Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Rebecca Stott, Antony Beevor and Kathleen Riley.

Darwin's Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists by Rebecca Stott

“There may be no such thing as originality,” Richard Fortey writes in the Guardian in his review of Rebecca Stott’s latest book. It’s a work that examines just such an idea. What Stott calls "ghosts" are Darwin’s intellectual forebears – his predecessors and his contemporaries whose parallel researches gave rise, indirectly otherwise, to his own discoveries. The Origin of Species acknowledged a list of such  great minds; Stott’s book unearths and ever more intriguing list, revealing the way in which the strand of evolutionary thought has - like a living organism - refined, absorbed, and mutated over time.

Fortey finds Stott’s list “more interesting” than Darwin’s own. He’s fascinated by her exploration of an “extraordinary batch of free thinkers” such as French consul in Cairo Benoît de Maillet, Swiss naturalist Abraham Tremblay, and Renaissance ecologist al-Jahiz. “Every character that Stott introduces has a riveting story to tell, and all their histories are told with style and historical nous.”

But Fortey des not see these character are any discredit to the great theorist, rather an enriching backdrop against which Darwin worked – a great thinker who looked at the phenomenon of natural selection with fresh eyes. “As so often before and after, he [Darwin] was starting afresh, open to past influences, but fuelled by his Beagle voyage….the 19th century was truly the right time for evolution to emerge from the shadows…Stott has done a wonderful job in showing just how many extraordinary people had speculated on where we came from before the great theorist dispelled all doubts”.

Ziauddin Sardar, writing in the Independent , also lauds Stott’s efforts to show that “Darwin stood on the shoulders of giants.” He reads the book as less forgiving of Darwin, stating at the outset that “Charles Darwin was not the first person to observe mutation of species or work on natural selection. Indeed, the notion of evolution was not particularly original in Darwin's time.” Equally impressed by Scott’s detective work, he calls her thorough and unusual catalogue of “unsung heroes” a “fascinating history of an idea that is crucial to our understanding of life on earth.”

Gillian Beer, writing in the Telgraph, points out that Darwin was known for his ceaseless interrogations of the natural world. Stott shows “some of the same zeal in asking unexpected questions.” She calls the book “extraordinarily wide-ranging and engaging”, and places particular emphasis on Stott’s novelistic accomplishment: “each of her subjects emerges as living in ordinary weather and among objects, family, and political difficulties. So, without sentimentality, we come to feel the value of these often obsessional men”.

She picks up on Stott’s own awareness of evolutionary theory not as a linear, upward trajectory, but rather a sinuous, stop-start footpath. “Although the book is arranged chronologically, the ideas pursued did not steadily accumulate nor did the people Stott describes often feed off each other’s knowledge. Insights flourished and were lost…. She draws on an array of scholarship and assembles it into an intricate sequence of stories and investigations that are her own. The outcome is gripping as well as fair-minded.”

An essay by Rebecca Stott on Darwin's "ghosts" was published in the New Statesman on 16 May.

 

The Second World War by Antony Beevor

Former British army officer and acclaimed author of several histories, Beevor’s latest is a sweeping study of the Second World War, beginning from the unusual starting point of a Japanese victory at the Mongolian boarder in 1939. From there he turns his gaze across Europe and the Pacific, composing what Ian Thomson in the Spectator calls “a lucid and wide-ranging account of the most destructive war of all time”.

“Antony Beevor has done a great deal to popularise history,” writes Roger Moorhouse in the Independent. He calls The Second World War “a handsome, yet rather daunting doorstop of a book. But happily, its 800-odd pages fly by with considerable speed, as Beevor warms to his task, being especially strong on grand strategy and on the experience of ordinary soldiers. The narrative never flags and the myriad pieces of this intricate kaleidoscope are pieced together with exemplary skill.”

Moorhouse praises Beevor’s “searing accounts of man's inhumanity to his fellow man” and his “eye-opening revelations” including sanctioned cannibalism in the Japanese army. He finds fault only with comparison to Beevor’s previous work: “In tackling such a vast subject, Beevor has been obliged to sacrifice too much of the very aspect that had become his stylistic trademark: the telling anecdote, the poignant aside, the illuminating vignette. The result is that the book – for all its excellence – appears to lack some of the pizzazz of his earlier offerings.”

