Books of the month: From Jeff Tweedy’s ‘How to Write One Song’ to Matt Greene’s ‘Jew(ish): A Plea’

Martin Chilton reviews five of December’s biggest releases for our monthly column

Monday 07 December 2020 06:42 GMT

December is publishing’s most bric-a-brac month, and although this one is light on serious fiction, there are some shiny treats to discover. Amid the usual glut of food, diet, and lifestyle advice books is chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s book Eat Better Forever: 7 Ways to Transform Your Diet, reviewed below, which stood out for its entertaining tone. 

Fans of a grazing style of reading should check out Dr Stuart Farrimond’s The Science of Living: 219 Reasons to Rethink Your Daily Routine (Dorling Kindersley). Farrimond, a medical and food expert who wrote the book while undergoing treatment for brain cancer, offers practical tips about how to improve your daily routine, with graphs, illustrations and illuminating tidbits. Did you know, for example, that the stress hormone cortisol plunges by a third when you’re immersed in a warm bath? 

The Best of Michael Marshall Smith (Subterranean Press) is a good collection for devotees of fantasy and horror fiction, bringing together 30 of the author’s most emotive and powerful stories, while crime-fiction lovers will enjoy Winterkill (Orenda Books): Ragnar Jonasson’s chilling conclusion to his Dark Iceland series is translated from the French edition by David Warriner. Another sequel is Fate by Zhou Haohui (Head of Zeus), in which the author of Death Notice delivers a creepy, inventive tale about a Chinese serial killer who crowdsources his victims. Closer to home is Simon Berthon’s A Time to Lie (HQ), which is a political thriller about a corrupt prime minister embroiled in a murder scandal. 

Peter Millar has been reporting on Germany for decades and there is a lot to savour in The Germans and Europe: A Personal Frontline History (Arcadia Books), which looks at all things Deutschland through the story of nine cities. Millar’s engrossing portrait of German culture covers everything from sex and money to food and drink. Football comes into the section on Cologne; the sport was initially resisted in authoritarian Prussia. It was regarded as counter-productive to discipline and “widely branded the ‘English disease’”, says Millar.

The intriguing story of Venice is told in Meredith F Small’s Inventing the World: Venice and the Transformation of Western Civilization (Pegasus Books). Venice was the first city to devise the concept of quarantine (back in 1348) and, for better or worse, it was the place that gave birth to newspapers. 

Manuel Vilas is one of Spain’s finest modern writers and his autobiographical novel Ordesa (Canongate), translated by Andrea Rosenberg, offers a humane and intimate account of his divorce, family problems, and addictions. The most interesting memoir this month is Benjamin Ferencz’s Parting Words (Sphere) that includes his time as a Nuremberg trial prosecutor. 

It’s been a highly controversial year politically, one that has again shown why preventive action against far-right extremism is essential. In her disturbing book Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right (Princeton University Press), Professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss argues convincingly that “innovative, flexible and youth-driven ideas” are vital in the battle to counter the online transnational recruiting of fascist zealots. 

One of the most cheerful sights of a gloomy year was the big eyes of Baby Yoda, the undoubted star of the television series The Mandalorian. The show closes each episode with eye-catching illustrations, and these are celebrated in The Art of Star Wars: The Mandalorian (Season One) by Phil Szostak and Doug Chiang (Abrams). 

Finally, Michael Harrison’s excellent contemporary history book Five Minutes to Midnight: How Britain Survived the 2008 Banking Crash (Hartington Press) tells the story of that momentous crisis when the UK faced economic Armageddon. Harrison, the former business editor of The Independent, interviewed all the leading participants and his book captures the mounting tensions, the personality clashes, and the bitter arguments that surrounded a defining day in British politics. 

A songwriting guide by Jeff Tweedy, a reflection on contemporary Jewishness by Matt Greene, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s food book, a literary compendium of robot stories, and a noir thriller from Iain Ryan are reviewed in full below.    

‘Jew (ish): A Plea’ is an intriguing account of what it’s like to be Jewish today

 Jew(ish): A Plea by Matt Greene ★★★☆☆ 

Novelist and creative writing lecturer Matt Greene spent his 34th birthday on a tour of Nazi concentration camps, as part of the process of writing an intriguing account of what it’s like to be Jewish today. As I read Greene’s moving chapter on that grim tour, I thought about the time, long ago as a young teenager, when I did some household DIY jobs for a woman called Edie who had survived the war and ended up in Holborn. One day, she showed me the number on her left forearm that had been branded with ink by the guards at Auschwitz. 

