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7 July 2021

Reviewed in short: New books by Mary Ann Sieghart, Terje Tvedt, Jarred McGinnis and Brad Stone

The Authority Gap by Sieghart, The Nile by Tvedt, The Coward by McGinnis and Amazon Unbound by Stone.

By New Statesman

The Authority Gap by Mary Ann Sieghart

Why are women taken less seriously than men? That’s the question the journalist Mary Ann Sieghart seeks to answer in her study of the “authority gap” that exists between men (trusted, empowered) and women (underestimated, undermined), in and out of the workplace. Sieghart draws on a wealth of data, including research that shows that women are interrupted more than men, and discussions with Janet Yellen, Julia Gillard, Mary Beard and Bernardine Evaristo.

This is a deeply researched, comprehensive book – so comprehensive, in fact, it can at times read like an A-Z of gender studies (“C” is for “confidence tricks” and “conversational manspreading”, “I” is for “incels” and “intersectionality”), offering plenty of “what” but little “why”. It is odd, in a book about male privilege, that so little space is dedicated to examining the psychological roots of misogyny, even less to the problem of childcare and the division of unpaid labour. And, despite Sieghart’s pleas for optimism, it is hard not to leave this book feeling gloomy: girls, we’re told, internalise bias, are silenced, sapped of self-confidence and forced to battle to be heard. All of which is true, of course, but it hardly makes me feel like fighting.
By Katherine Cowles
Doubleday, 384pp, £16.99

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books by Margaret Reynolds, Michio Kaku, AK Blakemore and Jay Griffiths]

The Nile by Terje Tvedt

Numbers can give an idea of the scale of the Nile, but they suggest little of the scale of its place in either the imagination or world events. The river draws water from some 3 million square kilometres and flows for 6,650 kilometres through 11 different countries, from Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean. Throughout history, however, it has also watered the cultures of a thousand different peoples and entered their myths; for some the river emanated from Paradise, for others it flowed over a golden stone staircase.

In his vivid travelogue and cultural history, the Norwegian professor Terje Tvedt journeys from mouth to source, presenting a deluge of detail about the sediments of history, folklore and nature along the Nile’s banks. It is the river’s ancient past and the stories of the eminent Victorians – General Gordon, David Livingstone, John Hanning Speke et al – that are the most familiar. Tvedt, switching effortlessly from history to reportage, also brings the Nile into the present with discursions on everything from Barack Obama’s family origins in Kenya and George W Bush’s role in South Sudan’s gaining independence in 2011 to Idi Amin feeding human bodies to the crocodiles.
By Michael Prodger
Bloomsbury, 400pp, £30

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[See also: Can bookshops survive in the era of Amazon?]

The Coward by Jarred McGinnis

Jarred McGinnis, an American short story writer and former academic researcher in artificial intelligence, describes over 59 brisk chapters his own experience of spinal injury following a car crash in which a woman was killed. It’s not entirely fiction and not quite memoir either; the distance between those modes, we’re told in a prefatory statement, is “measured in self-delusions”. The narrator, in his mid-twenties and newly wheelchair-bound, moves in with his father, whom he calls Jack, a widower and alcoholic still mourning the death of his wife more than a decade earlier. The return to home soil – a suburb of Austin, Texas – prompts a return to childhood memories of rebellion, substance abuse and a stint in a psychiatric hospital.

The book, efficient, bracing and bleakly comic, traces various parallel trajectories: Jarred’s rehabilitation – or acclimatisation to a new reality – and the gradual reconciliation between defective father and errant son are portrayed alongside a series of flashbacks that explain how Jarred ended up in his predicament. This whole process is embodied in the writing of the book itself. As Jarred reflects during a conversation with a kind-hearted stranger, “It felt good to unravel the knot of me into words.”
By Leo Robson
Canongate, 320pp, £16.99

[See also: Marina Warner: “I’ve always found it very hard to know what I’m like”]

Amazon Unbound by Brad Stone

When Amazon signed a contract with the air freight company ATSG in 2016, it didn’t just buy ATSG’s services. It also bought “warrants” – options to pick up about a fifth of the shares in ATSG itself, at a fixed price. Two years after the deal became public, Amazon made hundreds of millions of dollars because the lucky company that had won the lucrative contract with Amazon was, to a certain extent, Amazon. Jeff Bezos’s response to this, Brad Stone reports, was: “That is how it’s done!”

That has become how it’s done with a lot of other companies, too. Amazon has become a major shareholder in more and more of the firms it works with, gobbling up more and more equity in the knowledge that the market will reward it for being even bigger.

Brad Stone’s first book on Amazon, The Everything Store (2013), was about the rise of the e-commerce giant. Amazon Unbound, subtitled “Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire”, is about a company that has achieved critical mass, a size that allows it to act not just as a shop but as an investment bank, a shipping line, a postal service, a film studio, a publisher, a supermarket – an everything company.
By Will Dunn
Simon & Schuster, 496pp, £20

This article appears in the 07 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The baby bust