From Margaret Atwood to Gary Younge: new books briefly reviewed

Dispatches from the Diaspora: From Nelson Mandela to Black Lives Matter by Gary Younge
Faber & Faber, 352 pages, £14.99

This collection of journalism from the academic and former Guardian Journalist Gary Younge is a reminder of how much racism has changed and how much it has remained. The pieces cover four decades of reporting from Britain, America and South Africa, from the global response to George Floyd’s murder in 2020 to a chaotic evening with Maya Angelou. Younge also reaches into the past to examine real events beyond the most famous episodes of black history. In one piece, he tells the story of Claudette Colvin, who refused to move to the back of the bus months before Rosa Parks did, but whose teenage pregnancy prevented her from being a sympathetic test case.

Apartheid was ending when Younge began his career, but as he notes, its legacy is rooted in South African class and power. Years later, the election of Barack Obama marked a monumental change in one sense, but his moderate policies failed to match the hype. Younge’s work maintains a sharp and grounded vision, celebrating the power of community to create change rather than the promises of individuals.
By Samir Jeraj

(See also: Barack Obama: the well-adjusted president)

Life in the Balance: A Doctor’s Stories of Intensive Care by Jim Down
Viking, 256 pages, £18.99

The doctor’s memoir, perhaps the publishing industry’s favorite non-fiction category after self-help, has lately felt done to, well, death. Still, intensive care surgeon Jim Down’s broadcasts from the front lines of the pandemic – including his 2021 book about working in a Covid ward, Life supportand his role as the subject of Edward Docx’s May 2020 NS essay “The Peak” – never induced reader fatigue. IN Life in the balance he chronicles his career in the “twilight zone” of medicine, proving once again that there is life in the genre yet.

Down treated victims of the 7/7 terrorist attack in London and Alexander Litvinenko was admitted to his ward at University College Hospital. Moving beyond the “television drama” perception of an intensive care unit (ICU), his book is an exciting personal journey, perpetuated with self-deprecation. Down became “more anxious, more risk-averse” with experience – not the determined doctor he assumed he would be. He grew to doubt his life-changing judgments about who would and who would not get an ICU bed. As much an ethical consideration as an insider’s account of a hospital, Life in the balance puts a face to the patients under masks and tubes – and to those who are uncertainly burdened with their care.
By Anoosh Chakelian

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Old Babes in the Wood by Margaret Atwood
Chatto & Windus, 272 pages, £22

This collection is Margaret Atwood’s ninth book of short stories – a first collection of conceits since her joint Booker Prize in 2019 with The wills. At its heart is a suite of seven about a long-married couple, Nell and Tig, who look at what makes a life together, from shared first aid lessons, the characterful men they meet while living in France, and memories of a death pet cat. But there’s also the hollowness that comes when a partner dies, with its empty hours and shattered routines. In these stories, which correspond to fragments of a short story, the rhythms of Atwood’s longer fiction can be felt – the mixture of large themes and small details.

Elsewhere, she roams widely in stories that include a witch mother, an adventurous alien and the philosopher-astronomer Hypatia of Alexandria (although an imagined conversation with George Orwell is not one of her best). Atwood’s authorial voice is equally diverse. Throughout all the stories, she is less interested in a narrative than in the power of discrete episodes and how they illuminate a personality or idea.
By Michael Prodger

(See also: Nigel Biggar’s Whitewashing of the Empire)

Liliana’s Invincible Summer: A Sisters Search for Justice by Cristina Rivera Garza
Bloomsbury, 320 pages, £17.99

Mexican writer Cristina Rivera Garza crosses the lines between storytelling and investigative journalism in this shocking account of her 20-year-old sister’s murder in 1990. Violence against women then and now is widespread in Mexico, and the United Nations rates the country as one of the most violent for women in the world. Liliana’s killer, believed to be a possessive and controlling ex-boyfriend, escaped justice due to an incompetent criminal justice system that did not properly recognize gender-based violence.

The exact details of Liliana’s death remain unknown, but Garza’s creative collection goes some way toward uncovering the truth. She compiles first-hand interviews with family and friends, police reports, handwritten letters, Liliana’s scribblings in school notebooks and photos to reveal years of coercion and control. She portrays her sister as both a witty, loving and independent young student and the trapped victim of a persistent abuser. Her death was banal and horrifying in equal measure. This is a personal yet universal piece of creative nonfiction that demonstrates the insidious and often subtle epidemic of violence against women.
By Sarah Dawood

(See also: Roald Dahl’s books are inherently ugly – editing a word or two won’t make them pretty)

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