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18 October 2023

From Thurston Moore to Camilla Nord: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring The Book at War by Andrew Pettegree and a collection from the Complete Works Poets.

By Pippa Bailey, Ellen Peirson-Hagger, Michael Prodger and Matthew Gilley

The Balanced Brain: The Science of Mental Health by Camilla Nord
Allen Lane, 304pp, £25

The statistics tell us that we are in the middle of a mental health epidemic, yet our best available treatments – antidepressants and psychological therapy – only work in around 50 per cent of cases, and neuroscientists do not agree on any single definition of “mental health”. Understanding how our minds work is part of the vital work done at Cambridge University’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, where Camilla Nord leads research on mental health neuroscience.

In her first book, she explains how our brains come to experience the world as they do, considering pain, pleasure, the mind-body connection and how events shape our outlook. Nord appraises the treatments at our disposal, including antidepressants, psychedelics and talking therapies. Her explanations are based on scientific study, but remain engaging. Rather than prescribing one answer to improving our mental health, The Balanced Brain acknowledges that every person is different and that not everything will work for everyone, a refreshingly open- and fair-minded conclusion.
By Pippa Bailey

[See also: Has your AI therapist got your back?]

Sonic Life: A Memoir by Thurston Moore
Faber & Faber, 496pp, £20

“Sonic life” is the phrase that Thurston Moore had tattooed on his body, in lieu of a wedding band, to mark his marriage to Kim Gordon in 1984. That sense of a man with both an affinity for punkish anarchy and a tender heart is evident throughout Moore’s memoir, which traces his life so far, from his childhood love of guitars (later he was included in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest players ever), to his split with Gordon in 2011 and the resultant break-up of Sonic Youth – a band that had redefined alternative rock.

The book is fast-paced, Moore’s recounting of anecdote after anecdote relentless. As were his efforts to make it as a rock musician, following his teenage obsession with Patti Smith, the Ramones, the Velvet Underground and X-Ray Spex. He moved to New York City aged 19, but even before then, “roaring around with teenage monsters at loose ends” in Connecticut, he held music close. On a breaking and entering escapade with one such monster, his partner searched for cash while Moore came away only with a copy of Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark. At the height of Sonic Youth’s fame, during the 1990s and 2000s, their international tour schedule was frenzied. In Sonic Life you get the sense that Moore has always preferred to live that way.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

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[See also: Thurston Moore Q&A: “I was happiest when I was poor, trundling through the world”]

The Book at War: Libraries and Readers in an Age of Conflict by Andrew Pettegree
Profile, 480pp, £30

One of the most effective weapons throughout the history of modern warfare has been the written word. As the bibliophile historian Andrew Pettegree points out, from the American Civil War to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, books, pamphlets and newspapers have been used for both offence and defence. The leaders of the great nations were well aware of the power of the printed word; after all, Churchill was a Nobel Prize-winning author and Mao a librarian; Hitler had sold 10 million copies of Mein Kampf by the end of the Second World War, a figure that Stalin, himself a poet with a library of 15,000 works, couldn’t match.

This discursive survey of the written world in martial times looks at everything from the Nazis’ book burning, to the manuals used to train jihadists in the use of AK-47 rifles, and the books written and read at home and at the front to bolster spirits. Where there is war there are books, says Pettegree, and he quotes, approvingly, President Roosevelt’s observation that “people die, but books never die”. Nor the ideas they contain.
By Michael Prodger

[See also: Soldiers in love]

Mapping the Future: The Complete Works Poets edited by Nathalie Teitler and Karen McCarthy Woolf
Bloodaxe, 248pp, £14.99

Mapping the Future collects work from all 30 of the poets who have passed through the Complete Works mentoring programme, which was founded by Bernardine Evaristo in 2008 to address the poor representation of poets of colour in British publishing. Alumni have since won awards including the TS Eliot Prize (Roger Robinson and Sarah Howe) and have become influential editors and curators. As the introduction reports, in 2005 less than 1 per cent of poets published by major British presses were black or Asian; by this year that was 20 per cent. The anthology’s triumphant tone, then, is well justified.

This is vital writing, wide-ranging in form and subject. There are Denise Saul’s intricate lyrics and a visceral feminist fable from Malika Booker. There are also incisive essays (Booker’s dissection of her own poem and Rishi Dastidar in search of a “screwball poetics” are especially good). With only five or so pages per poet, there is inevitably much left out. There is no space for Kayo Chingonyi’s astonishing sonnet sequence “Origin Myth”, and the selection from Robinson can’t quite capture the full cumulative power of his Grenfell poems. Yet this only goes to show the abundant nature of these poets’ work.
By Matthew Gilley

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[See also: Why we chose Benjamin Myers’s Cuddy as the 2023 Goldsmiths Prize winner]

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This article appears in the 18 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War on Three Fronts