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4 January 2023updated 12 Oct 2023 11:05am

From General Electric to the gender health gap: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring the new poetry collection by Hannah Sullivan and Hotel Milano by Tim Parks.

By Will Dunn, Emma Haslett, Michael Prodger and Matthew Gilley

Power Failure: The Rise and Fall of General Electric by William D Cohan
Allen Lane, 816pp, £35

General Electric (GE) was the central enterprise of American capitalism: the research department, engine room and bank of the American Century. Founded by Thomas Edison, it spread power across the US, becoming a behemoth of trains, toasters, TVs, engines, media networks and computers. In almost every facet of American life, GE was a significant presence.

By the second half of the 20th century, under CEO Jack Welch, GE was the most valuable company in the world. But then everything changed; Welch’s successor, Jeff Immelt, took over on 10 September 2001. In a new age of uncertainty, GE’s extravagant bets on the future became less profitable. Immelt was a Harvard MBA, and his story is a cautionary tale of business education over practical intuition. The defining characteristic of Immelt’s reign was “success theatre” – an act that markets gradually declined to believe. In November 2021, having sold off swathes of its businesses, GE announced that its once globe-straddling conglomerate would be broken up. An 800-page tome about one company might seem excessive, but through the story of GE, William D Cohan gives a gripping account of what has changed about the United States and its people.
By Will Dunn

[See also: Books of the year 2022]

Rebel Bodies: A Guide to the Gender Health Gap Revolution by Sarah Graham
Green Tree, 288pp, £16.99

The gender health gap – the difference between the treatment received by men and women from medical services – was in the spotlight last summer, after the government launched its landmark Women’s Health Strategy for England. But, as any woman whose pain has been dismissed by a doctor can attest, the problem persists. As the health journalist Sarah Graham hears from a former GP, “medical misogyny is ingrained in our training as doctors. We are taught that if a working-age man comes to see their GP, you ought to sit up and take note because working-age men do not see their GPs.”

In Rebel Bodies Graham analyses this medical misogyny, from the concept of “hysteria” and the damage it still inflicts almost 4,000 years after the term was first coined, to the dearth of funding around female-centred cancer, to the unpleasant stereotypes about menopausal women and “neurotic” mothers. She skilfully includes those whose narratives might otherwise be excluded, including trans and non-binary people. The result is a warm, inclusive (but not chiding) insight into the realities and inequities of healthcare for the estimated 52 per cent of the population who were born female.
By Emma Haslett

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Hotel Milano by Tim Parks
Harvill Secker, 240pp, £18.99

On a Friday night in March 2020, Frank Marriot receives a phone call telling him that Dan Sandow – friend, rival, magazine editor – has died and his funeral in Milan is imminent: will he go? Marriot is not an impulsive man but he books his plane ticket: “Dan’s funeral has woken you up,” he thinks, “woken for a wake.” It is not just a wake, or the prospect of meeting Connie – a former lover of both men – that he flies towards, but both his own past and a sense of urgent purpose.

Tim Parks, a long-time resident in Italy, is an accomplished writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and this deft and affecting short novel combines his skills in both disciplines. Marriot arrives in an Italy struggling at the European epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic, and as restrictions quickly escalate he finds himself marooned in the luxurious Hotel Milano, unable to return home. His own problems, however, are secondary to those of other, unofficial residents in the hotel and Marriot, who has previously cut himself off from the world, finds that doing so again is no longer an option.
By Michael Prodger

[See also: The struggle for Italy]

Was It for This by Hannah Sullivan
Faber & Faber, 112pp, £12.99

Hannah Sullivan’s Was It for This – which follows her TS Eliot Prize-winning debut collection, Three Poems – contains three long poems. Here the idea of home, or spaces of belonging, recurs. The title poem begins at Sullivan’s childhood home and ends with a return visit in later life. With an ingenious irony, Sullivan renders these moments with an unreal detachment, but uses prose, which invites a more literal interpretation. Her formal dexterity is on display, too, in “Tenants”, which juxtaposes new motherhood with the Grenfell Tower fire. She marshals allusions in a way that is reminiscent of Eliot, creating a bewildering, horrifying confluence.

The final poem, “Happy Birthday”, picks up where “Was It for This” leaves off, but with a change of emphasis: “The first half having been/given up to space, I decided/to devote my remaining/life to time”. Sullivan meanders through the dead zone of a new year, but her reckoning leads her somewhere more hopeful, an invocation of “each instant’s disregard,/being self-contained,/for what might follow,/the flashiness of staring down/tomorrow”.
By Matthew Gilley

[See also: The greatest modern poems]

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This article appears in the 04 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak Under Siege