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1 June 2022

Reviewed in short: New books from Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa, Hannah White, Viola Davis and JL Heilbron

His Name is George Floyd by Samuels and Olorunnipa, Held in Contempt by White, Finding Me by Davis and The Incomparable Monsignor by Heilbron.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio, Anoosh Chakelian, Christiana Bishop and Michael Prodger

His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa
Bantam Press, 432pp, £20

On the second anniversary of George Floyd’s murder by the former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin, the Washington Post journalists Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa pose two pertinent questions: who was George Floyd? And what was it like to live in his America? This deeply reported biography explores the circumstances of the life and the aftermath of his murder, which reignited the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020.

Vivid storytelling drawn from interviews with family and friends reveals how the clouds of poverty, addiction and racism that preside over America often loomed over and got the better of Floyd. Throughout his life as a Texan high-school athletic sensation, a twenty-something college dropout yearning for purpose (and often ending up on the wrong side of the law), and in his attempts to start a new life in Minneapolis, systemic prejudice failed Floyd – and ultimately led to his death aged 46. This is a sobering and essential work in which Samuels and Olorunnipa also provide a harrowing window into the thinking of Miss Cissy, Floyd’s mother, who often reminded him that as black man in America, he “already had two strikes” against him.
By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

Held in Contempt: What’s Wrong with the House of Commons? by Hannah White
Manchester University Press, 224pp, £12.99

Published as the repercussions of partygate continue to be felt in and around Westminster, Held in Contempt is depressingly prescient. Its author Hannah White – the Institute for Government’s deputy director, who has worked in Whitehall on standards in public life – is a vital voice in translating parliament’s mysteries for an untrusting public. Packed with recent examples of both high-profile and subtle overreaches of power, this book is nevertheless slim and accessible.

White tracks how the government increasingly undermines MPs (take Theresa May and Boris Johnson trying to prevent them having a say on Article 50 and prorogation, or the government only letting them scrutinise the 2020 Christmas lockdown ruling in the New Year), and dissects how MPs themselves damage parliament’s reputation. A feeling of “exceptionalism” among some politicians, she writes, exacerbates bad behaviour and declining public trust. She concludes that perhaps only the Palace of Westminster going up in flames would prompt the reform that is needed. The building is dangerous, crumbling, and – as per the short-termist incentives for those within its mouse-ridden corridors – nowhere near being fixed.
By Anoosh Chakelian

Finding Me: A Memoir by Viola Davis
Coronet, 304pp, £20

Viola Davis, the star of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Fences, has collected nearly every accolade an actor could wish to receive: two Tony Awards, an Emmy, and an Oscar. Her success is striking, but with knowledge of her traumatic early life, it is also astounding. In her new memoir Davis reveals the cycle of poverty that her family was trapped in, the effects of which left her parents ill-equipped to provide their six children with a safe home in Rhode Island. She recalls rats eating away at her doll’s face, and the humiliation of being taught how to wash by a school nurse. Davis later discovered acting and made it to the Juilliard School in New York, where her world burst open – professionally and personally.

This memoir has pacey, cutting prose, and feels as if Davis wrote it almost in defiance of her own success. She is determined to be honest about the years before the photoshoots and red carpets, where she grafted for poorly paid roles and was exploited by an industry entrenched in racism and misogyny. It’s this rawness that makes Finding Me a searing read, leaving you in only greater awe of Davis’s life and work.
By Christiana Bishop

The Incomparable Monsignor: Francesco Bianchini’s World of Science, History and Court Intrigue by JL Heilbron
Oxford University Press, 336pp, £20

Francesco Bianchini (1662-1729) was one of those polymathic figures with which the past seemingly abounded. He served three popes; was instrumental in reforming the calendar; was an astronomer of note who helped build a solar observatory in the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli in Rome; he was an archaeologist of the ancient city (who badly damaged his leg in an excavation accident); and a diplomat. A pan-European figure, he was elected to the Royal Society in London when proposed by Isaac Newton, who thought Bianchini one of the world’s “candid seekers of truth”. For good measure, he later joined the court of James Stuart, the Old Pretender, in Rome.

The historian JL Heilbron’s new work does justice to this multifarious man and his fascinating career. As Bianchini did himself, he balances the life’s constituent parts while shedding light on everything from the politics of the Curia and the Stuart court in exile to the desired length of the best telescopes of the day.
By Michael Prodger

[See also: Reviewed in Short: New titles from Kris Manjapra, Karolina Ramqvist and Emilie Pine]

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This article appears in the 01 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Platinum Jubilee Special