The week in books

July 17, 2008

The Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley, professor of philosophy, New School for Social Research, New York, and part-time professor of philosophy, University of Essex. Granta Books, £15.99, ISBN 9781847080103

"On the evidence of this enjoyable book, atheists and materialists seem to have gone to their graves with just as much composure as true believers. This is just as well, because Critchley believes that we cannot live properly or at peace until we accept our finite nature, and that today we seek materialistic distractions from the very thought of death ... This is rather harsh on everyday life. I may have an appointment for root canal surgery a week from now, but it doesn't mean I should spend every waking hour dwelling on the prospect."

Nicholas Fearn, The Independent on Sunday

The Gaol: The Story of Newgate, London's Most Notorious Prison by Kelly Grovier, lecturer in English, Aberystwyth University. John Murray, £25.00, ISBN 9780719561320

"(Grovier) promises rather adventurously in his preface to explore 'the meaning of Newgate as an unparalleled icon (and) an incubator of inspiration', but in truth he never brings enough rigour to his task, rarely goes beyond the familiar sources and fails almost completely to offer a coherent argument for the jail's inflated status. Often, instead of analysis or thesis, the book simply resorts to rather tired anecdote, at least part of whose rationale seems to be to fill space."

Andrew Holgate, The Sunday Times

Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives by Carolyn Steel, lecturer in architecture, London School of Economics, London Metropolitan University and University of Cambridge. Random House, £12.99, ISBN 9780701180379

"Steel's book is ostensibly a treatise on how cities are fed, a subject from which she is constantly distracted by sewage disposal, architecture, kitchen design and rage at industrial civilisation in general - 'an environmental catastrophe in progress'. Indeed, it's impossible to read (this book) without raging alongside (it): at governments who let supermarkets do as they will; at the vast food companies ... who circle the world like vultures waiting to pounce on local shops, to take over and fill with their own products, regardless of indigenous diet or customs ... Rage, rage, but do not go gentle into your nearest Tesco Metro."

Carolyn Hart, The Daily Telegraph

Yeltsin: A Life by Timothy J. Colton, Morris and Anna Feldberg professor of government and Russian studies, Harvard University. Basic Books, £20.99, ISBN 97804650118

"Colton sides with Yeltsin on most issues; he minimises the TV bias and use of bribes and pressure on local get-out-the-vote politicians which gave Yeltsin victory in the 1996 election ... The narrative is curiously flat. The two most dramatic episodes in Yeltsin's career are hurried over. His use of tanks in 1993 to storm the Russian parliament, which he had unconstitutionally disbanded, is dealt with in two ... pages ... Even what is considered Yeltsin's finest hour - mounting a tank and defying the plotters who had put Gorbachev under house arrest in August 1991 - gets (only) six pages."

Jonathan Steele, The Guardian.

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