Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Eric Hobsbawm, Jay Parini and Tessa Hadley.

How to change the world: Tales of Marx and Marxism by Eric Hobsbawm

Reviewing Eric Hobsbawm's 16th book in the Guardian, Stefan Collini concludes that it demonstrates "that Marxism has, despite its founder's famous proclamation, always contributed more to understanding the world than to changing it", whilst saluting the essay's "sheer intellectual quality."

From the Financial Times, Francis Wheen finds that though "this collection of essays ... about Marxism after Marx is slightly disfigured by the author's enduring party line coyness", Hobsbawm still manages to remind us of the "many reasons for still reading Marx in our turbulent times."

In the New Statesman John Gray accused Hobsbawm of being "highly evasive" in relation to his treatment of the bloody legacy of 20th century political Marxism, and, writing in a "drearily familiar" manner.

The Passengers of Herman Melville by Jay Parini

Writing in the Financial Times, John Sutherland thinks that Parini's "eminently readable narrative convincingly fills in hitherto dark places" in Melville's life, and praises his fictional recreation of Mrs Melville's life.

Philip Hoare, from the Guardian, questions whether Parini's fictional version of Melville's life has been constructed with a touch of authorial "naivety", but admires his "touching evocations of Melville's interior struggles with faith, art and mortality."

In this week's New Statesman, Sarah Churchwell finds that Parini's narrative overtone of "frivolity sits oddly with a writer who was nothing if not serious" and denounces the "literal-mindedness" of this piece of biographical fiction.

The London Train by Tessa Hadley

Tessa Hadley's fourth novel offers "first-class views on the psychological scenery of 21st-century Britain", according to Helen Brown in the Telegraph.

Writing in the Independent, TI Sperlinger concurs that Hadley's novel is "impressive", even if it does contain a few "false notes", such as its "self-consciously literary" tone.

Ophelia Field, from the Guardian, decrees Hadley's latest to be "a good read, with ideas as mature as its characters.

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The Negroni fools no one – it’s easy to make and contains nothing but booze

It is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

The cocktail is designed to lie about its origins; no wonder it reached its apogee during Prohibition, which forced everyone with an unrepentant thirst to lie about their cravings. Even today, when only extreme youth, religious belief or personal inclination prevents a person from draining the bar dry, the cocktail continues its career of dishonesty. It hides ingredients or methods. It provides a front for poor-quality booze. And it often dissolves, within its inscrutable depths, mountains of sugar, enabling drinkers to pose as sophisticates while downing something that tastes like a soft drink – to get drunk without leaving the playpen.

This is why I love the Negroni, which fools no one. It is easy to make and contains nothing but pure booze. Despite being a third sweet vermouth, it isn’t saccharine: the other two thirds, equal measures of gin and Campari, may have something to do with this. And it is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

They say it was invented in Florence at the request of a Count Negroni, who wanted a drink unsullied by club soda – a drink stiff enough to get a man back on a bucking horse, perhaps, since this Count may have been a rodeo rider. I prefer to believe that the Count, if Count he was, came in, tossed down enough strong liquor to start telling stories about his American adventures, and, when he finally staggered out into the night, the exasperated bartender poured three straight shots into a single glass and baptised this wondrous reviver in grateful homage to the fabulist who had inspired it.

In a former glue factory a very long way from Florence or America, the East London Liquor Company now makes very good gin – Batches One and Two, the former tannic with Darjeeling as well as cassia bark, pink grapefruit peel, and coriander seeds; the latter redolent of savoury, bay, thyme and lavender. Transforming these plants into excellent alcohol seems an improvement on boiling down horses for adhesive, and the company also makes superb Negronis from Batch Two.

We sit outside, in a carpark made marginally more glamorous by border boxes of Batch Two botanicals, and marvel at the transformation of this grimy part of East London, next door to a park intended to give Victorian working men brief respite from lives all too lacking in myth or fantasy. It is a reincarnation at least as miraculous as the transformation of three strong and entirely unalike spirits into the delectable harmony of the Negroni. The sun shines; a fountain plashes. Nuts and charcuterie arrive. All is right with the world.

I leave my herbaceous bower and dangerously pleasing drink for a peek at the large copper distillery behind the bar, walking in past the fountain, a whimsical stone construction that pours vermilion liquid into two, tiered basins topped by a chubby putto clutching a rather reluctant fish.

And then I stop. And double back. Vermilion liquid? It is, indeed, a Negroni fountain. There are even slices of orange floating in the basin. I dip a finger: the taste is slightly metallic but still undeniably that potent mixture of booze, botanicals, bitterness, and just a hint of sweetness. A streak of citrus from the orange slices. It turns out that the world’s most straightforward cocktail lends itself to a decadent neo-Renaissance fantasy. There’s a message here, one forthright as a temperance tract: without imagination, we would have no lies – but no Negronis, either.

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 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder