The radical book review
by Andrew Wear
(Oneworld, ISBN 9781786079015)
Reviewers don’t often highlight the process of reviewing, for the good reason that it is usually mundane: receive review copy, read book, write about it. The circumstances of this review are somewhat different, however.
I am reviewing Solved from a PDF file, not because it is convenient but because I am writing in the sixth week of UK lockdown caused by the global Covid-19 pandemic and it isn’t currently possible to get a physical copy of the book from the NI offices in Oxford to my home in the North East. It is either ironic or apposite that Andrew Wear’s book is an ambitious attempt to examine a range of global problems and the solutions put forward by various countries, as outlined in his rather unwieldy subtitle.
Drawing his examples from, among others, Denmark, South Korea, Indonesia and Australia, Wear shows how countries have tackled such problems as gender inequality, weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, and creating equitable immigration policies and healthcare systems.
Solved is packed with statistics and each chapter ends with bullet points which summarize the successful approach taken by the individual country concerned and outline how it could be implemented in the UK. Andrew Wear writes well and makes his points with clarity; he is careful to avoid the accusation that he is cherry-picking his examples and goes out of his way to examine counter-arguments to his thesis. This is an important book which puts forward realistic and achievable solutions to humanity’s ills and I wholeheartedly look forward to the day when we can give our full attention to arguing their merits and debating their implementation. PW
by Anna Banti, translated by Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo
(Small Axes, ISBN 9781913109004)
In the aftermath of the retreating Nazis’ attack on Florence in 1944, Anna Banti mourns the loss in its ruins of her manuscript of a novel depicting the life of Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the greatest painters of the 17th century. For the next three years, Banti recreates her novel and reimagines its protagonist who, like a phoenix from the flames, returns to guide Banti’s hand and to intervene in the telling of her story.
What results is a remarkable narrative in which the life of a successful writer and art historian in post-War Italy is intertwined with the fictionalized life of a successful Baroque artist, to the extent that the pair seem to speak together on the page as companions in creativity. Relationships – of the protagonist with her family, her society and her narrator – are at the heart of Artemisia, which was hailed a feminist masterpiece when it was published in 1947.
This re-issue, which includes an insightful introductory essay written by Susan Sontag in 2004, was planned to coincide with a major exhibition at London’s National Gallery, now sadly postponed. Writing in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and musing over her protagonist’s grief 300 years earlier at the loss of her father, the narrator notes that ‘compared to the scale of the universe, times of terrible devastation are not even a shiver’. Artemisia’s life had more than its fair share of horror, including rape and a forced marriage; her bold, vivid paintings (which readers should look for online) were her catharsis. This novel beautifully reflects both women’s determination to get through difficult times. JL
Becoming Kim Jong-un
by Jung H Pak
(Oneworld, ISBN 9781786077165)
Do we really need yet another study of Kim Jong-un, ruler of the world’s only dynastic communist regime? Possibly not, but Jung H Pak does at least bring solid credentials to the enterprise, having held positions at the CIA and led the US intelligence community’s analysis on Korean issues.
She begins her book with the standard potted history of Korea; from colonization by Japan, to partition in 1945 and the Korean War of 1950-53. She sketches in the background to the autocratic rule in North Korea of the Kim dynasty; established by Kim Il-sung, consolidated by his son Kim Jong-il and now continued by Kim Jong-un, elevated in 2011 to supreme leadership in his mid-20s after a life of cosseted luxury.
The author devotes much of her book to fleshing out what we know of the character of the man now in charge of a volatile nuclear power. The brutality with which Kim Jong-un tightened his hold on the country is well known, from the humiliation and execution of his uncle Jang Song-thaek to the barefaced public assassination of his exiled half-brother Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur airport.
Where the book is particularly valuable is in the startling parallels it draws between the tyrant and the man who disparaged him as ‘Little Rocket Man’ – Donald Trump. Jung H Pak argues persuasively that, despite the age difference, the similarities in the pampered upbringing, vanity and massive character flaws of the two men lead each to fundamentally misunderstand and underestimate the other, potentially leading to catastrophic consequences for the whole planet. PW
A Silent Fury
by Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman
(And Other Stories, ISBN 9781911508762)
In his latest book to be published in English, prizewinning Mexican fiction writer Yuri Herrera has produced an extraordinary and moving piece of forensic journalism.
His focus is on an event that happened on 20 March 1920. It’s about an unacknowledged act of murder and it’s deeply personal.
Going through company and legal records and press reports of the time, he gives a precise and devastating account of the El Bordo mine tragedy in his home town of Pachuca.
At 6.00am the alarm was raised that a fire was ripping through the mine. After a brief evacuation, the mine owners, the United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company, sealed the shafts. The company representatives claimed that ‘no more than 10 men’ were left in the mine and they must be dead by now. When the shafts were opened up six days later, 87 charred bodies were found. Many had made it to the exit, to find it shut.
Step by step, Herrera reveals the cover-ups, the prejudice, the deft imposition of blame on victims; the way the power dynamics play out, the company absolving itself of blame, and the scant respect shown towards the workers and their families, at all levels – company, judicial, news media.
It’s a story that resonates around the world today – from textile factories of Dakar to the London borough of Chelsea and Kensington, where the skeleton of Grenfell Tower still stands, covered up. And in this short book Herrera tells it with a poetic concision and eye for detail, made all the stronger for the narrative’s measured pace of revelation. VB