Unmissable books this November

James Walton

A heartfelt story of three women and their relationship with the younger generation; a dark, timely thriller; and an extract from a book about our gurgling bodies are our top literary picks this month…

Grandmothers by Salley Vickers

(Viking, £16.99)

The biographical section of Salley Vickers’s website isn’t very long—but it still finds room for her “two grandchildren, with whom she spends as much time as she possibly can”. And it’s this unique bond between grandmothers and grandchildren that lies at the heart of her new novel. The three main characters may be very different from each other: tough-minded, unsentimental Nan; the rather sweeter (and certainly drunker) Blanche; quietly bookish Minna. Yet, all are at their happiest hanging out with a beloved grandchild.

In less skilful hands, the book’s many storylines might have led to unwieldiness. Vickers, however, depicts each character and relationship with forensic clarity, as well as a touching level of kindliness to everybody concerned. Or almost everybody—because one of the big themes here is the alliance that the old and young often form against those middle-aged spoilsports known as parents, with their mad neuroses about the dangers of unhealthy food, late nights and so on. Now and again, in fact, some of Nan’s pronouncements about the damaging effects of over-anxious parenting perhaps feel too directly like author’s messages. Unfortunately for us middle-aged spoilsports, that doesn’t make them wrong.

 

Kiss the Girls and Make Them Cry by Mary Higgins Clark

(Simon & Schuster, £20)

At this stage in her career, Mary Higgins Clark is beginning to seem not so much a writer as a force of nature. Now 91, and with around 50 bestsellers behind her, she could be forgiven for—at the very least—allowing her novels’ energy levels to dip slightly. Well, not in this one: a richly plotted (and richly sub-plotted) 400-page tale about the impeccably topical subject of sexual abuse by rich, important men. Gina Kane is a thirty-something investigative reporter, who receives an unsolicited email from Cathy Ryan, a former employee of the huge New York media company REL News, mentioning “a terrible experience” she and other young women have had there. Before Gina can meet her, though, she dies in a mysterious accident…

As ever with Clark, readers who like their thrillers blood-soaked and brutal might want to look elsewhere. Yet, while she and Gina are plainly on the side of the angels, the novel is by no means cuddly. Clark has clearly researched the whole dark business of non-disclosure agreements, and her account of the ruthlessness of big corporations is both heartfelt and convincing.

 

RD's recommended read

The Body: a Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson is published by Doubleday at £25

Bill Bryson is probably still best-known for his funny and charming travel books, such as Down Under and Notes from a Small Island. But over the years he’s proved equally good at something that’s a lot harder to do: funny and charming science books. And in The Body, he proves it again, shaping enormous amounts of solid scientific material in a way that’s always a joy to read—and where virtually every paragraph contains at least one startling, even awe-inspiring fact.

The book goes through the various parts of the body quite systematically, but it also has plenty to say on the often alarming history of medicine, reminding us how recently some of the most basic truths of human biology were discovered. It also reminds us of how much we still don’t know—including why we hiccup, why we yawn, why we have two kidneys, why we have a chin, why we cry when we’re upset and what 98 per cent of our DNA is for.

Indeed, even our astonishing brains—“the most extraordinary things in the universe,” according to Bryson—haven’t worked out why we have these astonishing brains. After all, there’s no evolutionary need for say, being able to write music or do philosophy. (Incidentally, in one of Bryson’s many myth-busting moments, he also explains that the weirdly widespread idea about how we use only ten per cent of our brains is completely false. Nobody’s sure how the rumour started, but the real percentage is 100.)

In the end, then, it’s not surprising that the book is infused with such an infectious sense of wonder at the miraculousness of it all—as in this passage from near the beginning…

We pass our existence within this warm wobble of flesh and yet take it almost entirely for granted. How many among us know even roughly where the spleen is or what it does? Or the difference between tendons and ligaments? Or what our lymph nodes are up to? How many times a day do you suppose you blink? Five hundred? A thousand? You’ve no idea, of course.

Well, you blink fourteen thousand times a day—so many that your eyes are shut for 23 minutes of every waking day. Yet you never have to think about it, because every second of every day your body undertakes a literally unquantifiable number of tasks without requiring an instant of your attention.

In the second or so since you started this sentence, your body has made a million red blood cells. They are already speeding around you, coursing through your veins, keeping you alive. Each of those cells will rattle around you about 150,000 times, repeatedly delivering oxygen to your cells, and then, battered and useless, will present itself to other cells to be quietly killed off for the greater good of you.

Altogether it takes seven billion billion billion atoms to make you. No one can say why those seven billion billion billion atoms have such an urgent desire to be you.

They are mindless particles, after all, without a single thought or notion between them. Yet somehow for the length of your existence, they will build and maintain all the countless systems and structures necessary to keep you humming, to make you you, to let you enjoy the rare and supremely agreeable condition known as life.

That’s a much bigger job than you realise. Unpacked, you are positively enormous. Your lungs, smoothed out, would cover a tennis court, and the airways within them would stretch from London to Moscow. The length of all your blood vessels would take you two and a half times around the Earth. The most remarkable part of all is your DNA. You have a metre of it packed into every cell, and so many cells that if you formed all your DNA into a single strand it would stretch ten billion miles, to beyond Pluto. Think of it: there is enough of you to leave the solar system. You are in the most literal sense cosmic.

But your atoms are just building blocks, and are not themselves alive. Where life begins precisely is not so easy to say. The basic unit of life is the cell—everyone is agreed on that. The cell is full of busy things—ribosomes and proteins, DNA, RNA, mitochondria and much other microscopic arcana—but none of those are themselves alive.

The cell itself is just a kind of little room to contain them, and of itself is as non-living as any other room. Yet somehow when all of these things are brought together, you have life. That is the part that eludes science. I kind of hope it always will.


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