from the Argentinian mainland by a river. The men, Enero Rey and El Negro, are not strangers to this place—they used to fish here as kids, and it was here that their friend Eusebio drowned—but a tense confrontation with local islander Aguirre destroys any hope that this trip would be a return to more innocent times.

Time is Selva Almada’s principal subject, but, like the river, its flow is mysterious and unwieldly, the island’s inhabitants constantly buffeted by its arbitrary currents. Every turn of the screw in the men’s feud is charged by either events that have been or events yet to happen, in ways both obvious and not: Enero recalls his recurring nightmares of a man drowning in the period before Eusebio’s death; the islanders meanwhile are seemingly already shaken by a trauma still years ahead of them. As Aguirre rounds up his men for a final confrontation with the trio at a local dance, you have the sense that things have already been long decreed by brutal fate.

What might feel like a convoluted narrative device in another author’s hands is here made deceptively simple and engrossing by Almada’s tight-lipped prose, with its clipped sentences and near-violent cadences reflecting the men’s own way of speaking. Yet it’s an aping that also sends up the arrogance of these islanders, men who, despite the predestination of time, still think of themselves as its primary drivers.

Gripped from start to finish, I couldn’t help but think of a line from William Faulkner, to whom Almada’s translator Annie McDermott acknowledges an explicit debt: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

David McAllister