Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on David Remnick's Obama biography, David Mitchell and Helen Simpson.

The Bridge: the Life and Rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick

"Remnick's book is not impartial", writes Robert Harris in the Times, "The editor of The New Yorker, [Remnick] is overwhelmingly sympathetic to his subject. But then, in the context of the wider story of the black struggle for equality in America, how could he not be?"

Gwen Ifill, writing for the Washington Post, says: "Remnick efficiently strips some of the gloss off the version Obama offered in his best-selling 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father. [He] deserves credit for telling Obama's story more completely than others, for lending a reporter's zeal to the task, for not ducking the discussion of race and for peeling back several layers of the onion that is Barack Obama."

"The great achievement of The Bridge is the sheer voluminousness of its coverage", writes Patricia Williams in the Guardian."The structure of the book resembles nothing less than an epic, like the Aeneid, or a morality tale, like Pilgrim's Progress."

"The Bridge" will be reviewed in the forthcoming New Statesman.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

This "accomplished and thrillingly suspenseful new novel travels back more than 200 years", writes Peter Kemp in The Times. Dejima is an artificial island offshore from Nagasaki, "a place where two empires chafe against each other." Kemp continues: "As his earlier works have shown, Mitchell is restless with genres . . . Switching style, mood and tone, while continuing to deal with the same themes, is a hallmark of his fiction. Here, this is adroitly effected." In the Telegraph, Holly Kyte says it will "doubtless earn Mitchell his fourth Man Booker nomination, and, if there's any justice, his first win."

Elsewhere, Henry Hitchings argues in the Financial Times that for all its "moments of brilliance" Mitchell's rich imagery occasionally borders on the "self-indulgent", whilst in the New Statesman, Leo Robson calls the book "a disappointment." "The basic narrative grammar is treated as a succession of boxes to be ticked, or hoops to be jumped through", he writes. "The juggling of divergent perspectives in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, the adolescent solipsism of number9dream and Black Swan Green, have ill-equipped [Mitchell] for the challenges of the multi-character set-piece novel."

In-Flight Entertainment by Helen Simpson

"Simpson's talent for compression, and for working first-person perceptions seamlessly into a third-person narrative serves her well", writes the Guardian's Christopher Tayler of this short story collection loosely themed on climate change. For him Simpson "brings together an impressive number of micro-strands - parents, children, adultery, gardening, the Tudors - without becoming jumbled, congested or hard to follow, and comes to a sharp point." In the Times, Kate Webb agrees: "it is packaged with Simpson's deadpan wit - she is one of the most sharply funny writers in England today."

In the Independent, James Urquhart disagrees: "despite the muscular strength and succinct entertainment of the stories, the doomish density of her headline theme somehow dissipates the pithy attack that is the hallmark of Simpson's style." Likewise, Lorna Bradbury in the Telegraph argues: "the problem with the collection is that though the title story is well observed, the references to climate change elsewhere feel forced . . . It's difficult to believe that this issue drives relationships, and one wonders whether Simpson is straining for coherence in the collection."

Despite these criticisms, however, Amanda Craig in the New Statesman writes that at her best, Simpson can "easily beat other admired authors such as Lorrie Moore and Carol Shields."

Special offer: get 12 issues of the New Statesman for just £5.99 plus a free copy of "Liberty in the Age of Terror" by A C Grayling.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times