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

 

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor