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29 September 2021

Reviewed in short: New books by Mary Hollingsworth, Jessica Nordell, Michaela Coel and Michael Bracewell

Conclave 1559 by Mary Hollingsworth, The End of Bias by Jessica Nordell, Misfits by Michaela Coel and Souvenir by Michael Bracewell.

By Michael Prodger, Harry Clarke-Ezzidio, Sarah Manavis and Leo Robson

Conclave 1559: The Story of a Papal Election by Mary Hollingsworth

When the unloved Pope Paul IV died in August 1559, the conclave of cardinals that met to choose his successor was short on holiness. Each of the 47 clerics present swore an oath calling on Christ to witness “that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected”. The leeway in the wording was abused in the name of three competing factions – Spanish, French and Italian – and proceedings came to a standstill. The conclave lasted 16 weeks before Giovanni Angelo Medici was elected as Pius IV, by which time one cardinal had died, the rule that the cardinals should have no communication with outsiders was in tatters, and the Holy Spirit had gone missing.

One cardinal, Ippolito d’Este, left a detailed account of proceedings and the Renaissance scholar Mary Hollingsworth uses it as the basis for her rich, full history of the politicking and personalities of the conclave. She weaves into her telling everything from the opposing factions and bargaining to the food eaten and the furniture brought into the Sistine Chapel for the duration. It makes for a fascinating narrative of the intermingling of secular and religious power.
By Michael Prodger
Head of Zeus, 320pp, £25

The End of Bias: How We Change Our Minds by Jessica Nordell

Despite what readers might infer from its title, The End of Bias, the first book by the American science and culture journalist Jessica Nordell, does not provide a detailed blueprint for how society should end systemic prejudice. Instead, it challenges readers to work to eliminate their individual biases, inviting them to embrace compassion and empathy. Nordell uses case studies and academic research to outline the positive effects such practices have had in controlled laboratory environments and in the real world, while also casting a critical eye over the effectiveness of the multibillion-dollar unconscious bias training industry.

The book is forthright in exposing the ways our preconceived biases, fuelled by historical inequalities and contemporary trends, infiltrate both personal interactions and key parts of our society such as educational institutions, healthcare services, policing and business corporations. She may not offer a clear solution, but Nordell expertly lays out the problems with the status quo – a crucial step in working towards change.
By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio
Granta, 368pp, £20

Misfits: A Personal Manifesto by Michaela Coel

The work of the writer and actor Michaela Coel is not the kind you linger over, but the kind you swallow in a single gulp. So it feels fitting that her first book, Misfits, is a short but impactful, director’s-cut version of her James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture (an hour-long speech given annually at the Edinburgh International Television Festival), adding detail about how she formulated it and her reflections three years on.

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When Coel delivered the lecture in 2018, it went viral for its transparency about her experience of racism, classism and misogyny working in the UK media, as well as growing up on a council estate in London’s Square Mile. In it, she disclosed that she was sexually assaulted while writing an episode for her Channel 4 cult comedy, Chewing Gum – an experience that informed the storyline of her Emmy-winning drama series I May Destroy You (Coel starred in both shows). In Misfits this narrative is given the rhythm and flow of speech; reading, you feel as though you were hearing it live. The book is slim and largely a transcript of the original lecture, but the prologue and epilogue give valuable context, breathing new life into a piece of writing that remains as relevant as it is powerful.
By Sarah Manavis
Ebury Press, 128pp, £9.99

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Souvenir by Michael Bracewell

Michael Bracewell’s latest book is an elating elegy, a portrait of the years 1979-86 in the form of glimpses, or near-vignettes, half-remembered, half-imagined, and heaving with imagery and semi-colons. There are 26 in all, starting with the emergence of colour and fantasy in the “pop-style zeitgeist” and ending with Richard Rogers’s audacious Lloyd’s of London building. New Oxford Street dominates, especially the Virgin Megastore at Tottenham Court Road, where an image of Marc Almond adorned a video wall. Bracewell notes a tendency towards nostalgia and prophecy in the music of the time. In a four-page riff on Prefab Sprout’s song “Lions in My Own Garden (Exit Someone)”, he compares the acrostic title – it spells Limoges, where the singer Paddy McAloon’s girlfriend was staying – to the kind of narrative game enjoyed by Umberto Eco.

Souvenir also marks the completion of a project that carries traces of propaganda, filling in the glorious years that came between glam (the subject of Re-Make/Re-Model, Bracewell’s book on Roxy Music) and the best parts of the 1990s (as treated in The Nineties) while pointedly neglecting the killjoy period – “1976 and all that” – whose end he is so eager to toast.
By Leo Robson
White Rabbit, 128pp, £14.99

This article appears in the 29 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spirit of the Age