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16 July 2023

From Ferdinand Mount to Isabel Waidner: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Crisis Actor by Declan Ryan and Women We Buried, Women We Burned by Rachel Louise Snyder.

By Zoë Grünewald, Ellen Peirson-Hagger and Pippa Bailey

Big Caesars and Little Caesars: How They Rise and How They Fall by Ferdinand Mount
Bloomsbury, 304pp, £20

Julius Caesar may be long dead, but his imitators  walk among us, writes Ferdinand Mount, the former political editor of the Spectator. Mount divides modern and past dictators into two less distinct categories. Big Caesars,  who want to see total social control, and Little Caesars, who want an “agreeable kleptocracy without opposition”. The latter are less harmful, but have more similarities with Big Caesars than we may realise, argues Mount. He points to the charisma, lies and opportunism of Little Caesars, and the fact that most are pretty short.

The writing is witty in parts. But what stands out is Mount’s thoughtful analysis of political history, such as when he describes how Caesars use bubbling societal resentments to gain power: “The skill of the demagogue [is to] unravel them and knit them together for his own purposes.” The book’s highlights include insider accounts of the last days of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, where reported conversations between officials and their leaders leave the reader wondering how these men made it so far. But elsewhere Mount’s thesis about dictatorships feels familiar, relying on the same factors that historians have cited for millennia. Ultimately, Caesarism is not much more than a new prism through which to see authoritarianism.
By Zoë Grünewald

[See also: Joyce Carol Oates, online and off]

Corey Fah Does Social Mobility by Isabel Waidner
Hamish Hamilton, 160pp, £12.99

In their fourth novel Isabel Waidner pokes fun at uptight literary culture. The German-born, London-based novelist won the Goldsmiths Prize for experimental fiction in 2021, and in this book’s acknowledgements they thank the prize and its judges for the award that “made a significant difference to my practical circumstances”. But that doesn’t mean they are unwilling to critique the system that gave them this opportunity. The novel’s protagonist, Corey Fah, has also won a literary prize, “The Award for the Fictionalisation of Social Evils”. “Did I say, I’d won a mad prize, likely by mistake,” narrates Corey, in Waidner’s typically informal, jocular style. The prize coordinator asks Corey to collect their trophy: “Do it quickly, before the judges change their minds,” she says.

Waidner’s sprightly novel becomes a quest. Along the way Corey befriends an eight-legged, multi-eyed version of Bambi, becomes a presenter on their favourite TV programme, and travels through time and space. The question of what being a prize-winner ought to grant Corey lingers throughout the book, which mischievously challenges received notions of social mobility.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

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[See also: Goodreads is degrading our literary culture]

Women We Buried, Women We Burned: A Memoir by Rachel Louise Snyder
Scribe, 272pp, £10.99

As a journalist, Rachel Louise Snyder has made a career out of telling stories of human survival and resilience from places such as Cambodia and India. In her fourth book, she writes her own. After her mother dies from cancer when Snyder is just eight, her father finds hope – and a new wife – in a revival tent, where people interpret tongues and are “slain in the spirit”. He moves his family halfway across the US to Illinois, where they live in a cult-like evangelical Christian community: a small, religious school; no rock music, no secular television shows or films without permission. “Cancer took my mother,” Snyder writes. “But religion would take my life.”

Filled with fury about these strictures and fleeing her father’s violence, she ends up a teenager bouncing between friends and living out of her car, attempting to create a stable existence for herself. Women We Buried, Women We Burned is written with precision and intention. It is affecting but, crucially, never sentimental – and full of hard-won hope.
By Pippa Bailey

[See also: Lorrie Moore’s American afterlife]

Crisis Actor by Declan Ryan
Faber & Faber, 72pp, £10.99

Boxers fill the Irish poet Declan Ryan’s thought-provoking debut collection, but this is not a violent book. Instead, in considering pivotal moments in the careers of Joe Louis, Buster Douglas and Diego Corrales, Ryan explores the psychology of performance. These men must steel themselves before they enter the ring. In the dressing room of the Hilton Hotel, Mike Tyson is “breaking down his gloves:/pushing the leather to the back,/so his knuckles can pierce through./He’s afraid of everything.”

The tenderness of these lines appears often in Ryan’s portraits of daily life, in pubs and cafés, around pool tables and down Soho streets. In the pub garden of “Mayfly”, “the sun makes brilliant hoops/from tarnished glasses”. In “From Alun Lewis” the speaker admits: “One way or another I make a lot of shadows where I go.” A “crisis actor” is someone who portrays a disaster victim in emergency drills. With his touching, rueful poems, Ryan says: don’t we all perform our own disasters, again and again?
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

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[See also: The monsters of feminist art]

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This article appears in the 19 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How Saudi Arabia is buying the world