Home Doll industry Review in Brief: New Books by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa, Hannah White, Viola Davis and JL Heilbron

Review in Brief: New Books by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa, Hannah White, Viola Davis and JL Heilbron

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His Name is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Fight for Racial Justice by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa
Bantam Press, 432 pages, £20

On the second anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the Washington Post journalists Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa ask two relevant questions: who was George Floyd? And what was it like living in his America? This deeply reported biography explores the life circumstances and aftermath of his murder, which reignited the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020.

A vivid narrative drawn from interviews with family and friends reveals how the clouds of poverty, addiction and racism that preside over America have often sprung up and got the better of Floyd. Throughout his life as a Texas high school sports sensation, a twenty-something college dropout searching for purpose (and often finding himself on the wrong side of the law), and in his attempts to start a new life in Minneapolis, systemic bias failed Floyd – and ultimately led to his death at the age of 46. It is sobering and essential work in which Samuels and Olorunnipa also provide a heartbreaking window into the thinking of Miss Cissy, Floyd’s mother, who often reminded him that as a black man in America, he “has already had two knocks” against him.
By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

Held in contempt: What’s wrong with the House of Commons? by Hannah White
Manchester University Press, 224 pages, £12.99

Released as the repercussions of partygate continue to reverberate in and around Westminster, held in contempt is depressingly foresighted. Its author, Hannah White – deputy director of the Institute for Government, who has worked in Whitehall on standards for public life – is a key voice in translating the mysteries of parliament for wary audiences. Filled with recent examples of both high-profile and subtle abuse of power, this book is nevertheless lean and accessible.

White tracks how the government is increasingly undermining MPs (take Theresa May and Boris Johnson trying to stop them having a say in Article 50 and prorogation, or the government only letting them scrutinize the decision to lockdown from Christmas 2020 to New Year), and dissects how MPs are themselves damaging Parliament’s reputation. A sense of “exceptionality” among some politicians, she writes, exacerbates bad behavior and declining public trust. She concludes that perhaps only the burning of the Palace of Westminster would prompt the necessary reform. The building is dangerous, in ruins, and according to short-term incentives for those in its mouse-infested corridors, it is far from repaired.
By Anoosh Chakelian

Finding Me: A Memoir by Viola Davis
Crown, 304 pages, £20

Viola Davis, the star of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Fences, has garnered almost every accolade an actor could want: two Tony Awards, an Emmy and an Oscar. His success is striking, but with the knowledge of his traumatic youth, it is also staggering. In her new memoir, Davis reveals the cycle of poverty her family was trapped in, the effects of which left her parents ill-equipped to provide their six children with a safe home in Rhode Island. She remembers the rats gnawing on her doll‘s face and the humiliation of being taught how to bathe by a school nurse. Davis later discovered acting and went to the Juilliard School in New York, where her world opened up – professionally and personally.

This memoir has fast, cutting prose, and gives the impression that Davis wrote it almost in defiance of his own success. She’s determined to be honest about the years leading up to photoshoots and red carpets, where she grafted herself for poorly paid roles and was exploited by an industry rooted in racism and misogyny. It is this rawness that makes To find me a searing read, leaving you in greater awe of Davis’ life and work.
By Christiana Bishop

The Incomparable Monsignor: The World of Science, History and Legal Intrigue by Francesco Bianchini by JL Heilbron
Oxford University Press, 336 pages, £20

Francesco Bianchini (1662-1729) was one of those polymath figures whose past seemed to abound. He served three popes; was instrumental in calendar reform; was a renowned astronomer who helped build a solar observatory in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Rome; he was an archaeologist from the ancient city (who badly damaged his leg in an excavation accident); and a diplomat. A pan-European figure, he was elected to the Royal Society of London on the nomination of Isaac Newton, who considered Bianchini one of the world’s “candid seekers of truth”. For good measure, he later joined the court of James Stuart, the Old Pretender, in Rome.

The new book by historian JL Heilbron does justice to this multifaceted man and his fascinating journey. Like Bianchini himself, he balances the building blocks of life while shedding light on everything from the politics of the Curia and the exiled Stuart court to the desired length of the best telescopes of the day.
By Michael Prodger

[See also: Reviewed in Short: New titles from Kris Manjapra, Karolina Ramqvist and Emilie Pine]