Greene’s poignant meditation on the modern Jewish experience comes at a time when the Holocaust and its survivors are fading from living memory, just as antisemitism is on the rise and history is “cranking up again”. The author makes it clear that the need for vigilance is not hyperbole. Greene notes that his brother works as a teacher in a Jewish primary school, where children as young as four are acutely aware of antisemitism, not least because the school holds “intruder drills” for its pupils once a term. Anti-Jewish hatred is all the more dangerous in an age when the internet is the “perfect incubator for conspiratorial thinking”. 

Jew(ish): A Plea is divided into eight chapters – God, Family, Comedy, Security, Israel, Race, The Internet and Poland – bookended by a prologue and afterword. The book was partly inspired by the birth of Greene’s son to a non-Jewish mother, and the debate over whether their infant should be circumcised. Greene, whose ancestors include two great-grandfathers who fought for Britain in the First World War, is witty about the fraught question of “intermarriage”. 

Greene’s book skips between humour, seriousness, satire, and anger, and brings in a diverse cast that includes references to Frasier, the Marx Brothers, Charles Bronson, Uncut Gems, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Larry Sanders Show, the Eurovision Song Contest and the footballer Eyal Berkovic. There are witty, acerbic lines throughout  – such as “The Jewish God was an enforcer. A Roy Keane figure” and “Jews, as all Jews know, are under greater pressure to breed than pandas in captivity” – and funny anecdotes about his upbringing. 

The book deftly blends the personal with the political and is even-handed about the subjects of Israel, online hatred, and antisemitism in modern British politics. Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t come out well, unsurprisingly, the gaslighting of whistle-blowers by the former Labour leader’s party being representative of what Greene believes to be his “yawning blind spot”. It’s hard to disagree with Greene’s assertion that antisemitism has “a cross-party appeal” and the author does not spare Tory bigwigs such as Jacob Rees-Mogg or Boris Johnson, “who has his own charge sheet on antisemitism”, claims Greene. 

Jew(ish) is full of eclectic reflections – everything from Jeremy Paxman’s treatment of Ed Miliband (and his use of the coded description “North London geek”) to the less-than-coded idiocy of David Icke, with his “Partridge-brand fever dreams” – and offers plenty of interesting food for thought. 

‘Jew(ish): A Plea’ by Matt Greene is published by Little A on 1 December, £8.99     

Jeff Tweedy brings a simple and engaging style to his discursive songwriting manual ‘How to Write One Song’

How to Write One Song by Jeff Tweedy ★★★☆☆ 

Does every single person have a good song inside them? I doubt it. However, musician Jeff Tweedy makes a convincing case for people to access their creative flow and tap into a private moment of creativity to make music. “It’s the coolest thing in the world when someone steps outside their so‐called station in life to indulge in a personal ‘art for the sake of art’ moment,” writes Tweedy in How to Write One Song

Tweedy, who is best known as the singer and guitarist of Wilco, has previously written a memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc., and he brings a simple, engaging style to his discursive songwriting manual. 

The musician provides a daily schedule of his own routine, and among his tips for would-be songwriters is to stockpile lyrics and do exercises such as free-writing and to write poems. Tweedy admits to a “real pet peeve” about song lyrics that telegraph the impending rhyming word (“Country songs have a lot of trouble with this”) and he also cautions against songwriters being too generous with adjectives and adverbs because “their overuse can create a flat and visually static type of lyric”. He gives a special pass to Bob Dylan on this one. 

How to Write One Song will appeal most directly to Wilco fans and aspiring lyricists, but there are appealing moments for the casual reader, especially when Tweedy reflects on his own career, his rejections, and his varied sources of inspiration. The author Henry Miller’s line, “Stand still like the hummingbird,” in a collection of stories and essays of the same name published in 1962, was the inspiration for a Wilco song. Tweedy offers eloquent pointers about the appeal of other songwriters. “Maybe you can create a place that makes someone feel like they’re floating weightless inside a small guitar the way Nick Drake’s ‘Pink Moon’ makes me feel, or maybe you can map some uncharted region the way Missy Elliott does with ‘Get Ur Freak On’,” Tweedy states. 

‘How to Write One Song’ by Jeff Tweedy is published by Faber on 3 December, £10.99 

‘We, Robots’ is a short story collection that considers the future for humans in a world of conscious machines

We, Robots: Artificial Intelligence in 100 Stories, edited by Simon Ings ★★★☆☆ 

Spanning more than 1,000 pages, We, Robots: Artificial Intelligence in 100 Stories is the new cyborg overlord of literary compendiums. “This book contains the most diverse collection of robots I could find,” says the editor and novelist Simon Ings. 

The scope and variety of this short story collection is impressive. As well as heavyweight writers such as HG Wells, Ray Bradbury, Jerome K Jerome, and EM Forster, there are dozens of ambitious modern writers in the set, including Indian journalist Arundhati Hazra, American filmmaker Romie Stott, and Chinese scientist Xia Jia. 

