Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Blake Morrison, Christos Tsiolkas and Laura Bush.

The Last Weekend by Blake Morrison

"Morrison has created far more than a sinister take on the country-house novel," writes Christian House in the Independent on Sunday. "All his signature themes are present: the intricate complications of family life, the psychological mechanics of crime, the crassness of class boundaries and, most of all, the hypocrisies of modern masculinity. This is a suspenseful thriller," House declares, "but more importantly it succeeds as an exceedingly clever investigation into the strangeness of lies."

For John O'Connell, writing in the Times, "Ian [the narrator] is an authentic, copper-bottomed monster. But Morrison is too subtle a writer to leave it at that. The most fascinating aspect of The Last Weekend is its suggestion that Ian's bitterness and paranoia are explicable, if not justified."

In the Telegraph, David Robson opines that "the plot is touch artificial . . . [revolving] around a silly bet struck 20 years before. But the human basis for the story has the ring of truth. Meanwhile, the Guardian's Stephanie Merritt writes that "Morrison handles the elements of his novel with impeccable control", creating "the slow-burning feeling that nothing is as it should be".


The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

Stephen Amidon writes for the Times: "The destructive gesture that sets in motion Christos Tsiolkas's powerful new novel [first published in Australia in 2008 and winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize] is an open hand briskly applied to the face of a spoilt three-year-old . . . The reverberations of the incident soon affect the lives of at least a dozen people."

"Tsiolkas uses his premise as a guy-line to stabilise his larger structure," writes Jane Smiley for the Guardian, "but his real talent is for exploring the inner lives of his eight primary characters, four women and four men, ranging in age from 18 to 70. And each of these characters is a sharp observer of those around him or her, so many more lives are illuminated as well."

For Doug Johnstone, writing in the Independent, Tsiolkas's international success "is deserved . . . because this ingenious and passionate book is a wonderful dissection of suburban Australian living, tackling issues of race, class and gender, but doing so with a keen eye on the personal".

"Perhaps inevitably," claims Johnstone, "not all the narrative [voices] work quite as well -- the two teenagers seem a little clichéd, while Rosie's story fails to explain her almost pathologically cloying attitude toward Hugo." Even so, for him, "This is a beautifully structured and executed examination of the complexity of modern living."


Spoken from the Heart by Laura Bush

"Bush's account of her life before and after George W is cautious, pleasantly soporific, sweetly uncontroversial and untroubled by self-doubt," writes Elaine Showalter in the Telegraph. Painting a picture of a woman who is "pretty, motherly, modestly dressed [and] conscientious about her duties", the memoir, in Showalter's view, demonstrates "[Bush's] knack for seizing the inoffensive feminine middle ground". A "calculated and highly controlled autobiography", she concludes, the book is (in spite of its title) "written from the head".

For Sarah Baxter in the Times, although Mrs Bush evinces "a sly way of getting her own back on her detractors" and "can be a gossip at times too" -- offering a revealing insight into Prince Charles and Camilla's drinking habits, for instance -- when it comes to her husband she "confines herself to loyal expressions of confidence".

"The worst parts of her book cover her years in the White House," Baxter elaborates. "Ever in her husband's shadow, she has . . . nothing of interest to say about an era that began with 9/11, led to two wars, and ended with the election of the first African-American president."

The Observer's Carole Cadwalladr agrees that "the higher George Bush rises politically, the less interesting the book becomes", but writes, "[Laura Bush] is not simply a two-dimensional Republican version of a surrendered wife, and Spoken from the Heart is not simply a rousing appreciation of life by George's side." Rather, "what comes through is . . . that Laura Bush is a far more complex, interesting character than perhaps anyone had cause to guess".

"Spoken from the Heart" will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the New Statesman

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Time for put-upon Sicily to put out its wines

The high-altitude vineyards of Italy’s largest island produce nectar for the gods, Greek or Roman.

It was Diodorus of Sicily, a Greek historian in the 1st century BC, who wrote of the Gauls’ passionate attachment to wine that they “partake of this drink without moderation . . . and when drunk fall into a stupor or a state of madness”. There was, as yet, virtually no wine made in what would become France, and Italian merchants were making a fortune: in exchange for a jar of wine they received a slave, thus “exchanging the cupbearer for the cup”.

An irritated Gaul – and they were not people to irritate – might have responded that the Sicilians were no slouches on the drinking front, either. They had been making wine for several centuries by the time Diodorus was born, and although some of their grapes had been transplanted successfully to the mainland, a fair bit of what they produced was being consumed by the producers. And who, when drunk, does not approach either catatonia or insanity?

Perhaps the accusations rankle because the Gauls, with their lack of home-grown grapes, their thirst and consequent misbehaviour, were clearly the Brits of the Roman era. Plus ça change, as their descendants might say, although, given that France now has far healthier attitudes to wine than we do, perhaps there’s hope for us yet: just keep expanding the English vineyards, wait a couple of thousand years and – voilà!

Arguably the Sicilians have as many reasons to flee consciousness as we do. Their island may be breath-catchingly beautiful, from the Mediterranean beaches to the slopes of Mount Etna, past Greek temples, Roman ruins and Baroque churches, and their weather so wonderfully warm and dry that they can grow almost anything (a facility that led in the 20th century to a flood of boring wine that almost drowned the island’s vinous reputation for good). But Italy’s slender length is characterised by economic top-heaviness: the north is rich and industrialised, the south poor and rural, and Sicily is as far south as you can get.

The antique feel that tourists find so charming – Tinkers! Fishmongers! Absolutely nothing open between noon and 4pm! – is an indication of a region whose glories lie in the distant past, 2,500 years ago, when Syracuse was a powerful city state at least as large as Athens, praised by Cicero as “the greatest of the Greek cities, and the most beautiful of all”.

Such vicissitudes will make you flexible. Sicily has the adaptability of an island that has seen volcanic eruptions and armed invasions, has been powerful and poor, and been diddled out of its patrimony by cousins from the north as well as criminal-minded brothers from the village next door. Its range of indigenous grapes reflects this. There is spicy, rich Nero d’Avola; light, cherryish Frappato; and Nerello Mascalese, perhaps the most adaptable of all. The best whites are almondy Grillo and the tart, lemonish Carricante, grown on volcanic Etna’s high slopes.

As befits a place so frequently invaded, there are international grapes, too: one of the island’s finest wines, Tasca d’Almerita’s Contea di Sclafani Rosso del Conte, blends Nero d’Avola with Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc. Some top producers, such as Feudo Montoni, stick to indigenous grapes; the formidable Planeta tries practically everything.

The best winemakers have a wilful individuality that those befuddled Gauls would surely have recognised. In the case of COS, a fine triumvirate based in the south of the island, this mental agility has inspired Pithos, wine aged in the ancient clay jars called amphorae. Maybe this is the past catching up with Sicily – or, given the new trendiness of amphorae, just Sicily catching up. Does it matter? The wines are excellent, and entirely distinctive. Surely it is time for Sicily, or at least its finest products, to do a little invading of their own.

Next week: John Burnside on nature

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 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror