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31 January 2024

From Adam Phillips to Kate Manne: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Pity by Andrew McMillan and Breaking Through by Katalin Karikó.

By Sophie McBain, Ellen Peirson-Hagger, Sarah Dawood and Michael Prodger

Unshrinking: How to Fight Fatphobia by Kate Manne

When the Cornell philosopher Kate Manne was invited to the UK in 2017 to promote her bestselling first book, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, she declined because she felt “too fat to be a feminist in public”. She doesn’t feel this way any longer, and in Unshrinking turns her analytical attention to fatphobia. The best evidence suggests that being fat isn’t a health risk – in fact, being medically “overweight” is protective, having “mild obesity” doesn’t increase morbidity, and being more than mildly obese is no worse for you than being underweight – and yet both doctors and the public are reluctant to accept this.

Manne argues that equating fatness with unhealthiness is a “smokescreen”, one that barely conceals the contempt with which fat people are treated. She writes in harrowing detail of her own experiences of discrimination and the cycle of shockingly disordered eating. Manne sees fatphobia as a structural problem, but her response is more individualistic. She is striving for “body reflexivity”, which “prescribes a radical evaluation of whom we exist in the world for, as bodies: ourselves, and no one else”. Claiming total ownership of one’s own body ought not to feel radical, but perhaps it is.
By Sophie McBain
Allen Lane, 320pp, £20. Buy the book

Pity by Andrew McMillan

In his debut novel the poet Andrew McMillan explores modern masculinity and how it intertwines with the legacy of post-industrial decline. The story follows several generations of a former mining family in South Yorkshire. In the present day Simon dresses up as Margaret Thatcher as part of a drag act he performs in local pubs. His boyfriend, Ryan, goes to see his show but is uncomfortable with Simon wearing make-up in public – a nod to his own internalised homophobia and the memories of the boys who used to call him names at school. In between lie scenes from an academic research group that is collecting locals’ memories of the town, as well as vivid descriptions of working in a pit, told from the perspective of Brian, Simon’s grandfather, who died in a mining disaster.

The novel is slim but full of intrigue, and throughout McMillan displays his poet’s knack for linguistic playfulness: “subsidence” is both “a material condition of the land around these villages” and “a parable for a people unable to stop themselves from slipping into their own past”. And then there is “pity”, with which McMillan passes a moral judgement on the state of this now deprived town, while holding tight to its most significant industrial loss.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger
Canongate, 192pp, £14.99. Buy the book

Breaking Through: My Life in Science by Katalin Karikó

When a highly contagious virus swept across the world in early 2020, there was mostly confusion, fear and stockpiling. But by December, there was hope: a vaccine. Little did the public know that this feat was largely down to one woman’s relentless perseverance.

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Breaking Through is the first-hand account of the Hungarian-American biochemist and 2023 Nobel Prize winner Katalin Karikó, whose decades of research into mRNA technology made the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines possible. She charts the painstaking journey she undertook as a woman and an immigrant to convince the scientific community to take her work seriously, facing demotions, research funding refusals and a lack of acknowledgement in academic journals. Her book is heavy on technical detail but also rich with colourful metaphors that bring the immune system to life. While exploring the endless potential of clinical research, Karikó also lays bare a startling truth: even life-saving scientific discovery is not immune to ego, favouritism and sexism.
By Sarah Dawood
Bodley Head, 336pp, £22. Buy the book

On Giving Up by Adam Phillips

“Giving up certain things may be good for us, and yet the idea of someone just giving up is never appealing,” says the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips. So, forswearing alcohol is good, suicide is bad. The idea of relinquishing something is, he believes, an ambiguous one and in his short but rich book he sets out to explore its many inflections while also examining “the assumption… that life is by definition always worth living”.

Phillips invokes Freud, Kafka, Musil and Thomas Mann as helpmeets in illuminating knotty issues. We give things up the better to feel alive, he says, so what does “aliveness” feel like and mean? How do we give up wanting? And how do we eschew a sense of loss? This is not a book that provides answers but rather prompts the reader to question their own motivations and what different choices might mean. “The whole notion of sacrifice depends on our knowing what we want,” he notes, and, although we are conditioned from childhood in the art of relinquishing, knowing what we want is not a prerequisite of adulthood.
By Michael Prodger
Hamish Hamilton, 160pp, £18.99. Buy the book

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This article appears in the 31 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Rotten State