Book reviews: 19 October
NANCY: THE STORY OF LADY ASTOR by Adrian Fort (Jonathan Cape, £25)One might expect the first woman to be elected to parliament (in 1919) to be a ferociously feminist bluestocking, with little time for social life, sport and fashion; however, Adrian Fort's elegantly written and well-researched biography belies this assumption.
The fascinating life of Nancy Astor is evoked brilliantly in Fort's energetic narrative. Born into penury in the American South, but, through her second marriage, thrust into one of the richest families in the world, Nancy savoured her wealth, jewels and fine clothes, managing to enjoy them alongside a life lived with a kind of reforming zeal derived from her belief in Christian Science. A zeal, Fort hints, that was pursued at the expense of being a devoted wife and mother.
Fort delivers a whistle-stop tour of world history from Nancy's election to parliament in 1919 to her death in 1964. A stellar cast of characters from Churchill to Gandhi and Stalin make cameo appearances. This is not mere contextualisation: Lady Astor was a key political and social dynamo, both in and outside parliament.
Fort's colourful book perfectly reflects his subject's world: a wonderful mixture of material pleasures, hunting and parties set against 'almost Puritan inclinations and a churchy desire to do good'. All this alongside illustrations of an immaculately dressed Lady Astor, who assumed that beautiful clothes had the power to uplift the spirits of her less fortunate constituents.
Camilla Ter Haar
THE GREAT CHARLES DICKENS SCANDAL by Michael Slater (Yale University Press, £20)Michael Slater is a pre-eminent academic who has spent a lifetime studying Dickens.
This account, in Dickens Bicentennial Year, is both exhaustively scholarly and very readable and examines the breakdown of Dickens's 20-year marriage to Catherine.
He left her after meeting a young actress, Ellen Ternan, known as Nelly. Nelly was 17 and Dickens was 45 and, after leaving, he never saw Catherine again, and added to the cruelty by taking their children.
As a writer who had spent so long extolling the innocence of young, child-like women (think of Little Dorrit or Nell Trent in The Old Curiosity Shop), he seemed to have incarnated all of his fantasies in Nelly, but at the same time he desperately wanted to keep the relationship secret, because so much of his public standing depended on the ideal of being a good Victorian father.
Dickens hid so much of his life with Nelly that we will never know the exact details.
Slater is less a literary sleuth than an astute and objective commentator and he looks at how the scandal was received during Dickens's own lifetime, and how, after the writer's death, people slowly tried to piece together the story of this extraordinary event.
Claire Tomalin in The Invisible Woman, told the story of Nell, but Slater's book does more to try to consider Dickens's motives towards his wife Catherine, as well as Nelly.
This is a gripping account of a literary scandal.
ZERO DEGREES OF EMPATHY: A NEW UNDERSTANDING OF CRUELTY AND KINDNESS by Simon Baron-Cohen (Penguin, £9.99)
The boldness of this book lies in its wide-ranging reconsideration of the idea of evil. The author argues that instead of seeing cruelty as mysterious, those who inflict such suffering lack empathy.
Empathy, he argues, follows a bell-curve distribution across humans and he surveys different examples of 'zero empathy' – such as the condition of borderline disorders, psychopaths, narcissists and those suffering autism – to suggest these all have demonstrable physical brain changes.
Baron-Cohen writes well and fluently about difficult intellectual and scientific concepts, but I'm still left pondering, however, if such thinking could apply to political cruelty, where positive and negative qualities of empathy often exist simultaneously.
BOOK OF THE WEEKCouncil of local war
Stephanie Cross on JK Rowling's moonlight it from wizardry to adult entertainment
THE CASUAL VACANCY by JK Rowling (Little, Brown, £20)
So: farewell then, JK Rowling, beloved children's author. Hello, JK mk II: the Chipping Norton set's Irvine Welsh. Rowling has denied trying to prove a point with this book, but it is most definitely one for the grown-ups: by the end of the third page a man is dying in his own vomit as his distraught wife stands by.
The effing and blinding begins soon after and, in the words of those touchingly concerned television continuity announcers, it's of the strongest possible kind. As things progress, there's sometimes the sense that Rowling is rooting out unpleasantness – and yet the grime, grit and queasy middle-class malaises also ring true: there are a few dark laughs in this book, but many more winces of recognition.
As you cannot fail to know by now, The Casual Vacancy is set in Pagford, a picture-postcard West Country town. In the mind of Howard Mollison, morbidly obese delicatessen owner and chair of the parish council, Pagford glows with a 'moral radiance' dimmed only by the ironically monikered Fields, a nearby sink estate. Howard's mission in life is to have the place – addiction clinic and all – reassigned to the district council. And, with the death of his greatest opponent, councillor Barry Fairbrother (whose demise opens this book), he is suddenly one step nearer his goal.
Although Rowling's novel follows the election of Pagford's new councillor, it involves little local politics: her plot revolves instead around the deep and shameful secrets of those involved in the race. Snobbery, hypocrisy and sheer desperation all loom large; there's abuse of every variety – domestic, racial and drug – not to mention self-harm and rape. Strikingly – and no doubt accurately – it is children who tend to suffer most: though no angels, Rowling's younger characters have almost all been failed by the adult world.
