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30 November 2022

Reviewed in short: From Derek Owusu to Luke Harding

Also featuring The Story of Architecture by Witold Rybczynski and Chokepoint Capitalism by Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow.

By Jeremy Cliffe, Oscar Williams, Christiana Bishop and Michael Prodger

Invasion: Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight For Survival by Luke Harding
Guardian Faber, 336pp, £20

On the evening of 23 February 2022, the Guardian journalist Luke Harding went to a dinner party at the Kyiv apartment of the Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov. Normality still prevailed in the Ukrainian capital, but Russian troops were massed along the country’s borders. Soon after 4.30am the following day, the war that many feared began. Explosions and car alarms were heard across Kyiv as Vladimir Putin’s forces moved in. The rest, as they say, is history.

Yet it is not just history, but an evolving present. Putin and many Western leaders assumed that Volodymyr Zelensky’s government would be liquidated within days of the first attack. It fought on, pushing Russia back first from the outskirts of Kyiv, then from Kharkiv and most recently from Kherson. Harding tells the story of the build-up to that invasion and the remarkable resistance it prompted – always from close to the front line, with a good eye for politics in Moscow and Washington, Berlin and Brussels. He concludes with a picture of a Russia now conscious of its own fundamental failure and a Ukraine ready to fight until its enemy is swept entirely from the country. As first drafts of history go, this is as definitive as they come.
By Jeremy Cliffe

Chokepoint Capitalism by Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow
Scribe, 320pp, £10.99

Robert Bork’s The Antitrust Paradox (1978) transformed American industry. The scholar warned that antitrust law was failing to promote consumer welfare. Rather than limiting corporate power, he argued, regulators and the courts should encourage mergers and acquisitions – if they lead to lower prices for consumers.

In Chokepoint Capitalism, the law professor Rebecca Giblin and activist Cory Doctorow explore how this school of thought has reshaped the cultural industries. They argue that the US’s decision to prioritise low prices has led to the growth of a small number of corporations that create “chokepoints” between consumers and creators. Amazon is the classic example. By pushing down the cost of books, it has squeezed publishers’ margins, resulting in less money for writers and those working in the sector. If pursuing lower prices suppresses wages it is counterproductive, because it results in goods becoming more expensive as a proportion of consumers’ income. This book provides practical steps towards rebalancing the cultural economy and empowering the people whose work drives others’ profits. At a time when there is political support for reform, it is a welcome intervention.
By Oscar Williams

Losing the Plot by Derek Owusu
Canongate, 154pp, £12.99

In this short novel the poet Derek Owusu imagines the life of an unnamed woman after she migrates from Ghana to London. He explores her relationship with her son, Kwesi, who is desperate to understand his mother’s past. The novel is inspired by Owusu’s own mother, who moved to the UK in 1989. In London, the narrator’s mother finds community in a church, but loneliness never leaves her. As Kwesi describes: “Being an immigrant is stress. Like you’re always remembering your people instead of feeling like they’re in your circle.”

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Owusu, who won the 2020 Desmond Elliott Prize for his debut novel, That Reminds Me, writes challenging prose. His sentences are vivid but unwieldy; some chapters are presented in long paragraphs and others as verse. When Kwesi’s mother speaks in the Ghanaian dialect Twi, Kwesi annotates the text for the reader, not only providing interpretation but also new insights into the events being described. Kwesi’s notes often reveal a bewilderment at his mother’s actions, but also sincere attempts to understand her. Although Losing the Plot has a demanding form, it is a beautiful portrayal of a child recognising the vulnerability of their parent.
By Christiana Bishop

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The Story of Architecture by Witold Rybczynski
Yale University Press, 348pp, £25

Among more utilitarian purposes, buildings, says the architectural historian Witold Rybczynski, are physical manifestations “of the universal aspiration to celebrate, honour and commemorate”. In other words, any building of significance is never simply a building. In this chronological survey of great structures, he sets out to show how architectural set-pieces such as the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York reflect the society, patrons and culture of their ages, as well as their influence on successive generations.

Rybczynski takes as his model EH Gombrich’s celebrated The Story of Art (1950). Like Gombrich, he does not include the great mass of visual material – quotidian buildings or “architecture without architects” – and although he touches on Japan, China, Egypt, the Gulf and pre-Columbian South America, the bulk of his book deals with the West. Rybczynski is unapologetic too about concentrating on time-honoured works. While this means the book is light on surprises, he is a subtle reader of buildings and their meanings, and this is an elegant and thoughtful primer on the built environment.
By Michael Prodger

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[See also: First review: The Waste Land by TS Eliot]

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This article appears in the 30 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, World Prince