Inventing the universe, an oriental makeover and Tube trivia—May’s books offer a chance to come up for air and get away from it allby Kathryn Hughes / April 24, 2012 / Leave a comment
May is an in-between month. Summer isn’t here yet and could easily be postponed. But there’s a promise in the air that makes you start thinking about something other than just getting by. The books published this month reflect this transitional moment—with entertaining non-fiction books sitting alongside ambitious speculative fiction.
First, the non-fiction. Andrew Martin’s Underground, Overground (Profile) is a deeply pleasurable history of the London Tube. Martin has all the history at his fingertips—from the internecine squabbles of the early railway companies to the new developments in place for the Olympics. But where Martin’s account really excels is in the way he splices this semi-official narrative with personal arcana assembled from thirty-plus years spent rattling round the Circle Line. Ever wondered why most of the stations on the Central Line are white-tiled? Or how they get the trains to run so smoothly, ahem, every 90 seconds during rush hour? Underground, Overground is the book to take with you to while away those stomach-churning minutes the next time you find yourself stuck in a deep tunnel with 1,000 strangers and no way out.
While you’re down there, willing the train to start moving again, you may feel the urge to reach for a snack. John S Allen’s The Omnivorous Mind (Harvard) is a clever and original take on how we think about food. Allen is a research scientist, which means that he’s less interested in the cultural history of food—how the pickle migrated from Eastern Europe to New York, for example—than he is in hard appetite. Allen’s approach involves the intriguing, if inconclusive, results that come from peering at brain scans and noticing which bits light up when we’re asked to think about different foods. Some of his best conclusions involve mapping current food preferences onto the long march of evolutionary biology. For instance, the reason why most of us like crisps is apparently down to the fact that our ape ancestors used to snack on hard-shelled locusts.
Let’s say now that your Tube train has started to move and light is in sight. Now it may be time to turn one’s mind to fiction. Two of the best novels this month are concerned with the ineffable. Alan Lightman’s Mr G (Corsair) is a smart and droll account of how God, or god, or simply Mr G, came upon the idea of creating the universe. So far so cute. Lightman,…