The conclusion of Rowling's tale is as grim as her subject matter demands, for which she should be applauded; yet, for all
its bleakness, this frequently acute, expertly paced and plotted novel is also a real page-turner. In fact, had The Casual Vacancy been released last year, there's every chance it would have been Booker-nominated, given the then judges' emphasis on 'readability' and Rowling's own combination of 19th-century sweep with 21stcentury post-mortem. As it is, she will have to content herself with another bestseller – and the knowledge that she has acquitted herself as an adult author in emphatic fashion.
MUST READA question of rhetoric
HOW DO WE FIX THIS MESS? THE ECONOMIC PRICE OF HAVING IT ALL, AND THE ROUTE TO LASTING PROSPERITY by Robert Peston and Laurence Knight (Hodder & Stoughton, £20)
And how did we get it so wrong, more to the point. Peston, the BBC's financial commentator familiar to us from his almost constant appearances on radio and TV ever since the banking world went pear-shaped, attempts an explanation in this chilling book. The economic collapse, signposted by Northern Rock, caught everyone on the back foot. The press didn't sound the alarm, MPs had no idea what was happening and the Treasury looked idiotic. Even the City's great financial institutions seemed to have little idea of what they'd let us all in for. Peston's prescriptions for getting out of the mess – regulation, public acceptance of hardship and toil – are less compelling than his descriptions of how we got into it in the first place. And now, in a chapter added, presumably, almost on the eve of publication, there's Libor... not out of the mess yet, in other words.
SECURING FREEDOM by Eliza Manningham-Buller (Profi le Books, £6.99)Based on her Reith lectures in 2011, the former head of MI5 gives an insider's perspective on the intelligence services in our current post 9/11 world, fi lled with fears of terrorism.
Dispelling the fantasies of James Bond and Spooks, she paints a bloodless picture of what seem more like dedicated civil servants than spies, worrying about intruding on people's privacy.
She is also a firm believer in civil liberties, the rule of law, with profound misgivings about the CIA's use of water-boarding and complicity in torture ('special rendition').
RIVER MONSTERS by Jeremy Wade (Phoenix, £8.99)
Presenter of River Monsters, the fishing fanatic's Downton Abbey, Wade has spent most of his life, it seems,
in pursuit of large, dangerous fish that inhabit rivers. Great whites are just too tame for him – he wants alligator gars (a 10ft-long, armour-plated creature with 500 stiletto-sharp teeth), giant eels and man-eating catfish – and goes all over the world to find them. What happens when he comes across them is recounted in this terrific book.
THE POTTER'S HAND by AN Wilson (Atlantic, £17.99)
Fictional portrait of Wedgwood by the son of a former managing director of the company. Founder Josiah Wedgwood is the focus of the book. His daughter Sukey, later the mother of Charles Darwin, is a wry observer, but it's nephew Tom Byerley who heads into the American Wild West to find the white clay so vital to the company's production, who steals the show. An intriguing mingling of fact and fiction.
ENGLAND'S LANE by Joseph Connolly (Quercus, £18.99)
Lives and loves of an ill-assorted collection of people in London in the 1950s, by a master of the comic novel.
CITADEL by Kate Mosse (Orion, £20)
Author of Labyrinth launches another potential blockbuster. A girl in Carcassonne is drawn into the world of the Resistance as the war reaches a climax.
A writer in the kitchen Laurie Colwin's manifesto on the joys of sharing foodHOME COOKING by Laurie Colwin (Fig Tree, £12.99)
'Unless you live alone in a cave... cooking and eating are social activities... the sharing of food is the basis of social life...'
Thus the late Laurie Colwin, American novelist, wrote in the foreword to her book, Home Cooking, a manifesto on the joys of sharing food and entertaining. For Colwin, no one who cooks – cooks alone. 'Even at her most solitary, a cook in her kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers...'
This book, first published in 1988 and now reissued, is delightful – a collection of recipes, memories, essays and tales of years spent in the kitchen, sometimes feeding people, sometimes listening to people recounting their stuff about cooking. This includes the young man whose method of making scrambled eggs (first mash them, then add mace and thyme, then go off and have a shave, 'by the time I'm finished shaving, they're done...') should, notes Colwin, 'have made me flee'.
The recipes in this book are of the 'bread making without agony' kind – eminently do-able and couched in terms that make the novice cook willing to have a go. Stress, so much a part of today's high-powered food industry – is not on the menu. 'A long time ago it occurred to me,' writes Colwin, 'that when people are tired and hungry, which in adult life is much of the time, they do not want to be confronted by an intellectually challenging meal; they want to be consoled... to be made to feel, if even for only a minute, that they are safe.'
These wise thoughts – and how much more do we need them now – come in a section entitled Nursery Food. Colwin notes that 'nursery food borrows nicely from other cuisines. The spinach and lamb, found on Indian menus as saag mhaan, makes a perfect nursery dish, for instance.'
COLWIN'S LASTMINUTE SOUP
Let one cup of stock come to a simmer. Add two chopped up asparagus spears and some little pasta. When the pasta has cooked, stir in one beaten egg and juice of half a lime. Add black pepper and eat at once.
Related tags:Nancy:The Story Of Lady Astor  The Great Charles Dickens Scandal  Zero Degress Of Empathy  The Casual Vaccancy  How Do We Fix This Mess?  Securing Freedom  River Monsters  The Potter's Hand  England's Lane  Citadel  Home Cooking  Books  Book Reviews  The Lady
Daily tip from the lady archive
“THERE is great satisfaction to be had in properly ironed garments that look as if they have just come out of the shop window.”The Lady. You Can’t Iron? 19th February, 1953