Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Anne Enright and Alan Bennett.

Smut: Two Unseemly Stories by Alan Bennett

"It would be too much to say that he's challenging himself," the Guardian's Sarah Churchwell notes of Alan Bennett's Smut: Two Unseemly Stories. Nevertheless, his focus on character role-play and middle-age sex offers "plenty of Bennett's trademark pleasures," she writes.

David Robinson for The Scotsman sees only The Greening of Mrs Donaldson - a story of a widowed woman who makes money as a patient feigning sickness - as one which displays "at least hints of Bennett's genius". "There are none in the second - about the foiling of a blackmail attempt on an ultra-narcissistic gay husband - which shoves its protagonists about as wildly as a Punch and Judy show."

But for the FT's Simon Schama the collection's triumph lies in The Shielding of Mrs Forbes, "which is racy in both senses (its pace is speedy, the prose bounding) and is as wicked as anything that Joe Orton might have dreamed up... If you are expecting the usual Bennett bag of acid-drop laughs, you won't be disappointed," Schama assures.

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

Continuing in her treatment of the Irish family, Anne Enright's latest offering The Forgotten Waltz is an entanglement of relationships, set to the backdrop of the economic collapse. "[She] has produced an important novel," praises Claire Kilroy for the FT. "A portrait of a young state trapped in a punitive aftermath, and as such, it can be viewed as the first major work of literature to reflect on the Irish comedown."

The Gathering - the 2007 Booker title - "was an angry novel," Kilroy notes. "But The Forgotten Waltz is ostensibly an acceptant one. And it has to be acceptant - otherwise it would not reflect the Irish condition...Enright shrewdly leaves it to the reader to feel enraged... It is a novel about how it feels to be wrong, and to be left to deal with the consequences of that delusion."

Mary Shine Thompson for The Irish Independent commends The Forgotten Waltz as "brutally honest and skilful" in its treatment of self-delusion. To Thompson, Enright's exploration of her characters' "self-loathing" takes shapes as a "discomfiting public examination of conscience, an exposé of our national shortcomings so recently in the limelight".

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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