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From John Berger to Jenny Kleeman: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Power Up by Yasmin Ali and Ghost Pains by Jessica Jezewska Stevens.

By Michael Prodger, Megan Gibson, Sophie McBain and Megan Kenyon

The Underground Sea: Miners and the Miners’ Strike by John Berger

In this slim volume the editors Tom Overton and Matthew Harle have brought together a selection of John Berger’s writings on miners and the miners’ strike of 1984-85, now being remembered 40 years on. Berger, once this magazine’s art critic and a lifelong Marxist, was fascinated by mining and returned to the subject at intervals in an attempt “to give some idea to someone who’s never been near a mine, what’s involved in working in one”.

The pieces here are “Miners”, his 1989 anathema of the industry and a simultaneous defence of art; a selection of photographic stills from Germinal, the film he made in 1972 chronicling life in the Derbyshire mining village of Creswell; an interview conducted in 1963 with a pitman named Joe Roberts; and a piece written in 1968 about the nature and efficacy of mass demonstrations. Berger’s commitment to the mining communities was more than emotional, it was visceral: not for him the negotiations, agreements and quotas of industrial relations… the employer classes deserved no mercy. Nothing, he wrote, could be more “tender” than a “vision of the pitiless being summarily executed by the pitiful”.
By Michael Prodger
Canongate, 128pp, £16.99. Buy the book

Ghost Pains by Jessi Jezewska Stevens

At one point in “Ghost Pains”, the titular story from the American novelist Jessi Jezewska Stevens’ debut short-story collection, the protagonist Tina finds herself cowering under a table in a bar in Warsaw, hoping to avoid an old flame from New York who has just walked in. It’s a poor choice for cover – Dave spots her immediately. But the moment reflects a wider theme in Stevens’ collection, where women who are somewhat lost often find themselves looking to escape. As the narrator of the story wryly notes, “There are certain people for whose arrival one would like to be prepared: Hitler; your mother-in-law; yourself when you’re high and suddenly confronted with a mirror.”

This could be because a number of Stevens’ characters – the expats in Berlin, a newlywed in Italy and an ex-playwright in Siberia – feel haunted: by history, past selves or former lovers, or, in the case of one woman, by the creeping sense that she is actually living in the Weimar Republic. Like much contemporary fiction, there’s an atmosphere of late-capitalism dread looming over everything, but Stevens’ writing is so witty and startling that Ghost Pains feels entirely unique.
By Megan Gibson
And Other Stories, 192pp, £14.99. Buy the book

The Price of Life: In Search of What We’re Worth and Who Decides by Jenny Kleeman

How much is your life worth? The answer very much depends on who you ask. Research suggests that the average payment a hitman will receive to assassinate someone is £15,180, while the British government has calculated that a single murder costs the national purse £3,217,740. The government will pay £11,000 compensation to the families of those killed by domestic terrorism, yet when the army kills Afghan civilians the average compensation paid is £2,380. Such figures make for uncomfortable reading, but they are also morbidly fascinating and essential: the journalist Jenny Kleeman believes that our squeamishness too often prevents us from properly scrutinising the industries and actuaries who decide our market value.

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In The Price of a Life Kleeman meets gangsters, weapons makers, the families of people who have been murdered and those who have faked their own death, to expose the horrors and absurdities of how we calculate the incalculable. Kleeman’s writing is clear-eyed and humane. Sometimes we must assign monetary value to life, if only to distribute limited resources fairly. But even then, Kleeman argues, numbers are only useful if we accept how much they can’t tell us.
By Sophie McBain
Picador, 352pp, £18.99. Buy the book

Power Up: An Engineer’s Adventures into Sustainable Energy by Yasmin Ali

Yasmin Ali began her career working in oil and gas. After growing up in Iraq in the 1990s, amid intermittent petrol and water shortages, she decided to train as an engineer to find out how the world’s energy industry operates. As the tide began to move towards sustainable alternatives, so too did Ali’s career.

Power Up is the story of that shift. The author covers everything from how we can learn from those working on oil and gas rigs in the transition to offshore wind, to the evolution of solar power and how engineers are working to crack nuclear fusion and so create an abundant and cleaner energy source. Ali’s book is fascinatingly technical without becoming too academic. Her family’s experience of fleeing Iraq offers an engaging backdrop for her tales. But the author is sometimes overly apologetic for where she cut her teeth as an engineer before she began working in sustainability. Still, Power Up provides a stimulating and affable overview of how major feats of engineering can help the world beat the climate crisis.
By Megan Kenyon
Hodder Press, 336pp, £22. Buy the book

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[See also: From Marianna Spring to Jason Okundaye: new books reviewed in short]

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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Bust Britain

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
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