Reviews Roundup | 6 February

The critics' verdicts on Philip Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott, Sherill Tippins and Ray Jayawardhana.

Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat by Phillip Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott

Farmageddon may at first appear to be another “enviro-shocker”: a bloody guilt trip, taking the reader from one gruesome factory to another, with little respite, but Philip Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott have instead delivered a journey through a world of intensified farming, with plenty of possible solutions.

Farmageddon stands out from other books of its genre because it doesn’t rest heavily on visceral details from industrial farming and its impact on animals. Instead, according to Alex Renton of the Evening Standard, “Lymbery turns out to be a humanist animal-lover ... He lays out a sad and comprehensive case against modern, industrial farming but his argument is about much more than the welfare of animals and the difficult question of what moral duties we have to them. It is about whether the rich world’s lust for cheap meat is going to destroy the planet and starve us”. The book promises an insight into the impact of overconsumption of cheap foods by the rich, on the living standards of the poor, now and in the future.

However, Ross Clark of the Times claims that a consideration of the costs of a food revolution is precisely what is severely lacking in the book: “Much as Lymbery tries to convince us that Western consumers are enjoying their cheap meat on the backs of the world’s poor, there is much evidence to suggest that industrialised farming is helping to improve nutrition worldwide.”

A number of critics have highlighted Lymbery’s background as a campaigner and activist for Compassion in World Farming. The Guardian’s Tristam Stuart praises the authors for being pragmatic in their approach to the urgent problems in the food industry, resulting in a punchy, accessible book: “Lymbery brings to this essential subject the perspective of a seasoned campaigner – he is informed enough to be appalled, and moderate enough to persuade us to take responsibility for the system that feeds us.”

The Observer’s Lucy Seigle praises the book for its wider perspective, provided by Oakeshott, refining Lymbery’s arguments by challenging any prejudices about intensified meat production: “The overriding effect is the wholesale destruction of the myths that are used to sell intensive agriculture to populations around the world ... In fact, Farmageddon also lays out enough evidence to challenge complicity.”

Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York's Legendary Chelsea Hotel by Sherill Tippins

At a crossroads for the future of New York City’s infamous Chelsea Hotel, Inside the Dream Palace is a poignant biography of a building and its ecosystem. The home for over a century of songwriting, drugtaking, sex, and suicide; the haven of artists of all kinds in need of space or inspiration has finally received an epitaph, before it is redeveloped for a new generation. The book, however, has received a mixture of criticism and, disappointingly for gossip-hungry readers, not for any slanderous accounts of the inhabitants.

Ada Calhoun of the New York Times writes about the lack of any new or revolutionary material; the book's want of scandalous and long-awaited anecdotes from the kind of exclusive interviews one would expect after years of research. However, the Independent’s Charlotte Raven relishes the biography’s inescapable sauciness: “Tippen tries to distinguish fact from fiction, but happily, her history still reads like a tall tale; as gossipy as any of the Chelsea denizens.”

Commended by Calhoun is Tippins's “measured tone” through the blaze of high-strung bohemia, with due respect for what she describes as Tippins's role as “a quiet authority [with] the soothing vibe of shepherd to an acid trip”. Yet Peter Conrad criticises her as “startlingly moralistic” for the very same reason, “given the funkiness of her subject”.

Despite questions about the author’s standpoint and “cool”, the book cannot be faulted for the interest it has provoked in the hotel’s future, and for those who are made to relive its past through precious anecdotes, for better or for worse. 

Neutrino Hunters: The Thrilling Chase for a Ghostly Particle to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe by Ray Jayawardhana

“Whenever anything cool happens in the universe, neutrinos are usually involved.” The recent celebrity of an otherwise silent particle, the neutrino, has been warmly welcomed to the astrophysics stage after decades of scepticism.

Dubbed an “astrophysics detective thriller”, Jayawardhana tells the contentious tales of the discoveries surrounding neutrinos - elusive, tiny, human-neutral particles that have historically been blamed for or credited with the inexplicable - and what they implicate for the future of our understanding of the universe.

The book has been upheld by Robert McKie, writing in the Observer, as a clear and vibrant detangling of the hunt; its eccentric huntsmen leading the way. While most have praised this character-led history of the particle’s research, the Economist criticises the book for at times sounding “a little too much like a professional CV”, in contrast with its contemporary, The Perfect Wave by Heinrich Päs, which is richer in theory and scientific explanation.

According to the Boston Globe’s Jennifer Latson, the book’s strength lies in its “lively and endearingly nerdy” voice, coupled with an excitement for the future, as Jayawardhana details the next generation of investigation into many realms of physics, exploring the possibilities of tracking the particles and where they could lead us theoretically and commercially.

Since its launch at the end of 2013, the book has received much praise, with its entertaining storytelling by Jayawardhana - an award-winning science writer and celebrated researcher - applauded widely.

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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times