Book reviews: Bird Brain | Medical Muses | Childhood Under Siege

William Leith reviews the latest paperback releases.

Bird Brain

by Guy Kennaway

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(Vintage, £7.99) * * * *

Here’s the premise of this novel: a crusty old aristocrat dies in a pheasant-shooting accident – then is reincarnated as a pheasant. It’s a lovely concept, and you buy into it straight away. Basil Peyton-Crumbe, known as “Banger”, is one of the guns at a shoot – and then his gun explodes, killing him instantly.

“Not a moment too soon for me,” says his dog, Jam, to a labrador called Josh. Part of the beauty of this book is that you see things, pretty much immediately, from the point of view of animals. so when Banger finds himself getting out of an egg in a pheasant hatchery, we are perfectly primed.

Medical Muses

by Asti Hustvedt

(Bloomsbury, £8.99) * * * *

Asti Hustvedt has tapped into a deeply fascinating seam of medical history here. This is a study of hysteria in female patients in the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris in the 19th century. Hysteria, she says, was a mystery illness that afflicted lots of women. Its origins were both mental and physical.

“It was,” she says, “at least partly an illness of being a woman in an era that strictly limited female roles”. She compares it to contemporary conditions such as anorexia and self – harming. Her descriptions of patients, and of Jean-Martin Charcot, the doctor who treated them, are peerless.

Childhood Under Siege

by Joel Bakan

(Vintage, £9.99) * * *

In Joel Bakan’s first book, The Corporation, Bakan memorably compared large corporations to psychopaths. Here, he tells us what he thinks Big Business is doing to children. Terrible things, he says. It’s getting them addicted to computer games. Lots of these games are dodgy; they are nasty and violent. Also, it is making kids want to eat junk food. It is dumping chemicals; the chemicals make kids ill. It is pumping kids full of pills. The fallout from all of this: addiction, media violence, sexualisation, hyperconsumerism, and unhealthy products. Deep down, we all know this is true. Oh dear!