Overall though, he finds the work well worth his time, calling it a “splendid book, erudite, with an admirable clarity of thought and expression. For a summary of the Second World War – who did what to whom, when and why – the general reader would need look no further.”

Tony Barber, writing in the Financial Times, admired Beevor’s accomplished narrative. “Every nation experienced and remembers the war in different ways…” he writes. “A general history of the war needs to embrace this variety of experience and capture the interplay between the momentous events unfolding on different continents and the high seas. Antony Beevor effectively meets this challenge.”

He notes especially Beevor's knowledge of “how to keep a good story rolling”, delighting in the details: “Beevor shows an original touch by drawing attention to little-known but revealing episodes”.

“The Second World War is not without flaws,” he notes. “It is a narrative history from start to finish, mainly military in its focus. As such, it is too rigidly structured to permit proper treatment of important themes such as the war economies of the participants … Where Beevor mentions the economics of the war, his touch is less sure than normal.”

But overall though it’s high praise for a mammoth undertaking of such dense and varied subject matter.  “Beevor’s book is a pleasure to read and an example of intelligent, lively historical writing at its best.”

John Gray’s review of "The Second World" War by Antony Beevor will appear in the next issue of the New Statesman, out tomorrow.

 

The Astairs: Fred and Adele by Kathleen Riley

“It is hard to believe that Kathleen Riley’s The Astaires is the first full-length study of the celebrated partnership that so defined 20th-century musical comedy,” wrote Sarah Churchwell in the New Statesman last week, and it seems critics across the board are similarly eager for this account of the famous dancers. Ethan Morden, writing in the Wall Street Journal, delights at the arrival of an overdue biography.  “It's quite a saga,” he says of Fred Astaire’s life, “but we really only know its second half…thanks to his imperishable movies Fred is linked with Ginger Rogers; or with the most beautiful of his partners, Rita Hayworth; or with the most effervescent of his partners, Judy Garland; or with the most technically accomplished of his partners, Eleanor Powell…The most Astaire of his partners is forgotten… Kathleen Riley's book on Fred and Adele…is a welcome rehabilitation.”

He enjoys Riley rendering of the “crazy joy” and “guiltless worldview” that was theatre of the 1920s, calling The Astaires “a salute to an America at ease with itself and doing something wonderful in the song-and-dance line that seemed, for a time, like the hottest thing in the culture.”

Churchwell points towards Riley’s successes, especially the way she “usefully contextualises the way in which his partnership with Adele col­oured Fred’s initial reluctance to partner with Rogers.”

However, she finds fault with Riley’s apparently uncritical adoration of her subjects. “The Astaires undoubtedly deserve our admiration but The Astaires flirts with hagiography.” She cites one example in particular: “Noting that Fred referred in the 1920s to the blues as 'nigger music', Riley hastens to assure us that this does not mean he was a racist: 'It should be stressed that Astaire’s use of the term ‘nigger’ in this context was not intended to cause offence. It is indicative of a less sensitive and less enlightened era regarding race issues.' That’s one way of putting it. Another is that it was indicative of racism, of a time when white people didn’t give a damn if they caused offence to black people, rendering the question of intention entirely moot.”

Despite finding the book “reluctant to be too plain-speaking” and “partial to “occasional fits of overwriting”, she calls the work “an important, overdue recognition of the contribution that this remarkable partnership made to the popular theatre”.

Former New York City ballet dancer Toni Bentley writes an engaging review for the New York Times. “Astaire is our American Casanova camouflaged in tux and tails…In her fascinating new book, 'The Astaires,' the Australian theater historian Kathleen Riley describes the exploits of this brother-sister team in glorious detail.”

She applauds Riley's illumination of a relationship that shaped the world's most celebrated partner-dancer: “It becomes clear that it was behind and beside, but never in front of, Adele that Fred learned not only how to dance, but how to present a woman, honour her and make her glow.”

“Riley’s book suffers, though not egregiously,” Bentley argues, “from the rather humour­less, linear reportage — the laundry-list narrative — and the slightly defensive tone of so much academic writing, in which being correct is clearly more valued than being interesting”.

But overall, “Riley performs the great service of giving us the history before the history, of Fred and Adele, the biggest vaudeville and musical theater stars of their time. It’s a love story rarely told, of that between a sister and her brother, one bonded in blood but cemented by hoofing.”

In "Darwin's Ghosts", author Rebecca Stott invetigates the heritage of evolutionary thought (Photo: Getty Images)
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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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