Book reviews: 4 May
WHEN I DIE Philip Gould (Little, Brown £14.99)
When a top Labour strategist who lives and breathes for politics contracts cancer it is inevitable that the language of campaigning infects his thoughts and speech. 'Everything I thought about the battle with cancer was strategic,' he says. When he gets test results he calls them 'numbers' as if he is a one-man control sample. 'It's like an opinion poll on the future of your life.' So this book is Lord Gould's fi nal campaign, and gains depth because it's one election he knows he's going to lose.
But he's determined to go out with grace and insight, despite a critical early blunder, which is to choose the private system in the US over the NHS. He uses the short time he has left to live well, and to complete his relationships with friends and above all his wife Gail (Dame Gail Rebuck) and daughters Georgia and Grace. When he is given only three months to live he is determined to fill every minute with even deeper meaning. 'It is so much better than a sudden death, with no time to prepare.' Along with this terrible certainty is granted, he realises, almost incandescent power.
So he and Gail prepare his Requiem Mass. He writes letters. He even chooses the plot where he will be laid to rest in Highgate Cemetery. His author photograph shows him standing, grimacing with knowledge of death foretold, over his own grave. He spends hours with close friends such as Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and Matthew Freud (some may need an even stronger constitution for these passages than the excruciating accounts of his cancer treatment and suffering).
The book starts with Gould's account and ends with sections written by the three Gs. This adds to its impact. I read it in one sitting, and conclude that it should be prescribed on the NHS. Even though it's a harrowing account of one man's dying, it is also the most life-enhancing book I've ever read. Rachel Johnson
THE BEAUTY IN THE BEAST Hugh Warwick (Simon & Schuster, £14.99)
It all started with a tattoo. Hugh Warwick signed up to ExtInked – an art project that invited 100 volunteers to tattoo their bodies with one of the 100 of the most endangered species in Britain. Warwick chose a hedgehog, believing that it is the most important species on earth. Or that's what he thought before reading contributions from the other 99 tattoo 'ambassadors', who all felt the same about their chosen species. Selecting 15 from the endangered list, Warwick sets off round the country to fi nd out more about these creatures (which include robins, otters and toads).
Warwick has plenty of amusing anecdotes to tell: weeping over the fate of badgers, being smirked at by moths or receiving otter poo in the post. Who knew, for instance, that adders do not feed when they're pregnant or that some robins settle, while others migrate? Warwick has some fi ne stylistic touches too – a bumblebee is 'furry, like an impossibly light mouse'. Read it in the garden, with the sun on your face and perhaps be spurred on to help protect Britain's most vulnerable species. Edwina Langley
CAN WE STILL BE FRIENDS Alexandra Shulman (Fig Tree, £12.99)
And how does the editor of Vogue find time to write a novel, might be your first thought on picking up this book. Its presence on the shelves is a lesson for anyone waiting for the day job to end so that they can get on with the bestseller hidden inside them. Shulman, who has edited Britain's premier fashion mag for 20 years, has produced a classy-looking book – jacketed in chic monotones.
Set in the 1980s, it tells the story of three women, Salome, Kendra and Annie, friends since university, now embarking on careers in a world of greedy capitalism, embryonic feminism and misogynistic newspapers. And men, of course – cads lurk round every corner. Shulman ups the ante by introducing some more shocking storylines intothe familiar 'take three girls' scenario – a gay relationship, an abortion and a struggle with alcoholism.
It's done with great brio which, together with a fast-moving plot and a glimpse into the world of late 20th-century fashion ('she loved the bluey-green colour and the cutaways on the shoulder...'), indicates that all those years spent in Vogue House have certainly not been wasted. Clare Russell
Woman, past 50, still on telly
Michael Prodger on the second instalment of TV classicist Mary Beard's blog posts
ALL IN A DON'S DAY Mary Beard (Profile, £8.99)
Before 2006 it is probably fair to say that Mary Beard was little known outside the hermetic world of Classical Studies. As a don at Newnham, Cambridge, she was 'well past 50 and uncompromisingly grey-haired' with a solid publication record and a legion of devoted former students, but no great public profile. Then she started a blog in the TLS, where she is Classics editor, and things changed.
She used the blog to post on everything from 'ancient jokes to A levels, political humbug to Latin mottoes' and she now makes TV documentaries on the ancient world and has become the go-to girl for radio and print journalists needing comment on the academic issues of the day. Such is her new standing that she is embroiled in a public spat with TV critic AA Gill after he, in his column, made disobliging comments about her appearance.
All In A Don's Day is the second selection of her blog posts, covering 2009-11, and with their mix of common sense and humour, they show why she has been co-opted by the wider world. Among the subjects she treats are the thrill of attending the BAFTAs (she was nominated for her programme on Pompeii), the sexualisation of children's clothes and the vicissitudes of university life.
