Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on David Laws, Polly Samson and Alex Ross.

22 Days in May by David Laws

In the Guardian, Peter Preston is impressed by the Liberal Democrats preparation for coalition talks in David Laws' account of the aftermath of the May 2010 general election: "the thoroughness of Liberal preparations long before any votes were cast is a revelation ... just as the shambles of Labour's non-fight for survival passes all previous understanding."

In this week's New Statesman Andrew Adonis (who was part of the Labour negotiating team which failed to broker an agreement with the Lib Dems in May) argues that Laws' view of the talks is highly teleological and points to the 2004 Lib Dem policy publication, The Orange Book as "a clarion call for a return to classical small-state liberalism", which "conditioned the party (the Lib Dems) into forming an alliance with the Tories that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago."

Sean O'Grady, in the Independent, finds that 22 Days in May offers up a convenient scapegoat for the failure of a progressive Lib-Lab coalition to form: "If, like me, you were half hoping for a "progressive coalition" of the Lib Dems and Labour, then you need to know who killed this dream: Ed "Tribal" Balls, who effectively sabotaged the talks."

Perfect Lives by Polly Samson

Susan Hill in the Spectator finds Samson's prose in her new collection of stories to be refreshingly unaffected: "Samson does not show off as a writer; her prose is clear and precise, but she makes it sparkle every now and then by producing a brilliant image".

Writing in the Guardian, Shena Mackay points to Samson's talent for exposing the darker corners of middle class life: "Samson reveals the darkness and pain beneath the most polished surfaces ... she sees the worm in the bud, the canker in the rose, the mildew on the vine, the genetic time-bomb primed to devastate."

Olivia Laing, reviewing the book in the latest issue of the New Statesman, is similarly captivated by Samson's ability to expose the fault-lines in the most polished fictional surfaces: "Lives so artfully arranged they resemble scenes from a Toast catalogue are cracked open to reveal innards as unexpected as they are unsettling."

Listen to This by Alex Ross

From the Daily Telegraph Ivan Hewett, reviewing this collection of Ross's writings on music from the New Yorker, thinks that Ross has managed to claw back the dignity of music journalism: "By appealing to humble metaphors and common sense, Ross revives the spirit of those old-fashioned musical men of letters, of the type that flourished before academia colonised the field."

In the Guardian, Peter Conrad found Ross's infectious enthusiasm to be more illuminating than his criticism, writing that "the most fervent acts of critical appreciation here are explosions of contagious excitement, more like yelping ovations than cerebral analysis", whilst Conrad Wilson, in the Herald, applauds Ross as a critic "who shows himself to be the most elegant and engaging of writers."

Listen to This will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the New Statesman.

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

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 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis