Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Erica Heller, Christine Dwyer Hickey and Adam Levin.

Yossarian Slept Here by Erica Heller

In the Independent, Emma Hagestadt writes that "Erica Heller, daughter of Catch-22 author Joseph Heller, seems to have weathered her girlhood better than most daughters of celebrated literary lions. [Her] book shows a robust acceptance of her father's overbearing personality and Don Draperesque approach to marriage and fatherhood."

Carolyn Kellogg opines in the Los Angeles Times that this is a "vital read ... [Erica] didn't idolise her father, but she portrays his complexities with sympathy." "Dominating the memoir is the story of Erica's parents' marriage ... Erica believes that her wise-cracking, charismatic father was still deeply tied to her mother," writes Hagestadt.

Kellogg notes that, "While writing Catch-22, Heller worked as a copywriter for Time, Look and McCall's magazines and for Remington Rand Corporation ... The New York of the period leaps off the page. Heller's cronies included Mel Brooks, Mario Puzo and Speed Vogel, and Erica captures their 'food orgies' in Chinatown."

Ian Sansom, in the Guardian, writes that, according to Erica, Heller "'took his meat, and his meals, unabashedly seriously'; everything else he treated as a joke. He had everything, but it wasn't enough ... Erica concludes simply that Heller was 'indecipherable.'"

The Cold Eye of Heaven by Christine Dwyer Hickey

Leyla Sanai writes in the Independent that the novel begins with "an old man who lives alone, Farley ... lying on his bathroom floor having suffered a stroke. His probable fate is made horribly real to us in achingly lyrical prose." The book spans "time to create a hauntingly poignant portrait of a Dublin existence, rendered, as is every life in close-up, extraordinary." Sara Keating, writing in the Irish Times, comments that "Dywer Hickey's skill is like that of a painter, slowly layering detail to provide a composite view... there are no clever tricks with hindsight or irony. There are no surprise revelations. There is just the measured pleasure of intimacy with Farley."

Keating describes the book as "a moving portrayal of elderly loneliness and regret. However, as Dwyer Hickey reveals through a clever reverse chronology, Farley has not always been a curmudgeon. He once had dreams and passions of his own." Sanai finds that "Dwyer Hickey's writing is acutely insightful and perfectly balances sorrow, joy and humour. Weepingly moving passages are juxtaposed with hilariously irreverent dialogue worthy of Roddy Doyle."

In the Guardian, Stevie Davies concludes that this is "the most profound novel I have read for years ... Farley's life story is told in reverse chronology, 2010 to 1940 - a technique capable of ingenious satiric force ... [the novel] slips back decade by decade, questing for origins and causes."

The Instructions by Adam Levin

Joshua Cohen, in the New York Times, writes that "this fat tablet is partly a theologico-political tract, and mostly a chronicle of four days in the life of a junior high schooler in suburban Illinois ... Gurion's your typical Midwestern prodigy... yet one of the most promising students ever to grace an Illinois Solomon Schechter School can't keep from fighting others." Tim Martin writes in the Telegraph that "we encounter [Gurion] in ... a high-security education experiment known as The Cage, which is attempting to tutor a gang of behaviourally disordered unteachables."

Martin comments that "Levin has put a lot of effort into Gurion's vernacular, which crawls with sticky idioms and madcap coinages" which will "either enthral you with its playfulness and experimentation or leave you grinding your teeth and howling."

"The reader of The Instructions is pinioned by Gurion's madly chatty first-person for the book's entire length ... an exercise in extreme observation that makes a bare four days of narrative time feel like years of chest-crushing reading", points out Martin. "Rarely has a first novel so cried out for a good editor." Cohen is also disappointed by the novel, which "ultimately devolves not into commentaries and interpretive apparatuses but into a vague ending ... This all makes for a very long joke: a setup that lacks a punch line."

According to Michael Sayeau in the New Statesman: "The faux artlessness of Levin's digressions, the posed credulity of seeming not to understand that he is asking his readers for something they wouldn't want to give, seem to serve as a screening veil for an author clearly smart enough to write a taut and economical work of fiction instead of this."

Getty
Show Hide image

Why we'll all have to stomach the high-tech future of food

Lab-grown meat and veg may be unappetising, but our planet's survial may depend on it.

Imagine: you’re out shopping with a friend and you decide to stop and get some lunch. Just off the high street, you spot a restaurant advertising a burger deal and decide to go in. On the menu, however, you see something strange: all the items are apparently made with “future food”. Some sort of hipster gimmick?

You order your burger, and the waitress brings it over. It looks like all the other burgers you’ve eaten in your life, but as the waitress talks you through your meal, you realise that this restaurant is unusual.

The meat, she tells you, is made from lab-grown beef. The vegetables that sit on top of it have been produced in a temperature-controlled lab, under LED lights. “Five times faster than outdoors!” your waitress beams. Oh, and the chips are made from irradiated potatoes – but that’s nothing new: it’s been legal to sell irradiated food in the UK since 2009. “It stops the potatoes sprouting,” she explains.

If suddenly you feel like you don’t fancy the burger much, you’re not alone. Even the most forward-thinking consumer can find that the idea of lab-produced meals sticks in the throat – even if we understand, logically, that food technology can be a good thing.

According to a recent government study, only half of us believe we “will have to make more use of technology in food production”.

The process of growing meat provokes particularly strong reactions. It involves taking a small quantity of muscle cells from a living animal, which are then cultured in a mixture designed to support their growth. Done right, one muscle cell can turn into one trillion strands of muscle tissue.

Yet we may not have time to be squeamish. Studies suggest that a high proportion of greenhouse gases – anywhere between 20 and 50 per cent, depending on the research – is produced by the meat industry.

“This is really something that needs to be done in the next decade,” Shaked Regev, of the Modern Agriculture Foundation (MAF), tells me. “This is a critical point for humanity.” The MAF is a start-up developing what it calls “clean meat”. Regev, the foundation’s director, became involved in this area of research partly because he believes we urgently need to create new food technologies.

“This and other green initiatives are imperative. Some people say it’s for our grandkids – I say: I’m 27, and I’m going to see significant damage from climate change in my lifetime.”

Researchers in the field are confident that the public can overcome its distaste for lab-grown meat. “It will eventually be cheaper than the kind of chicken meat currently for sale, and consumers will flock to it,” says Gary Comstock, a professor of philosophy working on food ethics at North Carolina State University. “They flocked to milk made with bovine growth hormone [bGH], even though they reported being opposed to genetically modified foods, once they saw that the bGH milk was cheaper,” he says.

Yet even if people are happy to try new food technologies, does the best solution to the problems lie in our food culture? Studies show that fewer of us are cooking at home than ever before; young people in particular are becoming less familiar with the range of ingredients and where they come from. A 2012 poll by the charity Linking Environment and Farming found that 33 per cent of 16-to-23-year-olds were unable to identify hens as the source of eggs.

Comstock rejects the argument that developing food technologies will further obscure the origins of our food. “We are already as alienated as we can be from the sources of our food,” he says. “Most of us have no idea about the conditions in which birds are grown and slaughtered.”

For Regev, young people are less of a problem and could even be a big part of the solution. Because their food habits are less entrenched, he says, young people will be more willing to try something new. “The younger you are, the more likely you are to accept this new technology, or new technologies in general.”

He reminds me, “We really don’t have time for a hundred-year social progress movement.” Better get biting that burger, then.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496