Publishers are already eying airport bookshops, but there’s nothing escapist about May’s selectionsby Hephzibah Anderson / April 24, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.