Welcome to our weekly Books Digest where we round up the new books you should and shouldn’t read. This week features When We Were Birds by Anyanna Lloyd Banwo, A Class of Their Own: Adventures in Tutoring the Super-Rich by Matt Knott, and Emotional: The New Thinking about Feelings by Leonard Mlodinow.
For more books, take a look at our Books Digest archive.
When We Were Birds by Anyanna Lloyd Banwo (Penguin Books), £14.99.
When we were birds tells the story of Darwin and Yejide, two strangers living in the Trinidadian town of Port Angeles whose futures are destined to intertwine. Prompted by the intuition that he might find his estranged father on the busy city streets, hapless gravedigger Darwin moves to the city in search of financial stability, but must leave behind his mother and their Rastafarian faith to do it.
At the same time, Yejide’s mother is dying and her daughter is about to inherit her matriarchal heritage of being able to speak to the dead. the women of Yejide’s family are both human and not – they are descended from the Ravens, mystical birds that fly east at sunrise and “transform and release” the souls of the dead.
Fidelis’ graveyard becomes an unlikely setting for their romance, as Darwin and Yejide are thrown into adulthood and find themselves questioning their legacy and their future, only to find each other at the end of each answer.
Banwo effortlessly blends magical realism, romance, and a gothic ghost story to create a beautiful and emotional work of writing. Characters jump pages and images take you straight to the streets of Port Angeles; When we were birds is a hauntingly beautiful debut album, sure to become a classic.
A Class Apart: Adventures in Tutoring the Super-Wealthy by Matthew Hammett Knott (Orion Publishing), £16.99.
When Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy overnight, hundreds of thousands of students graduated headlong into a crippling recession. In that unlucky “Class of 2008” was Matt Knott, a brave Cambridge graduate who dreamed of pursuing an award-winning career as a filmmaker (dreams now realized). The financial crisis may have put plans to put Hollywood on hold, but when the graduate received a text from his friend Zoe, his fortunes changed dramatically. After hearing that Zoe was earning “£30 an hour helping children with homework”, Knott went to the big smoke to meet Phillipa, who ran an elite tutoring agency. “Don’t worry about the experience,” says Phillipa, “you went to Cambridge. Customers love it.
“Love” would be an understatement. Knotts A Class Apart: Adventures of the Super Rich reveals the wacky extremes the 1% will go to secure their children’s places in the best schools in the country, treating anyone who has Oxbridge on their CV as a “designer tag”. From his vantage point as a tutor to the privileged, Knott wields his pen and describes a stunning cast of characters. We discover London’s most opulent mansions and meet the Real Housewives of Highgate, Kensington and Chelsea.
Readers are also treated to Knott’s laughable paintings of globetrotters around the world. He travels to Moscow and gets spanked by a Russian oligarch with a birch branch, is forced to ski at St Moritz and fears he will ‘behead the heir to the Rothschild fortune’, he watches pheasants being shot from the sky in Hampshire, goes on safari in Kenya, and even has an affair with “Gustav the Butler” in the hills of Tuscany. You can’t help but wonder how the hell he managed to fit into series of verbal reasoning and algebra between the seemingly bottomless series of caviar and champagne?
Throughout the book, Knott peppers the pages with amusing anecdotes and witticisms, but it’s his background as the son of two teachers that shapes the tongue-in-cheek narrative. Thanks to a generous staff scholarship, Knott himself attended a prestigious boarding school and rubbed shoulders with people who spent Christmas in Barbados while he tied a cheap bow tie and earned “£4 pouring champagne at weddings”. His own training allowed him to see with his own eyes how the “other half lived” and when he started tutoring he couldn’t help but approach teaching with a “victim complex”. minor and permanent insecurity around rich people”. But this is far from being a defect, and in fact it is A class apart greatest asset as an outsider/insider’s irrefutable account of the utter absurdity of the super-rich.
Emotional: The New Reflection on Feelings by Leonard Mlodinow (Penguin Books), £20.
Whether we like it or not, we experience emotions every day. From the drive for lust and love to the protective function of fear and anxiety, emotions are both socially and scientifically fascinating. But what are these sensations that we have come to classify as emotions? How do they appear in our brain and how do they influence our daily thoughts and decisions? In his latest book Emotional: the new way of thinking about feelingsMlodinow goes beyond the conventional view of emotion as an obstacle to ration and reason and instead emphasizes their importance in our daily lives and in our evolution as a species.
Writing with conviction, Mlodinow draws on the social, cultural, neurological and cognitive aspects of emotion. We are taught the difference between natural reflex and emotional response and how emotion relates to daily action. With a clear and well-written introduction, Mlodinow is initially quite convincing in his assertions. However, it is easy to get carried away by his enthusiasm – his language borders on evangelical as he seems to be the victim of confirmation bias – seeking the importance behind the emotions to the point where, as a reader, one becomes fishy word.
The book alternates between anecdotal evidence, short summaries of studies, and ends with what looks like a quick guide to emotional regulation — acceptance, meditation, and self-expression. The studies are well described and interesting, and the stories – including those of her parents’ survival in the Holocaust – are moving. However, what is missing is the core of science – theory and explanation.
Despite Mlodinow’s claims of a bold new theory of emotions, there is nothing revolutionary about what follows. The material is interesting and light reading for those who want to dip their toes into the world of thought, but for those who want to delve into our deep psyches, you will be disappointed.