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.

Photo: VIktor Drachev/Getty Images
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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide