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19 November 2023

From Barbra Streisand to Michael Mann: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Peter Cowie’s biography of Ingmar Bergman and Stuffed by Pen Vogler.

By Megan Kenyon, Michael Prodger, Christiana Bishop and Barney Horner

Our Fragile Moment: How Lessons from the Earth’s Past Can Help Us Survive the Climate Crisis by Michael Mann
Scribe, 320pp, £16.99

The Earth as we know it owes its existence to climate change. This natural phenomenon shaped and felled ancient civilisations by spurring on sub-zero temperatures, major storms and droughts, and was a factor in the eventual evolution of humans. But while changing global temperatures have been a mainstay of our planet’s 4.5-billion-year history, in his new book the climatologist Michael Mann makes clear that through man-made climate change we have unleashed something of fatal difference. Drawing on examples from the Earth’s geological history – including the planet’s many ice ages, catastrophic volcanic activity and the El Niño phenomenon (the unusual warming of surface waters in the Pacific Ocean) – Mann argues that we already have the knowledge we need to tackle today’s crisis. It is vital, he writes, that we look to our planet’s rich history for the answers.

Our Fragile Moment includes intricate scientific details, but remains accessible – the use of diagrams and images throughout is helpful. This is a gently radical book, which clearly depicts the beauty of the planet we call home.
By Megan Kenyon

[See also: Asset managers won’t fix the climate crisis]

Stuffed: A History of Good Food and Hard Times in Britain by Pen Vogler
Atlantic, 453pp, £22

“Feast and famine, plenty and want are ancient ingredients of human history,” writes the food historian Pen Vogler. What we eat and how we eat it have, she says, been integral to shaping society over the millennia – the growing and gathering, the supply, sharing and the traditions. And in her persuasive telling, food has long been the responsibility not just of individuals but of government and business too: food has ramifications.

In Stuffed, Vogler ranges across history to uncover the word’s double meaning: stuffed as in satiated in times of plenty, and stuffed as in up against it in times of want. She looks at events such as the enclosure of common lands in the 18th century and the role of the Tea Act of 1773 in the American War of Independence, and also at individual foodstuffs – cheese and beef, potatoes and bacon – and how a comestible such as sugar has gone from being a rare luxury to a threat to children’s health. This clever and informative account confirms that we are indeed what we eat, and that our history is a product of it too.
By Michael Prodger

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[See also: David Hockney’s clumsy late style]

My Name Is Barbra by Barbra Streisand
Century, 966pp, £35

One of the first truths revealed by Barbra Streisand in her candid new memoir, My Name Is Barbra, is that her name is, in fact, Barbara; she dropped the extra “a” as a teenager to make it easier to pronounce at the start of her career. The confession may seem small but reflects a life shaped by an unabating desire to not only be successful, but famously so. Even as a child growing up in Brooklyn, with her distant mother and unkind stepfather, she just knew, she writes, that she would make it as a performer – and her grit paid off. Streisand was 21 when she starred in Funny Girl on Broadway, and she has never stopped working since. 

As expected, Streisand’s story is littered with dazzling anecdotes – she has a tale about everyone, from Pierre Trudeau to King Charles, such is the reach of her stardom. But her book also conveys a refreshingly positive take on the entertainment industry. For Streisand, despite recounting instances of bullying, jealousy and brutal treatment by the media, Hollywood remains a fun, creative place of opportunity. It is a place where her talent and resilience strengthened together, and where her calling to perform was answered before all else.  
By Christiana Bishop

[See also: Bill Gates is bad for humanity]

God and the Devil: The Life and Work of Ingmar Bergman by Peter Cowie
Faber & Faber, 407pp, £30

Ingmar Bergman is best known for The Seventh Seal (1957), a film that features a game of chess with Death, memorably portrayed by Bengt Ekerot. The actor adorns the cover of Peter Cowie’s biography of Bergman. But the film-maker’s oeuvre is more varied than a fatal round of chess on the beach: his 48-film career, spanning more than six decades, sparkled in its dark, existential gloom and intense portrayals of conjugal, familial and spiritual relationships.

Cowie’s meticulously researched book maps the details of Bergman’s eventful personal life onto his characters and themes. In doing so, however, he falls into the trap of treating the source of Bergman’s moral anxiety – his strict Lutheran upbringing, his serial infidelities, his neglect of his children – as mere building blocks of the films. The portraits of his five wives are thinly sketched, for example. Despite this, Cowie succeeds in showing the psychological paradox that sits at the heart of Bergman’s work: accounting for his own corruption – itself a game of strategy with God and the devil – was the engine of the director’s creativity.
By Barney Horner

[See also: Sarina Wiegman’s mystery playbook]

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This article appears in the 22 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The paranoid style