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10 July 2024

From Simon Kuper to Stephen Alford: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Anima: A Wild Pastoral by Kapka Kassabova and Sick of It by Sophie Harman.

By Pippa Bailey, Will Dunn, Michael Prodger and Megan Kenyon

Sick of It: The Global Fight for Women’s Health by Sophie Harman

The many ways in which women’s health is overlooked – the absence of women from clinical trials, for instance, or the lack of public knowledge about the difference between heart attack symptoms in men and women – are well known. But it is a “total misconception”, the international politics professor Sophie Harman writes in Sick of It, that “women’s health gets little attention in the world”. However, much of this attention is for the wrong reasons – such as restricting their access to abortion – while the right reasons (for instance, correcting male bias in research) are sidelined.

Why, Harman asks, when we know what needs to be done to prevent unnecessary deaths among women, are they still dying needlessly? Sick of It approaches this question from a global-development perspective, considering, first, the ways women’s health is politicised for others’ gain or jeopardised by conflict and legislation, and second, the ways women’s labour is exploited in the health system, including the selling of women’s personal trauma in fundraising efforts. Finally, Harman attempts to provide some solutions – most of which, in essence, repeat a familiar and painful cry: believe women.
By Pippa Bailey
Virago, 320pp, £22. Buy the book

Good Chaps by Simon Kuper

One of the more deflating things about being a journalist is that it can be hard to make people care about the really important issues. You can spend weeks trawling for information, persuading sources to speak to you, sending right-to-reply emails to powerful people and their aggressive lawyers, and then the story is published, and someone else has expressed an opinion about a divisive cultural figure, and the internet looks away. That’s what makes books like Good Chaps important: Kuper pulls together reporting from a range of sources and weaves them into an intelligible, compelling and enraging narrative. 

Subtitled “How corrupt politicians broke our law and institutions – and what we can do about it”, this is not a risk-free exercise. “I will call corruption corruption, instead of the preferred British euphemism, ‘sleaze’,” Kuper writes, a sentence which all but guarantees his publisher will receive a legal letter from every politician and high-net-worther whose name receives the briefest mention after it. But it is important to use these unvarnished terms, and not to kid ourselves that Britain leads the way in integrity: that is how the Good Chaps get away with it.
By Will Dunn
Profile, 224pp, £9.99. Buy the book

All His Spies: The Secret World of Robert Cecil by Stephen Alford

According to the historian Stephen Alford, Robert Cecil “was engineered to serve”. As the son of Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I’s chief minister, he was born into politics and court intrigue. Cecil would devote himself to the service of both the Queen and her successor, James I, and help steer monarchy and state through the most menacing times. This was the age of the Armada, the Gunpowder Plot, and machinations continually fomented in Spain, the Low Countries, Ireland, and at home too.

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Cecil himself, hunchbacked (“my pygmy” Elizabeth called him), deft and, says Alford, “superbly attuned to mood and atmosphere”, was, as befits a spymaster, an elusive figure. He may have been a “proud and ambitious wretch”, as some contemporary doggerel had it, but the smooth transition from Tudor to Stuart regimes was largely down to his careful and secret preparations – about which Alford is particularly revealing. While this book unpeels key events, not least the Catesby-Fawkes plot of 5 November 1605, to show Cecil’s involvement, it also functions as a counterfactual: what would have happened to the realm if this complicated man hadn’t been so adroit and so ruthless?
By Michael Prodger
Allen Lane, 448pp, £30. Buy the book

Anima: A Wild Pastoral by Kapka Kassabova

More than 30 years ago, the Karakachan dog – a breed that originated in Bulgaria – almost died out. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, the Bulgarian government connived in the near extermination of these shaggy, burly sheep dogs, coveted for their furs. They were saved by pastoral communities in Bulgaria, who use them on their rural farms. It is these communities around which the poet Kapka Kassabova pivots Anima, the fourth book of her Balkan quartet.

Kassabova is clear that this itinerant, fulfilling yet isolating way of life could face the same danger as the Karakachan dog. Shifts towards industrial capitalism and away from an existence that is intertwined with and reliant upon the natural world have put the viability of pastoralism at risk. Indeed, flowing concurrently are patterns of change within the natural world itself: wild fires, “scorched earth” and three-day storms pepper Kassabova’s prose. The dogs themselves are characters in their own right even if Kassabova’s attempts to humanise them can go too far (the description of one dog as a “toddler” misses the mark). This is a lyrical, if melancholy, book that captures an ancient community in a moment of flux.
By Megan Kenyon
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £22. Buy the book

[See also: From Neil Jordan to Lara Maiklem: new books reviewed in short]

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change