Reviewers: Peter Phelps, Belinda Bamber, Jamie Colvin and ASH Smyth
Earth Detox: How and Why We Must Clean Up Our Planet
By Julian Cribb
(317pp, Cambridge University Press, £10.99 pb)
If it wasn’t so alarming, it would be tempting to throw aside this chronicle of ecocide and cry “too much information!” Earth Detox is the latest book by Julian Cribb, an Australian science writer on a mission to warn us of self-inflicted existential threats. More evangelist than doomsayer, Cribb’s previous works explored how to feed ten billion humans, the role food can play in preventing wars, and how to survive “mega-risks” such as mass extinction, dangerous technologies, climate change, population explosion, and (pertinently) pandemic disease.
In Poisoned Planet (2014) he showed how every part of the Earth’s surface is contaminated by man-made chemicals; here he dives deeper into the ubiquitous extent of human chemical discharge, how it’s destroying our physical and mental health, and what we might do to rectify it. Earth Detox is meticulously researched, as you’d expect of a multi-award-winning scientific author. Marshalling a vast array of statistics, Cribb maps out the scale of the chemical warfare unleashed on the planet and links it to dramatic rises in human ailments, from autism to ADHD, from cancer to obesity.
The numbers can overwhelm, such as the 2.5bn tonnes of chemicals released globally each year (exposing every human to an estimated 325kg), but also reveal the wilful failure to research their impact on human health. He shows how researchers have identified 120 definite, 88 probable and 315 possible carcinogens, but how 349,000 of the 350,000 known chemicals have yet to be tested. This alone justifies his conclusion that chemical poisoning is making us less intelligent, “no longer smart enough to take action in the face of mounting threats to [our] wellbeing, health, social stability and long-term survival.”
For all the numbers, Earth Detox possess a well-crafted, sometimes lyrical, style with emotional as well as cerebral appeal. It’s a moving account of our complicity in the protracted murder of our own children, through the contaminated food we feed them to the petrochemicals we wash them in. Thankfully, Cribb proposes a pragmatic program to “clean up the Earth”, with a final pertinent observation that we can’t rely on governments but must work together as billions of individuals to bring about change. PP
I Couldn’t Love You More
By Esther Freud
(288 pp, Bloomsbury, £16.99, hb)
Esther Freud’s semi-autobiographical debut novel, Hideous Kinky, was inspired by her bohemian mother sweeping her two young daughters off to Morocco in the early ’70s. Freud’s ninth delves farther back into family history, taking inspiration from her mother’s strict convent upbringing and the fierce treatment of unmarried mothers in post-war Ireland.
Rosaleen is conceived in a London air raid by her Irish Catholic parents and sent to the country for safety during the war. Deemed spoilt by the foster mother “who spoon-fed her mashed potato”, her parents quickly despatch her to a convent boarding school, returning her to hatchet-faced nuns whenever the child bravely escapes.
As an adult working in London Rosaleen falls passionately in love with an older sculptor, Felix (whose craggy good looks, blue eyes, and affairs with young models inescapably evoke the author’s father, Lucian Freud). “I couldn’t love you more” he tells her, a declaration that soon backflips to its opposite sense, of the limitations of his ability to love, a failing apparently shared by her parents.
In this story of three generations – Rosaleen, her mother Aoife, and daughter Kate – Freud explores mother-daughter tensions, the anguish of giving up a baby for adoption and the ebb and flow of abandonment, betrayal and lost identity that passes through the female line. Bessborough, the notorious real-life home for “fallen women” in Cork, becomes the central link that ties the three narratives together in the years between 1939 and 1991.
