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

Photo: Getty
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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

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 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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