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9 September 2021

Reviewed in short: New books by Bobby Duffy, Paul Kenyon, Carol Leonnig and Claire-Louise Bennett

Generations: Does When You’re Born Shape Who You Are? by Duffy, Children of the Night: The Strange and Epic Story of Modern Romania by Kenyon, Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service by Leonnig and Checkout 19 by Bennett.

By Michael Prodger, Pippa Bailey, Ido Vock and Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Generations: Does When You’re Born Shape Who You Are? by Bobby Duffy

“We are teetering on the brink of a generational war,” claims Bobby Duffy, a professor of public policy, in his detailed study of how our attitudes to a huge range of issues are shaped by when we are born. The received wisdom, he says, is that millennials are snowflakes and baby boomers are selfish, and that Generations X and Z (“more mild than wild”) also carry with them assumptions that define how they view everything from climate change and gender to gun control and the frequency with which we should have sex. It is these differences that have made the culture wars so spiteful.

According to Duffy, however, the real issue is less generational attitudes and more intergenerational inequalities – “economic, housing and health” – which threaten the social progress that has previously been brought about by an age-blind collective will. The Covid pandemic and new technology have exacerbated the problem. He makes his case persuasively through a great deal of data diving, and his text is peppered with numerous well-chosen and telling graphs. Further polarisation is not inevitable, Duffy thinks, and reconnecting with different ages is the key to a more socially cohesive future.
By Michael Prodger
Atlantic, 336pp, £20

Children of the Night: The Strange and Epic Story of Modern Romania by Paul Kenyon

Vlad the Impaler, Paul Kenyon recounts in Children of the Night, used to test the loyalty of the subjects of Wallachia, now a region of Romania, by leaving a purse of gold coins in the town square. The purse was always found untouched, thanks to Vlad’s reputation for brutality. The anecdote, Kenyon argues, foreshadows the authoritarian rule under which Romania would suffer during the 20th century. His book combines personal travelogue with a history of the country, from its flirtations with ultra-nationalist rule to Nicolae Ceaușescu’s “primitive Stalinism”.

Kenyon, a former BBC reporter who is married to a Romanian, has a journalist’s eye for a catchy anecdote. He recounts how Romania’s first communist leader, despite leading a state modelled on Stalin’s, snubbed Moscow by building a steelworks (Stalin wanted the country to stick to agriculture) near the border with Romanian-speaking Bessarabia, recently annexed to the USSR. The despotic ruler Ceaușescu was also willing to defy Moscow when it suited him. Witty and fluid, Kenyon’s prose is readable without being superficial. His book is an engaging introduction to the rich history of a country that is often stereotyped and misunderstood.
By Ido Vock
Head of Zeus, 496pp, £25

Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service by Carol Leonnig

After the death of William McKinley in 1901, the third president to be assassinated in 36 years, Congress ordered that the Secret Service – then tasked with suppressing counterfeit currency – take on the protection of the president. But its work really began with the death of John F Kennedy in 1963. It is here that the Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig, who won a Pulitzer for her work about the Service, picks up the story. Despite its considerable length, Zero Fail is a pacy and absorbing account of the Secret Service’s heroics, close calls and blunders, from the telegenic Kennedy’s record-breaking number of presidential trips outside the White House, to Donald Trump and the storming of the Capitol this year.

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The Service Leonnig depicts is marked by bravery, as well as sleaze and stupidity: the Cartagena prostitution scandal; the drunken agents who crashed a car in the White House grounds. As for Trump, Leonnig writes: “[He] manipulated and politicised [the Secret Service] to a degree not seen since Nixon occupied the White House.”
By Pippa Bailey
Scribe, 560pp, £18.99

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Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett

“We were students of literature but we didn’t read in order to become clever and pass our exams with the highest commendations – we read in order to come to life,” writes the narrator of this intriguing, at times hallucinogenic, debut novel. Like Pond (2015), Bennett’s playful collection of short stories, Checkout 19 is funny and often obscure. Its unnamed narrator (about whom we know very little – and what use are such mundane details? Bennett seems to ask) queries the verisimilitude of memory as she casts her mind back to her time at school and university and the hours she spent working in a supermarket as a teenager.

The names of the books she read – as well as those she didn’t, those she pretended to, and those she did, but pretended she didn’t – fill these pages. Tarquin Superbus, a character of her own creation, recurs too, the city and century in which he lives shifting each time he appears. It is through these fictions that the narrator understands herself both now and as she has been; it is in the fickle nature of retelling stories that we remember the volatility of our personal truths.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger
Vintage, 224pp, £14.99

This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Eternal Empire