Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on A M Homes, Jack Straw and Robert Peston.

May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes.

“A M Homes is a masterful dissector of modern American life,” writes Viv Groskop in the Guardian. “She excels in portraying the minutiae of a dysfunctional family (is there any other kind?), creating characters who are both repellent and magnetic. Her writing exerts a push-pull that feels like being in a hall of mirrors. You want to run away but you find yourself compelled to look at the reflection.” The novel, which revolves around two brothers, George and Harry, respectively a TV executive and a Nixon scholar, has been called “a hand-wringing examination of the American dream” by Tim Auld in the Telegraph, with “Nixon and the legacy of his corruption cast as a symbol of the nation’s current dark night of the soul”. In her essay in this week’s New Statesman, Homes remembers how “The 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters ordered by President Nixon and the subsequent Watergate scandal had a big impact in confirming my sense of what was right and wrong”. May We Be Forgiven, which begins with George mowing down a family in his car before escaping from a psychiatric unit to find his brother Harry in bed with his wife, is darkly aware of the full-scale havoc abuses of power can produce. Homes continues: “It was at that moment I realised that Washington was not just an oddly old-fashioned swampy southern town but that the decisions made there, the reverberations of one man’s behaviour, were not just local, but national and even global.” A review of Homes’s novel will feature in next week’s issue of the New Statesman.

Last Man Standing by Jack Straw.

The Daily Mail’s Craig Brown compliments Straw’s “unexpectedly interesting” autobiography, stating “The capacity in politics to bore others without boring yourself is much underrated, and it is probably the reason why Jack Straw was, as the title has it, the Last Man Standing”. Straw, in fact, boasts of his anorak status and capacity to filibuster controversy into submission. “On another occasion, chairing discussions about Turkey’s entry into the EU, he purposely kept delegates talking until two in the morning. ‘I judged that if I could get most delegates to a state of catatonic exhaustion then a consensus might follow.’” And yet the Telegraph’s Parliamentary Sketchwriter Michael Deacon finds fault in the idea that this quality will transmute into entertaining prose. “For most of the book,” Deacon writes, “Straw makes the number one error of political memoirists: he writes about politics.” “With books of this type you mainly want to know what the memoirist is like, and ideally you want to learn that he’s some kind of monster. We’ve paid our £20 – now give us scandal, bitching, affairs. But Straw is frustratingly reasonable and, worse, reserved. He suffered ‘serious depression’ - yet devotes three paragraphs to it, compared with pages lavished on ruminations for the need for a Cabinet Government Act ‘prescribing the duties of the prime minister.’” As if reviewing an entirely different book, Peter Hain praises “a tour de force through the fluctuating fortunes of the Labour party from the mid-1960s to the 2010 election defeat.” With perhaps an interest in bolstering the political memoir (his own was recently released in paperback), the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales emphasises the personal, Straw’s attention to detail, experiences that accompany an undoubtedly prodigious political career. “Some memoirs by former Labour politicians generated headlines and big serialisation fees – promptly to disappear, quickly remaindered.” I wonder who he has in mind. “This book will stand the test of time.”

How Do We Fix This Mess? By Robert Peston and Laurence Knight.

The BBC’s business editor has written a book fully titled How Do We Fix This Mess?: The Economic Price of Having It All, and the Route to Lasting Prosperity, from which The Economist, in a largely dismissive review, proceeds: “As the convoluted title of this books suggests, Robert Peston struggles to focus on one topic.” Picking out a handful of facts which underline the powerlessness of anyone at all to call the financial industry to order – for example the report by Bank of England economist Andrew Haldane which estimated the implicit subsidy British taxpayers provided to banks during the crisis at £57 billion (or £914 per person), or the study by consultancy firm Obermatt which argued there is “no correlation between pay for senior executives and stock performance on the FTSE 100” - still, Peston’s grand-narrative of collapse mainly incites opprobrium. “The author’s ability to decipher what went wrong at British banks does not translate into how to fix them,” the review concludes. Former Guardian editor Peter Preston agrees with this sentiment - “now conventional calls for more rigid regulation, more visionary leadership, more public acceptance of hardship and toil” are not “overwhelmingly convincing” - yet allows for more than a few sentences to talk about the book’s achievements. He writes that Peston (and his quiet accomplice Laurence Knight) were “utterly right” to turn “some of the fire on journalists themselves, on the dogs that didn’t bark.” He defends Peston’s credibility and lauds the scope of his outlook, as does Mark Damazer in the New Statesman: “If, every few years, he needs to breathe out and write a long book, we should encourage it.” Preston expands the jaunty title to five sentences which deftly supply the overriding question driving the book: “Peston, from his earlier stints on the Investors Chronicle and the FT, was more up to speed than most. He’d followed the mushroom growth of foreign exchange trading, bond markets, the whole derivatives industry offering you a speculative punt-cum-malign insurance hedge bet on ‘the weather in the Caribbean, the unemployment rate in Japan, the risk of political unrest in China’. Make that $43 trillion of unallocated loans, around 61% of global GDP. Set these swirling currents of funny money flowing across the world each morning against the shrinking reserves that banks were required to keep liquid and guard against very rainy days, and anyone who understood the true situation could see big, big trouble building. But who, in reality, spotted such looming peril?”

Straw's memoir joins the ranks at the conference bookstall. Photo: Getty Images.
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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder