Book news

  • The Self Delusion by Tom Oliver review – how we are connected and why that matters
    Richard Kerridge

    Forget the idea that humans are independent individuals. We need to grasp that we’re parts of ecosystems

    Should we try to think of ourselves not as individuals but as parts of the physical and cultural ecosystem? Tom Oliver, an ecologist specialising in land use, the climate crisis and biodiversity, believes we need a major shift in that direction. His view is that science now demands this change, and that only by making it will we become capable of responding to global warming and a host of other problems. The idea of the self as a relatively closed system is a delusion that has often conferred advantage, but is now a dangerous trap. Moving through difficult science with valuable clarity, Oliver tells us why.

    He starts with the science of the body. Complex forces make it, sustain it and break it down. Like the body itself, these forces are not closed systems with hard outer boundaries. The atoms that compose us derive from the fusion of hydrogen and helium in the big bang, and many come from far regions of the universe. The molecules that form our bodies have travelled the atmosphere and perhaps been in other animal body parts. Viruses and bacteria bring in new genes. Our cells live for seven to 10 years on average, some only for days, weeks or months. Oxygen, food and water enter our bodies, while heat and waste leave us for other parts of the system.

    As capitalism has become global, the consumerist idea of self has spread. But Oliver hopes we may be approaching a tipping point

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  • The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste review – remembering Ethopia’s female soldiers
    Alex Clark

    Set during Italy’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, this absorbing novel spotlights the African women who went to war

    The eponymous king in Maaza Mengiste’s second novel does not feature until a good halfway through the narrative, and then in appropriately shadowy fashion. He is Minim, a “soft-spoken man with the strange name that means Nothing”, one of those who has answered the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie’s call to arms provoked by the Italian invasion of the country in 1935. But Minim has an unexpectedly propitious quality; a close resemblance to Selassie, now in exile in Bath, that can be used to reinvigorate popular confidence that the European colonialists can be defeated. Dressed in a makeshift uniform and sitting on horseback with a red umbrella across his saddle, Minim has only to appear in the hills so recently dominated by Italian troops to strengthen his subjects. As he is instructed by the comrade who has helped to hatch the plan: “To be in the presence of our emperor is to stand before the sun. You must respect his power to give you life and burn you alive.”

    A different novel might put this curious interlude at its heart; fiction as written by a popular historian such as, say, Ben Mcintyre. But in Mengiste’s story - which draws on her own family history, with a grandfather who fought against the Italians – shadows and echoes abound and multiply, ensuring that although its participants are faced with clear and present danger, they continue to be intimately bound to the generations and individuals that have gone before them.

    It was only later that Mengiste discovered that her great-grandmother had taken her father’s gun and gone to war herself

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  • The Age of Illusions review: anti-anti-Trump but for … what, exactly?
    John S Gardner

    Andrew Bacevich is right that America squandered victory in the cold war but curiously reluctant to offer ways it might atone

    Winston Churchill supposedly said: “Americans will always do the right thing, only after they have tried everything else.” In his new book, Andrew Bacevich goes far towards proving the second half of that sentence and casts doubt on the first, without offering much in the way of alternatives.

    Related: How to dump Trump: Rick Wilson on Running Against the Devil

    Related: American Oligarchs review: Trump, Kushner and the melding of money and power

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