Writers have been fascinated by the subject of artificial intelligence for more than a century. Ambrose Bierce, the author of The Devil’s Dictionary, is included for his 1899 story “Moxon’s Master”, which opens with the words, “Are you serious? Do you really think that a machine thinks?” 

I enjoyed the wildly imaginative “Comfort Me, My Robot”, a 1955 story by Robert Bloch, the man whose thriller Psycho was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s film. As a young man, Charles Dickens wrote about the fictional town of Mudfog, based on Chatham in Kent, which provides the interesting oddity “Full Report of the Second Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything Section B – Display of Models and Mechanical Science”. In this strange, whimsical piece of science fiction and social satire, Dickens imagines robotic police officers who are the objects of bullying and assault by “the young noblemen of England”. 

The literature of robots is wildly diverse and Ings breaks up the collection into six thematic collections – It’s Alive!, Following the Money, Overseer and Servant, Changing Places, All Hail the New Flesh, and Succession – which share the general theme of considering the future for humans in a world of conscious machines. We, Robots will make a fine Christmas present, no batteries needed. 

‘We, Robots: Artificial Intelligence in 100 Stories’, edited by Simon Ings is published by Head of Zeus on 10 December, £30    

‘The Spiral’ by Iain Ryan is set in the world of academia and fantasy fiction 

The Spiral by Iain Ryan ★★★☆☆ 

“You never really know someone until they have power over you,” warns Dr Erma Bridges, the protagonist of Iain Ryan’s rollercoaster crime noir thriller The Spiral, which is set in the world of academia and fantasy fiction. 

When Erma is shot twice by her disturbed research assistant Jenny Wasserman, she sets out to discover the truth of the attempted murder. The quest leads her into the dark underbelly of Brisbane life, a place Ryan knows well, having grown up in the city’s suburbs. The author has acknowledged the influence of noir master James Ellroy on his writing, especially in using location to enhance tension , and this is apparent in scenes in The Spiral that are set in the  “deranged and random” parts of Fortitude Valley. Ryan’s novel also focuses on the politics of academic careerism, offering up some witty asides about the sex lives of postgraduate students. 

The Spiral is not a standard type of crime thriller. There are numerous chapters about Erma’s inner imaginary life – she dreams of Sero the barbarian, a character created by the book’s creepy villain, author Archibald Moder – and this blend of realism and fantasy may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Erma’s interest in the warped side of fantasy coincides with a disturbing mystery about women who are suddenly disappearing and Ryan, whose two previous novels were shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Award, builds the tension in a crisp sharp narrative that moves towards the violent showdown ending. 

‘The Spiral’ by Iain Ryan is published by Zaffre Books on 24 December, £8.99   

The chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s thought-provoking book has 100 recipes  

Eat Better Forever: 7 Ways to Transform Your Diet by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall ★★★★☆  

The Global Burden of Disease study concluded in 2019 that bad diets now kill more people worldwide than tobacco. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, known for his commitment to seasonal, ethically produced food, has put together a thought-provoking book that draws on his conversations with expert food scientists and dietitians. 

Many people are living longer in the UK, but a high proportion are in poor health during their final 20 years, often with illnesses that could be prevented through lifestyle change. Fearnley-Whittingstall’s title, Eat Better Forever, reflects his view that we simply must improve the food we consume. 

The book is clear and convincing and includes a fascinating chapter on the mysterious world of our intestines and gut bacteria, which Fearnley-Whittingstall calls “this new frontier”. Did you know that a lot of the serotonin in the body is found in the gut, not the brain? “It’s no exaggeration to say that a healthy gut is as important as a healthy heart or a healthy brain,” writes the star of the River Cottage series on Channel 4. 

The book contains 100 recipes, all beautifully photographed by Simon Wheeler. This is a guide for how to live, as well as what to cook, and the overarching message is to eat more whole foods and cut down on processed products. The advice is eclectic: as well as telling people to “eat less and better meat”, Fearnley-Whittingstall suggests we should “let children play with their food”. 

Admittedly, I rarely read food books, but I enjoyed the author’s persuasive tone and varied array of advice, including about which oils to cook with, his ruminations on alcohol and mindful drinking, eating techniques, and his practical views on anxiety and weight-loss regimes. 

What goes in, comes out, of course, and Fearnley-Whittingstall’s appealingly idiosyncratic book also trumpets the views of Giulia Enders, a German microbiologist who argues in favour of a shift in toilet habits. “I’m a total convert. I found Giulia’s explanation of the benefits of squatting compelling. It’s worked for me and it still does – three years on. I don’t think I will ever go back,” Fearnley-Whittingstall writes. Thankfully, that advice comes in a section that is not illustrated.

‘Eat Better Forever: 7 Ways to Transform Your Diet’ by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is published by Bloomsbury on 31 December, £26 

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