Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe; Command and Control by Eric Schlosser; Season to Taste by Natalie Young; The Book of Fate by Parinoush Saniee; The Undercover Economist Strikes by by Tim Harford - paperbacks reviews
Sunday 20 July 2014
When you pick up a Jonathan Coe novel, you know you can expect a frictionless read, a clever plot, a good-natured authorial voice, likeable characters and some laughs along the way. Expo 58 disappoints in none of these particulars.
It's the story of a young civil servant, Thomas Foley, who is selected to oversee the smooth running of the pub at the British area of the World's Fair in Belgium in 1958. With so many nations competing for attention and showcasing technology side by side, in the first icy years of the Cold War, it's to be expected that there will be some espionage shenanigans - and sure enough Thomas is recruited by two comedy Secret Service agents, Wayne and Radford, who prattle inconsequentially in Fifties lingo and finish each other's sentences, while tasking him with keeping a jolly close eye on the Soviet delegate.
Thomas has a somewhat tetchy wife, and child, back at home, and a comedy neighbour who prowls around her, but off the leash in Brussels he finds time for a dalliance with the beautiful Belgian Expo hostess Anneke.
Like most of Coe's male leads, Foley is quiet, mild-mannered, innocent, not unperceptive but lacking in dynamism: a blank canvas, someone to whom things happen rather than a person who makes them happen. Which is fine for the hero of a comic novel (c.f. William Boot in Scoop) - but in this case Coe's comic touch, normally so sure, isn't always quite there. It lacks the vigour and inventiveness of What a Carve-Up, and some of the comic scenes appear to be rather going through the motions.
What it does score well on is a haunting nostalgia for a vanished period, an element which grows stronger as the novel progresses.
When Lizzie Prain kills her husband by whacking him over the head with a spade - I'm not giving away the plot; we learn this on page 3 - she's faced with the problem of disposing of him, and comes up with a novel solution. She'll eat him. Having chopped the body into sixteen bits and placed them in the freezer, she fries him, stews him, casseroles him, fricassees him, making the grim task palatable with herbs, seasoning, vegetables, and copious glasses of white wine. It's made easier living in seclusion in a cottage in rural Surrey; nevertheless, she has to worry about Tom, the young man at the garden centre who befriends her, finding out too much; to say nothing of Tom's grandfather, a crazy man who starts putting up "Missing" posters for the deceased. An extraordinary novel, suffused with melancholy, guilt and madness. It's as if Patricia Highsmith and Auguste Escoffier collaborated, with input from Edgar Allan Poe. I didn't tend to read it at mealtimes.
Massoumeh is an ordinary Iranian schoolgirl, who one day makes the big mistake of falling in love with a young pharmacist. Letters pass between them - and when her family finds out, she is beaten, vilified, and forced to marry a stranger in order to recover the family's honour. The stranger turns out to be a Marxist political activist who is imprisoned for revolutionary activities - and then, after the Shah is deposed, the revolution doesn't turn out quite as expected .... Written with passion and anger from the inside, it's a compelling account of five decades of Iranian history, and of how awful the lives of women in an honour-based patriarchal society can be.
For anyone who's ever wondered why economists can't seem to agree on anything, this book provides the answer. Or answers, rather, because it's complicated. But Harford does a good job of explaining the complexities of macro economics. I now know - roughly - the difference between classical economics and Keynesian economics, and I understand - more or less - what sticky prices are, and what an output gap is. The question-and-answer format is slightly irritating, with the questioner adopting a chirpy tone and saying things like "Why am I not surprised?" and "Thanks a bundle". But at least I now have some idea of what economists are talking about.
In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser lifted the lid on the American food industry. Now he's doing the same for the American nuclear industry. The book alternates between a detailed account of a nuclear accident at a Titan II silo in 1980, and the history of how nuclear weapons developed from the 1940s onwards. It's a powerful mix of history, politics, and technology, told with impressive authority, and it makes one realise just how easily a nuclear catastrophe could have happened by accident - and still could. What's chilling is that Schlosser looks only at the USA; we should multiply the risk by the number of nations who hold these frightening weapons.
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