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5 January 2022

Reviewed in short: New books by Helen Gordon, James Ivory, Fintan O’Toole and Dan Rhodes

Notes From Deep Time by Gordon, Solid Ivory by Ivory, We Don't Know Ourselves by O’Toole and Sour Grapes by Rhodes.

By India Bourke, Ellys Woodhouse, Tom Gatti and Lola Seaton

Notes From Deep Time: A Journey Through Our Past and Future Worlds by Helen Gordon
Profile Books, 336pp, £20

To read Helen Gordon’s account of Earth’s geology is to undergo a metamorphism. First, one’s sense of the importance of the here-and-now is crushed beyond all recognition by her examination of the vastness of “deep time”. Then the urgency of the present is pushed back to the surface via the reminder that our daily actions are leaving their own indelible mark.

The result is a sparkling book that humanises the pre-human era. In her journey from the Earth’s molten Hadean beginnings to our Holocene age, Gordon delivers stratigraphic revelations through the stories of the intriguing individuals who have brought their mysteries to light. Volcanoes erupt, earthquakes shatter, meteorites (threaten to) strike – and patient scientists monitor their impact. But while the inhabitants of Campi Flegrei’s volcanic hillsides may go about their lives giving little thought to the catastrophe looming over them, when it comes to the man-made climate crisis, the world cannot afford to do likewise. Gordon’s message to us? Beware the story told by the fossils of the future.
By India Bourke

[See also: How bell hooks taught me that feminism is for everybody]

Solid Ivory by James Ivory (ed. Peter Cameron)
Corsair, 416pp, £20

Solid Ivory is a carefully constructed scrapbook. In his first memoir, the film director James Ivory pulls together anecdotes and discloses secrets from the sets of his most celebrated movies, including Howards End and Maurice. The book begins as a chronological retelling of Ivory’s childhood in Klamath Falls, Oregon. He writes with a cinematic distance that fans of his films will recognise. Many of the details he shares act as breadcrumbs laid for those familiar with his work, which, like the book, is filled with awkward sexual encounters. Soon, the narrative is interrupted by extracts from journals, photographs and letters from old friends and former lovers.

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Ivory’s storytelling is explicit but never exposing, fractured yet intentionally arranged. He is aware of how much of himself he is revealing. So it is frustrating that he withholds details about his most intimate relationship: his partnership with Ismail Merchant. Before his death in 2005, Merchant was Ivory’s partner in both the professional and personal sense. They worked together for more than 40 years, producing 40 films. Yet Merchant appears like a shadow in Ivory’s memoir, a background figure whom Ivory holds just out of the public’s reach.
By Ellys Woodhouse

[See also: “True cinema trusts in images”: Elena Ferrante on Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter]

We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958 by Fintan O’Toole
Apollo, 616pp, £25

A seasoned columnist and critic, Fintan O’Toole has in recent years devoted his significant polemical powers to chronicling Brexit. Here he turns back to his home country of Ireland, and provides a compelling account of its history during his lifetime.

O’Toole begins in 1958 with the publication of a quietly radical plan to open up Ireland’s failing economy. But for decades the country remains “stuck between a still potent idea of its past and a still elusive idea of its future”. O’Toole identifies a “permanent state of contradiction”, for example in attitudes to the Catholic Church, which people continued to defer to despite their liberal instincts and despite evidence of horrific abuse. But he ranges, too, across the culture, explaining how Gay Byrne’s The Late Late Show shaped the national identity, or how the hippy aesthetic engendered a Celtic Revival in O’Toole’s youth in the early 1970s. Having suffered the financial meltdown of 2008 and celebrated the votes for gay marriage (2015) and abortion (2018), Ireland has found, he argues, an ability to “live with uncertainties” – and in that he finds hope.
By Tom Gatti

[See also: What José Ortega y Gasset can teach post-Brexit Britain]

Sour Grapes by Dan Rhodes
Lightning, 200pp, £14.99

The publishing “biz” – with which Dan Rhodes has had his share of rancorous collisions – is the butt of this deeply silly, frequently juvenile satire about the setting up of a literary festival in a village called Green Bottom. But the main target of Rhodes’s lampoon, monopolising his ridicule, is the tall, cadaverous “Wilberforce Selfram”, whose “true identity” Rhodes vows to “never reveal”. The “mid-profile restaurant critic, current affairs pundit and occasional novelist” who is the inspiration for Selfram’s odious character apparently offended Rhodes several years ago. Selfram speaks with supercilious verbosity in a droning monotone and refers to himself as “one” (“one despairs”, “do excuse one”). At one point he ingests a thesaurus in order to refresh his superfluous vocabulary: “One shall henceforth be able once again to pepper one’s speech with extraordinary wordage.”

Rhodes, selected as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2003, has been brewing his revenge for some time – this, his tenth book, is his first in seven years and, he writes, “a ludicrous folly that should never have been written”. Will Self, for his part, seems unfazed by his portrayal: “I’ve been written about before… I was represented in Ratatouille, for fuck’s sake.”
By Lola Seaton

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This article appears in the 05 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Johnson's Last Chance