Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Barbara Ehrenreich, John Burnside and Joyce Carol Oates

The straight story

For Jenni Murray in the Guardian, Barbara Ehrenreich's Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World "chimes with your own thinking, yet flies so spectacularly in the face of fashionable philosophy, that it comes as a profoundly reassuring relief". Christopher Hart, in the Sunday Times, describes it as "a portrait of America's desperate insistence on facile optimism", although he notes that "some historical comparisons would have added depth". However, the book benefits from her "sharper personal experience when diagnosed with breast cancer" and is "a highly entertaining, alarming read, and a ringing clarion call to America to brace up and remember sod's law". Janet Maslin in the Scotsman was not so keen, however, finding the book "padded with cheap shots, easy examples, [and] research recycled from her earlier books". Her conclusion: "This encounter offers more caustic humour than enlightenment."

Ghost town

Waking Up in Toytown, the second part of the poet John Burnside's autobiography, "is about as far from the conventional idea of a misery memoir as it's possible to get", writes Doug Johnstone in the Independent on Sunday. "[Burnside] brings his poet's eye for detail and his novelist's sense of the dramatic to the pages . . . always probing for meaning, for reason, for resonance in the rather tumultuous events of his life." The subject matter "is treated with admirable candour, which doesn't necessarily paint the author in a great light, but there is something underlying it all, a quest for some kind of honesty, that makes the reader retain some sympathy". Bee Wilson, writing in the Sunday Times, finds that this second instalment of Burnside's memoirs is "just as hauntingly written and, if anything, even more disturbing [than the first]".

Maiden voyage

Michael Arditti, in the Daily Telegraph, finds that Joyce Carol Oates's A Fair Maiden ("a spare, controlled work set on the affluent New Jersey coast") explores "such familiar Oates themes as illicit sexuality, male violence and damaging social divisions . . . it might well stand as a heterosexual counterpart to Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, albeit with its focus less on the artist than on his object of desire". Elizabeth Day, in the Observer, also finds parallels with another classic, Nabokov's Lolita, but fails to understand why anyone would imitate "arguably one of the greatest prose stylists of the last century . . . Unsurprisingly, Oates suffers by comparison. Although there is the occasional lyrical phrase . . . much of the writing is wilfully slow and ponderous . . . All this is a shame, because Oates is a far better writer than this book allows her to be."

You can read the New Statesman review of A Fair Maiden here. And keep your eyes peeled for an interview with Barbara Ehrenreich, coming this way soon.

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Commons confidential: Alastair Campbell's crafty confab

Campbell chats, Labour spats, and the moderate voice in Momentum.

Tony Blair’s hitman Alastair Campbell doesn’t have a good word to say about Jeremy Corbyn, so perhaps that helps to explain his summit with Theresa May’s joint chief of staff Fiona Hill. The former Labour spinner and the powerful consigliera in the current Tory Downing Street regime appeared to get along famously during an hour-long conversation at the Royal Horseguards Hotel, just off Whitehall.

So intense was the encounter – which took place on a Wednesday morning, before Prime Minister’s Questions – that the political pair didn’t allow a bomb scare outside to intrude, moving deeper into the hotel lounge instead to continue the confab. We may only speculate on the precise details of the consultation. And yet, as a snout observed, it isn’t rocket science to appreciate that Hill would value tips from Campbell, while a New Labour zealot plying his trade to high-paying clients through the lobbyists Portland could perhaps benefit by privately mentioning his access to power. My enemy’s enemy is my friend.

Is Ted Heath the next VIP blank to be drawn by police investigations into historic child sex abuse? The Wiltshire plod announced a year ago, with great fanfare outside the deceased PM’s home in Salisbury, that it would pursue allegations against Sailor Ted. Extra officers were assigned and his archive, held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, was examined. I hear that the Tory peer David Hunt, the ermined chair of the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation, recently met the cops. The word is that the Heath inquiry has uncovered nothing damaging and is now going through the motions.

The whisper in Labour circles is that the Momentum chair, Jon Lansman, is emerging as an unlikely voice cautioning against permanent revolution in the party and opposing a formal challenge from within Corbynista ranks to the deputy leader, Tom Watson. His strategy is two steps forward, one step back. Jezza’s vanguard is as disputatious as any other political movement.

The Tribune Group of MPs, relaunching on 2 November in parliament, will be a challenger on the Labour left to the Socialist Campaign Group, which ran Corbyn as its leadership candidate. Will Hutton is to speak at the Commons gathering. How times change. I recall Tony Blair courting “Stakeholder” Hutton before the 1997 election, but then ignoring him in high office. With luck, the Tribunites will be smarter and more honourable.

Politics imitates art when a Plaid Cymru insider calls the nationalists’ leader, Leanne Wood, “our Birgitte Nyborg”, a reference to the fictional prime minister in Borgen. Owain Glyndwr must be turning in his grave, wherever it is.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood