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27 October 2021

Reviewed in short: New books by Ken Worpole, Craig Whitlock, Mary Roach and Ilya Kaminsky

No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen by Worpole, The Afghanistan Papers by Whitlock, Animal Vegetable Criminal by Roach and Dancing in Odessa by Kaminsky.

By Eleanor Peake, Michael Prodger, Ido Vock and Ellen Peirson-Hagger

No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen by Ken Worpole
Little Toller, 167pp, £14

Essex, fuelled by its closeness to the East End of London, has long been a cussed county with a deep streak of radicalism that has thrown up anarchist colonies, temperance societies, naturists and utopian modernist settlements. One such example of Essex exceptionalism was Frating Hall Farm, a holding of some 300 acres that in 1943 was occupied by a group of Christian pacifists and turned into a community farm where they forged a shared and productive life in the face of local hostility.

The social historian Ken Worpole became fascinated by the Frating experiment and set out to understand both its daily life and the joint aspirations of its members – most of whom were children at the time – by interviewing as many of them as he could. The result is a narrative of vivid characters and reminiscences in which the tyro farmers by day would become actors in community plays in the evening, and committee-meeting earnestness would dissolve into kitchen-table sing-songs. Walpole makes no apology for the occasional rose tint: while the community was busy making the farm, it in turn made them.
By Michael Prodger

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

The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War by Craig Whitlock
Simon & Schuster, 368pp, £20

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“Just invade only one country at a time,” was the advice one American diplomat had for his government in the aftermath of its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It epitomises the damning interviews recounted here by the Washington Post reporter Craig Whitlock. This book – based on hundreds of interviews with Americans involved in the invasion of Afghanistan, obtained under Freedom of Information rules – paints a picture of a government unprepared for war, in a country it didn’t understand, against a foe it couldn’t beat.

Initially set on toppling the Taliban in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the US quickly became embroiled in a nation-building project it could never sustain. Whitlock charts how the US set up and bankrolled a corrupt state whose survival depended entirely on its patron’s support. “We got the [Afghan forces] we deserve,” a White House official recalled, bemoaning that resources were diverted to Iraq when Washington decided to invade that country in 2003, in the process losing its focus on Afghanistan. The quagmire would only worsen over the two decades-long war, culminating in this year’s ignoble withdrawal.
By Ido Vock

Animal Vegetable Criminal: When Nature Breaks the Law by Mary Roach
Oneworld, 320pp, £16.99

In her seventh book on the curiosities of science, the journalist Mary Roach explores the unusual world of wildlife that spills into human towns and homes. She goes to live alongside murderous elephants drunk on moonshine stolen from locals in West Bengal (a region in which 47 people are killed every year by elephants), and to the Himalayas, where leopards stalk tourists on mountain trails. Roach is known for her quirky humour (“Yosemite rangers tried translocating the bears that were breaking into cars, moving them to the other side of the park. The result: car break-ins on the other side of the park,” she writes), and Animal Vegetable Criminal is as funny as it is immersive. It is littered with colourful details of characters such as Fat Albert, an Aspen bear who lets himself into local houses, placing eggs on kitchen counters with such lightness they never break.

The book is sympathetic to the complex problem of our coexistence with nature, and maintains that the dilemma of animals disturbing the peacefulness of our existence is only increasing in urgency. And what should be done about it? It’s a question that Roach asks, but never fully answers.
By Eleanor Peake

[See also: Reviewed in Short: New books by Gwendoline Riley, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Michael Spitzer and Matthew d’Ancona]

Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky
Faber & Faber, 62pp, £10.99

In an interview with the White Review, Ilya Kaminsky described 1980s Odessa – the former Soviet Union city in which he grew up, now in Ukraine – as one of “very few actually international cities in the Soviet empire”. Because of the influence of many different nationalities, he said, the city’s language was “kind of made up… You go to the market to buy cheese and you would hear new ways of creating a sentence.”

Kaminsky, who lost most of his hearing aged four after developing mumps, fled Odessa for the US at 16 with his family, where they were granted political asylum in 1993. But the innate linguistic innovation of his home remains in his poetry, which weaves Russian folklore, domestic anguish and political fervour together in an musical fashion. “My grandmother threw tomatoes/from her balcony, she pulled imagination like a blanket/over my head,” he writes in the titular poem of Dancing in Odessa, his moving debut collection, first published in 2004. Re-published now by Faber & Faber, it cements Kaminsky as a poet whose mastery of language is instinctive – exhilaratingly so.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

[See also: Your very own Sylvia Plath]

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This article appears in the 27 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Our Fragile Future