Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Christopher Hitchens, Michael Chabon and Ian McEwan.

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Published eight months after his death, this collection of observations about what Hitchens called “living dyingly” are drawn from the Vanity Fair pieces that he wrote throughout his illness. John Lloyd, writing in the Financial Times, observes that “Hitchens’ wit doesn’t desert him till the last few fragmentary notes made in the last few sinking days; nor does his sense that he has, after all, been somebody, made it big in the most competitive arena of the most competitive country in the world.”

In the New York Times, Christopher Buckley calls the first seven chapters of the book “diamond-hard and brilliant” and offers a poignant description of the fragmentary jottings which make up the eight and final chapter: “they’re vivid, heart-wrenching and haunting — messages in a bottle tossed from the deck of a sinking ship as its captain, reeling in agony and fighting through the fog of morphine, struggles to keep his engines going.”

In the Guardian, Colm Tóibín calls the memoir “sad and oddly inspiring” and adds that Hitchens “writes with a calm and searching honesty about the idea that “I don’t have a body, I am a body.” He concludes with the claim that Hitchens “does everything to make sure that his voice remains civilised, searching and ready to vanquish all his enemies, most notably in this case the dullness of death and its silence.”

A review will appear in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

The title of Chabon’s first novel in five years refers to the famous Telegraph Avenue that bridges Berkeley and Oakland, California. The jacket refers to it as a "Californian Middlemarch".

Michiko Kakutani writes in the New York Times that “[Chabon] draws an extraordinarily tactile, Kodachrome-crisp picture of the Bay Area world that his characters inhabit… while conjuring the music from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s that [they] love so much and that has given them their vocation. The result is a novel with the grooviest soundtrack since High Fidelity.” She goes on to say that “although the novel gets off to a somewhat sluggish start, it soon achieves escape velocity, demonstrating that Mr. Chabon can write about just about anything… and write about it not as an author regurgitating copious amounts of research, but with a real, lived-in sense of empathy and passion.”

“In keeping with a novel full of jazz, the prose glimmers with accidentals, chromatic flats and sharps and syncopated rhythms,” says The Scotsman, “this stylistic virtuosity would nevertheless be meagre unless it was harnessed to specific ethical and empathetic ends. And Telegraph Avenue is a big book in an almost 19th-century manner; it has births and deaths, separations and reconciliations, the loss of virginity and the loss of friendship, moments of madness and sudden clarities. It is, above all, about consequence and forgiveness. The final pages are genuinely remarkable in their ability to create closure without compromising on emotional complexity.”

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Catherine Taylor, writing in the Telegraph, describes McEwan’s latest novel as “a genial, if flawed, foray into John le Carré territory – a wisecracking thriller hightailing between love and betrayal, with serious counter-espionage credentials thrown in.” Eileen Battersea in the Irish Times simply calls it a “glib beach read, marred by stagy dialogue,” and “a middlebrow spy spoof stuffed with self-regard.”

A review in the Economist declares that it is “not Mr McEwan’s finest book” and adds that, despite being “clever”, it is also “curiously forgettable. What it lacks is not so much an animating spirit, as a heart”.

Leo Robson, writing in the New Statesman, notes that the book “contains a certain amount of reflection on reading and writing, offered in the form of an ongoing argument between Serena and Tom which follows to an almost caricatural degree McEwan’s well-established version of the male-female dynamic . . . The couple disagree about modern fiction 'at every turn', and always for crass, gender-essentialist reasons.” Robson writes that “[Sweet Tooth] is a riddle, or perhaps a joke, in which a number of baffling, even boring, elements are clarified and justified by a final flourish. It rewards rereading, but not reading.”

Ian McEwan Photograph: Getty Images
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The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.