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5 October 2021

Reviewed in short: New books by Anil Seth, Tove Jansson and Tuulikki Pietilä, Gavin Barwell and Stanley Tucci

Being You by Seth, Notes from an Island by Jansson and Pietilä, Chief of Staff by Barwell and Taste by Tucci.

By Christiana Bishop, Michael Prodger, Sophie McBain and Katherine Cowles

Being You: A New Science of Consciousness by Anil Seth

In the 1990s the philosopher David Chalmers described the “hard problem of consciousness”: how can physical mechanisms give rise to a rich inner life, the subjective experience of being? The neuroscientist Anil Seth, co-director of the University of Sussex’s Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, believes that research into the relationship between the brain and conscious experience will “dissolve” the problem. His research shows that we cannot separate consciousness from the material world: we do not passively perceive an external reality; our brains are constantly refining predictions about ourselves and our surroundings.

In lucid, engaging prose Seth deftly navigates long-standing philosophical debates over the nature of consciousness. He sometimes illustrates his arguments with trompe l’oeils that expose the guesswork that underpins how we view the world. Seth is an optimist, believing that our increasing ability to explain conscious experiences will demystify consciousness so that we can see ourselves more clearly. But using hard science to chip away at the hard problem won’t make the topic any less fascinating or awe-inspiring.
By Sophie McBain
Faber & Faber, 368pp, £20

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books by Margaret Reynolds, Michio Kaku, AK Blakemore and Jay Griffiths]

Notes from an Island by Tove Jansson and Tuulikki Pietilä, translated by Thomas Teal

On an almost barren skerry in the Gulf of Finland is a cabin built by a comic-strip author, an artist and a maverick fisherman. The cottage – a single room with windows facing in all four directions – belonged to the late Finnish author Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomin stories, and her artist partner Tuulikki “Tooti” Pietilä. The couple spent 26 summers there, making the journey each year like migratory birds until old age thwarted them. Notes from an Island chronicles these summers, from the construction of the cabin until the last reluctant crossing back to Helsinki, and does so in its authors’ preferred languages: Jansson in prose – sparse and essential as the landscape – and Tooti through etchings and wash drawings, some soft and muddy, others finer, almost choppy.

Now translated into English, Notes gathers these illustrations, diary entries and vignettes into a thin coffee-table book. It is both a memoir and a love letter to all things wild and weathered, to a forbidding place – mostly rock and brutal winds – that becomes a restful home. There, the women sail, fish and forage through each summer until the autumn of their lives.
By Katherine Cowles
Sort of Books, 112pp, £12.99

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Chief of Staff: Notes from Downing Street by Gavin Barwell

Gavin Barwell was Theresa May’s consigliére during her brief, ill-fated premiership. Chief of staff is a role he likens to being a Swiss Army knife, with blades for everything from helping his boss choose which outfit to wear, to offering her political counsel and breaking bad news to her when no one else will.

In this detailed and compelling behind-the-scenes memoir of his time in “the most amazing job I’ll ever have”, Barwell’s admiration for May’s staunchness in the face of innumerable difficulties is clear. But he is candid about her – and therefore his – failures too, citing botched reshuffles, her catastrophic 2017 conference speech, a maladroit response to the Grenfell Tower fire, the premature triggering of Article 50 and the inability to sell her plan for a new relationship with Europe to her MPs. There are a lot of warm words for backroom team members and fewer warm ones for front-of-house players such as Boris Johnson – who, to no one’s surprise, was found to be “not on top of his brief”, “discourteous”, “rude” and “ill-disciplined”, and also, apparently, a man who snores on aeroplanes.
By Michael Prodger
Atlantic Books, 432pp, £20

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books by Alwyn Turner, Mary Gaitskill, Paul McVeigh and Luke Kennard]

Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci

Stanley Tucci, the Hollywood grandee who over the past four decades has steadily conquered the stage, small and big screens, is now flourishing in a new chapter of his career, centred on his greatest passion: food.

Tucci’s charming new memoir follows on from the success of his food and travel TV series Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy. He writes as if the reader were sitting as a guest at his table, regaling them with memories from his childhood, life and work, and richly describing the meals that underpinned them. Tucci recalls sampling the culinary delights of Iceland, New York and Italy, weaving wry anecdotes – such as the time he dined with Meryl Streep in Normandy and they were both left gagging after trying a traditional French sausage – ­with more painful memories, such as losing his appetite during chemotherapy for cancer. Taste is full of recipes, but it’s not only about Tucci’s love of food; it captures the joy that he draws from cooking and sharing meals with friends. For Tucci, food is “nothing more than everything”. My advice: don’t read this book on an empty stomach.
By Christiana Bishop
Penguin, 336pp, £20

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books by Daniel Kahneman, Mitchell Dean, Nadifa Mohamed and Rory Cellan-Jones]

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This article appears in the 06 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Unsafe Places