Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Hurd and Young, Higashida and McCleen.

Disraeli: Or the Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young

Douglas Hurd and Edward Young offer an insight into the paradoxical life of Victorian Prime Minister and parliamentarian Benjamin Disraeli in their biography Disraeli: Or the Two Lives. Hurd and Young’s written account depicts the life of an outsider who became the leading representative of the aristocracy despite having been born without either wealth or connections.

According to Richard Davenport-Hines at The Guardian, “their book is far from a hagiography of their party's idol” and “proves a fascinating character study”.

Leo McKinstry at The Express argues that the biography lacks “any startling revelations”, but concedes that Hurd and Young succeed in “the beautiful style of their writing, the pace of their narrative and their ability to condense complex political problems”. Matthew Parris from The Times has said “so judicious is their presentation of the evidence and so carefully do they strive to find something to praise”, agreeing with McKinstry that the biography “lay out with clarity the essentials of a story often and variously told” instead of making a pretence of assembling mountains of new material. The New Statesman’s Michael Prodger is of the opinion that “the aim of the book is to “separate the public and private strands of Disraeli’s career into a pair of brief lives” and both Hurd and Young “track the complexities of his career deftly while pointing out that although his governments did much to help the working class, Disraeli himself was no democrat”.

The Reason I Jump By Naoki Higashida

Author David Mitchell and his wife K A Yoshida have translated this book written by Naoki Higashida at the age of thirteen. The book includes short stories, elements of memoir and FAQs providing a very personal insight into the mind of a thirteen year old autistic child.

Luisa Metcalfe, writing in the Express that The Reason I Jump “brings the fascinating quirks of the autistic mind to life” an opinion that she believes defies the opinions that “people on the autistic spectrum are seen as being cold, socially awkward, better with maths or computers than society”. She continues to discuss the liberation that Higashida feels in the book of the joys of “lining up his toys” and “memorising numbers on timetables”. Yet despite these activities being primarily mathematical or logical, she describes the narrative as “highly perceptive and deeply emotional”

Arifa Akbar from The Independent similarly writes that The Reason I Jump “offers sometimes tormented, sometimes joyous, insights into autism's locked-in universe” giving readers an “eloquent access into an almost entirely unknown world”. Akbar goes on to discuss  how the “child's-eye view of autism is as much a winsome work of the imagination as it is a user's manual for parents, carers and teachers” agreeing with David Mitchell and KA Yoshida whose purpose of translating their son’s novel which was primarily for “helping others dealing with autism”.

The Daily Mail’s Marcus Berkmann agrees with both Akbar and Metcalfe, agreeing that the book offers new insights into life with autism, “an entry into another world” and provides a counterbalance to “the world’s ignorance of [the] condition” by offering the “most astonishing glimpses of autism's exhilaration”.

The Professor of Poetry by Grace McCleen

The Professor of Poetry is Grace McCleen’s second novel. It tells the story of a Professor named Elizabeth Stone, who turns to investigate some papers by T S Eliot on a poem which was once given to her by an elusive Professor Hunt. As a respected academic, she is haunted by her lack of confidence in her writing, searching out for unknown papers on the work of T S Eliot with plans to write the ‘best essay’ in order to impress Hunt.

Beth Jones from The Telegraph suggests that “the novel promises to be an intriguing exploration of a woman seeking meaning in the face of mortality” but emerges as “a shallow love story” that becomes “predictable”. Despite this, Jones believes that the novel has its “rare moments that the novel manages to come alive with a tight, unsettling atmosphere of claustrophobia and regret” and ultimately describes it as an “enjoyable” novel.

Furthermore, reviewers from The Sunday Times and The Telegraph hint that The Professor of Poetry is tainted by the same writing style of both of Grace McCleen’s novels. As Jones describes the “continuities with her debut novel”, Kate Clanchy from The Guardian expands on the opinion that “both her first books were cut from the same 'unworkable' original novel”, as though they both “have been an autobiographical text”. The Professor of Poetry is about "time and stillness and music", Clanchy writes, yet she believes the plot “lacks urgency”.

 

English Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli on the arm of his private secretary Montagu William Corry (right). Image: Vanity Fair/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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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