Books: Calcutta | The Universe Within | Scapegoats

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“Glasgow is a magnificent city. Why do we never notice that?” Duncan’s answer, in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, is that “Nobody imagines living here... If a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.”

Calcutta by Amit Chaudhuri

(Union, £14.99) * * * *

Such, says novelist Amit Chaudhuri, is the unhappy status of the new Kolkata – replacement for a Calcutta which glows with glamour but no longer exists. Bold and ambitious in its attempt to imagine the new metropolis into life, Calcutta looks at its subject from the inside out: “When people visit me in Calcutta,” Chaudhuri says, “I take them not to see landmarks, but people’s houses.” A fair bit of patience is required, but the resulting portrait has extraordinary depth.

The Universe Within by Neil Shubin

(Allen Lane, £20) * * * * *

The most wretched Irish peasant, said Carlyle, had “immensities in him, over him and round him”; he also asked: “Is not every meanest day the confluence of two eternities?” You get something of the same sense of limitless scale and possibility – of our simultaneous insignificance and vast importance – in this brilliant new book by the author of the exhilarating Your Inner Fish (2009). That first study identified “design-flaws” in the human make-up which could be traced back to our earliest evolutionary origins, opening up creation as a set of variations on a theme. Here, Shubin shows how the cycles and structures of life recur at the macro-level and the micro, from the tilt of the earth through the diet of the howler monkey to the evolution of humankind. .

Scapegoats by Michael Scott

(Elliott & Thompson, £20) * * * *

Since Homer’s heroes turned on Thersites, the scapegoat has had his place in the field of war – the ideal excuse for defeat. Himself a distinguished general, Michael Scott presents the stories of unlucky 13 scapegoats. Admiral John Byng was defeated not by the French but by the corruption and incompetence at the Admiralty. Drunk and insubordinate – but branded a red by commanders in a badly run camp in France – Lance Corporal Robert Jesse Short was shot for mutiny. Major General Jackie Smyth was accused of “losing Burma” – largely, it seems, to cover the backs of a clueless command. Scott finds in scapegoating a sinister alchemy that turns honourable warriors into underhand schemers – an ever-present threat to military integrity.

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