From Lisa Nandy to An Yu: recent books reviewed in brief


All In: How We Build a Country That Works by Lisa Nandy
Harper North, 224 pages, £16.99

There is an alternate universe in which Lisa Nandy won the 2020 Labor leadership election. For anyone wishing to imagine the kind of leader she would have been, her new book, All In, will help. Here, the MP draws on her own background – growing up in Manchester with an English mother and an Indian father – and her time as a shadow foreign secretary and later improving herself to diagnose the malaise of modern Britain.

Whatever one thinks of the style, filled with typical political anecdotes – “It was the summer of 2018 and I was on the picket line” – Nandy makes a powerful argument for rethinking politics. The reason Labor should “seek power”, she writes, “is to give it back” to communities. The fate of the individual is tied to the whims of multinational corporations and distant world leaders. She argues that ‘silent patriotism’ is part of the answer, but refuses to provide her own ‘blueprint for Britain’.

On occasion, the book is revealing. Politics “sometimes has the unreal feeling of a masquerade,” writes Nandy. “That’s why when the rush to attend Prime Minister’s Questions starts on a Wednesday morning, almost without exception, I find myself going the other way.”
By Alona Ferber

White Torture: Interviews with Iranian Women Prisoners by Narges Mohammadi
Oneworld Publications, 272 pages, £20

As civil unrest continues in Iran — sparked by the September killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini by the country’s “morality police” — the regime has found increasingly savage ways to crack down on protesters. The personal stories compiled in white torture offer insight into the particularly sinister way in which the Iranian authorities distribute sanctions.

Journalist and human rights activist Narges Mohammadi interviewed 13 women, including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, about their experiences in Iranian prisons, where they were all subjected to solitary confinement – a monstrous practice known as “torture white”. Mohammadi is a competent interviewer: she spent many years in prison and is currently incarcerated. The women, all of whom were imprisoned for political reasons, recount mentally destructive isolation, unsanitary living conditions, manipulation and harassment by male interrogators and horrific physical abuse (including electric shocks). It makes for heartbreaking reading, but their stories highlight the bravery of those who still demonstrate against the regime every day – many of them young women – in hopes of something better.
By Megan Gibson

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Wild: The Life of Peter Beard by Graham Boynton
St Martin’s Press, 352 pages, £27.99

Peter Beard was a blessed man. He came from American railroad money, was incredibly handsome and loved other beautiful people, and he turned African animal photography into an art form. Beard, who died in bizarre circumstances in 2020, first traveled to East Africa as a hunter and only later realized big game had to be saved, despite hating the word “conservation”. Photography was his preferred method, and what enhanced his prints was the addition of everything from marginal notes and newspaper clippings to leaves and dried blood – often his own.

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Beard’s life is like an unwritten Hemingway novel. He attended bullfights with Picasso and was a friend of both Andy Warhol and Salvador Dalí; it was painted by Francis Bacon and was a neighbor of Karen Blixen; his countless lovers included Lee Radziwill and his future wife Cheryl Tiegs; and his equally countless scratches included being whipped for mistreating a poacher and being gored by an elephant. This is all a gift for a biographer, and Beard’s longtime friend Graham Boynton, a journalist raised in Zimbabwe, does his absurdly full life justice.
By Michael Prodger

Ghost music by An Yu
Harvill Secker, 240 pages, £14.99

This novel uses an unassuming symbol to explore the meaning of life: the mushroom. In Ghost Music, An Yu examines loss – not only in terms of death and relationships, but also its protagonist’s loss of sense of self. Song Yan is a young woman who gives up her ambition to become a concert pianist to get married. But her emotionally distant and often absent husband doesn’t want to start a family, and she’s stuck in an apartment with a stepmother who doesn’t love her. She is going through an existential crisis.

Orange mushrooms appear and multiply like “ghosts” to taunt her in moments of emotional epiphany, from the horror she feels when she forgets how to play long-practised piano pieces to the pain she experiences discovering her husband’s darkest secrets. Yu uses magical realism to infuse mystical elements into an otherwise ordinary Beijing city setting, and its symbolism is perplexing in places. Despite this, ghost music has beautiful prose and claustrophobic imagery that intensely evokes the alienation of its protagonist.
By Sarah Dawood

[See also: Books of the year 2022]


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