It is perhaps this last topic that is of most interest to her readers. The general perception is that the life of an Oxbridge don must be very agreeable and while she does not deny its attractions, she points out that it is not all punting and High Table. She regularly puts in 12-hour shifts, most of which is admin. But, for example, discussing the innumerable requests for job references she receives allows her to comment on the more stringent process some 20 years back and quote one referee's wonderfully candid assessment: 'I do not think he has done much, if any, teaching and I suspect he is not particularly gifted as a teacher' (whether the candidate got the job Beard doesn't say).
She also casts her eye over the paucity of black students at Cambridge, the horrors of educational bureaucracy and why technology that allows speedy retrieval of information is not altogether a good thing (it impedes slow but fruitful thinking).
Beard is far too entertaining to be kept just for educationalists. These brief 600-word essays leave you wanting to discuss them more with her – all the benefits of being one of her students, but without having to write any essays.
In the money
SWEET REVENGE, THE INTIMATE LIFE OF SIMON COWELL Tom Bower (Faber, £18.99)
Or perhaps, mustn't read if you're a Cowell-o-phobe, and resistant to the charms of this mega-millionaire player in the music industry. But Tom Bower has produced a terrific analysis of Cowell's life, leavening the pop-star deals, with details of black loo roll, colonic irrigation, the perfect pizza and bust-ups with girlfriends. Reading this, it's hard not to think that Princess Diana has resurfaced in the form of SC – they share the same restless spirit, many unsuitable liaisons, a similar number of 0 levels and a belief in the bonkers theories of various alternative therapists.
And, then there's the money... There's a marvellous vignette of Cowell, moored, among billionaires, in the Caribbean, suddenly realising his boat is nearly 250ft shorter than Rupert Murdoch's. Blast, and dammit... you can hear him thinking... Carolyn Hart
THE UNCOMMON READER Alan Bennett (Profile Books, £7.99)
Reissued in a smart new Jubilee format, Alan Bennett's wickedly amusing story about how the Queen discovers books – starting with Ivy Compton-Burnett and progressing via Thomas Hardy and Proust to Anita Brookner and Beckett – is a brilliant take on the subversive pleasures of reading.
THE VILLAGE VET Cathy Woodman (Arrow, £6.99)
Romantic village tales by an exvet. Cats, puppies, horses and one adopted rat – not a human one – fortunately do not provide enough action to distract the heroine from Jack, 'handsome, not flashy; masculine, not arrogant... there aren't many men who are interested in rescuing cats and dogs and ponies'. There certainly aren't.
IN PRAISE OF LOVE Alain Badiou (Serpent's Tail, £8.99)
France's coolest philosopher (as his publisher's like to think of him) tackles the subject of love – in mortal danger these days, from a contemporary combination of consumerism and casual sex.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN Penelope Lively (Penguin, £8.99)
Elegant and witty story about the randomness of life. The mugging and broken hip of a retired schoolteacher, and a mis-placed text message, result in a chain reaction of events that wreck marriages and change lives. Lively is on top form in her 17th novel.
PURE Timothy Mo (Turnaround, £16.99)
Mo's first novel for 12 years is an impressive Le Carréish spy story featuring an elderly Oxbridge don and a six-foot Thai lady boy.
A HISTORY OF ANCIENT EGYPT John Romer (Allen Lane, £25)
An engaging, though often scholarly study of the first Pharaohs and the building of the earliest pyramids
WINNER TAKES IT ALL
Launched to redress the balance between the number of books written by women (very high) and the number of literary prizes awarded to female writers (very low), the Orange Prize for Fiction has become one of the literary world's most prestigious, but, since it's awarded only to women, often most controversial, awards.
To celebrate the 2012 award, The Lady has teamed up with Orange to offer three readers a chance to win all six books on this year's Orange Prize shortlist, below, with judges' comments. Edwina Langley
HALF BLOOD BLUES Esi Edugyan (Serpent's Tail, £7.99)
'A sustained and powerful voice, and sense of place and period, in a novel of jazz, war-torn Europe, and remorse.'
THE FORGOTTEN WALTZ Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape, £7.99)
'A flawed heroine, a modern tale of unromantic adultery and conflicted parental loyalties, make a compelling, lyrical read.'
PAINTER OF SILENCE Georgina Harding (Bloomsbury, £14.99)
'A deceptively quiet book, which grows in strength as it goes on, portraying a deep understanding of unconventional ways of selfexpression, and of relationships.'
THE SONG OF ACHILLES Madeline Miller (Bloomsbury, £7.99)
'Terrific. The Trojan Wars and the legendary love story of Patroclus and Achilles told with all the intensity and accuracy that this world of violence and superstition and romance deserves.'
FOREIGN BODIES Cynthia Ozick (Atlantic Books, £7.99)
'A clear-eyed look at family dynamics, and exquisitely written.'
STATE OF WONDER Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury, £7.99)
'A novel of science and adventure handled with grace and lightness and wit.'
This year's winner will beannounced on 30 May 2012. For more information go to www.orangeprize.co.uk
For a chance to win this exciting collection, send in your name and contact details on a postcard to: The Orange Prize for Fiction, The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER. Closing date for entries is 30 May 2012. Terms and conditions apply.