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16 June 2021updated 06 Sep 2021 2:09pm

Reviewed in Short: New books by Gillian Tett, Ruth Scurr, Edward White and Sjón

Anthro-Vision by Tett, Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows by Scurr, The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock by White and Red Milk by Sjón,

By New Statesman

Anthro-Vision by Gillian Tett

The prosaic, HR-certified notion of “corporate culture” becomes altogether more interesting in the hands of anthropologists – one of whom, Horace Miner, described the purpose of his science as “[making] the strange familiar and the familiar strange”. As Gillian Tett, editor-at-large at the Financial Times (and doctor of anthropology) explains in this book, subtitled “How Anthropology Can Explain Business and Life”, anthropologists have been quietly observing businesses for decades, helping them navigate the rituals of meetings or understand the symbolism and kinship bonds that lead people to buy computers, chocolate bars and dog food.

Deliberately listening to other people and taking on their perspective is a rare skill, and a powerful tool: Tett credits her own “anthro-vision” with her early prediction of the 2008 financial crisis. It’s debatable whether the “worm’s-eye view” adopted by ethnographers is what every business needs – a thoughtless, monocular approach has also been shown to make money – but for readers, this book offers something more valuable: the opportunity to consider how truly strange we all are.
By Will Dunn
Random House, 304pp, £20

Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows by Ruth Scurr

The Napoleonic bibliography is a vast and sprawling thing. Nevertheless, Ruth Scurr, the biographer of Robespierre and John Aubrey, found an unsuspected gap and has ingeniously filled it with a portrait of Napoleon-as-horticulturist.

While most authors mark Napoleon’s life stages with battles and set pieces such as coups and coronations, Scurr tracks his rise and fall through his gardens – places of ease in a life of frantic activity. She follows him from the Corsican olive groves of his youth and the Tivoli gardens in Cairo, where he courted the wife of one of his lieutenants; to Malmaison, Empress Joséphine’s country home with gardens in the informal English style (he preferred French formality); and eventually on to his final home, Longwood House on Saint Helena.

Scurr weaves in wider themes, from the Enlightenment’s scientific interest in horticulture (for his soldiers, the experts who accompanied Napoleon on his campaigns were his “lapdogs”) to the role of man in nature as a central conceit of the age of sensibility. She notes, too, that while plants might not be battalions, Napoleon nevertheless wanted them under his control.
By Michael Prodger
Chatto & Windus, 400pp, £30

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The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock by Edward White

Robin Wood opened the first book in English on Alfred Hitchcock by asking why we should take him seriously. Now, 55 years and countless volumes later, the question is: must we take him so seriously? The cultural historian Edward White offers an escape route, putting the grand claims made for Hitchcock’s work (that Vertigo is the best film ever, for example) in the context of a career openly devoted to popular success.

Using an approach that manages to balance chronology and theme, he presents the subject from a dozen angles, many of them in implicit opposition – or “deep conversation”, as White says of the films themselves – not just “the auteur” and “the entertainer”, but also “the womaniser” and “the family man”, “the murderer” and “the man of God”. Though White is sure to cover the bases – Hitchcock’s Edwardian upbringing, his harassment of actresses, his elaborately developed persona, the controversy over Psycho – there are also some surprisingly specialised turns. White’s prose can jar – “redolent” and “bifurcated” do not make pleasing bedfellows – but his use of sources is inventive, and he exhibits breezy authority on a range of relevant themes, from dietetics and mid-century slimming to Catholic prayer.
By Leo Robson
WW Norton, 400pp, £22.99

Red Milk by Sjón, trs by Victoria Cribb

In 1958 a secretive neo-Nazi group was founded in Reykjavík, Iceland; its ringleader corresponded with fascist leaders across the globe, including George Lincoln Rockwell and Colin Jordan, who went on to found the World Union of National Socialists. In Red Milk, the prolific Icelandic writer Sjón – who, as well as many novels, has written books of poetry, libretti and lyrics for Björk – reimagines the life of the Reykjavík group’s founder, Gunnar Kampen, from his childhood in an anti-Nazi family during the Second World War to a clandestine trip to Cheltenham, from which he never returns.

This spare book, just 144 pages, is more of a vignette than a novel with arcs and turns. It stacks up layers of third-person narration, letters, newspaper reports and extracts from Kampen’s neo-Nazi group newsletter, leaving the reader to draw a narrative from them. Sjón’s pen-name – an abbreviation of his given name – means “sight”, and his prose is appropriately sharp and precise, illuminating the murky corners of his topic. Kampen is not, at least at first, an obviously villainous character. Red Milk is a novel about how an ordinary person becomes a fascist, and Sjón’s answer seems to be: with quiet ease.
By Pippa Bailey
Sceptre, 144pp, £14.99

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books from Pragya Agarwal, Natalia Ginzburg, Ed Husain and David Storey]

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This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web