Reviews round-up

The critics' verdict on a new biography of Tolstoy, Saul Bellow's letters and Salley Vickers' short

Tolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett

Last Saturday was the centenary of the great Russian novelist's death and has predictably been accompanied by a slew of new Tolstoy biographies and studies. Chief among these is Rosamund Bartlett's new biography.

Philip Heshner, writing in the Spectator, thinks Bartlett's life of Tolstoy is full of "knowledge, insight and aplomb", though is sceptical about her decision to look at the novels solely "within the context of historical trends." In the Guardian, Christopher Tayler is less than impressed with Bartlett's account of Tolstoy's life. Whilst he acknowledges that she does uncover new information on Tolstoy , he finds that "the dutiful potted histories and near-total lack of critical discussion sometimes make it hard to remember why you're interested."

Conversely, AN Wilson, a previous biographer of Tolstoy, is all praise for Bartlett in the Financial Times, judging that her study of his life "conveys Tolstoy to me more vividly than any biography I have read."

Saul Bellow: Letters by Saul Bellow, edited by Benjamin Taylor

Leon Wieseltier, Bellow's friend and sometime correspondent, writing in the New York Times, gives a slightly sycophantic review, in which he suggests that these letters constitute "one of Bellow's greatest books", whilst also finding the space to salute Benjamin Taylor's "elegantissimo" editing.

From the Guardian, John Banville is intrigued by Bellow's "prickliness" in the letters, though is disappointed to find that they are "not as exciting or stimulating as one would expect from this most incandescent and opinionated of writers", a fact perhaps due to Bellow's tendency "to relax the force of his personality" in his correspondence.

In the New Statesman, Leo Robson decides that "the existence of the collection is a cause for celebration, but there are shortcomings, especially in the provision of contextual detail" and gives Taylor lukewarm praise for his "almost-great service" as editor. Robson does, however, admit that he read the letters with "an overpowering feeling of joy."

Aphrodite's Hat by Salley Vickers

Michele Roberts' review, from the Financial Times, gently chides Salley Vickers for her prosaic style in her first collection of art related short stories, describing them as being "marred by cliché" and overly "genteel", whilst, contrarily, Frank Cottrell Boyce in the Guardian is overflowing with superlatives for Vickers, writing that "the emotional and technical range of this collection is both impressive and delightfully disorienting".

Michael Arditti, writing in the Telegraph, is more ambivalent about the stories, concluding that "although a couple of the stories are duds ... the collection is shot through with a gentle wit and a winning charm."

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Why we'll all have to stomach the high-tech future of food

Lab-grown meat and veg may be unappetising, but our planet's survial may depend on it.

Imagine: you’re out shopping with a friend and you decide to stop and get some lunch. Just off the high street, you spot a restaurant advertising a burger deal and decide to go in. On the menu, however, you see something strange: all the items are apparently made with “future food”. Some sort of hipster gimmick?

You order your burger, and the waitress brings it over. It looks like all the other burgers you’ve eaten in your life, but as the waitress talks you through your meal, you realise that this restaurant is unusual.

The meat, she tells you, is made from lab-grown beef. The vegetables that sit on top of it have been produced in a temperature-controlled lab, under LED lights. “Five times faster than outdoors!” your waitress beams. Oh, and the chips are made from irradiated potatoes – but that’s nothing new: it’s been legal to sell irradiated food in the UK since 2009. “It stops the potatoes sprouting,” she explains.

If suddenly you feel like you don’t fancy the burger much, you’re not alone. Even the most forward-thinking consumer can find that the idea of lab-produced meals sticks in the throat – even if we understand, logically, that food technology can be a good thing.

According to a recent government study, only half of us believe we “will have to make more use of technology in food production”.

The process of growing meat provokes particularly strong reactions. It involves taking a small quantity of muscle cells from a living animal, which are then cultured in a mixture designed to support their growth. Done right, one muscle cell can turn into one trillion strands of muscle tissue.

Yet we may not have time to be squeamish. Studies suggest that a high proportion of greenhouse gases – anywhere between 20 and 50 per cent, depending on the research – is produced by the meat industry.

“This is really something that needs to be done in the next decade,” Shaked Regev, of the Modern Agriculture Foundation (MAF), tells me. “This is a critical point for humanity.” The MAF is a start-up developing what it calls “clean meat”. Regev, the foundation’s director, became involved in this area of research partly because he believes we urgently need to create new food technologies.

“This and other green initiatives are imperative. Some people say it’s for our grandkids – I say: I’m 27, and I’m going to see significant damage from climate change in my lifetime.”

Researchers in the field are confident that the public can overcome its distaste for lab-grown meat. “It will eventually be cheaper than the kind of chicken meat currently for sale, and consumers will flock to it,” says Gary Comstock, a professor of philosophy working on food ethics at North Carolina State University. “They flocked to milk made with bovine growth hormone [bGH], even though they reported being opposed to genetically modified foods, once they saw that the bGH milk was cheaper,” he says.

Yet even if people are happy to try new food technologies, does the best solution to the problems lie in our food culture? Studies show that fewer of us are cooking at home than ever before; young people in particular are becoming less familiar with the range of ingredients and where they come from. A 2012 poll by the charity Linking Environment and Farming found that 33 per cent of 16-to-23-year-olds were unable to identify hens as the source of eggs.

Comstock rejects the argument that developing food technologies will further obscure the origins of our food. “We are already as alienated as we can be from the sources of our food,” he says. “Most of us have no idea about the conditions in which birds are grown and slaughtered.”

For Regev, young people are less of a problem and could even be a big part of the solution. Because their food habits are less entrenched, he says, young people will be more willing to try something new. “The younger you are, the more likely you are to accept this new technology, or new technologies in general.”

He reminds me, “We really don’t have time for a hundred-year social progress movement.” Better get biting that burger, then.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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