Yet the novel feels ultimately affirmative because, despite the pervasive Catholic belief that unmarried sex is “Lustful. Carnal. Soiled”, Freud magics a fizzing, redemptive sense of erotic transport in each woman’s adult relationships. Rosaleen tells Felix “he’d woken her, changed her, shown her how it felt, to be alive”. There’s also a comforting steadiness to Kate’s mothering of her daughter Freya and an enduring loyalty in Aoife and Cashel’s marriage. Freud is compassionate with human failings as each woman finds her way within the limitations – as well as the liberations – of love. BB
The Authority Gap: Why women are still taken less seriously than men, and what we can do about it
By Mary Ann Sieghart
(384pp, Doubleday, £16.99, hb)
Reading The Authority Gap, it’s easy to think other men are the problem. I thought I’d never treat women as inferior to men. But that’s exactly the point Mary Ann Sieghart is making: the bias is unconscious. We all do it. One of Sieghart’s many examples is that when one set of British parents was asked to estimate their children’s IQ, they reckoned their son’s was 115 (average is 100-ish) and their daughter’s 107. Both husband and wife thought their daughter was less intelligent. With this belief in his superiority, the boy will grow up to be more confident which will increase his chances of promotion and consequently a higher salary. This inequality comes down to tricks our unconscious biases play on our brains.
Sieghart interviewed hundreds of successful women about the way men treated them. A recurring story was men assuming every high-ranking woman they met was a PA – including the US Secretary of the Treasury. Sieghart is no stranger to this. She was a senior editor and columnist at The Times for twenty years, where she felt routinely ignored. The only woman at editorial meetings, this meant no one noticed her exclusion, let alone stood up for her.
As a 24-year-old, before reading this book I thought I was safe from unconscious bias against women, but it made me reflect on how I do sometimes interrupt women friends, or might go with a male friend’s answer over a female’s at a pub quiz, for example. In the past I’ve rationalised these moments to myself but it’s true that they’re examples of the authority I automatically accord to men. And that’s extremely worrying. I may not write horrible tweets about wanting to rape women, but I have made them feel lesser than me.
The book is not about man-bashing, but about making us more aware, and Sieghart provides manageable solutions which only require some “unlearning”. As a result, it’s a positive book. Changes made in the past, like giving the vote to women, haven’t been enough. Each generation has to make an effort to ensure the fight for equality goes on, and part of that is taking responsibility for our own behaviour. JC
by Jan Morris
(Ukemi Audiobooks, read by Roy McMillan, 5hrs 12mins)
Born in 1926 into Anglo-Welsh upper-middle-class comfort, James Humphry Morris was educated at Christ Church cathedral school, Lancing and Christ Church Oxford, served in the dashing 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers during WWII, climbed much of Everest and broke the news of Hillary and Tenzing’s successful 1953 ascent, uncovered Franco-Israeli collusion at Suez, and reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Not interested in public life, or really any steady form of employment, he became one of Britain’s greatest writers (of travel, journalism, history, and eventually a novel). And then, in 1972, he went to Morocco, emerging from the Casablanca surgery as “Jan”.
Conundrum was published only two years later (the first as Jan Morris), reissued several times, and subsequently included in “100 Key Books of Our Time”.
Conundrum relates Jan’s realisation, aged three (under the piano), that she’d been born into the wrong body; summarises the long human fascination with (and indulgence of) the blurry boundaries of sex and gender; mentions suicide as a rational alternative; and is disarmingly frank about her sexual reaction to architecture, being kissed by a cabbie, becoming her wife’s sister-in-law, and 101 other extraordinary situations.
“Few people understood it” Morris admits, and she’s at pains to note those whose lives have been wrecked by such decisions. But by and large she claims quite positive reactions. It’s hard not to suspect these findings must be cushioned by class and other kinds of self-sufficiency. A born freethinker (and not a mere contrarian), it’s clear that Morris keenly maintained, on several levels, her outsider status… and could afford to.
During her lifetime, transsexualism has gone from “virtually inconceivable” to “nearly a commonplace” and today’s gender activists will no doubt have views on her attitude towards the “trendy” word “identity”, statements about the “androgynous condition” disqualifying her from writing fiction, and views on men and women (eg “I did not want to be good at reversing cars…”). Her own updated introduction acknowledges them as “preposterously obsolete”.
At her death last year, aged 94, Jan Morris had been a woman for more of her life than she was not. It took a while for me to twig that Conundrum was read – quite unobtrusively, but still from start to finish – by a man. AS