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5 October 2022

From David Dimbleby to Chelsea Conaboy: recent books reviewed in short

Also featuring A History of Lying by Juan Jacinto Muñoz-Rengel and Euphoria by Elin Cullhed.

By Michael Prodger, Barney Horner, Alona Ferber and Anna Leszkiewicz

Keep Talking: A Broadcasting Life by David Dimbleby
Hodder & Stoughton, 295pp, £25

“In a perfect world,” says David Dimbleby, “a political interview would resemble a Socratic dialogue, the technique of eliciting truth by question and answer.” No chance. This book, a compilation of recollections and considered musings, shows how imperfect it has long been. Why can’t he get politicians to answer a direct question? “Because I don’t have gun.” 

Dimbleby states that “I have been a broadcaster probably for longer than anyone on Earth” (a claim the BBC would fact-check if he made it on air), and he has met every politician of note for half a century, anchored the BBC’s coverage during ten general election nights, helmed Question Time for 25 years and presided over innumerable royal occasions. However, here he is unable to let go of the lifelong habit of BBC impartiality. Rather than insights into leading personalities, he gives his behind-the-camera account of programmes made and interviewees confronted. The book suffers as a result. Dimbleby’s thoughts about the role of the BBC, the state of public debate and trust in politicians are sensible and measured but he never lets himself go. Perhaps he saves the asperity for his diary.
By Michael Prodger

[See also: The cutting wit of Alan Rickman]

A History of Lying by Juan Jacinto Muñoz-Rengel, translated by Thomas Bunstead
Polity Books, 212pp, £25

Despite its title, this book is not a history of lying. Rather, it is a meditation on the importance of lying. Lying is not just a part of reality, argues the Spanish short-story writer and essayist Juan Jacinto Muñoz-Rengel. It is woven into the world as we understand it.

Muñoz-Rengel intricately reclaims deception, deceit, falsification, fiction, illusion, ruse and fib from the confines of morality, and explains how intrinsic they are to the development of art and science, religion and atheism, politics and philosophy. The world, he writes, is “caught up in a mesh of lies”, from the butterfly that looks like an owl to the digital manipulations of social media bots. His book roves through human history to describe the way deception mediates our relations to objects, to each other and, most shrewdly, to ourselves. These conclusions are revelatory: we lie, yes, but often we do it to help each other. Muñoz-Rengel convincingly shows us that falseness “is the clearest sign of intelligence”, and should be appreciated as a tool for enabling people to understand reality. A History of Lying is really a celebration of fictions.
By Barney Horner

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Mother Brain: Separating Myth from Biology – the Science of the Parental Brain by Chelsea Conaboy
Orion, 368pp, £20

In the 1960s Jay Rosenblatt, a psychologist at Rutgers University, undertook research that would change how we think about maternal instinct. Observing lab rats, he found, for instance, that after enough exposure to pups both male and virgin female rats developed behaviour expected of gestational mothers, crouching to nurse even though they weren’t lactating. “Maternal behaviour is therefore a characteristic of the rat,” regardless of sex, Rosenblatt concluded.

The American journalist Chelsea Conaboy follows the thread of such research in Mother Brain, a compelling book that upends popular notions about becoming a parent. She beautifully expresses her experience as a mother – “In the days and weeks after my eldest son was born… I felt a kind of roiling, a constant, unfamiliar motion” – and weaves this together with interviews with parents, the history of the idea of maternal instinct and an overview of research on how parenting changes the brain. Conaboy shows how the idea that nurturing is innate to women is not only false, but has been used to keep them in their place. Her book reminds us why scientific research is a feminist issue.
By Alona Ferber

[See also: Hilary Mantel: “The writer occupies both past and present. She is never absent from the story”]

Euphoria by Elin Cullhed, translated by Jennifer Hayashida
Canongate, 304pp, £16.99

What are we to do with ourselves, us readers of Sylvia Plath? We are forever associated with a permanent adolescence and melodrama, assumed to have fatally romanticised her life as a woman poet in the Fifties, her marriage to Ted Hughes and, worst, her 1963 suicide.

Ideally, we should avoid producing works such as Euphoria, another novel reimagining Plath’s final years, the period that would have been covered by her missing journal (Hughes destroyed it). Written in the first person (and translated from the Swedish by Jennifer Hayashida), it sells itself as “a meticulously researched work of historical fiction”, but also contains the disclaimer that it is a work of “literary fantasy”. Elin Cullhed’s prose can’t rival Plath’s – in fact the author, who has written one young adult novel, has a jarring tone. She begins with “Plath” listing “7 REASONS NOT TO DIE”, including “Never to fuck again… If someone wanted to fuck me every day, I wouldn’t have to die, haha. Don’t quote me on that.” There are cringe-inducing sex scenes. Cullhed does get a sense of Plath’s acidity – but you can read the real thing for that.
By Anna Leszkiewicz

[See also: The vision of Ralph Vaughan Williams]

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This article appears in the 05 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed!