Books in Brief: John L Williams, Gene Luen Yang and Richard van Emden

Three new books you may have missed.

America’s Mistress: the Life and Times of Eartha Kitt
John L Williams

Orson Welles once called her “the most exciting woman in the world”. Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein and T S Eliot were among her many admirers. Yet the American actress and singer Eartha Kitt (the sonorous voice of “C’est Si Bon” and “Santa Baby”) was deeply troubled. She was born on a cotton plantation in South Carolina in 1927 and never knew her father. In the 1950s, she became involved in the civil rights movement and she continued to support women’s charities and LGBT rights until her death in 2008. John L Williams, the author of recent biographies of Shirley Bassey and the London-based Black Power leader Michael X, offers an affectionate account of a woman who was ahead of her time.
Quercus, 336pp, £20

Boxers and Saints
Gene Luen Yang

In 2006, Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese became the first graphic novel to be shortlisted for the National Book Award. His new diptych, Boxers and Saints, is set during the Boxer Rebellion in the late 19th century, in which nationalists in northern China rose up to “exterminate the foreigners”. In Boxers, a peasant boy named Little Bao is inspired by a vision to join the uprising. In Saints, a girl with no place in her village is taken in by Catholic missionaries. One story leads to massacre, the other to martyrdom.
First Second, 336pp, £12.99 (“Boxers”) and 176pp, £10.99 (“Saints”)

Meeting the Enemy: the Human Face of the Great War
Richard van Emden

In Meeting the Enemy, the historian Richard van Emden shifts his focus from the grim fields of the First World War to the small, all but unknown instances of compassion across enemy lines. A high-ranking British POW sings his troops’ praises to the kaiser; German soldiers try frantically to make contact with the families of British captives; married couples refuse to be split by a historical rift far beyond their control.
Bloomsbury, 384pp, £20

An independent book shop in central Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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Listening to recordings from the Antarctic, I felt I could hear the earth groan

The Science Hour on the BBC World Service.

A weekend of listening to the radio news ­revealed nothing but sounds of the sucker-punched going through their pockets in a panic and repeating, “I thought you had the keys.” So, never was talk of “a perfectly flat area of just whiteness” more alluring. The oldest Antarctic ice yet recorded was recently found. “For millions of years,” the presenter Roland Pease assured listeners  (25 June, 9am), “snow has been falling, snow on snow, all the while trapping bubbles of air and other chemical traces of climate . . . insights into the ice ages and warm periods of the past.” How was this ice located? “The finding part is pretty easy – you just go there and start shovelling, and ice comes up,” the lead geologist, Jaakko Putkonen, said.

There it was, buried under a layer of dirt “in barren wastelands” high in the middle of Antarctica. An “incredibly mountainous and remote and . . . quite hideous region, really”, Pease said, though it was sounding pretty good to me. The world dissolved into a single, depthless tone. Then Pease mentioned the surprising fizzing of this ancient ice – trapped air bubbles whooshing as they melt. Which is perhaps the thing you least expect about ice regions and ice caps and glaciers: the cacophony. Thuds and moans. Air that folds and refolds like the waving of gigantic flags. Iced water sleeping-dragonishly slurping and turning.

On Friday Greenpeace posted a video of the pianist Ludovico Einaudi giving a haunting performance on a floating platform to mark an imminent meeting of the OSPAR Commission, as it decided on a proposal to safeguard 10 per cent of the Arctic Ocean. Einaudi looked occasionally stunned by the groaning around him. A passing glacier popped and boomed like the armies of Mordor, ice calving from its side, causing mini-tsunamis. When last year I spent some time at the remote Eqi Glacier in Greenland, close to the ice cap, local people certainly spoke of the ice as if it were living: “It’s quiet today,” delivered as though gazing at the fractious contents of a Moses basket.

“This huge cake of ice, basically flat”, Putkonen said, perhaps longing for a moment of deep-space silence, for peaceful detachment. He wasn’t the only one being forced to reappraise a landscape very differently.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies