From Maggie O’Farrell to Sayaka Murata: recent books reviewed in short

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 was never easy in post-war Britain. Gareth Millward – a historian of Britain’s welfare state – attempts to carve it out in this thorough but entertaining social history of sick leave – a process any British worker will be familiar with (if only by sending a photo of a positive lateral flow test to the boss ).

Ever since the modern welfare state was established in 1948, the term “sick leave” has been charged. In the 1990s it was a nickname for prone Tottenham Hotspur player Darren Anderton, while in the New Labor years the tabloids described a ‘Sicknote Britain’ teeming with simulants. The Labor government even considered sending “mystery shoppers” to GP surgeries to check whether certificates were being given out too liberally. But this cynicism was nothing new: the government suspected miners of absenteeism in the 1950s. Millward goes on to explain how in 2010, sick leave — via work ability assessments and other tests for disability or sickness benefit claimants — eventually became the “fitness score,” 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]

The marriage portrait of Maggie O’Farrell
Tinder press, 368 pages, £25

Maggie O’Farrell sets the narrative arc right in the first paragraph of her new novel. 16-year-old Lucrezia, 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 terrifying epiphany: “As if you put a colored glass in front of her eyes or maybe removed it,” she realizes “that he intends to kill her.” The story then unfolds this chronicle of a foretold death – Lucrezia’s infancy, the mediated dynastic marriage, the intoxicating world of courtly power, and the flashes of love and fear that mark their brief and fateful union.

O’Farrell weaves her story from Robert Browning’s haunting poem “My Last Duchess,” and her register and language are more poetic than in her earlier historical fiction. Hamnet, a story about Shakespeare’s son. Her world here is made of silk rather than perchian, of the exotic animals of Alfonso’s menagerie rather than domestic animals, and of a ducal box in the woods rather than a house in Stratford-upon-Avon. Lucrezia is a beguiling central character, both innocent and wise, a doomed damsel in a dark fairy tale.
By Michael Prodger

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

life ceremony is a strange, imaginative, and disturbing collection of dystopian fiction. In this book, her third book translated into English, Japanese author Sayaka Murata explores “taboo” subjects such as cannibalism and objectophilia (the romantic love of inanimate objects). In doing so, she challenges our perception of normal behavior. The central story depicts a future where funerals have been replaced by bizarre rituals of eating the dead and then participating in sex parties in a bid to repopulate a dwindling planet. Another is set in a society where making furniture from human body parts is commonplace.

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Amid the madness, there 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 living together who start a family together. At times, Murata’s morbid creativity can be off-putting; for others, their refreshing taunts about traditional ideals like monogamy can provoke laughter. Marvel at Murata’s cheeky imagination and bravery, but be warned: life ceremony is 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 Dans Donald Fagen by Peter Jones
Chicago Review Press, 368 pages, £28.99

Living in a time reminiscent of the pessimism of the 1970s means it’s the perfect time for a book about Donald Fagen – a musician who, as one half of the American jazz-rock duo Steely Dan, helped to give this decade its cynical, extravagant touch. Anyone hoping for hellishly excessive stories, however, will be disappointed. Despite the narcotics steeping his lyrics, workaholism and perfectionism were the pianist’s demons in the rock era. Peter Jones exposes these constraints as both an asset – Steely Dan’s “precision was remarkable for the time” – and a personal tragedy. In the 1980s, Fagen was in therapy for his “intolerance to everything he saw as wrong.”

Jones, himself a jazz singer, stitched together a colorful story from scant firsthand material. He is at his sharpest when evaluating the albums and their legendary lush production, informed by his musician’s ear. But the reclusive Fagen was not interviewed for the book and is difficult to like, largely due to his demure public persona. In the end, the reluctant bandleader remains hidden. As a biography, this isn’t perfect – but after following Donald Fagen through five decades of grueling accuracy, it’s a relief.
By Chris Born

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

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