From Maggie O’Farrell to Sayaka Murata: Short Reviews of Recent Books

Sick Note: A History of the British Welfare State by Gareth Millward
Oxford University Press, 256 pages, £30

Who is really sick and who decides? The answer, in post-war Britain, has never been simple. Gareth Millward, a historian of the British welfare state, tries to figure it out in this comprehensive yet entertaining social history of the sick note, a process every British worker will be familiar with (if only through a text message with a photo of a positive side). flow test to the head of one).

Ever since the modern welfare state was established in 1948, the phrase “sick note” has been loaded. In the 1990s it was a nickname for forever-injured Tottenham Hotspur player Darren Anderton, while during the New Labor years the tabloids wrote of a “sick UK” full of simulators. The Labor government even considered sending “mystery clients” to doctors’ offices to check whether the certificates were being handed out too freely. But this cynicism was nothing new: the government was suspicious of miners’ absenteeism in the 1950s. Millward continues to trace how in 2010 the sick note, through work ability assessments and other tests for claimants for disability or sickness benefits, eventually became the “fit note,” shifting the focus to declaring people fit. to work.
By Anoosh Chakelian

[See also: Reviewed in Short: New books by Rupal Patel and Jack Meaning, Melvyn Bragg, Laura Bates and Paddy Crewe]

Maggie O’Farrell’s Marriage Portrait
Tinder Press, 368 pages, £25

Maggie O’Farrell introduces the narrative arc in the first paragraph of her new novel. Lucrezia, 16, daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, is sitting at dinner with her new husband, Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, when she has a chilling epiphany: “as if they’ve put some colored crystals in front of her eyes, or maybe they have been removed”, she realizes “that he intends to kill her”. The story then unfolds the chronicle of a death foretold: Lucrezia’s childhood, the negotiated dynastic marriage, the heady world of courtly power, and the flashes of love and fear that mark her brief and fateful union.

O’Farrell spins her story around Robert Browning’s haunting poem “My Last Duchess,” and her register and language are more poetic than her previous historical fiction. Hamnet, a story based on Shakespeare’s son. His world here comprises silks instead of fustian, the exotic beasts of Alfonso’s menagerie instead of domestic animals, and a ducal lodge in the woods instead of a house in Stratford-upon-Avon. Lucrezia is a seductive central figure, both innocent and wise, a doomed girl in a dark fairy tale.
by Michael Proger

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Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Granta, 272 pages, £12.99

life ceremony is a strange, inventive and unnerving collection of dystopian fiction. In this book, the third to be translated into English, Japanese author Sayaka Murata explores “taboo” topics such as cannibalism and objectophilia (the romantic love of inanimate objects). In doing so, she challenges our perceptions of normal behavior. The central story depicts a future where funerals have been replaced by strange rituals that involve eating the dead and then engaging in sex parties to repopulate a shrinking planet. Another is set in a society where it is common to make furniture out of human body parts.

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Amidst the madness are stories that are more believable, like one about an asexual couple who resort to medical treatment to have a child, and another about friends who cohabitate and start a family together. At times, Murata’s morbid creativity can repel; in others, her refreshing jibes at traditional ideals like monogamy can elicit laughter. Marvel at Murata’s brazen imagination and bravado, but beware: life ceremony not for the squeamish.
By Sarah Dawood

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books from Geoff Mulgan, CJ Hauser, Matt Rowland Hill and Hans Fallada]

Nightfly: The Life of Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen by Peter Jones
Chicago Review Press, 368 pages, £28.99

Living in an era reminiscent of the doom and gloom of the 1970s means this is the ideal time for a book about Donald Fagen, a musician who, as one half of the American jazz-rock duo Steely Dan, helped give that decade its cynical and dissolute edge. However, anyone expecting tales of hellish excess will be disappointed. Despite the narcotics that saturated his lyrics, the demons of the pianist’s rock era were workaholism and perfectionism. Peter Jones reveals these compulsions as both an asset (Steely Dan’s “accuracy was remarkable for the time”) and a personal tragedy. In the 1980s, Fagen was in therapy for his “intolerance of anything he perceived as a flaw.”

Jones, a jazz singer, has pieced together a colorful story from scant first-hand material. He’s at his best assessing albums and his legendaryly exuberant production, informed by his musician’s ear. But the reclusive Fagen was not interviewed for the book and, seen mainly through his fragile public persona, he is hard to like. In the end, the reluctant leader of the gang remains hidden. As a biography, this isn’t perfect, but after following Donald Fagen through five decades of grueling meticulousness, it’s a relief.
By Chris Bourne

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books from Sophie Pavelle, Brendan Simms and Steven McGregor, Ana Kinsella and Gerald Murnane]

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