Margot Asquith in 1924. The Brocks’ edited collection has reinvigorated Margot’s vitriolic comments. Photo: Sasha/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
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Reviews round-up | 30 August

The critics' verdicts on Ahamed Liaquat, Kerry Hudson and Margot Asquith.

 

Money and Tough Love: Inside the IMF by Ahamed Liaquat

This offering from the "Writer in Residence" series commissioned by Alain de Botton’s School of Life sees Liaquat Ahamed, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his Lords of Finance, relaying the results of several months spent with his former organisation, the International Monetary Fund. Ahamed describes the everyday business of meetings and work abroad for employees of the Fund, presented alongside photography by Eli Reed.

Phillip Aldrick of The Times is impressed by how Ahamed manages to "humanise a faceless institution ... and teach a little economic history along the way." The book, according to Aldrick, describes well the "prosaic truth" of why the IMF shrank from prominence on the world stage. Aldrick notes the "sense of fading glory" as one of the book’s main themes. While he worries that "it’s hard to imagine many people outside the IMF being particularly interested," he nevertheless claims that Ahamed’s "gentle prose" serves as a "good introduction to the IMF".

The Financial Times’ Edward Luce calls the book an "enjoyable portrait." Luce knows Liaquat personally, at his own admission, but claims that the author "removes his rose-coloured spectacles" in order to write the book. Assuming Luce manages the same in his review, the book is credited with "bringing life to an institution that is too often deadened with jargon." SinceMoney and Tough Love is "about the troops not the generals," Luce also mentions Ahamed’s daily-reportage style, adding that this helps "avoid the leaden prose of an in-house biographer." The Fund is a complex machine and its "finances are usually arcane," writes Ahamed. Luce is taken with this apparently clear and entertaining look at such an organisation.

The book endures a much more tepid reception from Alex Preston writing in The Telegraph, who claims that the ‘anonymous and dull’ nature of the organisation applies equally well to Money and Tough Love. Writing that the book lacks "drama and stylish prose," Preston questions why Ahamed’s project seems so drab despite the "extraordinary access" he was granted, and compares the attempted look at the human side of the organisation unfavourably to a fictional counterpart – namely, David Foster Wallace’sThe Pale King and its "greater scope to show us the unique complexity of every human life."

Thirst by Kerry Hudson

Thirst is Kerry Hudson’s second novel, following her well-received debut,Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. The story follows Alena, a young Russian, who is the victim of a sex trafficking gang in East London. Beginning with an encounter with Dave, a security guard who catches Alena shoplifting, the novel explores a conventional romance among a backdrop of “unrelenting horror”. Yet the characters’ back stories are more complex than they first appear, allowing for the plot to unfold with “horrible inevitability”.

Louise Welsh of The Guardian applauds the novel’s “wit and shrewdness”, confronting “hard-hitting” topics, while being “never miserable”. She praises Hudson’s decision, as in her debut, to explore the lives of communities who are “not generally considered fit for literature”, while emphasising her ability to create “complex working-class characters faced with moral dilemmas”. In fact, Welsh suggests that recent critics who have drawn attention to “literature’s failure to portray working-class characters with intelligence, education or culture” are likely to be impressed by Thirst.

The Independent’s Katie Welsh similarly admires Thirst, describing the novel as “heartbreaking”, “beautiful” and “touching”. Welsh praises Hudson’s maturity in dealing with depictions of a “brutal series of sexual assaults” without descending into “sensationalism”. As with the Guardian’sreview, special praise is reserved for Hudson’s ability to write “from the perspective of people whose voices are rarely heard”, largely a result of her “meticulous research”.

Writing for The ScotsmanLesley McDowell suggests that Kerry Hudson has “consolidated her position” as a writer “prepared to face the injustices and the grimness of life”. The review congratulates the novel’s authenticity, praising Hudson’s ability “to get to the heart of her characters”. DescribingThirst as a “tale of female powerlessness”, comparison is made with events of “brutal male domination” that have cropped up in the media in recent weeks. Given this, McDowell asserts that although Thirst is “hardly a summer read”, it is “probably an essential one”.

Margot Asquith's Great War Diary 1914-1916: The View from Downing Street, Michael Brock and Eleanor Brock

Margot Asquith’s diaries fill 22 volumes in total, and this single volume, edited by the Brocks (Michael and Eleanor), tells a part of the story only two years long. Those two years are the wartime years of Herbert Asquith’s premiership. Replete with vociferous opinions and depictions of the most notable political characters of the time, these diaries provide a long-awaited, very personal insight into the upper heights of the UK government during the onset of the First World War.

Writing in the Telegraph, an impressed Miranda Seymour calls the collection a "beautiful work of conjugal editorship by Eleanor Brock and her late husband." "The sensation of intimacy is remarkable," writes Seymour, who is particularly taken by Margot’s defence of Richard Haldane from charges of treachery. She adds that "Margot may have been rude and overbearing, but she was also observant, bright and thoughtful," and concludes that these "private records are all the better for being unspeakably, delectably, impenitently frank."

Jane Ridley writes in the Literary Review that "Michael and Eleanor Brock have edited Margot’s writing with meticulous academic precision." However, she characterises the diaries themselves with a mixed tone, saying that Margot’s "party tricks" of writing "characters" of people and coming off best in every argument can be "tedious." She adds that Margot was "slapdash and egotistical... emotional and histrionic." But ultimately she calls the wartime picture that is painted "really striking," and adds that the diary is "invaluable and fascinating."

Writing for the TimesLawrence James is impressed by the book, describing it as a “vivid, fascinating and disconcerting record of war as seen from the top”. He describes Margot Asquith’s bold, swashbuckling spirit” and “caustic wit”, while praising the “lucidity and scholarship” of the editors who compiled the volume. James highlights how the “partisan record” is predictably supportive of Margot’s husband Herbert, whose virtues of “humanity, compassion and warmth are praised throughout”. Nonetheless, James emphasised the “pleasure” he took in reading the book.

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.